From Karts to Spec Miata - A Chat With Sam Silver

By Stef Schrader

September 12, 2014

Photo credit: Sam Silver
After several successful seasons in karts, Sam Silver decided to make the transition over to cars. When she’s not rock climbing or starting a company that sells hole saws, she’s racing a ’91 Spec Miata with a famous livery inspired by her mother’s maiden name: Martini. We had a few questions for Sam as to how she made the transition from racing karts to racing cars, what helps her win, and what the advantages are to driving a Spec Miata over other classes in racing.
How did you get your start in racing?
So, that’s a bit of a long story. We started out racing go-karts. We got into that because in about 2001, my dad bought a new Audi A4 and he joined the Audi Club of America and started going to track events—with their high performance driving club. Through that, he became an instructor and he met people through that take these go karts out on the track here in Minnesota. We went out and watched them race. My dad had had a couple good years of work and he said, “You know, do you think you’d like to do this?” and I immediately was like, “Yeah, sure, absolutely.” That week, I did an indoor karting series at the Pro Kart here and did pretty well at that. It was the first time I was really racing against a lot of other people on track, and I ended up racing it all summer. They all helped convince my dad, too, to start buying all the stuff [for the kart]. I think I was fourteen at that time, but I started getting into it, though, when I was ten with my dad at the track.
My first car race was in a Volkswagen Golf, in Connecticut, which I actually thought was slower than my go kart. I did go kart stuff for six years and then four years ago, I moved up to cars. Pretty much, I’ve been racing Miatas ever since, except for one race in a Golf. I started racing Miatas the next summer [after the Golf].
Those [Golf] motors even had to be, I think, fully stock. The Miatas you can at least touch the motor and you can do a little bit on the other stuff that opens up more torque. That Golf just didn’t want to get going.
How did you end up in the Golf for your first race?
I was trying to transition from karts to cars, so I went to a Skip Barber driving school out in Connecticut. Through that, one of the instructors liked my driving enough that he wanted me to race his car for—I think it was the NARRC runoffs. It was a huge race, and I probably had no right to be racing it. So, that race didn’t go very well because of experience, but I got about a whole series’ worth of experience in two days. It rained on Saturday for qualifying, and I was in the slowest class of the three classes in our group. I was out there in the rain, trying to learn the car. The next day, it was completely dry, and I had to completely relearn the car in the dry. Somebody crashed into me, and it was the only other girl at the entire event!
How beneficial was doing the Skip Barber school in terms of transitioning over to racing cars?
It was really helpful, especially with shifting. The go karts that I raced didn’t have gears. You can learn how to drive a manual on the street, but you don’t know how to heel-toe, and you don’t know how to change gears quickly. So, you have a coach [at Skip Barber] telling you [how to shift in a race situation]. My dad helped some, but he’s not as adept at teaching it. The three-day school is in formula cars—Formula Mazdas—so that was an awesome experience. I have some reservations about it because it’s an expensive school, and you spend a lot of time listening to instructors telling stories, but the track time was really beneficial, and we talked about a lot of good things, too. For what it is, if you can afford to go to one, I think it’s a good idea, but it is three grand for three days. If you’re into Solo, there’s a great school at our track, Brainerd, so there’s other options that I think are good for other people, but [Skip Barber] was a good experience.
Photo credit: Stef Schrader
So, how did you choose the Miata?
Lots of friends suggested it. Looking at the classes in SCCA, it’s hard to pick a more competitive class. You’re always going to have somebody to race with, and it’s incredibly affordable. That’s actually probably the biggest reason. As far as racing goes, it’s the cheapest and I’m not on the same budget level as a lot of the people I race against, so that’s a huge factor.
Tell us a little more about karting - what are the advantages to starting out in a kart? Has that helped you in your racing career? What are the main differences between a kart and a car?
I think it absolutely helped. It teaches you the basics: there’s no power steering, no suspension, no ABS, no helping technologies. It’s just you and the kart. You do have to learn a lot about setup and maintenance, which actually, I feel like I’ve lost a little bit going to Miatas because they’re so bulletproof and you know, you don’t have to do much to them. I tried to go back to karting after racing the Miata and I was like, how did I ever do this? There’s just so much more work and not enough time in the day to do all this stuff, and check all the [necessary items]. You have to learn a lot about your machine and a lot about setup for racing, which you do have to do on Miatas to an extent, but it’s so much more basic and you usually do it before you go to the track. You don’t have to do it at the track while everyone’s watching in karting. But yeah, [karting] teaches you the fundamentals of driving, but a lot of it is from being so involved with the kart itself.
Photo credit: Sam Silver
What kind of advice do you have for people just getting started in racing?
Patience is huge. It’s such a huge ego sport, so if you can start out without having an ego and be willing to learn, there’s tons of people around you who are willing to help you out and teach you. You’ve also got to learn from them what they’re not going to tell you by watching, listening and sitting back, watching what the other drivers are doing. Expectations are one of the biggest things. It’s really easy to think, “Oh, I know how to drive. I can go into this and be in the top five every time, no problem,” but you get an ego check real quick if you do that. I’ve done that. I thought I’d do okay enough like that, but it’s just not the case. Learning to drive a new machine is always a challenge, especially when everybody else has been doing it for a long time and they’ve got a lot of little things figured out, which is what makes you fast.
What kinds of things do you do to prepare for a race weekend?
The physical aspect—I used to rock climb a lot. I lost my membership, so I’m trying to get back in that, but doing that physical side of it—anything you can do that involves your forearms or your core is good. But with general maintenance on my car, I do an oil change before every race weekend, repacking the bearings, making sure the battery is charged all the way, adjusting the tire situation. The brakes as well—those cars are so easy on brakes, comparatively.
You mentioned rock climbing and core fitness being important in your prep. Tell us a little more about the physical demands of racing.
The big thing is that you can’t let yourself get tired or take away from your concentration, because that’s when you make mistakes. It’s not hugely tiring like running a marathon would be, but there are a lot of huge forces that are pulling on you. You have to keep yourself upright and you can’t let yourself get tense because there people are all around you and doing stupid things in front of you. The more relaxed you can be and the more you can keep your heart rate down because you’re not physically spent, it’s a huge, huge benefit. I think that’s the biggest thing: just not getting worn out during races. I do better when I can concentrate better.
What has been your biggest challenge in racing so far?
Probably the money aspect. I do think it’s a lot of fun to beat people who I know are spending more money than me. There’s kind of the girl thing, too. It’s fun to beat the guys when you’re a girl, or somebody else that has better equipment than you. I’m really not going to be able to run at the top level until I can budget a lot. I have one of the older Miatas, so I don’t have quite the advantage on some of the fast tracks that the people with newer Miatas have.
I run a ’91, and although it’s changing a little bit, the ‘99s are still the most popular. Whether the ‘01s or [another model year] are going the fastest next year is still to be determined, but yeah—I’d pretty much need to buy a new car if I want to move up a bunch. There’s so much that I feel that I need to learn still that I’m not in a hurry to buy a new car. I’m kind of in a three-year plan to go to the runoffs in Ohio, so maybe in a couple years I’ll get a new car, but I’ve got to start making some more money first.
Photo credit: Sam Silver
What is the most difficult element of a track to drive at the limit?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. I can improve it all, in theory. I feel like I’m pretty good at driving hard through corners and taking some chances, but I don’t think I’m nearly as aggressive at passing as I’d need to be if I wanted to run with the top ten guys at Nationals. So, I would say that, yeah, definitely having the confidence to stick my nose in there at any opportunity [is the biggest thing I need to work on as a driver].
I know you’ve made the transition from karts over to cars. Do you have any interest in any other forms of racing?
I will probably stick with Miatas because of the budget issue, but I’d really love to do rally racing someday, and I’d also love to do some endurance racing. My dad and I are trying to figure that out, but my dad’s 6’ 3” and I’m 5’ 5” and us both sitting in the same seat is a challenge to overcome, so we’ll see if that ever happens. In the near future, Spec Miata is definitely what I’m going to end up doing. I’ve actually looked into ChumpCar too, and I’d like to do ice racing—pretty much anything I could drive is an interest.
What are your goals for your racing career? Any bucket list races or tracks you’d like to check off?
That’s a good question. I’m still trying to figure out my expectations for the Majors and it depends on what the car I’m going to have is. Right now, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can. Other goals—I’d love to do a 24-hour race, so that’s definitely a bucket list item, and probably the only one that’s pretty realistic.
What do you do in your spare time, away from the track?
Well, for work I actually—me and one other guy are starting a company that sells hole saws—the world’s best hole saws. I actually really love my job. Being a girl in the tool world is kind of similar to being a girl in the racing world. You kind of have to prove yourself a little bit before people will listen to you. Other than that, rock climbing is a huge passion of mine. I have a little self-image to maintain. Racing is my life, though, so it’s hard to have other interests when you spend all your money on racing!