How did today's motorsports scene amass so many event options and offerings?

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Sep 17, 2022 | SCCA, Track Night in America, Endurance Racing, Time Trials, 24 Hours of Lemons, Motorsports, WRL, NASA | Posted in Features | From the Nov. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tara Hurlin

Through most of recorded history–say, into the early ’90s–sports car racers didn’t have that many choices. You could run SCCA amateur events on the local or national scene, and if you wanted to travel and had the backing, you could jump into one of the professional touring series–something under the IMSA or SCCA Pro Racing umbrellas. 

Then sprinkle in some endurance contests and a few local groups doing their own thing–like EMRA in the Northeast or the Midwestern Council of Sports Car Racers.

And that was about it. 

Non-competitive track events? Not really a thing yet. Time trial racing? SCCA’s Solo1 program had its fans, but it wasn’t like the current scene–picture ’70s imports on skinny tires instead of today’s turbocharged monsters pushing out 800 horsepower. Vintage racing existed, but the requirements could be strict–like being of a certain vintage and carrying actual provenance. 

Then we entered modern times.

The Innovative ’90s

Today’s racers have a lot of choices regarding clubs and formats. Much of that can be traced back to some key events of 1991.

Longtime Porsche Club of America member Alan Friedman presented an idea that year: The club already offered an on-track driver education program, but why not a dedicated wheel-to-wheel racing series for the membership? He sought to combine the no-contact racing found in the vintage scene with the open car eligibility of SCCA racing–so long as the cars carried a Porsche crest on their hoods. The following year, PCA launched its own Club Racing series. About five years later, the BMW CCA did the same, offering a dedicated club racing program for its members.

Another big change to the status quo came from an upstart group out of Northern California: NASA (not the rocket people). The National Auto Sport Association got its start in 1991 as well.

“We started out as the California Capri Club, and we were all Ford Capri enthusiasts. I still am a Capri owner,” explains Ali Arsham, who who, although no longer involved on a national level, co-founded NASA with Jerry Kunzman. “We wanted to do things our own way, and the club had its own rules and guidelines. Jerry was always very good at seeing into the future, and we figured if we get big, there could be issues unless we were on our own. 

“It’s the same with almost everything: If you do anything on a small scale, nobody really bothers you or cares. But once you start getting big, you get all kinds of unwanted visitors.”

If you wanted to go road racing back in the ’80s and ’90s, you likely started with SCCA in either Improved Touring (above) or Showroom Stock (top). Both welcomed big fields and tight competition. Photography Credits: Gordon Jolley 

NASA started with track days. The jump from enthusiast to competitor traditionally required a dedicated race car–plus a truck, a trailer, a crew and everything that goes along with it–but track days allowed people to wade into the sport and try it on before making a bigger commitment.

Eventually, NASA added racing to the card. “Our first race was Handicapped Pro Racing–HPR–which was a format similar to bracket racing in drag racing,” Arsham continues. “The slower cars would get a head start and the faster cars had to catch them. I think our first HPR was in 1994.”

NASA grew through the second half of the ’90s, combining track events with wheel-to-wheel races. NASA’s HPDE track program allowed just about anyone to put their car on track–and they could move right into wheel-to-wheel racing without switching organizations. While some track day programs existed at the time–like CarGuys and Brian Redman’s Targa 66–NASA and PCA presented some of the first clear paths of progression.

“We started getting requests from other places in the country,” recalls Arsham. “We had a small group in Puerto Rico that was very active, for example, and similar small groups all over the country. That gave us the idea that our formula would work elsewhere. I think we always felt that it was the goal if we were successful locally to expand nationwide.” NASA added another factor to the scene: possible prize money. 

One of those people who helped take NASA national was Chris Cobetto, an enthusiast out of Virginia. “I did a couple of HPDEs in ’97,” he remembers. “By the fall, I had done my first SCCA school.”

Then more options started to pop up: The Porsche Club of America launched its own road race series in 1992. BMW CCA soon followed–and GRM built a car for it. NASA then added a perk: prize money. Photography Credits: Gordon Jolley (cars on track), David S. Wallens (BMW), Courtesy NASA (check)

Cobetto, at the time barely in his 30s, jumped into road racing the following year with a fully prepped Mazda RX-7. He scored his first win early in 1999. Instead of conducting a fancy trophy presentation–you know, the podium dream that fuels so many late-night garage sessions–officials sent him from the tech shed to a woman sitting beneath a camper awning, occupied with a notebook and pen. Next to her on the ground was a box of trophies.

“Of course I floated over,” he recalls, to ask the woman about his trophy. “Honest to God, she grunted and pointed at the ground. I had to pick my own trophy out of the box.”

A conversation soon after between Cobetto and racing buddies Joe Henderson and Jon Felton centered around that lackluster experience, along with the reopening of long-dormant Virginia International Raceway and an upstart racing group out of California called NASA. The sanctioning body was seeking to expand its footprint, offering territories more or less on a franchise basis. 

Cobetto decided to go for it, setting up NASA’s Mid Atlantic chapter. “Of course, I had no clue what I was doing,” he admits. “Up until this time, I was just a driver.”

But he realized something about the racing scene: “These guys are putting a boatload of money into their cars. If they win a race, I want to make a big deal out of it. That’s why we have the trophy presentations at NASA.” 

NASA also focused on contingencies and cash prizes. “I had won trophies but the idea that one’s driving skill could actually pay off at the amateur level was very appealing to me and I wanted to pass it on to others.”

At the time, he notes, the sports car racing scene wasn’t too healthy here in the States. IMSA saw new owners come and go through the ’90s, capping off the decade with a name change as well as the launch of a competing professional endurance series. 

Cobetto, who admits he didn’t know anything about event organization, dug in. His goal: Create events that he’d want to attend. 

“We became the anchor on the East Coast,” he says, and the chapter remains a dominant force in the region. Its crown jewel is HyperFest, a big, spectator-driven event held annually in conjunction with our Tire Rack Ultimate Track Car Challenge at Virginia International Raceway. 

“At club events, it’s like we’re racing to our moms,” he explains. “You want to be racing to fans.” HyperFest has been his tool to create that racing audience.

NASA started in California as a Capri club. As it grew through the ’90s and into the 2000s, the group provided new options, like spec classes for the Mazda RX-7 and SR20DE-powered Nissans. Photography Credits: Courtesy NASA (Capri), Hot Pit (RX-7)

The big secret to successful racing? “It’s gotta be fair, safe and fun,” Cobetto says. “If you can cover those three things, you’re going to be there.” If the more serious competitors aren’t happy because of weak scrutineering, he notes as an example, they’re not going to come back.

RJ Till, World Racing League vice president, echoes that comment regarding consistent rules enforcement: “It is by far the most difficult job a series must do, but when done properly everyone can leave an event confident that those who populated the podium did so with integrity.”

Another important factor for retaining members: offering a clear path from enthusiast to track day participant to road racer. “The average person doesn’t own a race car,” Cobetto notes, so it’s a lot easier to get people interested in non-competition track events than wheel-to-wheel racing. Hook them as novices, then move them through the full program. 

Where was SCCA during this period? The biggest player in the U.S. sports car scene–the one that dates back to 1944–was adjusting its formula. “It was transition by additions,” explains Heyward Wagner, SCCA’s senior director of Rally/Solo and Experiential Programs. “We had to really fundamentally change our core road racing product.”

SCCA worked to make its championship Runoffs event an even more compelling destination for road racers while also adding more programs to its menu. The club launched Track Night in America in 2015; where most track events take place on weekends, these are held on weekday evenings and cater a bit more to novices. 

HyperFest, produced by NASA’s Mid Atlantic chapter, showed that motorsports could operate as a party, complete with all the trimmings. Tricycle racing during a break in the on-track action? Sure, why not? Photography Credit: Euroimage (tricyles)

“Roughly 95% of participants say they would recommend Track Night to a friend,” Wagner now reports, “and we had our 50,000th registration this year. Those are important numbers in gauging success, but I think our biggest success has been the contributions to the culture of SCCA, proving and promoting the idea that fun in and of itself is a noble pursuit within motorsport.”

Time trial competition wasn’t new to SCCA–Solo 1 went back decades–but the club relaunched the program in 2018, with the season culminating in the Time Trials Nationals. The third annual Time Trials Nationals took place late in 2020, amid a surge of covid-19 cases, yet nearly 220 drivers made the trek to Kentucky’s NCM Motorsports Park for the event. “We don’t know of a larger time trial event in the U.S.,” Wagner told GRM at the time. 

Now Make It Simple

The racing scene was trucking along into the 2000s, with a schedule featuring a slew of events, formats, venues and hosts. But much of it seemed to involve a rulebook that could be challenging to navigate.

Then the 24 Hours of Lemons showed up, hosting its first event in 2006: an endurance race for low-buck beaters with all participants in one class. Fun and creativity mattered more than owning the right car. 

“We’ve got a seven-page rulebook that’s simple and obvious and based on the notion that everyone matters,” explains Jay Lamm, chief perp at the 24 Hours of Lemons. “The real question is how the traditional format–which always eventually leads to a 400-page rulebook that still never quite shuts up that insecure tiny minority who cares about nothing but winning–ever works. At some point, you just have to say, ‘This is what we’re doing. Let’s stop goddamn overthinking it.’

“Looking back, it’s incredibly obvious: Every car nut dreamed about racing, but fewer than 1% ever did it, which is the clearest sign of a dysfunctional market that anyone can imagine. None of that occurred to me at the time, though.”

Lemons helped bring racing to the masses. No track experience? No deep pockets? No problem. The rules simply require a $500 beater and a state-issued driver’s license. 

That simplified endurance racing format immediately found a niche. All of the cool kids–including GRM–jumped in.

[Racing our $500 VW Fox at its first Lemons event | Project Fox]

A recent addition to the motorsports menu: low-buck endurance racing that follows a very simplified class structure. And if it’s also wacky, that’s cool, too. Photography Credits: Courtesy Lemons (Camaro), Ken Neher (truck)

Other takes on simplified endurance racing quickly emerged. Looking for something similar but not quite with a slightly different flavor? ChampCar, originally branded as ChumpCar, also welcomed low-buck endurance racers. 

“By limiting modifications to older, street-registered automobiles, we could keep the cost to build an endurance racing automobile lower, allowing people with less experience at building a race car to show up and compete,” notes Bill Strong, marketing director for the ChampCar Endurance Series. 

“We did not care how shiny your car was or even if the sheet metal was a little wrinkled,” he continues. “Just get together with some friends, build a safe race car, show up to a ChampCar race with a few bits of safety racing gear, and boom, go wheel-to-wheel racing on some of North America’s greatest road racing tracks.”

Part of the formula that helps endurance racing resonate among entrants? Lots of track time, Strong says. 

Other groups also found their own niches in the endurance race scene, offering events that are maybe a bit more polished than the budget-based series yet still work around a simplified rules package. American Endurance Racing’s three big selling points: simple rules, clean racing and plenty of seat time. 

The SCCA added new and revised offerings to its card, too, with a renewed look at time trial racing as well as the novice-friendly Track Night in America program. Photography Credits: Perry Bennett (Civic, Mustang), Photosbyjuha.com (S2000)

“I believe our popularity was directed by our results,” notes World Racing League’s RJ Till. “We consistently have finishes down to the single-digit seconds across all classes, and that really speaks to the rule set, our competitors and the fantastic people we have on our staff.” 

Another note by Till: WRL’s cleaner drivers tend to be those who have never attended a racing school and instead come from the ranks of track events, Lemons and ChampCar. 

Don’t want to race all day? After hosting track days and time trial events for five years, Gridlife gave the scene something new with the 2019 launch of its Gridlife Touring Cup: 15-minute sprint races that place everyone in a single class. Fans at home can stream coverage, and those on site enjoy a partylike atmosphere. 

“The secret sauce seems to be, one, a rule set that lets people build the car that stirs their soul a bit and, two, a lot of effort by staff and thought leaders in the series on ego control and vibe management,” explains Adam Jabaay, Gridlife co-founder. “Creating a fun place to be results in a fun race on track, too, largely.

“We work hard to establish expectations and do so with lots of drivers meetings, some with an angry-dad-voice tone from myself, some with a lot of praise,” he continues. “It’s tough to wrangle racers. It’s really tough. We’ve got the benefits of largely being a traveling series, almost like a pro feel but with club racing. A sizeable percentage of drivers have been with us, often dozens of times, but there are always lots of new faces. It’s been a moving target to keep the culture where we want, and a lot of the effort we put into making the ‘paddock vibes’ what we desire pays off in the racing being clean, solid and fun to watch.” 

Find Your Fit

Today’s track scene offers something for nearly everyone. Events range from novice-friendly to fairly serious. Those who want to compete have several time trial and road race series to choose from–some run by national clubs, some by the tracks themselves.

Are there costs to this democratization of motorsports? Cobetto notes that track days have limited availability. Getting workers has also gotten tougher, Wagner says. Back in the day, those who wanted to get involved in motorsports but didn’t have the means to field a race car waved a flag, timed the drivers, or found some other way to land a worker pass.

“If you wanted to race but couldn’t, you worked,” he says. “You volunteered to work a corner.”

“There are so many events and so many ways to get on a race track [now] that you’re just left with the true believers as flaggers,” he continues. Where the SCCA Runoffs used to attract hundreds of workers, today it pulls mere dozens. 

One solution: Instead of expecting event workers to volunteer their time–as they have for decades–many clubs now simply pay them. 

World Racing League (top) offers endurance racing that fits between the amateur and pro levels–while visiting some of the country’s biggest destination tracks, like Daytona–while Gridlife grew out of the festival scene. Photography Credits: Dave Green (cars on banking), Tara Hurlin (drift car)

Another possible fix: Last year, SCCA and IMSA announced an initiative to develop the next generation of race workers. “This collaboration allows us to highlight the benefits of both organizations to a wider audience, one that shares the same passion [SCCA President Mike Cobb] and I have for road racing and wants to see it keep prospering. Getting motorsports fans and enthusiasts more involved at all levels will help assure that growth continues for years to come,” IMSA President John Doonan said in a release. (Side note: Cobb, Wagner and Doonan all know how to work a corner.)

And a third: For some 20 years, NASA Mid Atlantic has tapped James Madison University’s Madison Motorsports program for race workers. “It’s almost a rite of passage now,” Cobetto notes. “Kids are plentiful. Kids are resilient.”

What’s Next?

“I think road racing is growing,” Cobetto states. “I think it’s about to explode.” He then points toward the seven road course races on this year’s NASCAR Cup schedule: Daytona, Circuit of The Americas, Sonoma, Road America, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis and Charlotte.

“I think, as driving on the road becomes more and more assisted and restricted by technology,” Wagner adds, “the demand for recreational driving will continue to grow, be it on a track, in an autocross or at venues we’ve not dreamed up yet. The challenge for the industry will be to manage the supply by developing new venues and protecting the ones we have.”

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Rons
Rons GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
11/4/21 9:45 p.m.

I’ll bite lots of real estate (track dates) available to rent. Plenty of room to differentiate the experience, all leads to loads of choices.

chandler
chandler UltimaDork
11/5/21 8:26 a.m.

Don't forget to add disposable income to your list. Even if we don't feel like it that's a big player.

Tyler H (Forum Supporter)
Tyler H (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UberDork
11/5/21 8:43 a.m.

The internet.   The internet provided a forum for people to explore common interests and easily organize vs being dependent on organizations such as SCCA as the only outlet for amateur racing.  Oh, and disposable income.

Bizwacky
Bizwacky GRM+ Memberand New Reader
11/5/21 12:27 p.m.

I think you've got to give a lot of credit to the Lemons guys. In kind of a funny way, they've become the benchmark a lot of the other series exist relative to. I.e. Lemons but more serious, or Lemons with more driver requirements, or Lemons but faster cars. 

It was truly innovative of them to create a much lower barrier-to-entry option that appealed to a broader range of folks, and I think that validated the demand and proved that the economics could work for other series too. If you get 100 entrees at $1500 each, you know, it's not that hard to make this hosting races thing pencil out. 

GCrites80s
GCrites80s HalfDork
11/5/21 3:25 p.m.

Decreased interest in local asphalt oval. Sounds negative but is probably true. Think about how many tracks have closed.

BA5
BA5 GRM+ Memberand Reader
6/7/22 9:32 a.m.
Tyler H (Forum Supporter) said:

The internet.   The internet provided a forum for people to explore common interests and easily organize vs being dependent on organizations such as SCCA as the only outlet for amateur racing.  Oh, and disposable income.

I was just talking about this whole topic with someone at an event over the weekend.  There definitely weren't all these options when I was young, and moreover, how did you find out about any of it?

  Now that I really think about it, I'm not even sure how I found out about autocross and got in contact with someone in the first place.  I remember I emailed someone, but how I found out about what autocrossing was and how I got this person's email I can't recall.  It wasn't from a website or anything.  I think I talked to someone.  If I hadn't talked to this random person, maybe I never would have gotten started on this path!

GTI_2032
GTI_2032 GRM+ Memberand New Reader
6/7/22 9:39 p.m.

I think it's great.  I don't race, just do HPDE/track days and am fortunate to have so many options in my area.  Having so much track event info online definitely helped me get involved.  This far have done Track Nights and some NASA events.  Shout out to both for well organized and well run events.  

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
6/7/22 11:51 p.m.

I remember doing a Capri Club track day around 1990.

 

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/8/22 12:07 a.m.

I first heard about about track days and autocross on the "Fordnatics" email mailing list in the mid 90s.  I didn't actually make it to a track day until 1999 though (2-day Miata school at Thunderhill)

 

 

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
6/8/22 7:35 a.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Wow, I can't believe that you missed Vintage.  
Post Vietnam Vintage racing had been going on back East and migrated as far west as Elkhart Lake by 1975. 
   At first it was small potato's with fields of 30-40 cars and often  the midday Event at Professional races.   
However as the 1980's arrived the fields were 600+ cars with attendance exceeding that of the June sprints.  
   Globally events increased to the point where they were major  events on promoters calendars. Some events such as Lauguna Seca were over subscribed by 2-300%   
      Vintage speed weeks in the Bahama's was a major event drawing factory attendance by Aston Martin Ford Company and many famous drivers from Grand Prix and Indy car.  

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