How To Become a Professional Driver in 6 Steps (Plus Skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published August 25, 2021

If you like speed and competition, a career as a professional race car driver might be suitable for you. Professional driving is a motorsport that requires dedication and training. If you'd like to pursue this career, it's important to understand what the job entails and what you need to do to realize your goal. In this article, we define the role of a professional driver, discuss important skills and qualifications needed for the job, explain how you can enter the profession and look at how much you can expect to earn per year.

What is a professional driver?

The term "professional driver" generally refers to a race car driver. Race car driving is a motorsport in which drivers compete to finish first or in the fastest time. There are various subtypes of professional drivers. The most common are:

  • Open-wheel: Open-wheel racers operate vehicles with open tops and exposed wheels, typically on race tracks or street circuits. Formula One and IndyCar drivers fall under this category.

  • Sports car: These drivers operate sports cars known as Grand Tourers or sports prototype vehicles on closed-circuit tracks. The cars in this class have two seats and enclosed wheels.

  • Touring car: Touring car racers use production vehicles, or mass-produced models, that have been modified for performance. Some touring car races can last as long as 24 hours, testing the endurance of the driver, crew and vehicle.

  • Production: Production racers, also known as showroom stock racers, use production vehicles that are unmodified or only lightly modified. To ensure that competition is level, there are restrictions as to how drivers can modify their cars.

  • Stock car: Stock cars appear to be production cars but are actually purpose-built for racing. NASCAR is the most well-known association for stock car racers.

  • Rally: Rally is a form of racing in which the driver and a co-driver try to complete separate stages of a course as fast as possible. Rally racers don't compete head-to-head against other drivers but instead compare their times.

  • Drag: Drag racers compete head-to-head in a straight course that is normally one-quarter mile in length. Each race has two drivers, and the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first.

Aside from the above, there are also less commonly known types of professional auto racers that compete on various terrains and in different vehicle types. These include off-road racers, who race specially modified vehicles in environments such as deserts, and kart racers, who operate small and low-slung racing vehicles.

What does a professional driver do?

In addition to competing in and winning races, professional race car drivers have numerous responsibilities. These include:

Training

Professional racing introduces the body to extreme conditions such as intense heat, g-forces and stress. To endure these conditions, many drivers have a training regimen to improve their physical fitness. Cardiovascular exercise, such as cycling or running, helps to condition their bodies to withstand the rigors of a long race. Diet and resistance training are also important, as they allow drivers to keep down their weight and lighten the load within the vehicle. The victor of a race often has only a split-second gain on another competitor, so minimizing load can improve a driver's chances of winning.

Not every professional race car driver has a physical training routine, but they do regularly practice driving. Drivers who have access to a course may drive laps on a daily basis. Otherwise, they may use realistic driving simulators that can acclimate them to different course types. Driving practice of this sort helps these drivers maintain their skills, reflexes and mental fortitude.

Promotion and marketing

Professional race car drivers earn much of their money through sponsorships and endorsements from major companies, whose logos adorn the drivers' vehicles and outfits. As part of the deals they have with the companies, the drivers appear at press conferences and other events that notify the public of an upcoming race and give the companies an opportunity to market their brand.

Vehicle maintenance

A vehicle is a necessary tool in the sport of auto racing, so the driver, along with other members of their crew, constantly works to maintain its functionality. During practices, they may notice flaws in the vehicle's performance. They communicate these problems to their mechanics, with whom they collaborate to fine-tune the car and get it ready for competition.

Related: Learn About Being an Auto Mechanic

Travel

Races and racing-related events take place around the world. Depending on the type of racing they do and the level at which they compete, racers may need to travel as a part of their job. Many racers have limited travel requirements, as their events may be within their state or a nearby state. Others may need to fly with their entire crew to another country.

Related: 14 Jobs That Involve Travel

Important skills for professional drivers

The following are some of the most important skills and attributes for professional race car drivers to have:

Driving ability

Driving is a foundational skill for professional race car drivers. Successful drivers can handle a vehicle at high speeds, sometimes over 200 miles per hour for certain types of races. For circuit races, you must be able to make quick, frequent turns while maintaining control. In other race types, you must be able to steer through rough and varied terrain, such as dirt, rocky roads, sand, mud and slick surfaces.

Read more: Driving Skills: Definition and Examples

Mechanical knowledge

A professional race car driver with well-developed mechanical knowledge is likely better able to comprehend how their vehicle works, how they can maintain it and what they can do to optimize its performance. Before and during races, a deep understanding of how the vehicle should feel and sound allows the driver and crew to address maintenance issues that could slow down the vehicle or put the driver in danger. This knowledge helps the driver both to win races and to stay safe.

Physical fitness and reflexes

Excellent physical fitness allows a driver to endure high speeds. In the fastest vehicles, the driver experiences varying high levels of g-force, which can quickly drain the body of energy. Maintaining a high level of physical fitness can minimize the effect that racing has on the body. Fast reflexes are beneficial to the body in that they can prevent mistakes that lead to accidents. Well-tuned reflexes allow a driver to respond to the constantly shifting demands of a race, helping them to avoid collisions as well as to gain on competitors in head-to-head racing.

Confidence

When speeding on tracks or through rough terrain for extended periods of time, drivers face numerous opportunities to make mistakes. That's why it's important for professional race car drivers to have confidence in their abilities. Confidence lends to the belief that your skills are good and honed enough not only to allow you to finish a race safely but also to perform well against competitors.

Decision-making

Decision-making is the ability to determine the best choices and select the one you feel is most likely to lead to success. Every auto race involves numerous opportunities to make important decisions that can lead you to victory. The driver has very little time to make these decisions, so they should be capable to consider their choices and commit to an option as fast as possible.

Read more: Decision-Making Skills: Definition and Examples

Teamwork

Auto racing is typically an individual sport, but teamwork plays an important role in various ways. For example, in stock car driving, there may be several drivers who race for the same owner and thus belong to the same team. Often, these individual drivers work together to ensure that the one with the best chance of winning gets ahead. In rally racing, the driver and the co-driver are constantly working together to ensure they complete the stages correctly and quickly.

Drivers usually work with a large crew that comprises mechanics, engineers and other specialists. During races, these members stay in communication via radio and feed each other information that can improve the driver's performance.

How to become a professional driver

You can follow these steps to become a professional race car driver:

1. Develop your driving skills

To compete against professional race car drivers, you must have excellent driving skills. There are a few ways you can work on the skills needed to drive at high speeds. One way is to take up karting. Karts have a similar construction to open-wheel vehicles, and they travel at high speeds relative to their size and the structure of the courses and the competition is almost identical. Once you feel your skills have improved enough, you can compete in karting races to see how you measure against others.

Another option is to enroll in a racing school. There are various types of schools throughout the country, some specializing in a specific form of racing. Through formalized learning, you can gain knowledge from experienced drivers and practice your racing skills on real courses. Consider searching for a reputable racing school near you and asking about requirements.

2. Join a racing club

Membership in a well-established racing club can help you stay informed about racing events you can compete in and even provide you with resources to get you started in your career. One of the most well-known clubs you can consider is the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA, which hosts races of various types around the country. The SCCA offers online applications and variable rates depending on factors such as age and military service.

3. Obtain a vehicle and equipment

Having a reliable, race-capable vehicle is required of all successful drivers. If you can afford to purchase your own vehicle, consider an unmodified model to which you can make your own customizations. You may also be able to rent a vehicle for racing, which can be a more feasible choice as you build up your funds to purchase your own vehicle. In either case, the members and officials of your racing club can provide guidance so that you choose a vehicle that's appropriate for your needs.

Racing gear and safety equipment are also required to compete in races. This includes clothing and accessories such as a fireproof racing suit, helmet and gloves. Once you've obtained the necessary gear, have it examined by a club official to make sure it's up to standard.

4. Obtain a competition license

When you start out in your racing club, you're a novice. You need a competition license to compete in events. The racing club you belong to is the sanctioning body that issues the license, and it generally qualifies you for events in all racing clubs. Consult with your club to determine the specific requirements for licensure, as they're likely to differ. For example, the SCCA's requirements include racing three times within two years.

5. Practice and train

Practice is necessary to become good enough to compete at the professional level. If possible, aim to work on your skills on a track or a simulator at least five times a week, and also compete regularly. It can also be helpful to develop a training regimen that includes cardiovascular and resistance workouts. Conditioning your body can improve your ability to withstand the physical challenges of the sport. In addition, consider studying professional races and analyzing the techniques of the best drivers. You can incorporate their maneuvers into your skill set.

6. Look for a team or a sponsor

If you've performed well in your races, you may attract the attention of teams and sponsors. Alternatively, you can proactively get in touch with them to discuss terms. Teams and sponsors provide funding for your career in exchange for different returns—a portion of your winnings and permission to advertise on your vehicle, respectively. With their support, you can enter large races as a professional driver.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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