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December 30, 2017

How to Become a Racing Driver

[DISCLAIMER: In no way do I believe I’ve ‘made it’ yet as a racing driver, in many ways I am still on my journey. Buuuut I do think I’ve experienced enough to at least share the first steps to getting there. I hope you find this useful.]

The number one question I get asked all the time is “How do I become a racing driver?”

It’s a question I had to ask as well, particularly when I got back on the horse to pursue a GT Career, in 2014, after a six year break. I mailed a Semi-Pro driver called David Heinemeier Hansson, on the weekend of Le Mans that year and to my surprise he responded immediately…

Since that day I promised to reply to every single person who asked me the same question but maybe it’s time I write something more substantial instead.

The first thing to recognize is that becoming a Professional Racing Driver takes a lot of time and A LOT of money… and of course a decent dose of talent.

If you didn’t race a kart or a car before your 20’s it does get considerably more difficult. It’s much like someone saying they want to become a Premier League Football player, having never played a serious game of football their whole lives. Professional racing drivers are on a similar level, aka brilliant.

Don’t let that get in your way though, I was 29 years and 6 months old when I decided it was time to take it seriously. What I did have in my favour was a decent karting career in my late teens to early twenties… and a total obsession since I was 3 years old.

So to become a racing driver, fundamentally you need to tick these items:

  1. Unbelievable dedication
  2. Talent behind a wheel
  3. Money, a lot of it

Unbelievable Dedication

This is the number 1 requirement to becoming a professional sportsman. If you can’t motivate yourself to get out of bed everyday and do exactly what’s required to achieve your goals, then you will stumble and fail.

Dedication is not just being able to exercise everyday or watch what you eat. There are many other elements that will get in your way. These include raising a ton of money, sacrificing certain luxuries and materialistic items, dealing with friends and family questioning your life choices and of course the challenge of learning to be a fast racing driver.

Standard questions I ask young kids who want to follow in my footsteps:

  • Are you willing to sell your Playstation to become a racing driver?
  • Are you willing to sell your car, couch, tv, watch, shoes etc to become a racing driver?
  • Are you willing to break up with your girl/boyfriend to become a racing driver? (yes really, it can get to this level)

If you answer “No” to any of those questions then we have a problem because the person who’s going to get your seat has likely gone to that level and way beyond to become a Pro. I know I ticked all those boxes, as painful as they were.

Talent Behind the Wheel

So we have ticked the dedication box, you’re willing to pack it all up and leave town but before you can do that… you need to find out if you have the ability behind the wheel.

I am not talking about being able to drive your road car fast, a billion people can do that. I am talking about being able to drive fast while being precise, never missing apexes, doing the same lap times over and over, dealing with the pressure of racing and the disappointments of being beaten.

You’ve got talent? So what, so does everyone in Pro motorsport. Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Senna, Mansell – you name them – they all had to find ways to fund their junior careers.

Luckily to find out is not so difficult. Ok, it’s not the cheapest, but there’s no better way: Karting.

Most Pro’s started in karting, of course there are exceptions but they’re just that, exceptions.

Karting teaches you how to do all of the things I mentioned above and because it’s so physical you will also learn if you have the fitness to keep up.

To get started in Karting is really easy. Simply use Google to search for your local kart track and then find out the best karting teams and karting shops nearby. Give them a call and ask them if you can buy a pre-owned kart and engine.

If you’re based in South Africa then visit Kart.co.za and start calling.

Do some practice and then sign up for a season of racing. See where you land up and don’t worry if you finish last in your first few races, this is completely normal. What you’re doing here is proving to yourself that you have what it takes, because Karting is like the big thing but with less pressure and less money required.

If you choose to skip karting then I highly recommend a cheap ‘tin-top’ series like Polo, Clio or Scirocco cup (depending on where you live, you’ll need to research this). BUT BE WARNED, these are much more expensive exercises and you get much less mileage.

Money, A Lot of It

We’ve got the dedication, we have bundles of talent… but do we have One Million Euros?

And this is where 99% of aspiring race drivers fail.

For many of us we believe that because we’re talented we deserve a free or paid seat at a racing team. But this is where most people get it wrong.

You’ve got talent? So what, so does everyone in Pro motorsport. Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Senna, Mansell – you name them – they all had to find ways to fund their junior careers.

Having talent is table stakes. That means it’s the minimum requirement, not the defining factor.

You will spend at least 2 – 5 years, after karting, trying to prove yourself in the dog-eat-dog world of big circuit Professional Motorsport. Everyone who is a Pro had to fight tooth and nail to get there and they’re not going to let a ‘no name’ take their place easily.

Team owners aren’t going to give you a shot just because you want to become a racing driver. Instead they’ll offer you a seat in their car at a certain price and as you prove yourself, so those prices may decrease or even go to zero… and in the very rare case they’ll pay you to race (I haven’t figured out the last step yet).

To give you an idea of costs (please note these are just rough estimates)

  1. €150,000+ for a season in a GT4 Championship
  2. €300,000+ for a season in a GT3 Championship
  3. €500,000+ for Le Mans
  4. €1,000,000+ for WEC
  5. Add 20% to those numbers for LMP2
  6. Double those numbers for Single Seaters

These prices can go down depending on speed, reputation, results and politics.

How do you raise money? Well this is not an easy answer. Some drivers are lucky enough to have friends or family who fund their entire careers and good for them. But most of us have to get creative.

This can include marketing yourself via social media, networking in the right circles, meeting someone who’s willing to back your talent & dedication, winning the lottery… or just working your ass off in a well paying job or business you’ve founded.

In my case I stopped karting at 23 and then focused all of my efforts on my business, along with my brother Marc, and when I had saved enough money for a full season in GT Racing (±€150,000) I cold-called racing teams and spent every dime I had.

I learned how to market and sell by watching people like Gary Vaynerchuk and reading books about marketing and business.

The following year I found a personal sponsor who covered half of my budget and I came up with the rest by using social media and my personal income. The rest is history.

The truth is that there is no easy answer to how you raise money, which is why Unbelievable Dedication is the number 1 requirement. There will be times where you have done exceptionally well on track but you still find yourself without a drive because you don’t have the money to pay for it. This is par-for-the-course and you need a thick skin to fight through those moments.

My mistake was only realising this after my karting career had failed. But if you can make fund-raising your main practical focus then the rest will fall into place.

I need to add that you must not let these CRAZY numbers get you down. I took it one step at a time and when a door opened I figured out a way to walk through it.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned stuff like training 2 hours a day, using a simulator to stay sharp, eating the right foods or putting together the perfect qualifying lap.

Don’t worry about those things, if this is what you really want then all of that will come naturally. But focus on the first step, buy a kart, do some local races, see if you have what it takes and then go to the next level.

If you’ve already done Step 1 and 2 but need advice how to go beyond karting, then drop me a mail and let’s chat.

Good luck and believe in yourself.