Spectator to Competitor

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jul 14, 2000 | All | Posted in Drivetrain | Never miss an article

How can I go racing?’ and ‘how can I get my car into your magazine’ are probably the two most common questions we hear. Well, getting your car on the pages of our magazine will cost you a few bucks, and believe it or not, any mere mortal can go racing. This article will tell you how.

What follows is a look at some of the most popular amateur racing venues with an eye to cost, ease of entry and required equipment. We’ve also provided a list of names and addresses of sanctioning bodies and organizations that can provide more info—rule books, schedules, etc.

Once you’ve decided what type of racing works best for you, contact the appropriate sanctioners, get your gear together, and check our coming events section for a listing of upcoming events. We’ll see you on the course.


If you are looking for one of the easiest ways to have some safe, legal motorsports fun, then look towards participating in an autocross event. Autocross, called Solo II by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), is a low-speed, one-car-at-a-time timed event that is often held in a paved parking lot. Sometimes a deserted air strip or other large expanse of pavement is used.

A course is marked out with orange traffic pylons (cones), and the object of the game is to see who can navigate through the course fastest. A typical course will take about 60 seconds to run, and competitors generally get three or four runs per event. The person with the lowest time wins.

While this may sound easy, it’s not. For every cone that you club, a two-second penalty is added to your time. In a sport that is timed to the thousandths of a second, a two-second penalty will easily put a trophy-winning run at the bottom of the heap.

With speeds rarely exceeding 60 mph, the emphasis here is placed more on driving skill than disposable income. An autocross is probably one of the few venues where a stock Honda CRX has a realistic chance of beating a Porsche turbo. (Don’t laugh, it happens.) By keeping the cars under highway speeds, safety is increased while wear and tear is decreased. (If you have to replace a set of brake pads after a full season of autocrossing, you’re racing a lot more than most of us.)

Besides a safe car (your daily driver is fine as long as it’s not leaking any fluids and has working brakes), you’ll need a helmet (though loners are usually available), operating seat belts (factory ones are fine), a valid driver’s license and a few dollars for the entry fee (usually $15 to $25).

Even though most victories can be credited more to the driver than the car, autocross sanctioning bodies divide cars and drivers up into classes depending upon the car’s performance. That way our CRX driver doesn’t really have to worry about facing off with the Porsche. The SCCA is the largest sanctioner of autocross events, so most clubs use a formula much like the SCCA’s for determining car classification. These classes are based on the cars’ level of modifications and performance potential; there are more than two dozen classes based on cars alone. When you consider that the SCCA also runs Ladies classes, that figure doubles.

Like most other forms of racing, autocross has both a local and national scene. Local champions are crowned based on their performance at regional events, while those looking for bigger game to hunt may travel across the county following one of several national tours. Either way, you’re still racing for a trophy.

Although there are no official race purses, winning autocrossers can earn merchandise and cash through contingency programs. These programs are basically incentives offered by different manufacturers hoping to persuade autocrossers to use their products. To be eligible for the awards, participants usually must purchase and use the product in competition, register with the program, and run the manufacturer’s stickers on their car.

Besides the SCCA, many marque and regional clubs hold their own events; the Porsche Club of America, Miata Club of America and numerous independent clubs all hold and sanction their own races.

A novice’s meeting is usually held before the action starts; this is where all your “silly” questions can be answered (although there is no such thing). Don’t be intimidated by the times the faster people are turning; with some practice and patience, you’ll definitely see your times and driving confidence improve.

The SCCA also has another variety of autocross called ProSolo. In a ProSolo event, two mirror-image autocross courses are laid out next to each other. A drag racing-type Christmas tree starts the two cars, each on its own course. Each driver’s best right- and left-hand course times are added together, and the lowest overall time in each class wins. Like Solo II, penalties are given for hitting a pylon or totally leaving the course.

The Pro Solo affair is run as a series that travels across the country, making a number of stops along the way. These events are very competitive as they generally attract some of the best drivers in the country, but if one is coming through your town, why not enter and see how you stack up against the heavy hitters? Even if you get crushed, the experience will help at your next local autocross event—trust us.

What you need:

  • Road-worthy car
  • Seat belts (stock belts are fine
  • Helmet (loaners available)
  • Valid state drivers license

Who to call:

Initial investment: low

Threat of damage: very low

Time Trials and Driving Schools

If you’d like to experience some higher speeds and don’t mind performing some extra modifications to your car, you might want to think about participating in a time trial event. This is essentially a high-speed track event where you compete against the clock, one car at a time. Like autocross, drivers are placed into different classes according to car performance, and the driver with the lowest time wins his or her class.

Most time trial events take place at recognized race circuits like Road Atlanta, Lime Rock Park or Willow Springs Raceway. Sometimes deserted airstrips are used. Many marque clubs have their own kind of “lapping day,” which is usually a time trial event. The SCCA’s events, called Solo I, are very popular due to the widespread influence of the club.

Since time trials involves higher speeds than autocross, more safety equipment is needed. Most organizations require an approved roll bar (four-point with a cross brace), a fire extinguisher, window net and five-point safety belts. If you drive an open-top car, you’ll probably have to substitute arm restraints for the window net. Besides a helmet, time trial drivers must also wear the same safety equipment mandated in road racing: flame-retardant drivers suit, gloves and socks. This gear adds some dollars to the cost of entering this sport, but is necessary as the cars approach high speeds.

There is one other prerequisite to time trials: you must first go through an approved school. Most of the clubs that sanction time trials-like the SCCA, Porsche Club of America and BMW Car Club of America-run their own schools. Some private racing schools like CarGuys and TrackTime also offer approved courses. These schools mainly teach proper car control at high speed, how to safely negotiate a track, and what to do when control flags are shown.

Hillclimbs, which many people associate with off-road rallying, are really just time trials up a winding mountain road. The most famous one is the Pikes Peak race (which is actually run more like a rally due to the very high speeds and potential dangers associated with falling off a very high mountain), but others are run across the country.

Many driving schools offer a similar experience. These are gaining popularity, not only from an educational standpoint, but from a fun standpoint. These schools, put on by many marque clubs as well as private schools like CarGuys, TrackTime, Performance Drivers Association and Go4It, allow competition speeds but usually prohibit passing in dangerous parts of the track.

Since the wheel-to-wheel element has been removed, driving schools are also a great way to enjoy your car at speed with less worry of damaging anything. Both in-car and classroom instruction are usually part of the program. And, since these aren’t competitive events, some clubs do not require roll bars and other safety equipment. Still, it never hurts to be over-protected.

What you need:

-Safe, dialed-in car
- Roll bar, on-board safety equipment
- Helmet, Personal safety gear
- Instruction

Who to call:

Initial investment: low to medium

Threat of damage: low to medium

Road Racing

If you like the idea of driving around a track at high speeds with between 10 and 120 of your close, personal friends, then look towards road racing for your thrills. Road racing combines the skill of time trial plus the excitement of real-live wheel-to-wheel racing. Races are usually held on permanent road courses. Like other forms of motorsports, drivers are divided into classes depending on their type of car and level of preparedness.

Most road races last anywhere from 10 to 25 laps, with several classes of cars on the track at the same time. The people up in the timing booth keep track of who is leading what class, and at the end of an event the winners in each class are announced. Longer races, called enduros, are also held with a time limit deciding the length of the race. Enduros can last from 90 minutes up to 24 hours.

Like time trialing, you will need to meet some educational requirements before you can get go road racing. Most organizations, including the SCCA, require you to complete two drivers schools before entering your first race. Like a time trial school, these courses teach car control, how to safely share the track with others, and how to follow the instructions of the corner workers (the people who wave flags and tend to disabled cars). Only upon the successful completion of both schools can you think about entering your first event. Most tracks hold only a few schools per season, so plan way in advance so you don’t spend the season sitting on the wrong side of the fence. The Jan./Feb. 1996 issue of “Grassroots Motorsports” covers the step-by-step process of obtaining a road racing license.

Besides the proper training, you’ll also need some safety equipment, including fire-retardant driver’s gear and an approved helmet. You will probably also need to install a full roll cage that protects the entire passenger compartment. Some marque clubs that strongly penalize car-to-car contact may only require a roll bar.

Since most road racing involves some pushing and shoving, you may want to consider setting up a car that you will use solely for racing. Some drivers do race their street cars; they just need a back-up plan for getting to work on Monday. Realistically, however, most road racers compete in cars that see few if any street miles. Most of the allowed modifications make a car too uncomfortable or outright illegal for daily driving. Plus it’s almost impossible to make an open-wheeled formula car street legal.

Road racing can be very fun and rewarding, but it can also cost some serious bucks. Read the rule book and talk with other drivers before buying a car or investing in any equipment; the money you save will make it worth your while. On that note, buying a car and equipment from a new and disillusioned driver is one of the best ways to get into the sport on a budget.

What you need:

  • Race-prepped car
  • Full roll cage, safety equipment
  • Helmet, personal safety gear
  • Instruction
  • Tow vehicle and crew don’t hurt

Who to call:

Initial investment: medium to high

Threat of damage: medium to high

Vintage Racing

Vintage racing is a lot like road racing but with one obvious difference—the drivers all race older, vintage cars. Since there is more emphasis on the cars versus the racing, these events tend to be much less competitive. Vintage racing is a good way to experience wheel-to-wheel racing without the cut-throat competitiveness experienced in other road racing. Plus, in vintage racing you can race the older car of your dreams with little regard for the car’s competitiveness.

Like road racing, most vintage organizations require schooling and appropriate safety gear. Even though the cars may be old, the safety gear needs to be up to date. In response to the growing market, some safety equipment manufactures are producing gear that meets today’s standards while presenting a period-appropriate look.

To encourage racers to bring out their older and valuable race cars, most sanctioning bodies invoke stiff penalties for on-track incidents that result in damage to a car. Remember that you’re just out there racing for a trophy that is very likely not worth as much as the Ferrari Daytona that you’re dueling with. Most of the drivers work to keep the racing safe and clean, as the spectators are there to see the cars at speed and just don’t care who finishes first.

Before buying an older race car, contact the sanctioning bodies for their definitions of the word “vintage.” Cars built before 1972 are usually eligible, but it never hurts to check. For example, some clubs allow recent, historically-significant cars, while others won’t allow anything built past the 1950s.

Vintage racing has been called a great way to have the best seat in the house for a moving car show. Where else can you watch a Cobra attack Road Atlanta’s Turn 1 with a Grand Sport Corvette a few yards off its rear bumper?

What you need:

-Vintage-eligible car
- Roll bar or full roll cage, safety equipment
- Helmet, personal safety gear
- Instruction
- Tow vehicle and crew don’t hurt

Who to call:
- Historic Sportscar Racing
- Sportscar Vintage Racing Association
- Vintage Auto Racing Association
- Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association
- Sports Car Club of America

Initial investment: medium to high

Threat of damage: low

Road Rallying

One way to participate in motorsports with almost zero car prep is to enter a road rally. This is an event held on public roads in which a driver and a navigator must follow a set of instructions to complete a course as close to a predetermined time as possible. Of course, they do not know what that time is until they reach the end of the race, so only by precisely following the directions can you land a perfect time.

Rallies like this—called TSD (Time, Speed, Distance) events by the SCCA—take place all around the country on any given weekend. You may have passed one in progress and never known it, since participants simply mind their own business while traveling along; road rallies penalize traffic law infractions. TSD rally contestants follow a course and average speed laid out by the rallymaster, hoping to arrive at predetermined check points at the correct moments. Penalty points are assessed for arriving early or late, as this type of motorsport rewards consistency, time-keeping skills, math and teamwork.

Some clubs run what is called a gimmick rally, which may take the form of a scavenger hunt or poker run. These events usually do not require the sophisticated time-keeping skills of a TSD rally but still reward teamwork, map skills and a bit of ingenuity.

Road rallying requires very little if any equipment to get involved. Teams are usually divided up into classes depending on what timing equipment they are using—those using rally computers and timers are in one class, and those with less sophisticated equipment (pencils and paper) are in another. Show up at your first event with a decent stopwatch, working odometer, pencils and paper and a bag lunch, and you should be okay. Talk to other competitors to see how they do it. Some events are run at night, so you may want to invest in a quality map light and some auxiliary driving lights (makes it easier to read signs).

What you need:
- Comfortable, street-legal car
- Working odometer
- Team partner
- Basic math skills and equipment

Who to call:
- Sports Car Club of America - Local sports car and marque clubs

Initial investment: very low

Threat of damage: very low

Performance Rally

If you like the idea of a high-speed time trial but would rather race over dirt roads and trails, then check out the SCCA’s Performance Rally series—essentially a race against the clock over some of the worst roads in America (next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway).

In Performance Rally, a driver and navigator team race through different stages, and the team with the lowest overall time wins. Many stages are run over dirt roads that are closed to the public for the event, as Performance Rally teams can easily approach race track speeds. Adding to the difficulty are the transits—sections of the course that connect each stage and are run like a TSD rally. Some transits follow roads that are open to the public, so Performance Rally cars must be street legal as well as very tough.

Since Performance Rallying is so brutal, the cars need some serious preparation to last a racing season. Many teams reweld all the seams on the car’s unibody in an effort to strengthen it. Strut bars and other bracing are often added, too. Under-car skid plates ward off rocks and tree stumps, and serious-looking mud guards keep the constant stream of sand and grit from spinning tires from sandblasting suspension components. Michelin, Pirelli, Yokohama, Silverstone and a few other tire companies have developed rubber strong enough to handle the rocks and mud that Performance Rally teams will encounter—normal passenger car tires don’t cut it. Many stages are run at night, so serious amounts of auxiliary lighting is a necessity.

Due to Performance Rally’s higher demands on equipment, you may want to consider outfitting a car just for racing. One Performance Rally competitor put it best when he said, “It’s not if you crash, it’s when you crash.” As in other forms of racing, used rally cars can usually be found in the racing classifieds for less than what it would cost to build your own.

Like other high-speed events, safety equipment is mandatory here. All cars must carry a full roll cage, safety harnesses and fire extinguisher; both driver and navigator must wear the same safety equipment prescribed by the road racing rules (helmet, fire-retardant suit, etc.). Following the racing trend, cars are broken up into classes based on their performance and type. You must purchase a Performance Rally license from the SCCA to compete, and listening to the experts’ advice is never a bad thing to do in this arena.

What you need:

  • Rally-prepped car
  • Full roll cage, safety equipment
  • Willing navigator
  • Instruction
  • Tow vehicle and crew don’t hurt

Who to call:

-Sports Car Club of America

Initial investment: medium to high

Threat of damage: high to certain

Drag Racing

The original grassroots motorsport has to be drag racing. Since its birth decades ago, drag racing has remained a popular way for enthusiasts to settle the age-old argument of who has the faster car. The basics are elementary: line up against another car, wait for the green light, and then race down the paved quarter-mile strip. Easy.

Bracket racing is the easiest kind of drag racing. In bracket racing, you first try to figure out what kind of times you can run based on your earlier tries. This time is your dial-in. Everyone else sets a dial-in, and then the racing begins. Essentially, you now try to see how close you can get to your dial-in time without breaking out (going too fast). It’s kind of like “The Price is Right” of motorsports. The key word in bracket racing is consistency; since you’re essentially racing against yourself, no one really cares what modifications have been done to your car.

When two drivers with different dial-ins line up at the Christmas tree (the thing that holds the starting lights), the starter will give the car with the slower dial-in the green light first. He then releases the second car so that if both drivers hit their dial-in time perfectly, they will cross the finish line at exactly the same time. Bracket racing is easy and cheap, and you actually get to go wheel-to-wheel with someone else.

For bracket racing, not much equipment is required. You need a safe street car equipped with factory seat belts, an appropriate helmet and a valid drivers license. Sticky tires will help the car hook up, and most of the fast guys run an automatic transmission. Like autocross, no matter what you drive, you can bracket race it. Once you start going fast, the track will start requiring safety gear.

For those wishing to race heads-up (no dial-in times), the National Hot Rod Association and International Hot Rod Association (the two heavies in the sport) also offer a multitude of classes for almost any type of car, from a bone-stock Camaro up to a big-block Pro Stock car.

Drag racing for imports and small-bore domestic cars has become incredibly popular in the last few years, and the Import Drag Racing Circuit and the National Import Racing Association are the heavies in that field.

What you need:
- Road-worthy car
- Seat belts
- Helmet
- Valid drivers license

Who to call:

  • National Hot Rod Association
  • International Hot Rod Association
  • Import Drag Racing Circuit
  • National Import Racing Association
  • Local hot rod or muscle car clubs

Initial investment: low

Threat of damage: low

Oval Track Racing

Probably the cheapest way to get into wheel-to-wheel racing is oval track racing, one of the most popular forms of motorsport in the country. In oval track racing, you can run almost anything from a clapped-out Monte Carlo bomber to a trick, tube-frame small-block Camaro.

For those of you living in a cave, oval track racing is a form of motorsport almost as American as apple pie. Essentially, you race your buddies around an oval track. Fastest car wins. Period. There must be a million oval tracks around the country; some are dirt or clay and the others are asphalt. The size can range from a little 1/4-mile oval up to a two-and-a-half-mile super speedway. Speeds and cost rise in proportion to track size. Getting involved at a smaller track is the way to go.

While the big V8 cars get most of the spotlight, four-cylinder mini-stocks may provide the easiest entry to the sport. Many tracks run both front-wheel-drive mini-stocks and a rear-drive class. Visit a few races to see what the hot cars are, and see if anyone is able to buck the trend with any degree of success. We’ve seen Fiat coupes win track championships, but running with the pack may be better at first because you’ll have some people to help you de-bug the car. It’s also easier to borrow parts if you are not driving some oddball vehicle.

Most tracks have their own rules, so check with the powers-that-be before taking delivery of a car; for example, some tracks have rules prohibiting foreign-made carburetors. With oval track racing a bit on the physical side of things, you’ll really want to leave your street car in the paddock. Buy or build a dedicated race car.

Most tracks run under the NASCAR banner, but they’re not the only game in town. Whatever the track’s affiliation, you’ll be required to run the standard safety equipment (roll cage, belts, etc.) and even if it’s not required, wearing a full fire-retardant suit is a very good idea.

If four-cylinder cars are not your thing, oval tracks run many, many other classes for six- and eight-cylinder cars. Head out to the local track and talk to the locals; they’ll be able to fill you in.

Like drag racing, oval track racing is probably one of the few kinds of motorsport that you can do every weekend without traveling out of your area. The only requirement to start racing is your initial purchase of a car and racing gear; most oval tracks don’t require any formal instruction. Plus, this is one of the few types of beginner racing where you can actually win cold, hard cash.

What you need:

  • Race-prepped car
  • Full roll cage, safety equipment
  • Helmet, personal safety gear
  • Tow vehicle and crew don’t hurt

Who to call:

  • Local oval track

Initial investment: medium to high

Threat of damage: high

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View comments on the GRM forums
msogren New Reader
12/15/10 8:34 p.m.

"Crapcan" racing rocks. Chumpcar is the best,lemons is a little goofy and less racey.

paranoid_android74 Dork
12/17/13 12:30 p.m.

No mention of Rally Cross?

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