You know your mother will tell you it isn't safe and then she'll worry endlessly; your accountant will probably just quit, flat-out refusing to watch you blow all your money each season; your priest will confide that he'll be praying for you in the hushed voice of imminent doom; your kids' eyes will grow wide, like you just told them you're going to the moon in a rocket you made in the garage. Funny thing is that of the four groups, children are the only ones likely to have faith that you'll soon be drinking milk with a wreath around your neck. But, if you're going to go into racing by yourself, you're going to need money, experience, knowledge... and, oh yeah, a lot more money.
These necessities become the milestones on the long road ahead for most burgeoning would-be racers, a road beset with potholes, detours and dead ends, as most don't even make it to the starting line of the Big Show. They crap out in karts, junior drag racing, local club racing or youth solo racing, but every now and again the ghost of Ray Harroun smiles down on some lucky soul and grants him (or her) admission into the Winner's Circle to soon rub shoulders with the short list of circuit giants: Brabham, Fangio, Hill, Nuvolari, Moss, Senna, Caracciola. Fame and fortune will ensue.
Yes, that's for me, you're saying to yourself, clutching the pages of this magazine, desperate for each new word of encouragement. I want to taste gasoline, breathe carbon monoxide, feel coolant gushing through the valves of my heart. I want to squirt motor oil into my retinas with a little eye dropper, all the while plowing through 200-mph traffic in nothing more than a fiberglass-enclosed coffin, chasing after a little checkered flag, so I can say I'm the best at something, even if it is only for a few hours, a day maybe, just long enough to get up on that podium, hold the trophy in my hand and declare that I am number one. Yes, I am that man.
Well, if you are, welcome to the club. Now let's do something about it. Today is your first lesson, but we're not going to tell you to accelerate at the apex of the turn or to turn into a spin; like instincts, those are traits you should have been born with. No, today we're taking on the most important aspect of racing. Without it, you won't have the cars, tires, engines, track time, suits, tools, parts, mechanics, or even the logo'd cap to wear at the end of the race. Yep, you guessed it: The root of all racing is money, sponsorship, or what they call The Ride. Without it, you'd better have deep pockets or a rich dead uncle.
Getting that ride isn't something that happens overnight, and sometimes doesn't happen at all, ever. You can't just open the phone book, cold-call a few companies and say, "Where's my check?" You've got to prove yourself as someone worthy behind the wheel-and that takes time and, ironically, money.
To be a racecar driver in America in the 21st Century, you've got to be an economist, a politician, a diplomat, a marketer, a publicist, in addition to driver, financier and mechanic. That's lots of hats, and we can assume you've prepared yourself to wear them and that you know everything there is to know about the sport. You don't? Read, watch, learn, associate. Start with books and magazines about racing, any racing. Carl Lopez's Going Faster, Carroll Smith's Drive to Win and Think to Win by Don Alexander should be sitting on top of the Bible on your nightstand, and the bathroom floor should be lousy with issues of Autosport, National Speed Sport News and Racer magazines. Contact the sanctioning bodies for the type of racing you're interested in and get a copy of its rule books, the tech rules and any other information they have to offer prospective drivers. Next, talk to as many people about racing that will spend time with you, and that means you've got to visit the tracks, familiarize yourself with the drivers, the crews and even the managers. Bench race with the old guys who know everything and everyone and never turn down help in any form. In fact, go looking for it. Charlie Hayes, author of Get Sponsored, adds: "It takes a big person to surrender to getting coaches, mentors, asking for help. But the expertise of others is invaluable to those who are serious about getting sponsored, because, as you must already know, it isn't easy. You need to get every advantage you can, so pick the brain of anyone you know who's succeeded at the business of racing."
Volunteer your time through local racing clubs (check out SCCA, IMSA, VARA, BMW CCA, Porsche Club, etc.). They always welcome extra help, be it flagging a corner or setting up a course, and at least you'll be around those that do what you want to do.
Next is seat time. Like free money, never turn down a chance to be in a racecar, no matter what the circumstances are. Indy Car driver Taylor Fletcher explains: "Whether it's a go-kart, a street car on the race track, or a made-for-racing racecar, do everything you can to get as much seat time as possible." The key here is experience. They won't let you be a brain surgeon unless you've cracked open a few skulls in your day, and the same holds true for racing.
Though this takes time, sometimes years, the end result is that you will be equipped with two of the three necessities to becoming a racecar driver: knowledge and experience. You know how to race, you know other people that race and you've gained your Ph.D. with time behind the wheel of the family sedan at the local road course. Technically you're a driver, but not the one that dreams are made of, as the crowds that watch local club racing are mostly family and friends. There's very little TV coverage and your name won't appear in many publications of prominence. You need to take it to the next level, and to do that you need money, sometimes piles of it. Pistons and pushrods don't grow on trees and Porsches don't come from pumpkin patches. You break one or the other, your insurance company will drop you faster than a fistful of scorpions and you'll be taking the bus to work.But the last few paragraphs have just been talk, chatter about the should-haves and could-haves of a successful racing career. Let's put all of that up on the shelf for a moment and follow the life of a true racecar driver, one that races on Sunday and still goes to work on Monday so he can pay the bills like a normal person. We caught up with James Sofronas on his way back from a medical sales convention in San Diego and he shared with us his version of the long road to success in racing. Remember: results not typical, yours may vary.
If his name sounds familiar to you, that's because it should be. Currently, he is not only co-owner of Global Motorsports Group (GMG)-a full time racing, tuning and service shop for high-end European cars-with partner Fabryce Kutyba, but he campaigns an Anchor Racing BMW E46 M3 in the Grand Am Cup and a GMG Racing-backed Porsche 996 Cup Car in SCCA Speed World Challenge GT. But you couldn't always describe him as being successful. He had to start from somewhere, and that somewhere was on a lark in 1989. Along with his brother Brad, Sofronas was convinced by a friend to time trial his street car, a 16-valve VW GTI, at Pocono Raceway when he was just there to watch. He went on later that day to win his class, and a new world opened up for him.
It was a tough struggle in the years that followed. Immediately the brothers put their financial lives on hold, and when most people were considering houses and IRAs, the two put together a couple of cars and took on SCCA Pro Racing and World Challenge. "At that point everything was funded out of my own pocket, and it was quite a motivation to work hard in my personal life to gain the financial success to pay for my racing habit," Sofronas recalls. "My boss knew that I had more bills coming in from racing and that I would work harder to make more money. I traded my street Nissan in for a race Nissan that was still street legal, but it was all stickered up and had a roll cage and I drove that to work every day. It was a good conversation starter." But it wasn't much good at shuttling clients around or much fun climbing in and out through the roll cage in a business suit. But there was a method to the devotion. In fact, racing got Sofronas into his current job."One of the perks of working in the medical sales field was that most companies offered a company car. That meant I could buy a real racecar," he says. Soon thereafter he earned his pro racing license in a World Challenge Oldsmobile in 1994. The Sofronas brothers formed Sofronas Racing, and the lettering on James' car told the whole story of a struggling racer. On one door, it said "Driver: James Sofronas" and on the other it said "Crew: See Brother.""This was on both of our cars since we were there to help one another and had no other support. It was just the two of us," James continues. But it never dampened their motivation, or their prospects. "We were doing quite well for a small under-funded non-factory team." Soon they started to pick up sponsors, like Hoosier Tires (when World Challenge was open tire), and that proved not only encouraging but easy. He explains: "[Hoosier Tires] was at the track and Brad and I are salesmen by trade, so if we knew there was an opportunity, we would take it. We approached them and said, 'Hey, check us out. We're doing pretty good with inferior equipment, so imagine how we'd do running your tires.'" It was one of their first experiences in asking for support. "We had a story to tell them, but we really had to sell ourselves," James says. "You can't just go up to them with your hand out and say, 'where's my money?' You've got to give them something in return. Why are you different? Why are you unique? Why should they support you? It took a lot of time to build those relationships in the beginning."
If you're new and green to racing, you have to prove yourself and your ability. The best way to go about it is to approach the companies in person that have products that will work for your car and your type of racing. Hayes suggests: "Don't send out unsolicited, unexpected presentations or proposals to a company without having prepared the groundwork first. If it isn't expected, it will go in the round file." Many companies are too busy to read all of the proposals they get in the mail. The direct opportunity for sponsorship may be on a smaller level with a smaller risk from the company or shop. For example, the owner of the shop might conclude that it makes sense to invest in you because you're racing on his parts and winning.