So, you want to get started racing, but don't know where to start? You've come to the right place - I'm starting this thread so everyone can chime in with their answers, and add to mine. Maybe the Web Admin can make this thread a sticky?
Invariably the best answer is "come out to a race weekend, and you'll see what it's all about!" Which is true, but maybe we can do a little better job answering that - especially for those thinking about this in the off-season!
There are a number of questions that you'll need to answer:
What kind of car should I race?
How do I get on track?
How can I get ready (especially off-season, or after driver's school has run)?
How else can I learn about going racing/I want to go racing, but can't afford it yet - how can I get involved?
We'll try to answer these questions here. Note that these questions will be biased towards racing at Waterford Hills; if you're aiming at going racing with SCCA or NASA, some details may vary (though a lot of the info will still be applicable).
What kind of car should I race? I have a '59 Borgward Zoggomobile - can I race it at Waterford?
This is usually where new drivers start the thought process, so we'll tackle it first. If you are looking to procure a car to go racing - there are many options! We tend to think of them in terms of the race classes; there's everything from bone-stock street cars straight from the showroom floor, to heavily modified street cars, to full-blown purpose-built formula and sports racer cars! (Note - pics of all of these kinds of cars can be found in our gallery)
Generally it's easiest and most affordable for new drivers to start in the less-modified street car classes; notably, these are the Showroom Stock and Improved Touring classes, as well as Spec Miata and Spec Neon. These classes allow only very limited modifications to the drivetrain, if any; modifications, other than safety equipment (which all racecars must have), are focused mainly on suspension improvements. More heavily modified classes, such as A Sedan, Production and GT, allow owners much more flexibility in the rules, but will typically end up being more expensive to build or buy and to operate.
At the same time that the production-based classes get a large percentage of new drivers, some braver souls do start out in the formula or sports racer classes! These include Formula Vee, Formula 500, Formula Ford and Continental for the formula cars, and Spec Racer Ford, Sports 2000, and the A through D Sports Racer classes. I'll save a description of all those for another more familiar driver (otherwise I'll never finish this post!).
So if you're looking to get a racecar, you can either buy an existing racecar or build your own; the recommendation is invariably that you should buy a used racecar over building your own, as the value just cannot be beat. Where do you find a used racecar? Many places online to look, but one of the best options is simply to go of course to our classifieds section - there are always cars for sale there, and close by!
What about if you already have the car, and want to take it on track? Well, to start with - see the above paragraph!
That said, it is possible. First question should be - do you really want to race wheel-to-wheel, or maybe you might like to consider taking your car on track for an Open Track Day (OTD)? The benefits to doing the latter are that it is easier to get into, as no school is required beforehand - it is instructional itself - and that no added safety equipment (like roll cage or fire system, etc) must be installed before attending an OTD. More on that in the OTD section, but it should be considered before committing to a full-race-prep build of a car you already own.
Finally, if you're bound and determined to take your car on-track, you'll need to find an appropriate class for it. The classes are described in the SCCA GCR (General Competition Rules), but you may have a tough time finding your car in all the pages; I would recommend even just posting to the forums here, and we can help you find the options available to you.
Another note on car classifications: as noted above, each class has its own limitations on what can be done to cars. If you have already started modifying your street car - it is very possible that you may have exceeded what is legal for most classes. This, again, is why it can be a much better idea to buy an already-built racecar. Read the rules carefully, completely, and when in doubt ask!!!
How do I get on track?
There are a few options. As noted above, there are the OTDs (Open Track Days). These are held periodically throughout the summer, and the schedule is on the main page of the website. Marque-specific car clubs, such as Corvette Club, Porsche Club, BMW Club, etc, also usually hold events (called Driver's Education events or the like) throughout the summer - though they are often on weekdays. Most clubs don't typically require that you own that specific type of car to take it on track, though there usually is a discount for club members.
What can you expect from such an event? Again, this can best be fully answered by the specific organization, but basically it's an opportunity to take your car on track and learn how to drive it near (but not at!) its limits in a controlled, safe environment - the racetrack. You will typically be receiving instruction from more experienced drivers, members of the club, and this controlled environment allows only limited passing to improve safety - typically only on straights, with acknowledgement. These factors all combine to provide a safe environment where you can reasonably expect to be able to go out, explore your car's performance, and safely return home at the end of the day. There is no wheel-to-wheel racing (namely, through the corners), there is no competition, and there are no winners - it's a learning environment.
Another option is autocross; some may already be familiar with this, as again, most car clubs and also SCCA operate such activities. This is competition against the clock, one lap at a time, with a handicapping scale to allow many different types of cars to compete against eachother. These are usually run in parking lots on courses laid out by cone, but sometimes these are run at Waterford Hills on the main track. Note that these are performed one lap at a time, as compared to the OTD's where consecutive laps are turned over the course of (typically) a half-hour session.
Note that both autocross (usually abbreviated autox) and OTD's are excellent training for going wheel-to-wheel; they allow practice of car control in a safer, more controlled environment than racing. Many, if not most, racers at Waterford have taken part in one or both prior to going racing.
The final, most involved option, is indeed to go racing - wheel-to-wheel! This is what most of the people on this forum are involved in, one way or another, and what most of our activity is focused on. In order to get on the track for racing, in addition to of course needing a car, you will need a race license. To get a race license, you will need to attend a race driver's school. The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) operates a few schools at varying times during the summer; there are also professional race schools (with paid, rather than volunteer) instructors like Skip Barber, Bertil Roos, Bondurant, etc. However, we also conduct our own race school every year at Waterford Hills, usually at the end of April.
What it takes to get to and successfully complete school is another long post, but what it consists of is a 1-day classroom session (to go over many topics ranging from safety to operations to driving ettiqute), followed by a weekend-long on-track school where the theory is put into practice. Upon completion of school, Novice licenses are issued; upon completion of a successful season and a few misc other requirements, you can graduate to a Full race license.
Another important note regarding school: most drivers tend to buy a car before race school. However, this is not always a necessity; there are a number of racers at Waterford that rent their racecars for students and even for competition through the season! Indeed, some less-lucky students end up finding themselves in a rental before the end of school, if they encounter reliability issues with their new racecar! However renting a car for school has a couple of other very good benefits. Most importantly for school, it takes away the need to expend any energy worrying about the condition of the car, as that is usually handled by the owner of the car. As so much information is being absorbed and processed at school, it's not the best time to be worrying about if there's gas in the car! Additionally, renting a car (for school and for races) can allow you to try out different types of cars before committing to any specific car or class. As with used racecars, look or post in the Classifieds to find rentals.
How can I get ready to go to driver's school (especially off-season, or after driver's school has run)?
We've pretty much covered a good bit of this material already, as far as driving; OTDs and autocrosses are excellent practice in car control, which you'll need when you get to school. If it's the off-season, and you plan to go to the upcoming school - obviously you'll need to line up a car. Again, building your own is not the best idea, and if you do build your own, it's best to plan to take it out on track, such as at an OTD, before you try to run it through driver's school - the most important thing at driver's school is to have a reliable, not so much fast, car that you can continue to drive all day long. You get a lot of track time at school, and you need a solid car that can take it. This of course is aside from the issues of getting the car finished on-time!
In addition to a car, you will need to get your paperwork together! For the Waterford school, this means you will need to join SCCA or Waterford Hills (the club) - the latter which first requires that you join or get on the waiting list (if no slots available) to join OCSC, the Oakland County Sportsman's Club (of which we are a part). Once a member of Waterford Hills or SCCA, you will need to put in your application to Driver's School - in a timely fashion! While the deadline is early April, it's best to plan to have your application submitted no later than early March; there are limited slots available, and school does usually fill up. Note also that your application must be accompanied by a physical, signed off by your doctor; forms for the application, the physical, and the club memberships can be found on the Forms section of our website.
If the paperwork sounds a little bit confusing - don't be surprised, it is! The best way to handle all the paperwork (though it can be handled via mail) is to actually attend the Feb (or March) Club meeting at OCSC - all questions can be answered quickly, as the appropriate parties will be on-hand.
One more note, in prepping for Driver's School, particularly if you're going with your own car, is Annual Tech (inspection). All racecars much have an annual tech inspection to ensure their safety and readiness for racing. If you have bought a used racecar, most of the work is already handled for you, as you have a logbook and simply need to renew. You may need to replace belts that have expired, or update any safety equipment that may be out of date, but it's not usually difficult. Of course, just ask on the forums, and we'll be happy to help.
However, if you have built a new racecar, the initial tech inspection (to issue a logbook) will be much more involved, as all aspects must be inspected a bit more thoroughly to ensure the car is safe - for example, the rollcage. As this process can be more involved, while it can be done the first morning of school, it is very worthwhile to have the inspection done before the on-track portion of school proceeds, in order that some time will still exist to fix any issues that arise. Otherwise there is a very real risk that you may miss some or all of school, and thus the season. Cars may be inspected at the classroom portion of school, 2 weeks before the on-track portion, or it may be possible to arrange to have a tech inspector review the car at another time - just post on the forums. It is also a VERY good idea to have another racer - mentor etc - to check out the car before the annual, or even during the build process, to avoid common pitfalls and ensure readiness. A little planning up front goes a long way towards preventing failure!
Beyond that, this pretty much leads into the next question:
How else can I learn about going racing/I want to go racing, but can't afford it yet - how can I get involved?
Volunteer!!! There is NO better place to learn about racing that at the racetrack, and if you're going to be there, you'll learn a whole lot more and have a lot more fun if you're involved! I personally cannot recommend highly enough joining our Flagging and Communications (F&C) team. It's where I started, you get to see the action close-up and personal, and you'll learn the most there - it's the second-best seat in the house, as we like to say!
But there's much more to racing than just driving or flagging; in addition to crewing for an existing race team, there are many activities going on during a race weekend that make the whole event possible, such as Grid, Timing and Scoring, Sound Control, etc. We're always happy to have volunteers, and volunteers get in for free and get fed to boot!
So if you want to learn more about racing, don't stand on the sidelines - come join us! We'll train you, just show up at 8AM Saturday morning and we'll be sure to find you something to do! You'll learn a lot and make many new friends in the process!