35 Bits of Friendly Racing Advice from the Pros

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the January 2010 issue of Classic Motorsports]

Ask around and you’ll find that advice is rarely consistent. When it comes to vintage racers, different scenes, experiences and equipment result in an array of viewpoints on a subject. For example, should historic vehicles be coddled or flogged? Is winning a noble goal, or does it just create trouble? It all depends on who you ask.

So we asked those who have raced at the sport’s highest levels—six real, full-time professional drivers. Their experience runs the gamut: Some have been immersed in the scene for decades and drove today’s vintage cars back when they were still new. Others come from the pro ranks but are often invited to pilot some golden-era machines

Despite the differing points of view, one bit of wisdom was universally proffered by our pros: Preserve the soul of the cars you drive. Don’t lose sight of a vintage racer’s true character, don’t smother its history with modifications, and don’t push a chassis further than its designers intended.

It all boils down to valuing these machines for what they are and the era of racing they represent. On board? Good. Now, on to the rest of the tips.

Brian Redman: Pro of Yesterday and Today

Photography Credit: Mark Langello

Brian Redman’s first taste of motorsports came in a roundabout way. Was it taking an illustrious Can-Am machine out for a test drive around Road Atlanta? Did he spend his time maneuvering an elite GT car along a winding pass through England’s emerald hills? No on both counts. 

The correct answer? High-speed mop delivery in a supercharged Morris 1000 Traveller woodie. Back in 1959, Brian was a mop head manufacturer in his birthplace of Burnley, Lancashire, and he delivered his product to clients all over England. Brian got pretty competitive with his fellow motorists, so he decided to take it to the track before something bad happened.

After competing in a couple of Jaguar XK120s and dabbling in motocross, he was asked to drive an ex-Graham Hill lightweight Jaguar E-type in 1965. “I managed to break Jackie Stewart’s class record and beat car owner Charles Bridges’s time by 4 seconds,” Brian recalls. “This led to driving the E-type for the season.”

This early success blossomed into a legendary career that spanned from sports car racing to Formula 1. He collected wins across the globe—Targa Florio, Nürburgring, Monza, Daytona, Sebring and Brands Hatch—while driving for a laundry list of elite teams, including Ferrari, McLaren, John Wyer, Group 44 Inc., Cooper and Shadow.

Today, Brian’s career has come full circle, as the cars currently populating vintage racing events are the same ones he drove when they were new. “At Monterey in August [2009], I drove a Porsche 908/03, which is the same model that Jo Siffert and I won the 1970 Targa Florio in,” Brian recalls, “and also the Porsche 917 PA which I drove in 1973 for Vasek Polak—after he had converted it to 1100-horsepower turbo 917/10 specification!” 

And that lightweight E-type in which he proved his mettle 40 years ago? He has piloted that very car at the Goodwood Revival. 

Additionally, Brian and his son, James, host track events under the Targa Sixty Six banner. Brian offers driving instruction at these gatherings, too. Check out gorace.com for more information.

If you’re on a tight budget but still want to get into vintage racing, consider a mass-produced small-bore car like an MG, Triumph or Mini. The buy-in costs are lower and they’re not as hungry for fuel, tires or brakes. Photography Credit: Godron Jolley

Scope Out a Scene:
There’s no need to settle on a scene quickly, Brian advises. Take your time and find a club or brand of competition that suits you. “If you’re interested in vintage racing, attend several events before plunging in,” Brian says, “so that you can see what cars may interest you, how the people in that group behave on and off the track.” Remember, not all clubs have the same definition of the word “vintage.”

Involve Friends and Family:
If you’re going to spend a lot of time at the track, why not bring your friends and family along, too? Be an ambassador of the sport. It also helps to attend events at tracks that feature picturesque backdrops or alternatives to just spectating. Brian’s favorite family-friendly tracks include Monterey, Lime Rock, Palm Beach and Road America. If you’re heading abroad, consider Monte Carlo and Goodwood.

Try the Lottery:
No matter what the venue, Brian admits that racing isn’t exactly the ideal way to get rich quick. “In 1959—my first season—fellow Morris Minor driver Harry Ratcliffe offered these sage words of advice as we sat in a pub having a pint of beer following a race,” Brian relates. “‘Brian, mate,’ said Harry, taking a long draw on his pipe, ‘there’s one thing about this racing.’ ‘What’s that?’ said I. ‘The poor young racing driver of today will be the poor old racing driver of tomorrow.’ I wish I’d listened.”

Stay Humble:
When asked what advice he could offer vintage racing vets, Brian proclaimed, “I would not dare offer advice to [them]—they probably know more than I do!” Hey, if someone as experienced and successful as Brian Redman is this humble, take that as a cue to keep your ego in check and retain an open mind.

Racer’s Golden Rule:
Brain says it well: “Treat other racers on the track—and off!—as you would expect to be treated yourself!”

Choose Your Ride Wisely:
Brian suggests starting out in a car that’s easy to maintain and repair. He also recommends a number of comparatively low-cost machines for racers in the market, such as the Austin-Healey Sprite, Mini Cooper, Triumph Spitfire or TR2 and TR3. 

Interested in an open-wheeled car? Check out the Formula Vees and Formula Fords. Looking for a brand that’s a little off the radar? The Mallock U2 has been serving club racers for more than half a century and can be configured as a sports racer or open-wheeled formula car.

“Or, on the other hand, you could pay millions for a Porsche 917, 908, Aston Martin DBR1, Ferrari 250 GT, 250 LM, 512 S or M, or any Ferrari F1 car,” Brian adds. “Pay your money and take your pick!” 

Patrick Long: Young Gun Goes Old School

Photography Credit: Rick Dole

It’s not unusual for people to utter “Patrick Long” and “prodigy” in the same breath. The 28-year-old Florida resident established his racing resumé at age 8 when he began making big waves in the kart scene. He moved to cars in 1999, and after some significant success in the formula ranks he landed a gig driving for Porsche’s UPS Junior Team in 2003. 

He moved up the ladder to become a full-fledged Porsche factory driver a year later. As a testament to his talent, Patrick is currently the sole American on the 11-driver Works team.

Thanks to Patrick’s success—he already has wins at Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona—he’s been afforded opportunities to pilot historic race machines, too. “My experience in racing vintage cars is somewhat limited,” he admits, “but the chances I’ve been given are so vivid and memorable that I always look forward to my next shot at it.”

One of those memorable vintage experiences came two years ago during the Rennsport Reunion III at Daytona, he continues. “I got to race a Miller High Life 962 against a pretty incredible field of cars and drivers, including Hurley Haywood, Derek Bell and Brian Redman.” What Patrick forgets to add, however, is that he won the race.

Interactive History Lesson: Vintage racing is as close as you can come to time travel while still obeying the laws of physics. Why not take this opportunity to immerse yourself in the age of these machines and learn a thing or two in the process? 

“I was born in 1981, so most of the cars in a vintage weekend were built before I was born,” Patrick explains. “Experiencing vintage racing has really been the best way for me to study the history and to learn about the icons—drivers, designers and cars—who have paved the way for what has become my career today racing for Porsche.”

Vintage racing doesn’t have to mean vintage safety equipment. For the car, budget for a top-notch cage, seat and harnesses. Don’t forget to outfit yourself with a modern racing suit and helmet. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Break the Habit:
For those of you who also compete in pro or club racing, remember to change your objective when climbing behind the wheel of a vintage racer. “I’m pretty hard-wired to drive a car to its absolute limit, and I’ve found that I think the technology and innovations in modern-day equipment have bred a bit of complacency in today’s latest generation of upcoming drivers,” Patrick admits. He suggests going easier on a vintage car’s brakes, transmission and engine. 

Don’t Be That Guy:
Sometimes trying too hard to make a name for yourself works out in all the wrong ways. We all get the urge to show off sometimes, but keep it in check—especially when you’re driving someone else’s car. “If someone offers you a few laps in their car, treat it with the utmost respect and don’t run to the limit to try to impress,” Patrick advises.

“I find that the more variety of cars and motorsport that I drive or take part in, the more diverse and adaptable I become to new situations. Get out and drive new tracks. Don’t be afraid of the rain.” You heard the man.

This advice applies to different sports, too. “Karting, dirt bikes and jet skis I feel all help with balance, which, in my opinion, translates into car control,” Patrick explains. “And they are inexpensive ways to stay in shape, as many common muscles and mental focus situations are presented.”

Know Your Limits:
Not sure how hard to push it on track? According to Patrick, it’s best not to overshoot: “Driving a car just below its limit is oftentimes quicker than driving a car just over its limit.”

Stay Safe:
Money spent on safety measures is money well spent. Patrick agrees: “I love to see cars that are restored and prepared well while keeping the look and feel of its original era. I always stress preparation and safety before spending cash on more horsepower or extra spares.”

Remember to protect your person, too—fire tends to hurt. “Make sure your fire suit isn’t as old as your car,” Patrick decrees. “There are some cool vintage-look suits and helmets that are made to modern standards, and that is something that will go a long way.”

Bill Adam: Group 44 Alum and HSR Champ

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Science has yet to determine whether people are born with the racing bug or if it’s the result of exposure to a car-crazed environment. However, Bill Adam is convincing evidence of the former. 

His family saw cars simply as methods of transportation, and the thought of competing in them was absolute lunacy. Bill, on the other hand, was smitten with automobiles. “As far back as I can remember, I loved looking at pictures of them, reading about them,” says the Scottish-born Canadian. A trip to watch some races at Mosport while in high school cranked up the dial from “love” to “obsession.”

After graduating, Bill pooled all of his savings and bought a car, keeping it a secret from his disapproving dad for as long as he could. He went on to race sports cars as a privateer throughout the late ’70s before going pro. Bill was then invited to join the legendary Group 44 Inc. team in 1980, and he collected wins at Sebring, Road Atlanta, Road America, Daytona and even Mosport, the track that cemented his passion for racing.

After teaming up with a handful of racing efforts for the next couple decades—including stints in Porsches, Corvettes and a 1000-plus-horsepower GTP car—Bill has most recently partnered with Jim Rogers. Together they run one of the factory-built Audi R8 endurance racers in HSR, and they took the group’s overall championship in 2008.

Without water, we’d all be dead. Don’t forget to hydrate yourself regularly at the track—race cars get hot, especially when you’re wearing three layers of fire-retardant material. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Make It Last:
Drive your car like you won’t be able to repair it if something goes wrong. That’s what Bill did when he first started out—though he didn’t have to imagine that repairs were impossible. He truly couldn’t afford to fix or replace anything back then. 

“I learned very early on to be very gentle on a car—it was mandatory in order for me to race,” Bill explains. “One race car had to last a year.” He’s proof that you can stretch a budget and still make it big. He also cites Hurley Haywood as being “sympathetic to machinery.”

Stay Focused:
“Focus 100 percent of the time, not 99 percent,” Bill says. “In football, the worst that can happen after a concentration lapse is the other team intercepts the ball and scores a touchdown.” On the race track, the outcome of a misstep can be much more dire.

Stay Smooth:
Bill recommends being “as smooth as possible, both from a steering and braking standpoint.” He mentions that top professional athletes are remarkably fluid in their movements while competing, whether it’s ’60s Formula 1 driver Jim Clark or tennis pro Serena Williams: “It’s beautiful to watch. They’re never rushed.”

Give Back:
Bill says he feels blessed for all that he’s experienced throughout his racing career, and he takes great pleasure in paying it forward. His most cherished memories involve instances where he has helped others. 

One of the most humbling moments of Bill’s life came recently, when a fan approached him at an event. “It was about 22 years ago that I came over to you at a race track,” he told Bill, “and you were kind enough to talk to me and this little boy, and you gave him a pin off your jacket.” 

That little boy was now a young man—and he was bashfully waiting in the wings, too shy to approach. Turns out Bill inspired him to get into racing, and he had since become a successful engineer and crew chief for a top team. He still had the pin.

Bill says another magical moment came when he and Jim Rogers shared the stage while receiving Rolex watches for their HSR title. However, you don’t have to win a Rolex to influence people positively. Simply thanking your corner workers after a race can have a big impact.

Don’t Get Too Competitive:
We may all have Walter Mitty daydreams, but Bill advises against losing sight of the weekend’s mission: retaining the soul of your vehicle, taking your time, and having some good-natured fun. “It’s all about the enjoyment of the car,” he adds. “That should be number one for everyone on track at a vintage race weekend.”

“Eat properly and drink properly around a race day,” Bill recommends. While this advice stems from his experience training for professional race events, it still holds true for weekend warriors. After all, poorly ventilated cockpits and stuffy driver’s suits conspire to bake vintage racing pilots alive.

Keep your body hydrated and your reflexes sharp by keeping bottles of water handy at the track. Bill also mentions an old trick he learned from a nutritionist employed by Porsche: Eat bananas on race day. They pack a lot of potassium that aids in water retention.

David Donohue: Pro Racer in Vintage Waters

Photograph Courtesy Porsche

Let’s get this out of the way: Yep, David is the son of Mark Donohue, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame member and one of the best drivers of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Mark Donohue won just about everywhere: Can-Am, Trans-Am, Indy, IROC and even NASCAR.

Despite Mark’s illustrious racing career, David picked up the racing reins independently of Dad—as David explains, his father wasn’t around much. And after Mark was killed while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix, David’s mom tried her best to steer her kids away from the track. 

The younger Donohue didn’t participate in his first race until he was attending Lehigh University, with BMW and Porsche club racing and track events paving the way. The early-’90s recession rendered David’s recently minted degree in finance nearly worthless. “I couldn’t find a real job, so I went racing,” he says. His wife gave him five years to make it work. Luckily, it did.

David started out driving BMWs, working his way from a privateer M5 to a spot on the factory BMW M3 GT program. After a stint with Dodge—he piloted a Viper to a GT2 class win at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans—he moved to the Brumos Porsche racing team in late 2002. He’s been with them ever since.

Turns out that Donohue is a good name to have in the racing world, as David’s dad forged stellar relationships with greats in the business—like Brumos Racing’s Hurley Haywood and Bob Snodgrass. “It was all relationships for me, being Mark Donohue’s son,” David explains. “I feel privileged. I’m thankful. I’ve been able to stay at this for a lot longer than I thought I would.” David has been driving Brumos’s Porsche-powered Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes since 2003, and in 2009 he led Juan Pablo Montoya to the Rolex 24 At Daytona checker by less than two-tenths of a second.

So with all of this pro experience, how does vintage racing factor in? “I get asked to race vintage cars because I’m in the industry—I’m considered a Porsche guy and considered a BMW guy.” Not a bad gig. Plus, David’s got the attitude to do vintage racing proud. Most recently, he could be found wheeling both a Porsche 934 and 935 at the Monterey Historics.

Vintage racing is a chance to be an ambassador of automotive enthusiasm. Thousands of spectators line the road for the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in beautiful Schenley Park, and they don’t come to watch the trees grow. Photography Credit: A1Fotos.com

Past and Present:
Have respect for your fellow drivers—past and present. David has met some wonderful people through vintage racing, but his experience has also made him appreciate “back-in-the-day” professional racers. “Those guys really had some tough things to deal with,” says David. “No doubt in my mind there.”

Make Yourself at Home:
David recommends sticking with your commitments rather than continuously chasing down the best offers. “Mom said to me about my dad, ‘He was always conscious not to prostitute himself’—not grubbing for the next buck.That was sort of the way I felt as well. Once I was in something, I pretty much stuck with it. I don’t want to steal a ride from someone else, rip the carpet from under them.”

While he admits that this attitude may have limited his career, remaining loyal to people rather than paychecks has allowed him to forge lasting, stable relationships in the racing world. 

Don’t Go Numb:
“When people own [vintage race] cars, they’re so used to them. A lot of people get numb,” David points out. If you find yourself becoming complacent behind the wheel, take a moment to appreciate the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the driving experience. David also points out that this boredom can make the latest and greatest modifications seem appealing. Don’t fall for ones that aren’t true to the car’s era, he advises.

Be Patient:
“You learn with seat time,” David says of mastering the track. Keep this one in mind if you’re feeling frustrated—or a little too cocky.

Handle With Care:
It’s not all about competition, especially when you’re in charge of the fate of a potentially irreplaceable vehicle. “It’s a shame that these cars become pieces of furniture, but it’s also a shame to see them banged up and hitting a tire wall,” David explains. “You’ve got to find the happy medium.”

Keep Memories Alive:
Consider that your car can have a great impact on others by reminding them of times past. Preserving the character of your machine can keep memories alive. “I certainly don’t think you need to wring these things by their necks,” David says. “They’re really treasures—they bring back emotions to people who know them, like listening to a song you heard in high school. It stirs up certain emotions in your heart.”

Bobby Rahal: Open-Wheel and Enduro Ace

By Scott R. Lear

Photography Credit: Brian Green

Bobby Rahal is one of the most widely recognized racers in the U.S., and for good reason: He’s tasted the milk at the Brickyard, scoring an Indy 500 victory in 1986. He went on to win the CART championship that year, a feat that he repeated in 1987 and again in 1992. However, CART racing is but one facet of his long racing career.

After getting his start in regional club racing—he was the 1975 SCCA Formula B national champion—Bobby finished second to Gilles Villeneuve in the 1977 Formula Atlantic series. Shortly thereafter he made a bid for Formula 1, earning a ride with the Wolf Racing team at Watkins Glen and Montreal in 1978. Unfortunately, Wolf did not have a spot for him in 1979. 

Bobby started the 1979 Formula 2 season with Chevron, but an opportunity to race Can-Am back in the States brought him home. He took four podiums and finished fifth in points despite only running a partial season.

In addition to Can-Am, Bobby started competing in endurance events in 1980. The next year kicked off with a Daytona 24 Hour victory in a Porsche 935 along with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman. In 1982 Bobby jumped into a CART racer, and he took rookie of the year and finished second overall in his debut season. He became a team owner/driver in 1992—the same year he won his final CART championship—and raced until 1998.

In the years since his retirement from professional driving, Bobby has actually become even more involved in the sport. In addition to his continuing role as a team owner with partner David Letterman, Bobby served as the interim CEO of CART in 2000. After stepping down from that position, he ran Ford’s Jaguar Racing F1 team for most of 2001. In 2004, Bobby was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

Though he’s no longer racing professionally, Bobby spends several weekends each year campaigning some of his old race cars with the Historic Sportscar Racing organization—last spring he ran his 1975 Lola T360 at the Classic Motorsports Mitty. Retirement hasn’t slowed him down, and he’s still a regular guest of the podium’s top step.

Proper maintenance is critical to safety, particularly in an older car. If you’re not a natural-born mechanic, consider hiring a pro to make sure your car is in tiptop shape. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Get Fit:
“I do believe in working out,” says Bobby. “If you’re gonna drive a race car, you have to be in as good of shape as possible. It’s a physical activity. The faster the car, the more physical it is. I try to get my rest and what have you, but I do believe that you have to be in as good of shape as you can be.”

Speed Comes From Within:
When it comes to driving quickly, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a formula car or a golf kart—it’s up to you to find the limits and use them. “Finding speed is finding it within yourself, and finding it with the car,” Bobby explains. “The envelope that you perform in might be different, but I think that the challenge to go fast is theoretically the same whether you’re in a new car or an old car.”

Don’t Push Too Hard:
Bobby says this is probably the most common mistake he sees while vintage racing: Someone get passed and then spins out when trying to keep up. “Type A personalities who are successful in other blocks of life want to succeed in racing as well,” he says. “Controlling that ego—controlling yourself—is probably the most important thing you can do.”

Setup is Critical:
It can be difficult for those who aren’t mechanically inclined, but a big chunk of winning involves having the proper setup on the race car. “I work on the car a little bit, although I have a professional mechanic,” Bobby admits. “I want a real pro there because he can see things that I don’t see. Depending on the surface and the conditions, you have to change the car—I find that a challenge and I enjoy that part of it.”

It can be all too easy to focus on the car and the setup and the lap times, but don’t forget that vintage racing extends beyond the track. “I like to walk around and visit with people,” Bobby says. “Vintage racing is as much a social event as it is a racing event. Over the years, I’ve been able to develop some friendships.”

Victory Comes From Racing Yourself:
Don’t be discouraged if you’re not in the hunt for a class trophy at the end of the day. Instead, focus on racing against yourself. “I look at it as a challenge to myself: How fast can I go around the track?” Bobby explains. “There’s no prize money, not a big trophy, just the satisfaction of going better at the end of the day than at the start of the day. I want to understand the car better—it motivates me.”

Stay on the Ball:
Don’t take vintage racing any less seriously than you would the top levels of motorsport. “In vintage racing,” he explains, “it’s even more important—you don’t have the day-to-day maintenance that an IndyCar would have. Because it’s an older car and because some of them still go quite fast, I think that professional preparation is absolute in my mind.” 

Charles Espenlaub: Equal Parts Pro and Vintage Racer

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Charles Espenlaub may be a Florida native, but he has German roots: His dad left Deutschland in the 1960s to serve as a representative of Porsche in Tampa. Dad ended up settling in the Sunshine State and opening a Porsche shop—in other words, conditions were perfect for raising a car nut. “I always had a love for cars,” Charles says. “Sebring, Porsches—that’s my memory from my childhood.”

After dabbling in flying planes and helicopters, Charles finally decided to pursue his true love of racing at age 26. Money was tight, but luckily he won a free Road Atlanta driver’s school in a raffle. His father’s business partner in the ’60s, Dave White, helped Charles build the seat time and connections needed to race. 

Charles progressed through the ranks and currently drives a factory-backed Mazda6 in the SCCA Pro Racing’s World Challenge. He also co-drives the longer Grand-Am races with Patrick Dempsey—yes, McDreamy. Charles can still be found at historic events, and he brought home two HSR championships in 2004: Porsche Club Sport and Rolex Endurance series. He also works as senior driving instructor at the Panoz Racing School.

Photography Credit: Gayle Brock

Learn From Each Other:
Keep an open mind, even if you’ve been at this for a while, Charles says: “Take everybody’s advice. Some guys who’ve been doing it for 20 years, it doesn’t mean they’ve been doing it right for 20 years. Don’t be afraid to learn from the rookies.” And rookies, don’t hesitate to ask the vets for some pointers.

Simplicity and Speed:
When making modifications to the car, always favor period-correctness when you can—it may even help you retain speed. “Just concentrate on staying in the realm of the technology,” Charles recommends. “Some guys try to change the soul of the car so much that it goes slower, honestly.” 

Hang Tough:
Respect the challenge that older technology presents and enjoy the ride. “The feel of driving the older cars—you might not be going as fast, but the mastery of driving that car is more enjoyable than in a modern car,” Charles says. “The core of vintage racing is going back to what driving really should be.”

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Ebby New Reader
1/2/23 9:33 a.m.

The comments from experienced racers are really worthwhile.  I ran Vintage for about 11 years and I would only add a few thoughts: Buy your first race car...and buy it at the track. Don´t try to build your first one.

Spend money on safety first---speed second. You only get one head etc.

Have some fun. In the early days of RMVR...we had as much fun after the races as we did during! And we met some really interesting people.

One of the fun parts then was driving different race cars. We would often swap seats and I drove everything from a Vee to a March 722.  Learned the March was faster than I was!

It is too bad the costs have gone so crazy.  The expense keeps many young folks out of the sport.

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