So you want to race with the pros?

I’m a club racer. I’m not bad, I can hold my own and on a good day have the potential to finish quite close to the front in a race. I don’t have aspirations to be a pro driver and let’s face it, I’m too old (I’m not in my teens anymore), I like food too much and I don’t have the bank roll necessary to make racing anything more than an enjoyable distraction.

So why, you might be thinking, would I ever think about jumping behind the wheel of a brand new race prepared car and competing in events where the driver next to you has 20 years experience, is obscenely fast and isn’t even 30 yet?

The answer is quite simple. Because you can!

Racing, in large part, is paid for by the likes of you and me. I say that as I’m guessing a good half of the readers of this are club racers like me who absolutely adore this legal high and can’t get enough of the experiences racing brings. We help bank roll much of the racing we watch on TV so the question becomes; do we get our money’s worth, what can we learn and how can we use the next time we jump into our club machines and compete with our fellow amateur brethren?

So I’m going to break it down into a few key areas. What experiences I’ve had (and what you can expect), what I learned and finally how did I translate it back into club racing.

As a driver I can’t tell you just how fantastic an experience professional racing has been. The people you get to race with, the tracks you get to visit and the sheer accessibility of what used to seem so out of reach are there and at your literal finger tips! To put this into context, at Daytona this year my co-driver was the current British Touring Car Independent Champion (Andrew Jordan). If you aren’t sure how big a deal that is to an Englishman, just imagine your co-driver being Craig Lowndes if you were Australian or Scott Pruett for all you Americans. Pretty bloody fantastic.

So what did I learn? There are three major revelations. Firstly time is not on your side, secondly that off track is where improvement is made and last that professional drivers aren’t just fast their race craft is exceptional.

Revelation No.1 - Go Fast. Fast!

So what do I really do mean when I say time isn’t on your side? In short, everything happens SO fast. And I mean FAST! In my first ever session, on a new track, in a new car, with a drive train I’d never driven before (FWD) with drivers I’d never competed with and 30 fellow ST cars and 30+ GS cars all vying for the same track as you, the first and lasting memory was my crew chief coming on the radio after 2 laps saying “James, how is the car, how is the setup, do we need to change anything?” I’m not making this up for illustrative purposes, the expectation you’d have figure it out that fast are real.

If a session is black flagged, if you car can’t make a session, if there is a caution and you are on a flying lap, you don’t get another go. There are no do-overs. Ross Bentley told me once that you have to learn how to “go fast, fast” I now know what he means. As an example, at the Daytona race weekend this year I got 1 lap before a mechanical glitch brought the car behind the wall for most of the day. My next session was the 15min qualifying session. 2 days at the track and 15mins of driving before the race. Compare that to a club weekend and at a pro weekend you know you have to maximize every minute you get. 

Revelation No.2 - The session gets going the moment you step out of the car.

Once you are out of the car it’s down to business. There is no time for bench racing its data data data, coaching and debriefing with the crew. The goal now is to improve your driving or the car and it’s relentless. Let’s also not forget the hour of driver change practice to ensure nothing is left to chance. It’s relentless so be prepared to be busier off track than on track.

If you are interested, I’ve translated much of my off track data analysis into a few videos for club racers to use. 

Revelation No.3 - Your fellow racers are RACERS. This is no holds barred!

If you aren’t used to drivers being aggressive, forcing the issue, trying to make you make a mistake and setting you up for a pass then brace yourself as it’s going to be intense. Professional drivers have exceptional racecraft. Their actions on track are rarely coincidental. They’ve sized you up, figured out your weakness and even if you are the aggressor they know how to hold you at bay unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

Also be prepared to be knocked about a bit! The gentlemanly club racer in you will be eaten alive if you aren’t careful in pro racing.

So how does this translate back to club racing? This is the simplest answer of all. Everything you learn in professional racing is transferrable and will make you a better club racer.

You must learn to maximize your time in every session. If you find yourself just driving around doing the exact same lap times session after session then something isn’t right. Make the most of your time both on and off track.

Data doesn’t lie. This being said, know what it’s telling you. If you think it’s telling you that you are awesome, something isn’t right! I might also add that if a faster driver has shared their data with you, don’t take it for granted. Pro racing has taught me that this is their equivalent of intellectual property. Take the time to make them know how much you appreciate them sharing their knowledge with you. After all, if you had a pro-driver coach you at a club weekend you are looking at $1000/day.

Racecraft isn’t as easy to translate but practice what you’ve seen and learned. Don’t be afraid to block, to defend, to move someone to another part of the racetrack and figure out where you are strongest and weakest before your competition does. Finally, pro racing helps you learn how to manage traffic, especially if you are a slower car. There are places on the track that being passed by a faster car slows you both down, other places you barely even see it on the lap time. Most pro-drivers will know this but some club racers don’t. You can help them by making sure they know you are ready to let them pass. Take your line early enough to make them pass you on the straight. A dive bomb pass helps nobody!