So, You Wanna Be A Racer?
Racing Philosophy 101, or who are all these crazy people chasing themselves around in circles every week?
By Ted Richard
If you are reading this, I think it as a safe assumption that we all share one thing in common and that is a passion for auto racing in general and in particular, local short track racing. There are as many different stories as to how we came to be here as there are fans in the seats at the track, drivers in the cars and all of the people behind the scenes that make things happen every week.
For me, my earliest and fondest memories are of the now defunct Reading Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, the sights, sounds and smells of the machines and the larger than life heroes that raced them. I was not equipped then to deal with philosophical issues as to what it was that I found so irresistible about this activity that we all have such intense feelings for. All I knew was it was absolutely the central focus in my life.
I was well into my teens before I had the revelation that the majority of the people in the day to day world had no idea, or interest in who finished 3rd in the second heat at the Fairgrounds last Friday night and, believe me, that was a real eye opener for me!
But it didn’t change my point of view very much. For me, there was only one acceptable path in my life and that was that I would follow in the footsteps of my heroes, working class guys like Al Tasnady, Frankie Schneider, Kenny Brightbill and the big leaguers that came to town a few times a season like A.J. Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser, and Mario Andretti. Those racers who made their living guiding those magical missiles around dirt tracks every weekend and the pinnacle of a man’s worth was how many starts he had at the Indy 500. I never looked at the how’s and the why’s of it, my heart was doing all the talking and my intellect never thought to question it.
From my perspective growing up in a small blue collar town in the 50’s and 60’s the path that I would need to take seemed clearly defined. In those days talent was what got a person ahead. Technology was a term that was rarely heard, a true wheel man like A.J. Foyt could climb in the cockpit of just about any car in the pits at Reading or Terre Haute or the Grove and put it in victory lane by sheer force of will and God given talent. Money was something that you earned more of by winning races or finishing up front.
The technology of the day was in the heads of the men who built and maintained the equipment and it wasn’t for sale, at any price. If you didn’t have the knowledge you went out and learned it the hard way by busting knuckles in the shop until the sun came up until you hit on something that worked better than what the other guys had. You couldn’t just write a check to solve your problems.
The cars were all hand built in those days, the idea of pro built cars was unheard of, especially at the local level. The only technology that you could buy was the year or so old cars that the hot shoes were running and you knew that the new stuff they were replaced with was always going to be a step or so ahead. So if one wanted to work one’s way up the ladder to the good rides, you had to get yourself out there in the best equipment that was available and if you were any good the car owners would take notice and the offers would start coming.
So, armed with unbridled enthusiasm and a teenager's logic, I headed off down that road in the 70’s, convinced that success was always right around the corner as long as I persevered and worked hard enough. But, as I moved along from season to season, always one step behind the ever changing rules and class changes, new talent appearing on the scene, moving up the ladder or disappearing into obscurity, I was so busy trying to keep up that I failed to notice the changes, subtle at first and then more and more obvious.
Technology had begun to take over the sport, the amount of things that you had to know to be able to stay on the cutting edge was rising exponentially every season to the point where it just wasn’t possible to do things the old school, cut and try, seat of the pants way any more and have a ghost of a chance of being competitive.
The home built cars were disappearing being replaced by pro built production line cars whose quality could not be matched by the guys in the barn building one off specials. Everything became more and more specialized and the economics of scale started to take over. The rules had changed in the most basic and fundamental way and many people were being priced out of the business in the process.
In today’s world, the landscape has changed so much since that time that we may as well be on a different planet! My heart still loves the “sport” that racing was in those days, but racing today is a multi-billion dollar “entertainment business” and it is so very, very easy to totally lose sight of that when looking at things with your emotions rather than your intellect.
Ideally, my target audience for this piece would be the young people, just starting out and looking for direction and purpose to guide them in making the decisions that will end up impacting the rest of their lives in ways that they cannot even imagine now.
I know that it sure would have been nice if I would have had some sort of a roadmap for the path that I had chosen that would have been capable of showing me the best routes to my destination and the detours and pitfalls to avoid.
But alas, there was no such thing, at least that I was aware of.
Life, unfortunately is not something that is USDA approved, they don’t hand you an instruction book full of disclaimers and warnings and such at the door when you come in. The younger generation has to rely on the experiences, successes and failures of previous generations to point the way down the road ahead. That is my motivation for offering up some of the opinions and observations that I have formulated in the 50 plus years that I have been around the sport and my “career” of 25 years on and off as a competitor on the short tracks of the Sunshine State.
To anyone who is contemplating entering into the world of motor sports as a competitor, or who has reached a turning point in their career and is trying to decide which way to go, the most basic and important piece of advice that I can offer is to make a very carefully considered assessment of what your goals are and what you want your life to look like 5 years from now.
Passion is the very spice of life, it is what makes it worthwhile getting out of bed every day and what keeps us going through thick and thin when life’s cruel realities make an appearance and try to stop us in our tracks. I firmly believe that every single person should make every effort to pursue that which truly gives them pleasure to the fullest extent of the resources and talents available to them.
But in and of itself, if not tempered with a healthy dose of realism, logic and intellect, passion itself can become an obsession that destroys one’s ability to live life to the fullest. Sit back and reflect on where you really want to go, the goals that you would like to achieve and then take a hard and calculated look at what it really takes to get there.
Then take inventory of your assets, the resources that you have to work with. I
s the goal you have chosen reachable within those limits? If not, what does it take to obtain the resources necessary?
Is it within my means and am I willing to pay the price?
I am not here to argue the merits of racing as a worthwhile endeavor, that’s food for another volume or so altogether, we’ll take it as a given that it is something that we love and would like to pursue as far as our limitations will allow. But where are we going with it? What should it’s proper perspective be within the framework of our lives?
Racing, as with many other pursuits has an insatiable appetite for resources, financial and otherwise. If a person doesn’t realize that very central and fundamental fact and place some kind of limit on what he or she is willing to commit to it can very easily become an obsession that can cripple one’s ability to achieve some of the things that we expect to have in our lives like family, friends and community.
Just about everyone who’s ever strapped themselves into any kind of a machine to go out and do battle on the track has at some point or other had a vision of themselves in the big leagues, a household name who was known and respected by anyone with an interest in the sport.
Let’s try to take a look and see what it really takes to get there.
The single central element required to assure the success of anyone in any of the upper levels of racing is MONEY, black and white, plain and simple.
If you won’t be happy until you reach the top you can NEVER have enough of it. Period.
Unrestrained technology is infinitely expensive. If you doubt that principal, just have a look at the history of our country and what we’ve spent (and are still spending) to assure that we are always at the top of the heap militarily.
There will always be a higher roller that comes along who is willing to expend more resources than you currently have available so your real challenge every single day that you pursue a career in racing will always be TO OBTAIN MORE CAPITAL.
No amount of talent in the world and no amount of passion and desire will ever overcome that fact.
Now at least we know what the rules REALLY are and we have a direction to go in pursuit of our elusive goal.
Before making a single assessment of talent or desire or anything else that it takes to be a big time racer that is the one central question that you have to answer. Do I have the ability to generate capital? And if I don’t, what do I have to do to get it?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that racing today in the upper echelons is a young person’s “sport”. That’s rule number one and you cannot obtain youth at any price if you don’t have it. No individual is rich enough, save for maybe Bill Gates or someone at the very top of the Forbes list to single handedly mount a successful effort at the pinnacle of the sport.
You absolutely have to be “marketable” to generate the sponsorships that will always be required to continue your career. If you do not currently fall into this category you must decide if you can take the steps necessary to become “marketable”. You must be articulate, engaging, witty and adhere to the current images of what is considered to be physically attractive.
If you aren’t there and can’t see yourself as getting there, don’t waste your time on something that cannot and will not happen.
If you do fall into this category and you still want to head down that road, then we can start to talk about what it takes to get there.
If not, and you decide that you still want to race but you want to be able to place it within the framework of a perspective that will still allow you to have a life that includes family, friends and the like, we can talk about that too.
But at some point in your life you need to take stock of where you’re at, where you want to go and what it takes to get there. The best time for this is when you’re just starting out, but it’s never really too late.
But take that step back, open your eyes and take a good look around!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: You may reach Ted Richard by e-mail atCar74@aol.com
Have an opinion on this story? Post a message on our Message Board!
or send a letter to the editor!