A few years ago, I was a racer. I cannot claim to be one now, largely because I don't race anything; like a lot of pastimes, driving a race car is participation-dependent.
You cannot do it passively, and there are no shades of gray to the definition. You're either behind the wheel or you're not.
This hurts. I realize, of course, that there are worse problems. I have a roof over my head and food on the table, which means I'm better off than a lot of people. But I miss racing. It was more fun than I can put into words. That I haven't gotten back into it is just a matter of finance.
Like most people without a trust fund, I raced cheap cars. Motorsport in any form is expensive, and even the cheap cars -- most of amateur road racing is filled with old Hondas
, and Mazdas
-- are expensive to run. (The average amateur American road racer probably spends between $400 and $1500 per weekend to compete, and that's with no prize money or compensation at stake.)
This weekend, for the first time in years, I went to the track. I didn't drive, but I also didn't spend any money. And I still had a really good time. And you know what? You can, too.
Let's clarify that: I didn't spend any money, sure, but other people had to spend money, and I had a good time because of it. They raced. It was nice.
One of the ways to minimize cost in road racing is to enter something called a "spec" class. Spec classes are designed to promote parity between racers, giving everyone in a given race roughly the same amount of power and grip -- you run the same model car, with the same fixed set of modifications. Cheating abounds and no two race cars are ever equal, but spec racing is at least more equal than most other forms of motorsport. These cars don't eliminate the fundamental costs -- tires, brakes, towing to an event -- but they minimize them, and they make racing attainable for a lot of people who couldn't otherwise afford it.
There are two major amateur road-racing sanctioning bodies in America. One of them, the National Auto Sport Association (NASA)
, offers a class called Spec E30. It features the 1984–1991 BMW 3-Series
, or E30, a car close to my heart. (Of the 30-some-odd cars that I've owned since I learned to drive 15 years ago, at least five or six have been '84–'91 Threes. They're great cars, fun and nearly indestructible.)
Last weekend, I drove to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio and crewed for a friend campaigning a 325i in Spec E30. Around ten cars ran in the class, which offered decently close racing and a few interesting battles over the course of the weekend. But most of all, I had fun. I wandered around the paddock looking at cars, watching corners, and eating bad track-concession-stand food. My friend's car broke, we poked at it for a bit and thought we had it fixed, he continued to race it, and it broke again. It rained, and then the sun shone. My dad even drove up from his home in Kentucky -- we were racing partners at one point, sharing a car -- and helped out. Life was good.
Above: My friend John Ackerman's 325i.
I don't really have a point here except to note that -- and this is a big moment for me -- I thought I'd never be able to go back to an amateur road race. I'm not alone in this sentiment. It's common for amateur racers to get so attached to the sport that separating from it is painful. Like a bad relationship or a drug habit, racing can sometimes only be kicked if you detach from it fully. And it hurt a little, going back. But not as much as I expected.
You should go.
Above: This is not an expensive race car, at least relatively speaking. Note the lack of nice things inside. This is par for the course.
So here you go. Pictures I took this weekend just because, you know, guys working on cheap cars in a field before flogging them around one of the world's greatest tracks. And a suggestion: Go to a track. Walk around. Watch people race, hang out in the sun, check out from real life for a while. Entry fees for spectators are usually dirt cheap or nonexistent. NASA and the Sports Car Club of America
welcome spectators. Schedules are on their respective websites.
I miss this stuff. I'm too broke to race right now, but watching, that I can afford. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I might go back.
Above: Yes, it says "Build. Race. Party." Because what the hell else are you supposed to do?
Sam Smith is a journalist, a southerner, and a reformed Alfa Romeo mechanic who spends most of his time mooning over ancient racing cars and small-batch bourbon. A multiple International Automotive Media award-winner, he has written for Automobile Magazine, Car and Driver, and Esquire, among other publications. He once drove 4,000 miles in a weekend for a hamburger and has only been threatened by the German police twice.