Speed Secrets: How To Get Paid To Race Cars

Features, Racing I By Ross Bentley I June 13, 2016
Even if you’re not looking to make a career driving race cars, most people are at least curious to know what it takes. It’s a question I was just asked last week by a driver I know well. This is a huge topic, and not one that can be answered in a completely generic way – there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There is no one path to racing professionally; there are many, many ways. And not all of them will work. In fact, many – maybe most – won’t. But there are things that will increase one’s chances of racing professionally. -Ross 
“I want to race professionally. What do I need to do to make that happen? Should I sell my current car so I can move up, or keep it so I have something to race if I don’t make it?”
We need to start this discussion with a question: What do you mean by "race professionally"?
As you know, many drivers race in what are called professional racing series – the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC) or Pirelli World Challenge (PWC)  are good examples. But a large percentage of drivers are paying to be there. Is that "racing professionally"?
Do you want to get paid to drive? Getting paid to drive a race car is what I think of as racing professionally.
If you want to get paid to drive, you have two options:

1.      Prove that you’re good enough and bring enough value to a team that they hire you. The value might be pure speed, or it might be something else (I worked in the "paid to drive" world partially because I could also coach – that was additional value that put me ahead of some other drivers).
2.      Attract enough sponsorship to "rent a ride" from a team and take a percentage to pay yourself. This is far more common that most people know. There are drivers in F1 doing that, and many in every other form of racing have made their careers doing that. Some people look down on that and say it’s not really being a pro, but I disagree. If the job description of a pro driver includes playing a role in attracting and servicing sponsors (and it does, at all levels of the sport), then this approach is every bit as legit as any other way. It’s part of the job, and working with sponsors is no less important than driving fast is. That is, if you want to race professionally. If you want to be judged simply on your speed, and nothing else, then get used to paying to race.

Both of these approaches are "racing professionally."
The first step is identifying which series you’d like to race in professionally: Sports cars (IMSA GT, Prototype, Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge; Pirelli World Challenge), Indy Car, GRC, NASCAR, World of Outlaws, etc.? Something outside of North America? Obviously, if your goal is Indy Car, then your approach will be different than if you want to get paid to drive sports cars.
Let’s say you want to race sports cars. Having someone hire you simply because you’re fast is a tough one, especially without already winning at the level you want to race in. You not only have to win, you need to dominate in a lower class before someone is likely to hire you for the next higher class.
To take this path, you’re going to have to dominate a series (or multiple series). There are sports car drivers who have made it this way (Colin Braun, Sean Rayhall, Tristan Nunez, Andy Lally…), but for every one who has made it, there are dozens and dozens who haven’t. This is difficult because you need the team and car to match your skills before you’re able to dominate, and getting that combination just right is not easy. Doable, but not easy.
The other approach is finding a "sponsor." That might be a marketing partner (a real deal based on bringing business value to a company), based on someone liking you and/or racing (the patron), or finding a driver who likes you enough to pay to drive with him. Yes, this last scenario is a legitimate approach. With many sports car racing series requiring two or more drivers, it’s possible to find someone who wants to move up into the same ranks of racing as you do, who will be happy to pay for it all in return for your help, coaching, and mentoring.
Think about how you can leverage your existing position (your skills, your current business or vocation, your connections/network, etc.) into some form of marketing partnership that results in you having the budget to go racing (and being able to take a commission/salary from that).
You also have to consider there are three levels of drivers:

1.      Those who pay to drive.
2.      Those who don’t pay to drive, but are not getting paid to drive.
3.      Those who are being paid to drive (again, may be one of the above two options I mentioned at the beginning of this article).
It would be great to go directly to level 3, but sometimes that’s not possible. Maybe you need to spend some time racing at level 2, where you don’t pay for a drive, but you’re not getting paid either.
Then, there will come a point when you have to say no to paying to drive. I’ve written about this in the past – about how the best way to get paid to drive is to refuse to drive for free. If you’re known as a driver that always pays to drive, then that reputation will stay with you – and it’s hard to break out of that situation.
Now to the question about whether to sell your current car to get to your ultimate goal. How could you use your current car to lead to one of the two options I mentioned? If you kept it, in what series could you race that would result in you dominating to the point where someone noticed you and hired you for your outright speed? Could you use it to leverage into a sponsorship deal?
One other factor to consider is that you have resources tied up in your current car. Could those resources be spent in a more productive way? For example, if you sold the car, could you use those funds to buy some drives where you could dominate and catch people’s attention and/or prove your value? Could you use those funds to contract someone to help put a marketing/sponsorship deal together? Could you use those funds to help you find a "guy with money who will take you along with him as he moves up the ladder because you coach and mentor him while being the rabbit in his car" (yes, that’s a long title, so we just call him "Rich" – pun intended)?
I know many, many drivers who decided to hold onto a car (or kart) they owned, thinking that it was a good thing to fall back on if they couldn’t put anything else together, only to be put into a position where if they had the funds from that sale of the car they would have been able to buy a ride that could turn into the opportunity they were looking for. Most times the opportunity went away before they could sell their car; sometimes they had to sell the car at a great discount to get some cash immediately.
I’ve also seen drivers who constantly go back to their fall-back position, because they have that fall-back position. When you have no fall-back position, it often pushes you to make that one more call that results in an opportunity. When you don’t have a safety net, it puts the pressure on to make it.
There’s always tons to learn driving your current car – there’s always more. But could you learn that while progressing towards getting paid?
What to do? Depending on what your answer is to where you ultimately want to end up, doing everything you can to get into the CTSCC or PWC series would be your best bet. Assuming you have the driving ability to prove you deserve to be paid to drive, you’re still going to have to fund things to get started. You could buy a PWC car to run in one of their lower classes, and hope you impress people by winning. Running your own car means knowing all the little tricks it takes to make the car competitive (and never fool yourself into believing there aren’t tricks – and it’s harder than it looks). Do you want to be in the team ownership/manager position, or focused on driving?
Between CTSCC and PWC, consider that one is a two-driver situation, and one isn’t. CTSCC provides the advantage that you may be able to have someone else pay the full budget, and you drive for nothing (while providing value to your co-driver); if nothing else, he pays half of the overall budget. The disadvantage is that your co-driver may hold you back from dominating in a way that you need to make an impression on others.
If you put a concentrated effort into it, do you think you could find someone who likes driving, who you could mentor and bring along into pro racing?
Do you think you could find an angle where your current situation provided a unique benefit to another company (or multiple companies) that would result in a racing budget to compete in CTSCC or PWC?
What could you do with the funds you’d get from selling your current car?
I realize that I’ve not laid out a simple step-by-step plan that every driver can follow, and I’ve asked more questions than provided answers. But if you think through what I’ve said, answer the questions I’ve asked, a direction will appear. Whether it gets you to the point where you’re getting paid to race professionally will come down to how much time and effort you put into it. If you’re ready to make the sacrifices and commitment, you’ve increased your chances.​​​​​​​
– Ross Bentley

The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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