So you want to be a race car driver…

I have always had the itch to go racing on the track over the years but the price to do so always seemed like a number that was too high. I decided late last year that if I was going to hit the track I needed to get going on my dream. This is the beginning of the adventure I am taking to achieve this dream.

The best choice to get the license that I can find in our area was to race at Portland International Raceway with the SCCA. To get out on the track requires getting a SCCA novice permit. There are a wide range of things needed to get the permit. First thing you need is a race car. Since I had planned on going racing we have been preparing a car to do this but it was not ready to meet the challenge yet. After a few phone calls I came up with an intriguing option. The Oregon Region SCCA created a local class called IT-J. What do the initials stand for you ask? Well IT stands for “improved touring” and the J stands for “junk”. Yes I said junk. The local officials recognized the popularity of the Chump Car and Lemons car series so they made a class just for the junkers people race. The cars do need to pass an SCCA tech inspection like every other racecar out on the track but the budget building of the cars is taken into consideration so there are some things which are overlooked in the styling department.

My race car was loaned to me by several members of rotary power northwest, a local rotary enthusiast group. I was a guinea pig of sorts to test out the recently installed brakes and brake cooling system after an event showed the system to be a weak point in Chump Car racing.

With the racecar part of the puzzle out of the way, I had to get a physical with a specific set of SCCA forms to be filled out by my doctor, turn in my novice permit application, and get some safety gear.

The novice permit is straight forward as well as the doctor visit to get the forms filled out but the safety gear has a huge range of choices. It is required in the SCCA GCR (General competition rules) to have a fire resistant driver suit, gloves, shoes, baklava (sock for your head that fits under your helmet), helmet, and a HANS (head and neck support) device. Even shopping for the best prices the total bill on the safety gear came out to ~1700. The safety gear lasts for years if properly cared for so this is a large upfront cost you will only have to make once. A tip if you are purchasing a HANS device and helmet, make sure the helmet has the holes pre-drilled for the mounting point for the HANS. This saves you having to measure and drill your helmet. I purchased a bell helmet which had the points pre-drilled which made the installation of the mounting points a snap. The finished safety display of items is below.

Yes, I know, I look like they guy who died jumping a jag off the end of an aircraft carrier but there is a reason I went with the colors I did. Black is a color which works well with about any color and driving a race car is dirty which is hidden well on black.

Once you have all of your docs in order, your race car, and safety gear you get to wait for the event. I got lucky; the Oregon region SCCA school was a two-day affair with all of the required track time smashed into two days. This made it better than attending two schools to get the novice permit issued. In this case after passing the novice permit you get to race the same weekend at the 1st region SCCA event immediately after the school.

First things first, getting the car through the tech inspection. When you don’t own the racecar you are using this was a bit nerve-racking. I had an inspection done but it was found that the harnesses we expired at the end of 2011. There is nothing like a scramble to find a set of harnesses on a Thursday evening while you are in a drivers class which runs until 9pm. At 8:30pm a set of harnesses magically appeared in the driver seat of the car. By the time the class was over, I drove home and installed the new harnesses, it was midnight. With the words of one of the driving school instructors in my head saying “be there by 6:45am if you don’t have your tech sticker already” ringing in my head and “make sure you get plenty of sleep” I sacked out.

5 hours later a gently reminder to wake up blasted away to get me moving to the track to meet the time the teacher set out. I arrived early and got the car to the tent to await my tech inspection. The vehicle was remembered by the tech from the previous night so after a quick check of the harnesses the vehicle was passed for the school. Another quick check of my safety gear done and I was given an inspection sticker for my helmet and one for the car. I was ready to go.

After a quick drivers meeting where we all got a quick run down of the morning events everyone got suited up and we hit the track for some simple driving techniques and a trip around PIR to receive a preview of the track and what and where everything is. Next up was a drive and follow with several of the instructors to work out the driving line for everyone. Somewhere along the way I lost my instructor and another student to the pits for technical issues. I got to continue practicing turn in points and hitting the apex on the corners for another 20 minutes. Turns out the other student was busted for the 103db sound limit for the track. Moral of the story there is a vette with side pipes is REALLY loud, even louder than an Rx7 I was driving with a header and a pair of straight through mufflers.

After a drivers meeting and a quick lunch we headed out on to the track for another 120 minutes of track time to practice our lines, hitting markers, and learning the track. One of the items the instructors wanted us to learn is the turn markers and braking points. The reason for this is they had set up cones marking everything for us to learn and the cones were not going to be there the next day.

A sample of my instructions in my head for driving the track “turn four hit the late apex and head towards the small bleachers, quick on the brakes to set the outside tire and turn in to five. Aim for the orange climb through for the apex in five, a quick jab on the brakes to set the car for turn six which you need to stay in the middle of the track to start the turn and hit the next apex.”

After working on this for an entire day and some input on some tweaking of the car from one of the instructors I felt pretty good about driving around the track. The last driver session we got a surprise, the advanced drivers were put onto the track with us to give us the experience of much faster cars on the track at the same time. The advanced drivers were running a pair of Spec Miatas, a Porsche turbo, and a Viper challenge racecar. The Porsche and the Viper were insanely fast. You would see them in the rear view starting down the back straight. I was ¾ of the way down the straight and they would catch up to me by the end of it and pass me (and all of the other students) in the corners and disappear again for a lap or two. It is a very humbling experience to get blown past by those cars on the track.

At the end of the first day I had completed 260 minutes on the track and I was beat. Unfortunately I had an off the track incident while passing a 240z which required some minor repair work to the brake ducts on the front of the Rx7 and a quick inspection of the front brakes to see how everything was holding up. After 2 hours of work making sure the car was in good shape I got some much-needed rest.

The next morning the classes started up at 8:15 for a drivers meeting and hitting the track for four thirty minute driving sessions with a five-minute break between each one. In the Rx7 this meant I had to stop and get fuel after two sessions. It had rained all night so the track was really slick. After a brief meeting we headed to our cars and off onto the track. The 1st session was a get yourself up to speed and a last chance to memorize the track before the marker cones were pulled. On the first lap out I had an instructor spin out in front of me, several other students spin out, and another student blow completely off the track in turn nine and ten and end up against the tire wall. That black flagged the session so we all headed to pit row for them to clean up the mess. We were cut loose again on the track to finish out the session.

Session number 2 had more people going off the track along with our friend who went way off the tracking getting a chat from the instructors which I can guess was probably not a pleasant conversation.

The third session was a race just like what we would see in a normal SCCA weekend. All of the students were on the track with instructors and more advanced drivers at the back of the pack. I was stacked up with several other IT-J Rx7s towards the back of the pack in the starting grid. The green flag dropped and it looked like everyone was waiting for the car in front of them to go. I took off to the right with the Miata in front of me and passed eight cars by the time I hit the first corner. (I was next to the silver Rx7 in the picture below).

I was pretty proud of myself for the first racing start and getting past eight people. I managed to work myself past several others through the field until the faster drivers at the back of the field caught up later in the session.

For the last session of the day we had the advanced drivers out joining us again. By this point the track was really drying out and I was able to push it as fast as I felt comfortable in a borrowed car. I found myself checking glancing at the rear view mirror often with the threat of the Porsche and viper catching up to me and I wanted to make sure I was ready for them to go past.

We all headed off the track and went to the last drivers meeting. There were a few violations handed out (someone had pass on a yellow flag which is major no-no in racing) by the stewards for the day then we got what we had all come for, the novice permit signed off. Some of the students immediately signed up for the practice session to race in the region SCCA event the same weekend. My prize for the weekend is the novice permit and the office certificate granting stating we passed the school.

So what is next in my path to racing? Like I mentioned earlier CorkSport is building a racecar to compete with. I will divulge more on that project later but we need to have it together by April 28th and 29th for the double regional event. With two regional events under my belt I can apply to get my regional SCCA racing license and move up from the novice permit.


4 Replies to “So you want to be a race car driver…”

  1. Its just getting started, there are several more races for this year. We will on getting some video up of the races.

  2. Whoops, sad to say I was the instructor that decided to get a little loopy on the first lap Saturday. You drove well all weekend, keep up the great work!

    -Kyle Keenan, Purple Spec Miata #44

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