I've always liked the old Western song "Streets of Laredo." My favorite line goes, "I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy."
This wry sentiment mirrors perfectly my belief that in order to become something—be it cowboy, pilot, mountain climber, or race driver—you simply have to acquire the right gear and get out there and do the job. Then you become one. Whatever it is.
So, during an SCCA race at Road America in 1973, I suddenly rose out of the bleachers, walked over to a race-equipment tent, and bought myself a Nomex driver's suit, vowing never to return to the track without a car.
I went home, sold my TR3 street car, and bought a "professionally prepared" H-Production Sprite (pictured above) from a man in Michigan. He'd failed three attempts to make it through drivers' school, because the car kept breaking down, so he gave up his dream of racing.
After quickly trying to rectify the Sprite's many mechanical faults, I signed up for a Midwestern Council drivers' school at Blackhawk Farms in Illinois.
And so I found myself one fine summer morning, suited up and poised to head out pit row and onto the track for the first time ever, my brave instructor belted into the seat next to me. He was a veteran Corvette racer. We did a few exploratory laps, and then I picked up speed. As we shrieked down the front straight, he shouted, "This straightaway seems a lot shorter in my Vette!"
When we came in, his only advice was to brake earlier (so as not to skitter past the apex in a cloud of smoke) but also harder on the initial application. I'd spent years reading "art of racing" books that stressed smoothness, but soon realized this did not imply a gentle, Zen-like increase in brake pressure. Or a gradual flooring of the accelerator. What was called for was a sort of velvet-gloved brutality. Everything had to be fast and hard, yet not erratic. Big epiphany.
My instructor watched two more sessions from trackside, and at the end of the day said, "Well, it looks like you've got the picture," and signed me off to race the next day. This I did, running midpack in a 25-car field, blowing my head gasket on the last lap and miraculously avoiding many opportunities to crash.
Was I nervous that first outing? Not really. I was too busy thinking about the car and listening to the engine. The whole weekend was spent correcting leaks, spark plug miss, lean carburetion, detonation, and overheating. As was the rest of the season.
My advice? Go to a professional driving school, if you can afford it. It'll be worth a full season of trial and error—and car repair. Barring that, start with a known, reliable car and give yourself plenty of time to prepare it. Even then, bring tools. Jack, tire gauge, air tank, and torque wrench at a minimum. Then add a tool for every fastener on your car, if you have a Sprite. And some head gaskets.
But the first step is always to rise out of the bleachers and get yourself a cowboy outfit. Pride, vanity, and sheer momentum will force you to get out there and ride the range.