Most racing enthusiasts, whether they are road racers, rallyists, Time Trial drivers, autocrossers or HPDE junkies, have some sort of bucket list of tracks or events that they want to sample before they leave the planet. During my years with NASA, I have been lucky enough to drive or get spirited rides around all the tracks on my list in this country save for one or two, and I even got to sample some of the greatest rally stages in the nation. This, of course, has been made easier because of the jobs I have been lucky enough to have with NASA, but the world is a much different place than when I got into track driving in the early 1990s.
Back then, I was simply amazed you could rent out parking lots to go autocrossing in and you could even rent out an actual track if you had enough room on your credit card or enough buddies who could scrape together some money in a hurry. This was big news to a kid who thought the only place to go real fast was Angeles Crest Highway or Glendora Mountain Road in the wee hours of the morning when it was just you and the coyotes.
Soon, my college pal Ryan Flaherty and I were renting out the Streets of Willow Springs regularly and we thought it could not get any better than being able to spend the day running the snot out of our cars and not getting speeding tickets. We had no idea that places like Mid-Ohio, Road Atlanta, Sears Point, and Sebring even existed, let alone that schmoes like us could drive on such vaunted pieces of tarmac without being first anointed by Sir Jackie Stewart and blessed by the full choir of the FIA, USAC, and NASCAR singing in harmony. Despite the odds, we both somehow managed to get competition licenses and join the club racing ranks, although it was not an easy process.
Fast forward 20-plus years to today, and the world is a much different place. There are multiple chances for regular Joes and Joans to drive nearly all the best circuits in the world with just the sporty car they drive to work every day. Races that once were out of reach for folks who did not have last names like Andretti, Unser, or Foyt can be accessed if one can put together the right combination of talent, bucks and luck. You can scream up Pikes Peak in a Time Attack car, pop round the Nürburgring in your rental Fiesta on a tourist day, and climb the banks of Daytona at a NASA event in your daily driver, all without having any sort of secret special credentials aside from the motivation to get out there and go for it. Pathways like the Mazda Shootout program can even launch you to a professional race driving career if you win a NASA Championship race in your Mazda, and can make it through the tough selection process.
When I first got started, I would have asked to share what you were smoking if you told me this level of access was possible, but now we are indeed in a golden era for gearheads. This, of course, is not to say making it to the top ranks is easy, but it sure is easier to access many venues and events that were forbidden fruit in the past.
With the East Coast Nationals coming up at Road Atlanta, you have a chance to compete on a national level around the same apexes clipped by some of the greats in the game, and the NASA calendar nationwide offers you a chance the lay tread on some of the finest circuits in the country. Your bucket list awaits, so strap on your helmet and go for that dream lap you always wanted to try. I bet you can do it.