When Barry Sanel retired from vintage motorcycle racing a few years ago, he figured his days of competitive racing were done.
But a chance meeting at a packaging conference in Florida got Sanel back into racing — this time behind the wheel of a Spec Miata in the NASA Northeast Region. At 59, Sanel is one of the oldest racers in the region, and proving that age is just a number.
“I don’t want to be a backmarker and I don’t want to be the old guy on the track that’s in everybody’s way,” Sanel said.
Sanel is hardly a backmarker, finishing 2022 sixth overall in the Northeast Region’s deep Spec Miata field. Sanel has yet to reach the podium, but he has been the model of consistency, running and finishing every Spec Miata race last season.
The learning curve from racing motorcycles to cars has been steep for Sanel, who raced a 1975 Yamaha RD 350 vintage motorcycle until 2008 in the United States Classic Racing Association. The Great Recession cost him his job at Snapple Beverage Group and his sweet Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink sponsorship. Adding in the risk of serious injury, Sanel hung it up.Barry Sanel“Once you have a kid and you’re not 20 anymore, it’s definitely something that sort of creeps in,” said Sanel about getting hurt on a motorcycle. “That’s one of the reasons why I gave up racing motorcycles, because if that creeps into your head, it’s just not good.”
Sanel hadn’t considered racing until meeting his ex-race team partner at a packaging conference in Orlando. The pair bought an old pro Miata car they found in a barn in Connecticut, updating the equipment and seats. The partner covered the entry fees, while Sanel handled the mechanical work and taught the partner how to race.
Sanel quickly discovered there was a big difference between racing cars and motorcycles.
“I started having to relearn how to drive because when I went out on the track, I was driving it like a motorcyclist coming into the corners all wrong and spinning out a lot,” he said. “I thought I was a good driver until I started to do this. I had to unlearn motorcycle racing and learn how to drive a car for real.”
Motorcycle racing requires coming into the apex with a knee down and accelerating away, while the Miata needs the momentum going into the turn to overcome the car’s lack of horsepower. Sanel said it’s a far different line and he found himself diving into corners too early and driving off the track.
“It’s like starting from scratch. I can only tell you what my motorcycle experience allowed me to do was understand pre-grid, understand the flags, how to get on and off the track, and understanding how to get out of the way if there’s an incident,” Sanel said. “So really, the racing part of it allowed me not to have to focus on the real basics of the sport and focus more on my driving.”
After a couple of seasons, Sanel’s team partner decided to get out of the sport, so Sanel bought out his half and started remaking the cockpit by adjusting the seat and replacing the steering wheel.
“It was just little things and it’s funny how these little things add up,” he said.
Sanel has leaned on the NASA Spec Miata community in the Northeast to improve his driving and the racecar. The camaraderie in the Spec Miata pits reminded Sanel of his days in vintage motorcycle racing.
NASA Spec Miata racer Jeff Lombardo met Sanel three years ago at Watkins Glen International. Sanel’s differential failed on a Saturday, and Lombardo had a source for the part in southwest Connecticut, a four-plus-hour drive from the racetrack. Lombardo networked through friends and family, who handed off the part until it arrived at Watkins Glen. Lombardo even helped Sanel install the differential so he could race on Sunday.
At the next race, Sanel gave Lombardo a “I hate Jeff Lombardo” shirt as a thank you gift. Lombardo put on the shirt and wore it around the paddock, and the gag gift was the start of a great friendship. Lombardo has since reciprocated with a “I hate Barry Sanel” shirt.
“Most of the Spec Miata guys that we hang out with are all pretty relaxed. We all just like to go drink beer and have fun, and Barry just kind of fits right in with that,” Lombardo said. “At the end of the day, we’re here to race, but it’s really just about having fun.”
Lombardo describes both their driving levels as “kind of back of the pack aspiring to be mid pack people.” To get to the middle of the pack, Sanel has been working on his shifting and steering skills. He’s also gone around the track with instructors to learn various braking points.
During a race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, Sanel experienced his first race getting pushed around the track, and the drafting dropped his lap speeds by 2 seconds.
“I want to be mid pack. I want to work my way toward the front in a safe manner,” Sanel said. “I’m kind of taking my time to where I feel like I’m ready to be faster. All the fun for me is learning how to drop my times.”
While Sanel has data and video in his Miata, he rarely uses it, preferring to get his experience in the seat. Sanel views the videos differently than the other drivers. “I’m listening to what their motors are doing versus what mine was doing,” he said. “Now I’m shifting on the red line, trying to keep the power up.”
Sanel encourages former racers who have given up motorcycles to look at car racing. The second chapter of his racing life has meant a lot to the Carmel, N.Y., resident.
“I’m trying to encourage people who were motorcycle racers and sort of said, ‘I’m done racing.’ This is just as much fun as racing motorcycles,” Sanel said. “Honestly, it’s a really great way to get back on the track, especially if you’re a former motorcycle racer.”
|Racing Class:||Spec Miata|
|Day Job:||Diageo NA Spirits and Beer Beverage Graphic Packaging Developer SME|
|Favorite Food:||Bacon burger and fries|
|Favorite TV show:||F1 TV|
|Favorite Movie:||“The Blues Brothers”|
|Favorite Book:||“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson|
|Favorite Track:||New Hampshire Motor Speedway|
|Dream Racecar:||Upgrading my 1.6 to a slightly newer 1.8 Spec Miata in my class|