Climbing the Racing Ladder

Club Spec Miata is a great place to start. Photo credit: Kdildei/CC-by-3.0

Getting into road racing isn’t the easiest endeavor around. There are a few in-roads, and most with a decent job can grab a cheap go-kart, a Spec Miata or, perhaps, a Spec E30. There are some wonderful arrive-and-drive series around, too. The next step is to take the car out for the odd track day, save a rainy day fund and maybe try a hand at wheel-to-wheel racing. Beyond that, things get much more complicated.

Climbing the Racing Ladder
Club Spec Miata is a great place to start. Photo credit: Kdildei/CC-by-3.0

The problem is progressing beyond the level of club racing. Money is a big door-opener here, but most of us are trying to get into whatever seat we can with what money we can scrounge up. However, even for those funded drivers fortunate enough to make the next step, there are ways to go about moving up the ladder.

It depends largely on the endgame. Most people have a general idea of where they want to end up, but in many categories, seats are limited and the competition is fierce.

 

The Road to IndyCars

For a lot of people, the Indy 500 is the world’s greatest race. Getting to race at that level sways a lot of young guns who spend most of their time climbing the rungs of the stock car ladder. Oval racing is a discipline that opens doors at the top for different hardware. Therefore, Tony Stewart enjoyed success in both the Indy Racing League and NASCAR.

Getting there as a full-time driver with road racing expertise invites a different upbringing. Kids start in karts, and by the time they’re in their late teens, they’ve ideally graduated into the world of Formula Ford 1600/2000. Sometimes, school series like Skip Barber help provide a trampoline for drivers who can’t quite get the sponsorship. Those who win there often matriculate into the Formula Ford via the Mazda Road to Indy.

Climbing the Racing Ladder

Beyond Formula Ford 2000, drivers need to move up into Star Mazda. The cars here boast more downforce and more power, and while not hugely powerful, they’re no longer the momentum cars Formula Ford 2000s are. After a year or so, if the stars align, the ambitious, funded and talented driver will move up into Indy Lights – provided they can source the half-million needed to run a season.

Climbing the Racing Ladder
Formula Ford 2000 has been a popular category across the world for the last fifty years. Photo credit: Lothar Spurzem/CC-by-2.0

These cars are powerful, grippy and very fast, and run as support races for Indy events, pulling similarly high speeds. They ease the transition into Indycar. If someone places well in Indy Lights, they’ve got a lucrative career ahead of them – whether they make it to the Indy 500 or not.

It’s a ladder that’s somewhat straightforward, and while not cheap, it doesn’t compare in the slightest to the cost of climbing F1’s ladder.

 

Formula 1: Convoluted and Cost-Prohibitive

Getting to the pinnacle of motorsport requires absurd amounts of money. Like in most disciplines, karting serves as the starting point. Eventually, the driver will try to win the World Championships and move up into Formula Renault 2.0, Formula Ford or Formula BMW. Placing well in one of these lower-tier categories is a great way to move up, but unfortunately, prices skyrocket in the subsequent series and if the momentum doesn’t carry you up, it’s easy to fade into anonymity.

The ladder system in Europe is somewhat convoluted nowadays, and it’s harder to climb the ranks simply due to the lack of clarity and driver visibility. Once progressing beyond this, the next feeder series is Formula 3, with the alternative series known as GP3. The cars now possess 200+ horsepower, lots of rigidity and gobs of downforce, so drivers need to be at their fittest to excel.

Those who excel in this category sometimes springboard into Formula 1, as Max Verstappen and Kevin Magnussen did, but more often than not, the winning drivers will move up into GP2 (now known as Formula 2) or Formula Renault 3.5.

Climbing the Racing Ladder
With over 600 horsepower, the GP2 car’s acceleration is blinding. Photo credit: Craig Moulding/CC-by-2.0

The problem, aside from the obvious costs and the demand to rise into F1, is the excessive number of categories. Thirty years ago, any driver who rose to excellence in some of the lower-level feeder series was given a test with a mid-field F1 team. However, nowadays, it’s much harder to get noticed. As such, some drivers find their careers ending in a cul-de-sac if they don’t opt for a career in sports cars or try their hand at Indycars. Tha said, it’s not as if Indycars or sports cars are necessarily lesser than F1; they are immensely challenging in their own right, and not every journeyman racer makes a mark in these “lesser” categories.

 

The Wide World of GT/Sports Cars

Though it might seem like a mild demotion for those with Formula 1 in their sights, a GT/sports car career is lucrative, accessible, competitive and a little more fun than some of the highly-publicized top-tier categories. Like stock car racing, the path into GT/sports cars isn’t so clearly defined. There are numerous entry points: SCCA club racing, then SCCA/NASA national races and then into Pro-Am categories like Continental Tire Challenge. Keep in mind that these are only the American categories, which attract some remarkable talent from all four corners of the globe.

The beauty of sports car racing is the chance for sponsorship. Because sports cars resemble road-going machines, there’s a good deal of sponsorship available from tuners, shops and even the manufacturers themselves. Additionally, the prevalence of gentleman drivers in the Pro-Am categories helps get young talent into the seats.

Well-heeled gentlemen drivers foot the lion’s share of the bill, and the young hotshoe coaches them and keeps their car at the sharp end of the pack. It’s a decent deal for both parties, and often the younger driver gets the recognition they’re after from participating.

Climbing the Racing Ladder
Photo credit: Adam Pigott/CC-by-2.0

Then it’s on to big-time categories like TUDOR, and for those who excel in this widely-broadcast series, sometimes doors open into the world of international racing. Getting to travel to Europe or Asia for ADAC events, the Blancpain GT or other GT3 series is a great way to make a comfortable living while traveling the globe. The cars have lots of power, lots of aero grip, and allow for a little bumping and nudging; hence why these series are so popular and make such a great spectacle.

In the world of GT/sports cars, the top tier is World Endurance Challenge. For GT/sports car drivers, this is as good as it gets. Well, certain top-tier WEC drivers do get their shot at other high-level series – Andres Lotterer made a start in F1 a few years ago – but the cars are state-of-the-art, and the field is often made up of the best who, often through bad luck, weren’t able to make a stab at F1 or Indycar.

 

Crossover

For any driver who can progress up to a professional level, their chances for earning are greatly improved if they can transfer from category to category. Formula 1 drivers are limited by their sponsors in this regard, but they make enough bread to be content. If high-ranking European GP2 drivers can’t find a ride in F1, they often take a trip across the pond to try Indycar.

WEC drivers spend their time traveling the globe, sometimes taking stints in American sports car events, or even going to Japan to try Super GT. At this level, there is no shortage of seats for the talented ace. American sports car drivers occasionally dip their toes into the world of European GT racing, or a highly-publicized category like touring cars. Some Americans bounce around from high-end thoroughbreds to simplistic production cars if the price is right.

There is good money to be made in high-profile events like the 12 Hours of Sebring. Of course, it’s not the Indy 500 or the Monaco Grand Prix, but anyone who makes a comfortable living driving racecars isn’t likely to complain much.

About Tommy Parry 109 Articles
Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, Tommy worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school and tried his hand on the race track on his twentieth birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, he began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a trackday instructor and automotive writer since 2012 and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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