The Five Main Factors To Making It In Pro Racing

By Ross Bentley

November 09, 2015

I’m tired of people saying that the only thing that it takes to make it in pro racing today is money. They claim that many drivers competing in even the highest forms of motorsport, such as F1, are only there because they had the money to buy their way in. And they say it in a way that suggests that these drivers have little talent, and haven’t earned the right to be there. Back in 2004, my friend and business partner at the time, Bruce Cleland a long discussion about this, because at the time we were providing driver development services for young drivers. We wrote a document that ultimately became the foundation for the Speed Secrets 5: The Complete Driver book that we co-authored the following year. I came across that document the other day, and decided that it was just as accurate and valuable today as it was ten years ago. –Ross
There are five main factors to making it in pro racing, along with a number of minor ones. The five main factors are talent, commitment, money, people, and a plan. Having one or two without the others and you will not make it. Having three without the other two and it’s unlikely you’ll make it. Even having four without the final one and the odds will be against you. But having all five will provide a reasonable chance for you to become a professional race driver.
We use talent interchangeably with skill. It’s what you bring to the driver’s seat when you buckle in for a race. What we’re talking about here is your ability to get around the track fast, not because of how fast your car is, but because of what’s in your mind and your heart. You’ll need your talent in every race, and it’s something you can refine and hone through practice and study.
There are many people who will tell you that all you need to make it in racing these days is a lot of money – that anyone can buy their way into a ride. While we would agree that you can buy your way in, it is your abilities behind the wheel that are going to keep you there. Even with all the money in the world, there is a limit to how far you can go with only a checkbook in hand.
We’re saying thatno matter what, you still have to be able to drive a race car – and be fast, consistent, smart, race well, etc. – to make a living as a professional race driver.
In the end, it’s your abilities behind the wheel that are going to make the difference. Sure, it depends on what you have to prove. If you’ve already proved you can win, then perhaps the scales tip in the other direction, but be sure you really have proven that you can consistently win in everything you drive.
When thinking about the question of what it takes to make it, we almost made a list of just one thing: commitment. Without the commitment to do whatever it takes to make it, all the talent and money in the world will not guarantee success. But if you are committed enough – meaning, you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary, you have the burning desire, and are willing to do whatever it takes – you can develop the driving skills to go quite a long way. And you’ll find a way to look after the financial challenges.
No, we’re not saying that with no talent and a lot of commitment you can make it to F1. But as long as you have some talent, and you work very hard at developing that talent, you can go a long way, and have a career driving race cars. How far will ultimately be dictated by just how much talent and skill you have, and how you develop it. But without commitment, you’ll never fully develop it, nor put yourself in the position to demonstrate it.
Far too many drivers with talent never fully exploit their abilities – they don’t live up to expectations – because they don’t make the commitment. Often it is because they have some success early on and then think that they’ve “got it,” and therefore don’t have to work at developing their skills. They think that the talent they were born with will take them to the top.
While having a strong belief in one’s abilities is certainly a must, this kind of thinking and approach will usually fail. Nine times out of ten, a driver with a little bit of talent who works hard at developing it will out-perform a driver with lots of natural talent who has not been developed.
Talent will only take you so far - it’s what you do with your talent that matters most.
We have young drivers ask us all the time what they can do to make it in racing. Our first response is, “Do you have a girlfriend? Break it off. Do you have a street car? Sell it. What else do you own? Get rid of it. Anything you own, sell it.” That may sound harsh, but you need to be prepared to do these things. We’re not saying that you will never make it while having a girlfriend or owning a car, but you need to be prepared to do without them. You need to make the commitment, make the sacrifices.
To make these kinds of sacrifices, you obviously need to have the desire to make it – and badly. A lot of drivers talk about how much they want it, but few make the sacrifices necessary to be successful. Few have that burning desire and passion it takes.
We think passion is the key word here. Without the passion for racing, the absolute love of racing, it’s doubtful you will have the burning desire to keep working at it. And without that, it’s unlikely you will end up making a living driving race cars.
Okay, here we go. Here’s the thing that most everyone will tell you about what it takes to make it in racing. You’ve got to have money.
While it would be stupid if we didn’t agree that it does and will take a lot of money to pave the way to the top, we are going to argue that it is not as important as many people would lead you to believe. We think the other factors here – talent, commitment, people, and a plan are more important.
The list of drivers who have made it in racing without having come from a rich family who paid the way is impressive. In fact, if you were to look at the top few drivers in each major racing series in the world, you will find that the majority did not come from wealthy families. They found a way to finance their careers until they had proved that they no longer had to provide any funding.
Having said that, money is important. You will need to find a way to have adequate financial backing to ensure you are in the right car at the right time. That may be your money or OPM – other people’s money.
This may come as a surprise to you, but surrounding yourself with the right people is far more important than having the budget to pay for next season’s racing. You see, if you have the right people around you, the budget will look after itself.
Remember one thing, though. You are the only person who can truly surround yourself with these people. Sure, a friend or family member can help, but ultimately you need these people to want to help you. You are the only one who can ensure that happens.
So, it’s who you know, not what you know. If you want to secure financial backing for your next season of racing, focus on who you know.
Now, we’re making one major assumption: you are a person who can and will motivate the people around you. If not – if your personality is one that tends to stop people from helping you – then ignore everything we’ve just said about how important people are. Instead, find a way to buy your way into the next ride, and the ride after that, and the ride after that, and so on.
Ultimately, you are a team-builder in every aspect of your career – with the crew working on your car, with your sponsors, with your family, with anyone who can help you. Ask yourself, “Who is on my team?” In reality, it is everyone and anyone who could ever have the slightest influence on your career, from a stranger you meet on a plane to the crew member fueling your car. Your job is to motivate every one of these people – your “team” – to assist you in achieving your career goals.
In other words, you need to do more than just invite people to join your team. You need to ensure they “buy in” to you – that they believe in you, that they are truly part of your team because they want to be. Without this buy-in, they are no different than a spectator, just along for the ride.
All the talent, all the commitment, all the money and all the great people supporting you will not guarantee success if you don’t have a plan for how to use them. This is a critical piece that many drivers miss.
We’re sure you’ve heard the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to know when you get there?” The obvious starting point of any plan is deciding where it is you are really going. Is it getting paid to drive anything, is it Formula One, NASCAR or being a driver/team owner? We don’t care what it is, as long as you know what it is.
Once you have the end point, you can then begin to plan how you’re going to get there. How many businesses do you think would be successful without having a business plan? Not many. In fact, successful businesses spend almost as much time planning their success as they do doing the business.
How many race drivers do you think have a business plan, or some type of plan to reach their career goals? Not many. That’s a good thing for you; if you take the time to develop your plan, you'll have an advantage over the other drivers who do not do this.
You can hire a motorsport consultant to help you put together this plan, or you can do it yourself, but the key things for you to determine are:
  • What are your racing goals?
  • Where do you see yourself over the next one, three, five and ten years?
  • How do you plan to get to that point, to reach your goals?
  • What resources will you need to get there, which ones do you have now, and which ones do you need to develop?
If you take the time to think through these questions and write up a plan to achieve your goals, we guarantee you will be farther ahead than most drivers. How bad do you want a career driving race cars? Bad enough to take the time to develop a proper plan? Are you a “racing junkie” – someone who will race anything, anytime, anywhere – or are you a racing professional, someone with a plan?

Of course, all the planning in the world is not going to guarantee success. Without executing this plan, you will not make it any farther than if you never had a plan. You need to make a plan, and then make it happen.