We have all seen it on television. The driver gets out of their race car with a huge smile on his or her face. The driver goes up to the podium covered in sweat, is handed a magnum of champagne, he or she shakes the bottle, and douses their competitors and the crowd in bubbly. It is a tradition that began with Dan Gurney after he won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. The champagne spray is a symbol of victory, overcoming adversity, beating the odds, and being the best at that moment.
It is an enormous honor. Every race car driver wants to have that moment. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that moment of joy and eye-stinging champagne three different times now. I’ll tell you how to get there yourself, but I’ll warn you, it begins with two words losers don’t comprehend: hard work.
GO FOR THE TOP
I love autocrossing and did it for a lot of years. I will argue with anyone that outstanding driver skills are honed in autocross. However, you won’t find a podium or champagne spraying while driving around in a parking lot dodging cones for the best time. It just isn’t there. If you are chasing the champagne, you will have to move up to road racing and go to the biggest races in the country. Those big races may not be held anywhere near where you live, which means you will need to travel. This is part of the sacrifice. Are you willing to drive for three days to compete against a total stranger?
PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING
In order to be the best, you have to be better than everyone around you. It may sound like an obvious statement, but if you want the champagne, you have to be willing to go the extra mile. This means late nights at the shop, hustling for sponsorship, sacrificing other things in your life (your real job, time with your family) in order to make sure when you show up at the track, you and your car are ready to perform at peak levels.
Preparation means more than just checking the torque specification on your suspension bolts before you put the car on the trailer. It means thinking outside the box. It means reading the rule book carefully like a defense attorney reads the law. Where are there opportunities to improve your position? What can you do that your competitors forgot to do? Where is the “unfair” advantage?
Motorsports is a team sport. You might be up on the podium by yourself spraying that champagne, but you certainly didn’t get there on your own. It was the hard work and sacrifice of a lot of people. The key is surrounding yourself with people who share the same passion for motorsports that you do. It is your job as the driver to inspire them, develop them, and listen to them. It doesn’t do any good to have a lot of smart people around you and then ignore them when they tell you something important. Ensure you give the people on your team the ability and capacity to improve the team.
The crew is the most important part of any team. Your staff is your biggest asset. Trust me, your biggest asset is not an engine with five more horsepower than everybody else on the track. It doesn’t do you any good to have that horsepower if your car runs out of gasoline. The crew puts in the gasoline. Take care of your team, because they are the ones who take care of you.
To taste the champagne you have to be at your best. You can’t be at your best if your life, your shop, or your toolbox is a complete mess. You need to get organized. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. In order for your friends to help you at the track, they can’t spend 15 minutes looking for a 10mm end wrench. Make it easy and comfortable for everyone by organizing your tools, spare parts, and resources so they can be put into play quickly and used to your advantage.
One of the things I do at races is grab a spray bottle with a 30/70 mix of Simple Green and water and a rag. I lie underneath my car and clean every inch of the undercarriage between sessions. It is like my own personal meditation. I get to look at every inch of the car, the brake lines, the tires, the half shafts, and check for any leaks. It gives me confidence that the car is ready. It also shows the team that I’m not above cleaning the wheels myself.
Part of being organized is knowing where you are going. Are you ready for the track? Have you been there before? Have you played racing simulators? Watched YouTube videos? Gone to a racing school at that particular track to learn from the pros? There is so much time to be found at every track by familiarity.
It is crucial that if you are running the biggest race of your life that you are comfortable with that location. Otherwise, the local boys will run all over you, because they aren’t chasing the track or the setup. They have their act together, because of home-field advantage. Get that advantage too.
DRIVE FOR IT
Once all the pieces of the puzzle are in place — setting your goal, preparation, teamwork, and organization — it is time to drive the car like a complete madman. When the races are big, it is time to go big. You can’t stand at the top of the podium and spray champagne if you don’t “send it.”
Make sure you are mentally prepared for the type of aggression and the 10/10ths driving it takes to win a National Championship. Everyone on the grid next to you wants the championship as bad as you do. Now it is time to go out and prove to the world you want it just a little bit more than the next guy. Are you willing to risk it all?
If you have done the homework right, you can concentrate on what you need to think about in the car: the start, braking zones, shift points, apex points, spots to pass, places to block, managing tires, race length, and running consistent and mistake-free for the entire race. Bring it all together and show the world you are the best driver there is.
Once your helmet goes on, you have to stop thinking about anything else in your life, other than what the car wants. Give the car what it wants and then drive that thing into the ground. If the race is 45 minutes, drive the car as if the car will die during minute 46. That is how you win car races. Don’t save anything. You have the entire off-season to fix the car. But the championship race is upon you. Make it count.
For all of the hard work, DNN Motorsports was awarded a one-two finish at the Circuit of the Americas. Big checks were handed out, championship cowboy hats were distributed, and most importantly — what we all worked so hard for — it was time to spray champagne!
The podium moment is awesome. But it takes an awesome amount of effort to get there. I want to thank the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) for giving its members the opportunity to shine at a fantastic track like the Circuit of the Americas. It was a kickass experience I will never forget. Great work NASA!
Advice like this may seem like obvious stuff from an established professional racing team with unlimited resources. Ideas like “bring a spare car” may sound a bit ridiculous to many racers with limited resources. The reason I put this column together is because it is coming from a racing team with very limited resources. DNN Motorsports is just a bunch of autocrossers who went to the 24 Hours of LeMons, ChumpCar, and Lucky Dog racing series in a 1991 Acura Integra, ten years ago.
Nobody on this team is paid. We all have real jobs. We just wanted it badly and moved up to the Honda Challenge series with NASA because we wanted to compete at the highest level we could. The advice in this column are the steps we used to try to make ourselves appear like a professional racing team when in reality we are nothing of the sort. Fake it until you make it. It worked for us! It can work for you too if you are ready for those two important words: hard work.
Rob dedicates his National Championship win to his childhood hero, the one and only Bandit, Burt Reynolds.
Photos by Herb Lopez, Debbie Krider, Stephen Young, and Marty Krider.
Ed note: We here at TURNology would like to congratulate Rob and his Double Nickel Nine team on their big win at COTA during the NASA National Championships. Rob has become a valuable member of the TURNology family since coming onboard with us in 2018. I asked him to start this column a few months ago to provide some of his insight on what it takes to be a dedicated grassroots racer. To see this team put together a win, after the adversity they went through with a car fire just a month or two ago, shows just how well they work toward a common goal. It is no small feat to win a NASA race, let alone a championship three years in a row! We tip our hat (even though it’s not a cowboy hat) to the DNN Motorsports team! —Shawn