How to Start Racing - buy your copy & accelerate up the grid

Posted: September 22, 2023 Read time: 20 mins

Mark's journey into motorsport racing featured in CAT's 'How to Start Racing Guide.' To understand what is involved to start your own motor racing journey, click through to purchase the guide here.

I grew up with a dad who would regale me with passionate bedtime stories about his time in motorsport. Exciting accounts of being wheel-to-wheel with other Minis on track, developing his racecraft through years of dedication and learning in the heat of battle. Tales about how he used his engineering know-how to create race-winning cars with his team. If you’re lucky enough to know my dad, you may have heard some of these stories first hand. His name is Colin Hoad, and he is the owner of CAT Driver Training (CAT).

Despite, relishing my dad’s exciting racing tales, as a boy, I was more into football and fishing. The latter is a passion I have shared with my dad and my sons to this present day. My only experience with four wheels as a child, was playing with a pedal-kart with my brother in our cul-de-sac. This mostly consisted of me pushing him around as fast as I could. At one point dad hinted that he would build us a Go Kart to go racing in, but sadly this didn’t happen. Something I remind him of on a frequent basis!

As I grew up, my passion for football evolved into a respect for various elite level sports. The mental strength it takes to reach and perform at that level, fascinates me. My dad’s love of Formula 1 soon rubbed off on my brother and I. We would watch races together and shared the buzz with our families on a visit to Silverstone for the British GP.

Over the years, my dad was able to continue his passion for racing, also managing a team to compete in Fun Cup Endurance Championship and participating in the Silverlake C1 Endurance Series. My family and I would go and cheer him and the team on. My two sons subsequently, call my dad and step mum Jo: ‘Racecar Nini and Grandad’.

Grandad and Grandson in the garage Motorsport

The why

Watching my dad and the CAT C1 team during the 24 hour race at Silverstone a few years back, really sparked something in me. I never fully appreciated what goes into racing, even at what is for some, entry-level motorsport. Watching the adrenaline fuelled adventure my dad was sharing with the team, made me want to be part of that. However, with a young family, I couldn’t justify the financial investment.

Things changed during the pandemic. It was a great time to reflect on what was important to me - what did I want on my bucket list for the next few years? Family, friends, travel, work goals and making memories with my dad.

The bucket list was created and racing with my dad was high on the list - this was my 'Why'.

The how

As soon as I hinted to my dad that I was ready to begin my racing journey, we both became consumed with ‘racing fever’.

I spent hours on the internet searching:

  • how to become a race driver
  • how to drive like a race driver
  • what to expect when you do you ARDS
  • what’s your first race like?
  • how much does racing cost?

I was a complete novice with no experience, wanting to equip myself with as much information as possible, however, what was right? Wrong? Useful? I had no idea.

So, instead of endlessly searching the internet for clues I decided to focus on what I could control, my fitness and my weight. I started running 6 KM, three times a week, with a goal of losing 2 stone. ‘Light equals fast’ was my thought process and I wanted to give myself every chance. Over the six month period I lost almost two stone and ran my first ever 10 KM in 1 hour and 2 minutes which I was pretty happy with. Time for some training…

The start of the journey

Day 1 training - UTAC Millbrook

There was no way I wasn’t going to take advantage of what my dad does for a living. I have seen him in action and heard the many amazing things his clients have told me over the years. Training with CAT seemed like the only place to start.

My first in-car training with dad was in the CAT Clio for the Race Level 1 Performance course at UTAC Millbrook (formerly Millbrook Proving Ground). It was a surreal moment for both of us, getting in the car as client and coach. Very exciting.

Clio Cup

We started with the Mile Straight, working on threshold braking techniques. The first of many lessons which would become invaluable on track. As I would come to learn, every corner in racing needs to be quick and braking is a vital aspect of this.

Moving on to the wet grip ABS facility provided yet another core skill. As we entered the pad we proceeded to drive at just 30 MPH and attempted to brake as soon as possible. However, the car’s ABS system kicked in and completely locked. As the brake pedal jammed, I completely froze, foot hard pressed on the pedal until we came to a stop (memory logged).

I needed to get off the brake pedal and back on it to release the ABS - a very counter intuitive notion: take your foot off the brake to stop faster.

This lesson would later come to life driving round Oggies at Snetterton on my first test day. The ABS completely locked up, and the muscle memory from the training kicked in. I released the brake pedal and negotiated the corner.

The afternoon moved to the Handling Circuit where we started to drive at speed. No timing, no stopwatch, just focus on technique, cornering, threshold & trail braking plus the introduction of ‘tease the turn’ - not shocking the tyres prior to entry to a corner - yet another nugget banked for racing (not that I knew it at this stage).

I left the day with so many skills and lessons learnt, many of which I didn’t truly realise I had until I started driving on a race circuit. On a personal note, I also came away on a massive high after spending what was one of the best days of my life with my dad. We were like a couple of children, full of excitement and non-stop laughing. A special experience.

Motorsport UK pack

Having completed my first training session, it was time to apply for my Motorsport UK racing pack and submit my membership application. The pack includes a video which covers things like what to expect on the day of your ARDS test, a brief overview of car handling and a section on racing flags - the ARDS theory test has a section focused on understanding the race flag signals.

I watched the video at least 50 times, studying the flags, even practising with my kids as they played cars. Then a quick trip to the opticians for an eye test, followed by a photo booth (harder to find these days), and I was ready for my ARDS test day.

 Motorsport UK Starter Pack

Getting kitted out

Race equipment was next. A tip I was given, was to try all the equipment on first, rather than buying it online - I needed to make sure everything fitted perfectly. This was to ensure I wasn’t distracted, by an ill-fitting helmet or uncomfortable race suit that squeezed me, when I sat in the race seat. A top tip as once I started racing, my kit fit like a glove and was so comfortable.

Racing Kit

Getting my race licence

Having completed my first training session at UTAC Millbrook, and knowing my first race was booked, I needed to get my ARDS Licence. Living just outside Derby meant that Mallory Park in Leicestershire was my closest test venue. Date confirmed - 6th May 2021.

Being unsure of the process I called the Motorsport School to confirm what to expect. My experience from the first moment was excellent. An extremely helpful team member gave me knowledge about what to expect, how the day would run and confirmed everything I would require on the day, as well as some supportive words of encouragement - all of which left me feeling much more relaxed about the experience to come.

Arriving for my ARDS was still nerve racking. The day started with a welcome briefing and 20 minutes watching the Motorsport UK video I had received in my pack, this covered the basics and the flags.

Once complete we moved on to the theory test - 20 or so questions on motorsport basics, followed by a section on the flags (something I was fully aware I needed to get 100% correct).

Next step - the practical. Driving around Mallory Park at a good speed, sticking to racing lines, without being a hero. After four to five laps on circuit, the practical was over in a flash and we headed back to the office. Thankfully I had passed both theory and practical - I had a stamp on my licence application and I received my black cross. I was now officially a 'novice race driver'.

Racing licence novice racing driver

My 'happy place'

Day 2 training - UTAC Millbrook

Race Optimisation was next on the agenda. After some key technique recaps on the Mile Straight like threshold braking, my coach (dad) and I moved onto the Alpine Loops where we introduced a whole host of new elements:

  • warm up cycles and vehicle dynamics
  • dynamic changes - up and down hills
  • grip limit signals
  • cornering process and techniques
  • trail braking
  • teasing the turn
  • pedal exit - something I needed to work on - smooth and fast!
  • looking - your mind is a Sat Nav - show it the way

The warm up cycle for me and the car was introduced - and my three-step racing was born:

  1. steady at first, to understand the car and the track - what’s changed?
  2. push on
  3. race pace!

This simple process would become invaluable during my first racing weekend. It would get me in the correct mind set, ensuring both myself and the car, were ready to rock.

In the afternoon we moved back to the Handling Circuit where I started to piece all the elements from the morning’s session into place - however, this didn’t go to plan.

I started thinking - ‘I want to drive fast, really fast’. I felt with my newly formed skills, I could blast around the circuit - I was now an official race driver after all. How wrong I was! The technique I’d learned, went completely out of my mind and out of the window. Smooth and fast become rough and slow, which in turn became very frustrating!

We pulled over, and with dad’s coaching hat firmly on, he asked: “Did you notice any mood changes in that session?” I did. I started the lap, feeling like I needed to be aggressive to attack the circuit and get around at speed. That didn’t work well.

And so, another absolutely key lesson was learnt - my emotions needed to stay in check. From this experience, the 'happy place' was born. This was a place I could go to in my mind, where I could calm my emotions, allowing me to focus on technique, then follow my simple process. This would help me put it all together. We went back out and instantly it was like being a different driver - smooth, safe, fast and fun - my 'happy place'.

Prior to my first planned track day at Donington, I did extra homework with dad via Zoom. We’d study hours of in-car VBOX recordings and racing videos. Even my youngest son got involved. Together we watched old C1 endurance racing videos on YouTube. He used a Wii steering wheel with a wooden spoon for the gear stick. We had hours of fun whilst I’d talk him through gear changes and corner entries. All of this massively helped to embed the training.

My first track day

Donington circuit

My first ever track day. And one of the best things I’ve ever done! My mission for the day - to stay in my 'happy place'. The aim was in traffic, to drive fast and in control.

MSV Track Day at Donington Park in ClioPhoto credit: MSV Photography by Lee Marshall

The day started with a cup of tea and a briefing about my targets for the sessions - what I wanted to achieve and how I would cement my learning on track, for the first time.

Once on track, after four or five 20-minute sessions we were flying (at least that’s how it felt). This brings me onto what was yet another very important lesson along the way - ‘The Feel’.

We had covered so much ground during my training. However, little did I realise how much could be gained from reading subtle responses from the car. Understanding what the car is telling you through your body, your feet, the steering wheel and responding accordingly.

When hooking up a corner, the car was talking to me - telling me whether I’d approached it well, or not. When I got a corner right, the car would reward me by staying balanced and exiting smoothly. A very eye-opening element to the training and again a massive lesson for me.

The track day was over too fast, to be honest - I didn’t want to leave. However, the day assured me that I could be comfortable on track, with other cars and drive with consistency.

October 2021 - my first race - Snetterton

This was it! The weekend had finally come. I was joining CAT team 467 for the last endurance race of the season. The mantra for the weekend - 100% safety, 100% finish or, as some of the other drivers would say… ‘don’t bin it’!

I would be racing with seasoned CAT C1 team drivers David Alstadter, Phil Marsh and not forgetting the man that inspired this whole journey - my dad, Colin Hoad.

Track day - Thursday

Despite watching hours and hours of C1s on YouTube trying to mind map the circuit - this was my first experience of Snetterton. It may sound daft but the time with my son and the Wii steering wheel had at least helped me understand the corner names, likely gear selections and most importantly if the track went left or right!

I used the CAT Clio on my first stint. Remembering the three-step process we had agreed on in my training:

  1. steady at first to understand the car and the track
  2. push on
  3. race pace!

Having spent the first few laps on my own getting to grips with the track, I felt consistent. Hitting my braking points and turning references, which in turn felt quick - remembering my 'happy place'.

Bearing in mind that we needed to drive the Clio home and not being able to wait for my first stint in the CAT C1,- I parked up the Clio ready to meet my first racing car. This was the first time I had seen my name on a race car - very cool!

C1 acing car in garage at snetterton

First step - ‘the homework’ as the team called it - scrubbing in the tyres, brakes and fuel burn - a topic I would become well versed in over the weekend.

Five laps driving at road pace to scrub in the tyres gave me a good understanding of the car, the handling and general balance, without trying to go crazy.

After all the drivers had completed their initial sessions, disaster hit! A complete engine failure brought an abrupt end to our day. This left me a little deflated at the time, as I was hoping to get much more seat time in the afternoon, getting to grips with the track and car - but as I was told… this is motor racing.

As the drivers went back to the hotel, Track Toys Racing, our amazing support team, worked tirelessly through the night, sourcing and installing the new engine, ready for testing in the morning.

Testing - Friday

Leaving the hotel early to get to the track at 07.30am ready for an 09.00am start, we were greeted by our fully race-prepared, ready-to-go C1.

This is where things started to get serious for me! I had a fierce personal desire to be consistent, safe and of course, fast! Being under the clock for the first time, added a different level of pressure I wasn’t expecting on the day.

My first laps were steady - 70% to 80% of what I felt was race pace - a chance to understand the car, the basics:

  • how the car felt
  • how much the car rolled
  • how much grip the car had in each corner
  • confirming the turning references for each corner

The three-step racing process we had identified in the training was now an essential part of my mental preparation, and the car was now ready to be driven at grip limit - and I was in the right mind-set.

After three of four laps getting my eye in, I felt ready to push on to race pace and see what I could do.

My first three quick laps:

  1. 2 mins 46.80 secs
  2. 2 mins 45.50 secs
  3. 2 mins 43.83 secs

Only 1 second behind our team’s fastest driver - a time I simply couldn’t believe! I was even shouting to myself in the car: “Have I just done a 2.43?!”

There was a full race calendar at Snetterton that weekend, so we only had four 30-minute sessions between all four drivers - limited seat time. Again, something I wasn’t expecting - you have to make every second count.

My final lap of the session nearly resulted in me coming off the circuit - losing concentration by staring at the timer - moaning at it for showing I was 0.50 seconds behind my previous lap, instead of focusing on the exit of the corner. Another lesson banked.

Qualifying - Saturday

Up another gear (excuse the pun)!

A big difference now was the weather; wet, very wet!

Having never driven a race car in the wet, it was a daunting prospect. Some of the thoughts going through my mind were:

  • where would the grip be?
  • how much grip would there be?
  • how could I drive fast and keep it on the track?

The team aspect to motor racing added a whole new element. I did not want to let anyone down and/or be the cause of them missing out on race time.

The team were an amazing support. Some of their great tips included:

  • watch the road like a hawk
  • look for the drier-looking spots - the grip
  • stay away from the shiny-looking areas - normally on the racing line from the rubber laid on the track

We had one 50-minute session when all of our four drivers had to qualify - meaning one out lap, one fast lap and an ‘in’ lap each - lots of pressure to make it happen in the limited time allowed.

Phil completed his laps and returned to the pits. A quick driver change and I was off. Ash from the Track Toys team had three reminders that stayed with me: “Seat, Tag and Rag” - click the seat one forward, tag the electronic driver tag, then drive!

The out/sighting lap

No exaggeration - the track was like ice! All the lines I had mind mapped, had become almost undriveable (at least to me). New wet lines were needed to circulate the track at speed - which was a very strange feeling - driving almost round the outside of all corners.

The fast lap

Things started well with good speed down the straight - intense focus and concentration trying to remember my training - look, look, look; soft hands and fast feet; tease the turn and remember my 'happy place'! Coming into the last two corners - Coram and Murrays - I just didn’t want to make any mistakes. Driving on the edge of grip limit was exciting, nerve racking and strangely comforting - knowing where the grip was and wasn’t, gave me a surprising confidence.

As I passed the line 3.08 came up on the timer and I couldn’t believe it, just two seconds off our team’s fastest driver in the same conditions - I was over the moon and so excited.

The ‘in’ lap

My in lap was my first reality check. Coming round Palmers at 70% speed, I listened to my subconscious and moved on to the racing line. Within seconds, C1 racing had morphed into ice driving. Tank slapping from left to right and nearly collecting two cars who were following close behind. This was a great reminder - 100% focus all the time was required. The guilt of nearly letting my team down stayed with me.

My first taste of a race weekend was underway. A gamble on tyres saw us qualify in 43rd from 53 cars - not what we had hoped for, but the first race was ahead.

Saturday - first race

All I can say is WOW!

To quote the well known film, The Matrix, 

"There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path

It's one of my favourites - and never has it been more relevant to me than during my first race.

I had completed a number of training sessions at UTAC Millbrook, enjoyed track days and felt ready for my first race. I had been told by my team that the first race would be a mental overload - and my goodness it was (even though I didn’t realise it at the time).

A perfect example of this, is the fact that I actually forgot the number of the team I was racing for! It took two whole laps to realise 467 was the number I was looking for on the pit wall. Having shared this with my team (after a lot of laughing), they quickly pointed out the number was splashed over every window in the car in huge text. I was staring at it in the rear-view mirror the whole way round the track.

A three hour race with 40 minutes driving and 12 laps completed - all of my training was coming to life. Everything we had covered at UTAC Millbrook and on track was suddenly 100% relevant.

  1. driving at grip limit
  2. trail braking deep in to Montreal
  3. massive lock up into Oggies - ‘picking my own accident’ so I could recover and re-engage
  4. reverse threshold braking into Murrays
  5. teasing the turn
  6. look, look, look
  7. 'happy place'

The first few laps were a massive shift from track days. Cars three inches from my boot trying to force me into mistakes and me trying to drive three inches from the people in front. This was a heightened level of focus and concentration, so much so, that everything else around me went cloudy. Looking back, simple thoughts become complex maths equations.

After five or so laps we had a safety car, inevitably bunching the cars up. Once we were released, we were racing again! My mission was to keep up with a group of around ten cars. Whilst trying to keep up with the pack, I was simultaneously hunting individual cars down. The pure excitement of ‘racing’ was such a buzz, such a feeling I believe you can only feel, if you have done it!

When it was time for a driver change, I got out of the car on cloud nine and absolutely buzzing. I was hooked! How the bloody hell can you do that in a 68 BHP Citroen C1?! Simply unbelievable. A feeling that stayed with me for weeks after the event.

I will never look at a Citroen C1 in the same way again, it’s a race car!

That evening the team discussed the day’s events and a strategy for the second race ahead. It was a wonderful experience sharing these special moments with friends and family - memories I will cherish.

Off to bed that night, but waking up at 03:00 am dreaming of lines, corners, braking points and hoping the next race was dry. So much excitement.

Sunday - second race

Sounds crazy to say but, I actually started to feel like a race driver by race two. I reviewed the times, the teams board signals, the track penalty boards and focused on the training - looking, teasing the turn and the 'feel' of the car under my feet.

My hopes of a dry race were, yet again, dashed. By the time my session started, there was a downpour and we had a wet track to contend with. The track was wet, very wet. With one hour to drive, my session started slow as I was trying to find wet lines and any grip I could. After a few laps, the rain eased and the track began to gradually dry.

I completed sixteen laps in my stint starting at 3.23 per lap, eventually shaving it down to 2.45 on my final lap. The track seemed to come to me - I was finding and logging the improving grip levels on each successful lap of the circuit.

I had found time to look ahead, tease the turn, manage the ABS at grip limit, trail the car into corners all within my 'happy place'. All this with several cars three inches from my boot, or me being three inches from theirs - looking through the window of the car in front, to see the road ahead. Another invaluable nugget from training that naturally began falling into place. I even managed several clear overtakes in the final few laps.

We finished 19th place - a positive first result!

What an experience

How do I summarise such an experience?

Racing is an unbelievable experience I will remember for the rest of my life. In addition, sharing every moment with family and friends, made the whole thing even more special. I have a much greater appreciation of the effort, commitment and skill required to go fast on track - something I had greatly underestimated.

The social aspect is also a wonderful part of the experience - working towards a joint goal as a team, with friends. Reliving overtakes, slides, funny moments - lots of fun and laughter - especially at my expense, for forgetting the team’s car number.

Our support team Track Toys Racing were incredible, clearly buzzing from us finding speed and moving up the grid. A real team effort was key to our success over the event.

Track Toys Racing team Snetterton 2021

The journey continues

2022 & 2023 – racing for real!

With my first race complete, keen to get more seat time, I joined my dad and Phil at the Race of Remembrance in Anglesey. Four hours of quality seat time resulted in a 5th place class finish. The event itself is a uniquely moving experience on a stunning track.

After falling in love with racing in 2021, my dad and I agreed we would now target success - a podium! No easy task in a very competitive One-Make series. This would be our main goal and the challenge was set.

Having previously rented a seat in the 467 car, we decided the next step for us was to build our own! A winter build from Track Toys Racing and the white car was born - Gandalf is its name with number 466. “You shall not pass!” was the inspiration for the name - for any Lord of the Rings fans.

c1 endurance racing car 466 CATDT

We had the car - now for the ingredients…

Getting fit - mind & body

Weirdly for me, running had actually now become an enjoyable hobby. Running over three hundred miles in 2021, 2022 started much the same, with me losing 6 KG (light is fast) and ran over eighty miles in January and February.

As I had learnt in my first season, being fit is a key element of successful racing. A good fitness level frees up the mental capacity required to think while driving at 100 MPH with 60 other cars on circuit. This is simple practical advice - anyone can do it and it 100% helps to give you an edge over many in the paddock.

The next muscle I needed to work, was my brain. Hungry for knowledge, I read book after book to try to gain any edge, or find golden nuggets of information that might help me during the off season.

My reads:

I also found a great way to maximise my learning and time was to listen to racing podcasts whilst running.

My listens:

The book that resonated with me most was the last in this list. I have listened to this audiobook over fifty times, helping me to start to create the mindset required, to succeed in motorsport.

With the fitness well underway and studying likewise, winter testing in the new 466 began at a wet and cold Donington Park.

The first time out was an experience - 70 MPH in the wet down the Craner Curves is one hell of a scary experience! But the car felt fast and strong.

Reflecting on my journey so far

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt over the races I have completed:

  1. racecraft is important - knowing how to position your car is key to retaining and taking places on track
  2. you have to be 100% on it, every minute of every lap, to get to the front
  3. motorsport is a huge mental challenge - not just physical
  4. preparation before the event is key!
  5. driver training - get it! Be curious and keep learning
  6. get as much seat time as you can

I simply couldn’t have done any of this without the training - this gave me the foundation for almost every aspect I experienced on track. The skills I’ve gained, will continue to sharpen with more practice and I will use them for the rest of my racing career. I will continually build my technique to hopefully become better and better!

A final note: I have learnt that motorsport has no shortcuts. Everything is hard fought and hard earned. You have to listen, learn and absorb the learning at every stage by experiencing it and feeling it for yourself. Enjoying the journey is just as important as the final destination (hopefully the podium). I now have the racing bug for life - I just wish I hadn’t waited 40 years to start!

I would encourage anyone who is able, to experience what I have. An eye-opening journey. Have fun, stay safe and here’s to podiums in the future!

Mark’s blog continues with his 2022 race experiences, thoughts and learnings into the inaugural 2023 season starter in his next blog: New Season, New Car.

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