Want To Get Started In Racing? Take An Ultimate Test Drive First
by Larry Lenamon II
Experience the thrill of racing before shelling out any big bucks. And no, that doesn't involve going to the local Porsche dealer and telling them "I'll just take it around the block." But there are test programs available where you can drive a vehicle that will accelerate 0-60 in under 4 sec and pull up to 2.5Gs in the corners. Or experience the thrill of a 300 hp dragster for under $20 bucks. When it comes to getting a taste of racing without having to go out and buy your own race car, you have a number of options to choose from. We'll cover them starting with least expensive and working our way up.
Your Local "Fun" Kart Track
Most cities have an outdoor or indoor concessionary-type go kart track where you can take a kart around for a few laps for just a few bucks. Although these karts are not the fastest in the world, they'll still give you the basic idea of racing around the track along with some friendly competition from the other patrons.
Kart Track Racing, Photo courtesy Jean Rodrigo
This can be a great place to start if you have a kid who wants to get into racing but has never driven anything. The main thing to check for kids before you head over to the track is to call ahead and see what kind of minimum age or height requirements they may have. Other than that, the karts all have bumpers and are very safe, so they make for a great starting point for kids.
If you are fortunate enough to live near a major city that has a Speed Zone, Malibu Grand Prix or similar racing-type theme park, then you even have the option of testing out drag racing in a controlled environment. Speed Zone's Top Eliminator dragsters are 300 hp machines capable of 0 to 70 in under 3.5 seconds and pull 2.5 G's. Not only that, their tracks are set up to race four at a time! (The cars are attached to a centerline rail, of course, to keep everyone from flying into each other.) You won't find that at any local drag strip. And with current prices around $12 for three runs, it is no doubt the most fun you could have in anything race-related for less than the cost of feeding your family at McDonald's!
Auto Maker Driving Clinics & Promotions
Although these can be hit or miss as far as timing goes to catch one, many times through the year automakers will host special driving events to highlight their latest and greatest automobiles. And the great thing about them is that the car is provided and the cost is usually minimal or even free!
Mazda's Rev It Up is a great example of this kind of program. The Mazda event is a weekend driving school and competition in the new Mazda 3 at locations throughout the US over the course of the year. For about $40 you get a high-performance driving school clinic and then a chance to post your time on a parking lot autocross course for a nationwide competition. Not a bad deal.
Another example is from the 2004 Indy Racing League Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Chevy gave the opportunity to race fans to take their new Chevy Avalanche for a 70 mph three lap cruise around the high-banked track of Texas Motor Speedway. All you needed was a valid drivers license and each fan got to hop in by themselves for three laps behind a pace car. And best of all - it was free! Where else could you walk in off the street and get to drive in someone else's car on a Superspeedway normally reserved for NASCAR and the IRL!?
Unfortunately, these types of events are few and far between, but they're out there. Keep your eyes open for one, and the opportunity just may pop up.
Out of Your Garage & On To The Track
The next step up, but still very affordable - your own car at a local racetrack. Many local tracks have special times around their regular racing sessions when you can take your own car out for a spin around the track or run down the drag strip.
Normally the only special requirements are to have a Snell-approved helmet and then sit through whatever basic driver orientation class they may have. Thus, no special equipment on your car is needed - just show up with most any street legal vehicle(probably not the Suburban or Grandma's station wagon) and you're set.
For road courses you'll probably be warned against any full-blown head-to-head racing with the other cars out on the track. However, passing of slower cars is usually allowed on the straights, and you can still push your car up to the limits. Just keep in mind you don't want to have to explain to your insurance agent how your car mysteriously ended up on top of a tire wall at the local racetrack.
The great thing about this kind of program is that you can get some real track time for generally under $100. Check with your local track to see what they offer.
Jet Fighter On 4 Wheels - Racing Kart Programs
Now we're talking about some real racing action - racing karts! No, these are not your old steel tube, square-framed backyard go karts (and we don't use "go" any more) with a lawn mower engine. Today's racing karts are constructed with many of the same high tech materials and technologies as full-size race cars, and with the exception of top speed, performance capabilities can rival a modern-day Indy car (as in 0-60 in about 3 sec. and 2.5 G's in the turns).
With some Intro classes beginning as low as $99 with all equipment provided, you will find no other "newbie" racing programs that even come close to the exhilaration experienced in a current generation racing kart for such little cost. A school like Go Faster Racing Kart School in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is a perfect example of a kart school offering just such classes for those wanting to get a real taste of what racing is all about.
A half-day class in one of their Veloce 125cc racing karts will give you a workout like you wouldn't believe, but you'll leave with a grin the size of Texas and dreaming about how fast you can get back out on the track. There are many similar kart schools around the country, so just check with your local kart track or club to see what's available in your area. For the money a racing kart class will give you the closest feel to what real racing is like, so I give this option my highest "Ultimate Test Drive" recommendation.
The Real Deal: Full-Blown Racing School
Now, if you are dead set on jumping right into a full-size race car, then there is obviously no substitute for actually driving one for your test drive. Most road course tracks have an associated racing school that offers half day, full day and multi-day classes for drivers. Also, your local SCCA chapter usually has driver classes scheduled at various times throughout the year, but the race car may or may not be provided.
A half-day class at a local racing school is probably your best bet when it comes to taking your ultimate test drive. Once again most schools will provide all your safety equipment so you just show up and drive. You can expect half-day classes to average around $500. For your money you will generally get classroom instruction covering the basics of operating the racecar, learning the "racing line" around the course, gear selection into and out of the corners, braking points, corner entry and exit points followed by some lap sessions and coaching out on the track.
With a typical "school" race car in the 130 to 150 hp range and capable of speeds well over 100 mph, you'll definitely have your hands full as you begin to learn some new concepts in driving like heel and toe downshifting and threshold braking. For a couple of excellent web sites on racing schools try RaceSchools.com or RacingSchools.com.
Time To Go Race!
Hopefully, you've gotten a good idea of your options for hopping in a race car before sinking a lot of your hard-earned money into the sport. You may find the type of racing you thought you were interested in is not what you expected after taking a "test drive." Much better to find out now than after having bought a race car.
However, for most people, I highly doubt that will be the case. In fact after the first ride, you'll probably be so hooked, there is no turning back. So, get out there, find a local racing series and Go Racing Now!
About the Author: Larry Lenamon is part owner of a high performance racing kart school, avid racing fan, and classic car restorer, along with having a professional career as a pilot and aerospace engineer for a major U.S. airline. His website http://www.go-racing-now.com/index.html is an online resource for getting started in racing, racing sponsorship, and more.
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