Motorsport is a popular spectacle in countries all over the world but there are two big powerhouses when it comes to staging races. Those same two powerhouses also lead the world in the manufacture and development of racing cars. Formula 1 has its origins and its current home in Western Europe and in the UK in particular. The United States has never quite got along with Formula 1 but arguably it has a motorsport scene which equals or even surpasses the European industry in its size. However, the cars and the type of racing that we see on each side of the Atlantic are quite distinct from each other so how relevant is the US motorsport industry if you want to get a job in Formula 1?
This post takes a look at motorsport across the pond and ask how much relevant experience you can gain if you are looking to use that as a spring board to Formula 1. Will it help you towards your dream career or will you be condemning yourself to going round in circles?
For whatever reason Americans have in general never been big fans of Formula 1 but it hasn’t so much been the cars themselves that they have had difficulty with but more the circuits on which they race. Road racing as it is generally referred to in the US has never been particularly popular in comparison to oval racing where cars compete on roughly circular tracks at very high speeds, often with banked corners to minimise the braking required. Some cars compete on loose surfaces such a gravel or dirt instead of asphalt to add to the spectacle.
Traditionally there have been 2 high profile race series in America which have dominated, IndyCar and NASCAR. They are by no means the only types of racing on offer but as far as most Europeans are concerned these are the most widely known. NASCAR has been popularised worldwide by films such as “Days of Thunder”, “Talladega Nights” and the kids Pixar movie “Cars”. An IndyCar may at first glance look very similar to a Formula 1 car but the style of racing and the way that the teams are structured and operate is quite different. The differences are enough to mean that careers on opposing sides of the pond provide you with different levels of experience and development and you have to be conscious about what is relevant and what is not.
I am often asked about the European racing ladder and whether it’s necessary to work your way up to Formula 1 in the same way that a driver would do through the lower formulas. A large section of my book is spent discussing the differences between work experience gained at lower formula racing teams and that spent at suppliers and constructors within the motorsport industry. The relevancy and usefulness of the work is very closely related to which job you envisage yourself doing in Formula 1 and so the same comparison should also be applied to work experience gained in the US. IndyCar and NASCAR are great series but the most relevant experiences may still be found closer to home as we will see.
The current IndyCar series and format of racing has a very chequered and political past with a number of different governing bodies and names being fought over for control of the series. In one form or another they have been racing since 1902 and are most commonly referred to in the same breath as their flagship event the Indy 500. The Indy 500 is arguably the most famous motor race in the world. In recent years, IndyCar has migrated back to being a mainly road course based series but the 500 remains as the premier race to win.
A typical IndyCar team consists of all of the main personnel that you would find trackside at a Formula 1 meeting but are generally smaller in size. This is no bad thing however as you take a broader role and get experience much more rapidly than you would in F1. It’s my view that working in smaller teams or companies in the early stages of your career is the best way to learn and so IndyCar offers great experience from this point of view.
Although visually similar to F1, IndyCar is not an open series and so you cannot make your own chassis and engine in order to compete unless permitted by the governing body. IndyCar is currently a single make chassis series with only two engine manufacturers involved.
The speed of the cars, especially on ovals, is very high with the outright Indy lap record of 237.4mph again under threat. Under the skin however an IndyCar is much more simple than its F1 cousin and budgets are substantially lower in comparison. Chassis and engine can be purchased from suppliers and so a race team in IndyCar can be effectively just a trackside operation unlike in Formula 1 where it must design, develop and manufacture its own car. The racing itself is sophisticated but the design and research aspect is completely different to F1.
For someone wishing to use IndyCar as a spring board to gain experience for F1 there are good points and bad points about the series. As we have mentioned, for trackside or vehicle dynamics positions the roles are quite transferable and somebody with a few a seasons of IndyCar trackside experience under their belt would certainly be of interest to a Formula 1 team. If you want to design F1 cars as a career however, working at an IndyCar team would not necessarily be good preparation as they do not manufacture a great number of parts themselves. If this is truly the route you wish to go down then you may be better off working at the IndyCar chassis supplier Dallara which is based in Italy rather than out in the US.
As a one-make chassis series, the main competitive distinction comes from engine manufacturers and an intense rivalry exists between homegrown Chevrolet and the Japanese brand Honda. Honda develop their engines at their American racing facility HPD in California but the Chevrolet engine is designed and developed by long time Indy specialist Ilmor Engineering in the UK. It may be a U.S. based series but the engineering is not necessarily all done there and ironically a good proportion of it is carried out back in Europe.
NASCAR has been the most popular televised form of motorsport in the US for several decades now and it has a cult following in the southern states where it has its historic origins. Racing almost exclusively on ovals, NASCAR is a very traditional and apparently low technology form of racing where the drivers and personalities take centre stage rather than the cars.
Constructed from steel tubing rather than carbon fibre, most NASCAR chassis are constructed individually by the teams themselves and as such most teams are in fact constructors in a similar sense to a Formula 1 team. The rules themselves may be rather prescriptive in terms of the technology allowed but within that framework, each outfit is free to tweak, develop and experiment with their cars as much as their budget and manpower allows.
At the speeds witnessed on a typical oval, aerodynamics have a huge influence and this is now a significant area of development within NASCAR. Teams are growing in size and professionalism as they strive to make incremental gains in some less traditional but more engineering led areas. Although still perceived as low technology, the engineering and development process does allow a certain freedom. There have been several ex-Formula 1 engineers who have moved stateside to NASCAR in order to further their careers and try something different.
The premier NASCAR series is supported by numerous feeder series both national and regional and as a movement it employs many thousands of people both at the teams themselves and in the associated industry of suppliers. Compared to the the ultra high budget and technology of Formula 1 it’s still a little agricultural but it remains incredibly popular.
Other U.S. Racing
The great thing about American motorsport is the breadth and accessibility of the grass roots and feeder series. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is hardly grass roots but is less well known outside of the U.S. than either IndyCar or NASCAR. Dragster racing as it’s referred to in Europe is visually very spectacular and draws big race day crowds wherever it goes. A huge number of cars compete in this type of racing nationwide and despite the teams (or amateur enthusiasts) generally not being more than a handful of people it’s a great way to get involved and get familiar with competitive motorsport. It might not be Monaco or Monza but the competitive spirit and motivations are all the same and would be well recognised and respected as part of a growing set of experiences by a Formula 1 team.
Sprint cars, motorcycle racing, monster trucks and even tractor pulling, all manner of enthusiast level races take place across the U.S. and whether your long term aim is Formula 1 or NASCAR you would be well advised to get out there and get involved wherever you can. It’s unlikely that you would make the move out to the U.S. from Europe for this type of racing but if you are an American growing up or find yourself there for work or study then the sheer size of the auto racing scene means a wealth of opportunities to experience racing firsthand. As I have said many times, it may be easy to dismiss racing at such a low level but people who cut their teeth on the amateur circuit and then back it up with formal and relevant qualifications are almost always the best future F1 people. If I meet someone who has been out there and done it, got their hands dirty at weekends and been caught up in the competitive atmosphere of racing then it always comes across very clearly. TV can only teach you so much and even top level F1 people are enthusiastic amateurs at heart. For most of them, the club racing and grass roots scene will be where they fell in love with motorsport and although their careers have since moved on, they will always recognise how much it gave them.
The great thing about motorsport is that it is so much bigger than just F1. It doesn’t really matter what route you take to get there, the possibilities are endless. The key thing is just to enjoy the journey and not just to look at it as a means to an end. The days you spend at grass roots level or in IndyCar or NASCAR might be the best days of your career or even where you end up making your home. Who knows, but one thing is for sure if you don’t even try then you are certain to have no chance at all.
Don’t take the risk of missing out.
Back to work
The two week F1 shutdown has been a welcome break to recharge batteries and enjoy things away from the racetrack.
From now, the championship starts its run towards its conclusion but there are some classic and fearsome race tracks on the horizon. I personally cannot wait to get back to it and rejoin the competition.
2016 starts here
The end of the summer break also marks the real start of the design of the 2016 cars as the focus shifts from late-season updates to the hard slog of getting all of the new parts drawn and manufactured ready for what could be the longest F1 championship in history.
The race in F1 is endless and whilst the TV circus watches the fight for this year’s championship, the best minds in the sport are already slogging it out for 2016.
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