Roundtable: So You Want to Work in Racing, Part II
It’s only been a few days, but the response to So You Want to Work in Racing, Part I is far greater than myself or the Roundtable participants thought it would be. Not only has it proved helpful to people curious about a career in motorsports, but current participants in the sport have expressed gratitude providing a more realistic view of what it really takes to get into and stay in the sport.
In Part II, the participants dive deeper, tackling the Dos and Don’ts, offer their biggest pieces of advice and share their own misconceptions we’ve all experienced along the way.
What are common mistakes you see job seekers make?
Bill: I kind of see an arrogance, especially the longer we go. Sometimes when I interview these young engineers, when I get done with the interview I realize they were looking for my job but they really have not done anything. I think that that’s a problem with this sport, there’s no feeder for engineers to come up through and learn correctly.
I’d be more impressed with a group of engineers running a ChumpCar or LeMons car than I would be for those working on a Formula SAE car because at least they are putting time in and going to the track and racing, rather than just working one event a year. I would have them all switch off every weekend and do different jobs. I’d have one guy be in charge of car prep, one in charge of logistics, one in charge of entries, and switch guys up so they can get a feel for each job so that they are more involved in the sport. Tech is tough, and Lemons is brutal. That’s where I’d fail the most tech, is in Lemons. You get to drive there as well, which is another aspect of it.
Jon: The common mistake that you see a lot is that the desire alone is the main prerequisite for entering the motorsports business. I had to learn this the hard way myself. You’re not alone in your desire to be in this paddock on a race team. While that’s important, you need to come with a set of skills. Then it becomes a chicken and egg problem. Where do you get the skills if all you have is the passion to be here?
Lauren: As weird as it sounds, they lie. People lie about the things they’ve had experience with. If you do that, then we expect you to know certain things, and when you don’t know it, it’s frustrating. I’d rather someone tell me they don’t know how to read a wiring diagram, then create a wiring loom, put it in a car and end up frying all the other looms in the car. Be honest. I’d rather sit down and show you how to do it correctly and have the confidence in you that you’re going to do it correctly than trust you to do something and have you blow it. If you’ve never worked on a race team, say it. I don’t blame people for talking up what they have done, and that’s important. If you’ve worked on a formula car as part of your internship program, certainly put it on your resume. Tell me what you’ve done on it. One of the biggest problems we have is people want to get in so badly that they’re willing to compromise their personal integrity and character and it ends up coming back to bite them. Once you’re found out, you get that reputation.
Also, have realistic expectations. Don’t come into racing thinking you’re going to make $100,000. There are very few people who can make a very lucrative living off of racing. There’s the saying we all know. “How do you make a small fortune in racing? You start with a big one.” Racing consumes money. Nobody has a big budget to spend on an engineer or mechanic. A lot of guys on our team do this part time. They have a whole other job at home. You have to be flexible. Maybe this won’t be your full time gig. Work at a Porsche engine repair shop. We want that kind of experience, degree or not. You’ve been hands on. I don’t care if you have a pretty piece of paper that says you have your Ph. D in electrical engineering and you know how to wire a city. I’m going to take a guy who has worked on Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches, Fords and Chevys. They have a spot here.
Peter: A lot of people come to us saying they’ve had experience at Ganassi, Penske, Newman/Haas, or any other high level operation and they assume that’s going to get them in–they almost have an arrogance about them. If you’re not at one of those places anymore, they probably let you go. Don’t be arrogant and over confident. I get pounded with generic emails that are three to four sentences about how they’re the next bad-ass engineer getting ready to graduate from university, and “come hire me.” Hopefully they’ll just assume that went to junk mail, because I’m not going to waste my time with that. You have to show you’re willing to do something more than email to get a hold of a person. Go the extra distance, show you’re passionate about it. Track them down. Let them know over a period of time that you’re interested. Show you have a unique ability above sending a spam email that could go to any other team. Put out more effort and personalization. I’m looking for passion, so someone better be passionate about getting a job with me. We always look at someone’s social media before hiring. I haven’t had a make or break situation come from someone’s social media, but in first round selections, we’ve checked out someone’s social media to see what they’re like. I’ve eliminated people before a first interview because of social media. My favorite is drivers who tell me they’re fantastic on Gran Turismo, and they firmly believe they are the next best driver and I need to test them.
Randy: When people that are too much “fan” and not enough “professional”. When you get to this level, this is a business. It’s a business proposition for everybody involved so you have to create an environment that is business-friendly for everyone. I see a lot of people who come into the business who are like super fans and they get a job as a volunteer or with the sanctioning body and they are too fan crazy. They take too many photos and pictures and show everything they are doing which doesn’t show them acting in a professional way. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of the shot-callers. Are you here to be a professional or be a fan and feel lucky that you’re standing in pit lane? I get it–I’m a fan of racing too and I love everything about racing but you have to keep that in check.
Steven: Love of the industry can work both ways. I remember talking to a friend of mine who used to work for Tom Cotter, who essentially invented motorsports PR. He was stunned at the number of people who were lawyers or doctors or successful in business who were so sick of what they did that they would contact him and say, “I want to work in racing, and I don’t care what I do.” That love of motorsports can take you a long way. But once that love of motorsports turned into a job, when it’s no longer a hobby, or just a general interest, that can ruin a lot of people’s love. Then they realize it’s a grind. I co-hosted a radio show for a year that ran on Sirius/XM immediately after every F1 race, and I had to get up at 2:00 am, watch the race, and go live at 4:30 am. And it didn’t pay a dime. When it ended after a year, I was relieved. Also, there’s a repetitiveness to racing, sort of a perpetual groundhog day, it that a lot of people find taxing after a while, and not just the travel. I’ve had a lot of journalist friends who have gone in to PR and see the other side of things. Some of the journalists are assholes. I don’t have to deal with them: People on the PR side must, and they have to be cheerful when they do. They have to smile and act like every question you ask is a smart one. The have to deal with clients who have no realistic expectation. I have done PR. Not easy. Not easy at all.
What advice would you offer to those trying to break into the industry?
Bill: Get ready to give up your normal life. Be ready to give up some of your normal friends. Make sure you know that if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’re married or have a family, that is really going to strain that, and hard. I have been through relationships, as I am sure everyone has been in the paddock, because of it. It’s more of a life choice than anything else. There is glamour to it when you win but you lose 10 times more than when you win. You put in more than 10 times the effort before you can win.
You also get into this other side of it as well. For example, I got a text message from my guys wanting to know if I wanted to meet them for brunch on a Sunday, this is all the guys who work on the car. Although they work all week long, they are still going out to brunch together on their day off.
Jon: If I were to give some recommendation to someone trying to get into the paddock, there’s the theory of six degrees of separation. You’re always somewhat connected to someone in this paddock. I really think the most effective way is to find that person and have that person help to introduce you to our world here. That helps a lot to get the ball rolling, verses being some stranger from Anytown, USA, willing to work for free. Being a volunteer worker is great, but the cost isn’t the most important thing. You’re an important person in an important process and we’re happy to pay you. Working for free isn’t a great approach.
Lauren: Don’t give up. It’s hard to get in. Look at the schedules. We’re now at the time of year when teams start planning for next season. That’s when they start making budgets and deciding which programs they’ll take on and which they’ll end. They’re starting to form what will be the base for their next season. If you start sending out resumes in June, they’re going right into the trash. Nobody is ready at that point. Be conscientious of when you’re sending your resume and how a team is doing at that specific time. If a team is winning a championship, they might not be looking for anybody because obviously what they have is working. If a team is struggling, they might be interested in bringing on new people. That’s always very important to consider.
Be willing to do volunteer stuff. As frustrating as that can be, it’s not ideal, but there are teams who will work with you. Maybe they can’t pay you a daily rate, but maybe they’re willing to pay for a hotel room or a flight. Teams are sometimes interested in internships, especially if you’re in school. It gives teams an opportunity to get to know you so that maybe when you graduate, they do bring you on full time. There’s nothing wrong with fly-in work. If you’re not willing to move to Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, Charlotte, then you need to be willing to do fly-in work. It can still be a lucrative job, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Recognize that you can’t give up, but it may not come the way you expect it. Look outside the box when it comes to working in motorsports. You can work in motorsports and not for a team. Look at manufacturers. Example: Corvette Racing is actually run by Pratt & Miller Engineering, based in Michigan. They have a million other projects besides Corvette Racing. Send a resume to Pratt & Miller, not just Corvette Racing. They’re always looking for engineers and good people to start working on other projects. If you’re interested in engines, look at engine manufacturers like HPD. If you like transmissions, X-trac manufactures gearboxes. There are lots of opportunities. Don’t just look at teams. Racing is so much more than teams. Just being present at the track gives teams a chance to get to know you, and that’s how you build your network. Volunteer at a race track for a local event.
Peter: What I’ve seen is getting involved in universities with Formula SAE programs. We just started helping out FAU, the Florida Atlantic University, SAE program. We’ve really seen kids come through there, and it’s a fantastic way to tell if a person is switched on or not. We have a girl working with us right now who is graduating in December. She wants to be an engineer and is passionate about it. She’s excited about motorsport, and that’s her life. It’s tough to just bring one female to a track, so because I believe in her, I hired another female so that the two can room together and costs at the track are justified. When you look at Formula SAE, it’s a great way for a kid to make it as a career. From a program like that, you get experience you can talk about, in electronics, engineering, manufacturing, and business plans. Something like that is a great way to get involved and get your message out of what you’ve done and can do. For us to take a risk on a younger person, that’s a great way to go about it.
Randy: Put in your time. Find a way in somehow, like volunteering with SCCA. Get to know the promoters and track people. Just volunteer your time. You have got to have time with them so you can be recognized and have a good reputation. Just be willing to put in hours, weeks, months, and years of time before you may ever get paid. A lot of times the first job you get in professional racing may only be enough to cover some expenses. You may offset some of your costs, but you’ll never get rich here. It’s really hard to make a living in this business. It’s all about doing the job and doing the right thing. I’ve gotten job recommendations from people I don’t even know based on my relationships and reputation.
Steven: Have a communications background, it doesn’t have to be journalism, but at least some kind of communications where you can write, talk, and do interviews. Know broadcast and how it works. Social media is important. You have to know Facebook, twitter and SEO. Things that weren’t even a part of the conversation 10 years ago that are mandatory now. Even if you start working for free with a local team, learn how to write a press release, maximize every opportunity, and learn how to write a story.
What’s the biggest misconception you had about working in the sport?
Bill: Probably about how hard it is. As a team owner or business owner you know how hard it is with the ups and downs and how it cycles. You get the same surprises as you would in normal life but they are condensed in motorsports. You realize how many sharks are in the water and how many people are after you. There are people in the paddock who will stab you in the back and you may not realize it. There is a lot of that which bubbles to the surface a lot sooner. I didn’t think about that when I was 14, but now looking back, you see that you get a compressed life, in a way.
Jon: Before I started down this path, I didn’t know that there were professional race drivers a) that get paid, b) that were buoyant—meaning they don’t pay or get paid, and then c) that there were professional drivers that don’t get paid. That was interesting. I thought race drivers were somehow selected from thin air and awarded these positions. Some very successful race drivers you think were selected actually bought their way into racing. That was one of the things I didn’t expect. I think the other thing I didn’t expect is that our team would be as successful as it’s been. I didn’t expect our team to be as prominent as it has become so quickly. That’s been pretty amazing to me. From basically advanced SCCA Club Racing to working in conjunction with Porsche on their factory team, sometimes you have to catch your breath. It’s pretty incredible. It’s the product of all of the hard work and smart work we’ve done here over the years, especially with Morgan Brady leading the charge. Secretly, when I started the IMSA Lites team, I told Morgan I wasn’t going to be happy until our paddock space wasn’t in the back, but on the main street. By purchasing the LMPC cars, we made it to the main street. I think we’re very fortunately to have picked up Colin along the way. We made a lot of smart decisions and have grown in prominence in the sport. That’s something very near and dear to my heart to think that we’re among the top teams in our series is pretty amazing, given our roots.
Lauren: I never thought the people I traveled with would become this kind of a family. I now have family all over the world. When Muscle Milk – Pickett Racing folded, I didn’t realize how close I had grown to my teammates in those three years. It was three years of working together, sweating together, setting up and tearing down together. You see people have babies, get married, have grandbabies. You’ve experienced the best of them and the worst of them. But at the end of the day, you were still there for them because they were your team. It’s pretty hard to find that in any other industry. In most other industries, everyone goes home at the end of the day and they’re pretty happy to leave their coworkers. There’s nothing like the feeling of a new season where you haven’t seen anyone for a while and all you want to do is catch up with everyone. By the end of the season, you swear you’re done and you’re never going to do it again or even miss it, but come next season you realize just how much you did.
Peter: There are so many stereotypes and they’re all true. Starting with “How to make a big fortune in racing, you start with a small one.” It’s really hard in racing, including finding the money, passionate workers and getting it all to work. There’s all the in and outs and the drama of getting funding on time. It’s crazy hard. You think everything’s going to be great, then all of the sudden there’s a series merger, and you go from “life is really good” to “Holy cow, the cars you run are flying backwards in the air at Daytona and nobody wants to do a DP program next year,” and it’s all turned completely upside down. The misconception I witness most is all the successful businessmen who get involved and say the reason there’s no one successful is because they’ve never had a proper businessman running a team, and that they’ll be the one to do it.
It’s a passion that allows me to go to a race shop in the morning. It allows me a flexible schedule with offbeat hours. It also means if we’re dealing with a person in California, and he calls me at 10:00pm his time, that’s 1:00am our time, and I have to answer those phone calls. It’s give and take and I’m okay with that. It sucks your life, and is demanding and way harder than anybody thought.
Randy: That it’s glamourous. People tell you that you’re so lucky you get to go to the race track every weekend. I hate to diminish it all, because I love it. It’s the same everywhere you go. It’s the same people, everywhere you go, just a different race track. It’s a job you come and work hard, every day and rarely have a day off. We’re having dinner every night at 10:00pm when you have to get up at 4:00am. You’re on a lot of trains, planes, and rental cars, and sometimes stay in shitty hotels. It’s not that glamorous but it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.
Steven: The travel. If you travel, you burn out. If you don’t travel, you aren’t as effective. You can stay at home and work from your desk and do a PR job or a journalism job based on phone calls, news reports and twitter accounts, but that doesn’t replace the face time that you have with your team and with journalists and sanctioning bodies. You have to be there. And if you’re there, that means you’re not home sleeping in your own bed. If you’re 22, that’s fun and appealing. If you’re 52 with a family, not so much. It’s definitely a job, whether you’re working for a team, a sanctioning body, or a publication. You’re most effective when you’re there. If you’re not there, someone else is and is probably doing a better job than you are. There aren’t many people who last long in our business when you’re out there on the road doing race after race, year after year. There are a few, but if you look at the press room now and the press room 15 years ago, you’re not going to see many of the same faces.
Bill: If you want a career in motor sports the easiest way is to get a CDL and drive a truck. Everybody is always looking for truck drivers because they have a hard job in motorsports. You just have to be willing to put the time in. I have a couple of engineers with good degrees who had to be mechanics for a few years before they could get to be an engineer. I put in some solid time. Everybody here who has been a figurehead in motorsports like Mike Hull or Derrick Walker have put in a lot of regular time doing stuff before they got to where they are. It wasn’t just two years, it was ten or twenty.
Jon: Go to school, develop a skill. Even better, find a niche skill, this will make you stand out and be more employable. Be the best at whatever it is you choose to be. Approach the teams in this paddock in a professional manner with a lot of confidence. There is a way to be successful here if you keep trying and pushing the button.
Randy: Come to the track and put in your time and shake hands with people. Volunteer your time and be willing to do anything.
Steven: Be careful what you wish for. If you try to turn a hobby or something you love into a business, there’s often a price to pay. You maybe don’t love it so much anymore when you have to depend on it for your income. Sometimes it works fantastically well, and other times it ruins your love of the sport. I’ve seen it go both ways, and it’s affected me both ways, but not to the extent I’m ready to walk away from it.
Several years ago when I worked at Skip Barber Racing School, my department was hiring a Marketing Coordinator. The job description included, but was not limited to, social media content creation and management, press release distribution, graphic design, writing race reports, budget management, marketing strategy, etc. Of all the resumes that poured in, there is only one I still remember: The first one to get rejected. Instead of supplying us with their qualifications, experience, education and ideas, the applicant sent a picture of their garage and a list of all the cars they’ve owned, including all the modifications made to each vehicle. Although they showed their knowledge of cars, they didn’t answer the simplest of questions: How are you qualified for this job and what can you bring to the table? Not to mention the fact that the information they provided was barely relevant to the job they were applying for. Being a fan of the sport is great, and passion for this industry is required, but you need a skill to go with it, and you have to be damn good at it.
Racing is a tough industry not only to get into, but to stay in. You have to be willing to put in effort. I once received a notification from a race team’s twitter account I was managing that someone tagged our team in a tweet. The tweet was simply an image of that person’s resume, with other teams tagged in the post as well. Although I commend the person for trying new means of contact, that was the only effort they put in to attempt to get hired. They didn’t try to find the appropriate email addresses, phone numbers, or physical addresses, nor did they come to a race event and introduce themselves. They simply tweeted a picture to a PR representative who has absolutely nothing to do with the hiring process. Although it is my job to pass that resume along, very few applicants who don’t make a face to face effort, or at least attempt a phone call are going to get noticed. Like many of the above participants said, there are a lot of people who want into this industry. You need to stand out.
Several years ago, Kelsey, a twitter follower of mine reached out to me. She gave a brief introduction, expressing her interest in getting a career in Motorsports Public Relations. A student at the University of South Florida, she was already well into her studies to get a degree in PR. We exchanged emails back and forth and met several times at race events. She always made it a point to send me an email every few months, not only to offer her services, but ask for advice based on my own experiences. She took many volunteer jobs at select race events, no matter what the job entailed, donating her time, money and spring breaks in order to be at the track and learn. She was always dressed professionally and impressed me with how she handled herself at the track as well. She was there to work, and you could clearly see she had fun doing it as well. On social media and at events, she stayed up to speed on everything without stalking or acting like a super fan. Even when she did her quarterly check in with me, she always mentioned the current progress of my company or clients. Her emails were never copied and pasted and she knew exactly how to properly network. Although I wasn’t ready to hire employees myself, she had earned my personal and professional respect, and I happily passed any job leads I heard of her way. Kelsey is a perfect example of what motorsport employees are looking for. Someone snatched her up before I got the chance, and degree in hand, she now does Public Relations in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for TriStar Motorsports. Whether at race events or via email, we still keep in touch, sharing stories and advice. She’s well aware of how important connections are in racing and continues to create more professional relationships while nurturing the ones she currently has. As most of the participants in this Roundtable have said, this isn’t a sport where you want to burn bridges.
Racing is fun, but it’s also a business world that everyone wants a piece of. Instead of focusing on how fun it would be to work in racing, focus on your skill set, what makes you unique, who/what the racing industry needs, and how you’ll contribute. Maybe most importantly, find a way to make it financially sustainable. Being a fan of racing is not enough, but it’s a good place to start. Ask questions, network and learn. Don’t pitch yourself to a potential employer by offering to be an engineer,mechanic, truck driver, PR rep and hospitality. Pick a specific area and become an expert in it.
Like the participants in this two-part series, I love my job and can’t imagine working anywhere else. As for Bill, Jon, Lauren, Peter, Randy and Steven, thank you again for offering your time and insight to help others. Your contributions to the conversation as well as the sport are greatly appreciated.