I recently spoke to race driver coach Tom Long about the importance of building a base of race craft knowledge not specific to any one car, why he feels the Global MX-5 Cup is an excellent development series for young drivers, the importance of networking at the track and more.
Motorsport Prospects: What is your background? How did you get involved in racing?
Tom Long: My immediate interest in racing came from my dad. He raced at the SCCA level when I was growing up and this was such an exciting time. I loved watching him race and spent many hours playing in the paddock. I did a bit of go karts when I was 9 and by the time I was about 16 I started doing track events with my dad on weekends while spending nights working on the car. Because we lived near Virginia International Raceway that is where I used to race a lot and the street car I used eventually turned into a track car, so sports cars have always been in my background and where I wanted to focus my racing efforts on.
The thing I discovered in those early days was that as soon as I was able to drive, I wanted to race. I also realized that I love the mechanical parts of racing as much as racing itself, so I was never a traditional driver in the fact that I liked to be hands on. I naturally understood things like weight balance and the like and enjoyed figuring that stuff out.
MP: Why should a young driver (or any driver for that matter) use a driver coach?
TL: It is not a requirement but in the last 10 years the role of the driver coach has really blossomed because the technology has gotten so good. It is much more cost-effective for the driver and their coach to access video and data systems these days compared to 15-20 years ago when the technology just was not readily available.
A lot of drivers are using this data analysis technology now and while a driver may not use it potentially because of the cost (even though it has dropped dramatically) the benefits to a driver’s career are amazing as it really accelerates the learning process. When you are evaluating the cost, it is really important to understand the benefits of the technology. Invest in yourself and not just the car because when you move on from that particular car/series combination all that you have gained from the money you put into the car has in some ways been lost but what you have learned as far as driver skills will stay with you and allow you to build upon that education.
MP: What are some of the most important things you teach a student?
TL: From a career standpoint it is important to have goals, not necessarily just the end goal; but short, medium- and long-term goals. Make a plan on how to get there in the most realistic way by asking yourself some questions.
Your immediate or short-term questions should concern the immediate season you are racing in. Which tracks do I need to know? How will I learn them? How will I maximize all my opportunities during the season to make an impact?
Medium and long term you want to ask yourselves some important questions to help define your plans. What is the best route to take to get to where you want to go? Are there prize funds available to help you move up the racing ladder? (ie- Mazda Road to 24) A lot of drivers have no rhyme or reason to their career because of the lack of planning so they often don’t have much to show for their efforts. They jump around too much, often too soon and the end result is that their efforts have not added up to much.
Now understandably there are various reasons such as budget issues or the direction influence of a particularly important sponsor, but you need a clear path and direction so that you don’t waste time and money.
Another thing a driver needs to do is making sure you are doing a good job of connecting with people and building relationships and that you are never burning any bridges. Make sure you network! Too many times I see drivers, especially the young ones just sitting around playing on their phones when they are not on the track. They just don’t think about the importance of networking, but they need to go out and meet people and make connections, especially if you are on the support bill to a larger series like IMSA, Blancpain GT, F1 or Indycar. Maximize your opportunities while you are at an event as these relationships you make may lead to opportunities down the line. It will be how you differentiate yourself from other drivers. And don’t blow anybody off. Racing is a small community and you want to nurture the relationships you make instead of coming across as a kid who doesn’t care.
MP: Is a driver coach only necessary at the beginning or should you use one throughout your career?
TL: In my opinion drivers should use a coach but not all do because the relationship they have with the engineer is a lot like the relationship with a coach. The thing is though that the engineer has a long list of tasks that they must accomplish on a weekend or during a test session that occupies a lot of their time so a driver could certainly benefit from an extra set of eyes.
MP: What are the differences, from a coaching perspective between driving in single seaters and sports cars?
TL: There is a bit of a difference but not a lot. A lot of the driving techniques are the same. The eyes are the key to it all, but the basics apply to both. The differences are when the drivers start getting to the career phase of their racing, where they are going for either the sports car route or the single-seater route. The knobs they turn and what they do and why are different. The set-up characteristics of the cars are different. Knowledge transfer from car inputs are different.
An LMP3 car is similar to an open-wheel car in how it drives but it is not the same as going from a single-seater to a spec-Miata. There is no aero, the car is heavier and the way you use the brakes is different.
MP: Tell me a little about your involvement in the Global MX-5 Cup and the advantages of the series for developing as a driver.
TL: One of the primary advantages is on the price point of the series. It is less expensive to compete in and the cost of repair is less than in single-seaters. Dollar for dollar if you are budget constrained you can race half-hearted in single-seaters or go full-bore in the Global MX-5 Cup for less. Some karters are going right from karts to MX-5 at 14-15 years old because of the value for the money. The budgets to buy a new turnkey car to run in the MX-5 Global Cup is approximately 60K USD. Ballpark budget to run the complete 12 race cross-country series is from 80-90K USD.
When I mentioned in a previous question some of the things you needed to ask yourself as you planned your racing career one of the questions should be around scholarships and prize funds. The Global MX-5 Cup has a Rookie of the Year prize fund of 75K to run the series again which is not insignificant with the budgets to race in the series. And if you win the series there is a Mazda Scholarship program (Mazda Road to 24 – MRT24) of 200K to continue of the sports car racing ladder. While there is no touring car level to move up to from MX-5, Mazda are fully supportive in applying it to LMP3.
Budget is not everything though if the racing is poor but the racing in MX-5 is incredible. The racing and race craft in the series is amazing and it is the perfect place to hone your race craft skills.
MP: How do you find a driver coach and how would you evaluate them before signing on?
TL: There is no standardization but there are some websites out there that can help. The market for driver coaches is strongly referral based. Ultimately what it comes down to is chemistry. The way you know you have a good coach is by good chemistry. The chemistry between coach and student has to be excellent because the way the coach communicates to the driver is key, especially with younger drivers. In my experience older drivers are easier to give driver feedback to whereas with younger drivers it is harder. Feedback can be difficult so you really have to work at getting younger drivers to open up so that they can provide the coach with good feedback. There should not be this school teacher to student mentality. A coach wants to work with the driver and in order to cultivate that relationship there has to be trust between both people. It is also important to understand how to give constructive criticism as this adds value to the coaching session.
Usually though, by the fact they are paying for a session, most students are pretty receptive to what the coach has to say.
MP: Tell me a bit about your coaching services.
TL: I offer a wide range of coaching opportunities ranging from young drivers looking to make a Motorsports career, to the club racing enthusiast that enjoys racing on the weekends, to the track day driver just wanting to learn their car and craft. Utilizing data analysis systems, in-car video, and in-car radios in the racing environment; these tools can quickly and effectively improve the driver in whatever area they need to focus on.
A big thank you to Tom for taking the time out to talk to Motorsport Prospects. You can find more information on Tom and his services on his Motorsport Prospects listing here.