The Unfair Advantage

A friend many of you likely know, Bill Caswell, recently made the recommendation that I read a book called The Unfair Advantage. It’s a autobiography by driver Mark Donohue, whom I had never heard of. Mark was a top driver in the 60s and 70s during the early years of motorsports and his book is an incredibly easy read and highly entertaining. I highly recommend it and there is a plethora of knowledge to be gained reading it and discovering one man’s path to a successful career in motorsports.
There are nuggets of wisdom in every chapter and I feel compelled to share some of these for those who may never read the book. Many are tenets by which I preach when it comes to motorsports. All are worthy of contemplation.
Chapter 1:
This Chapter talks more about how he kinda liked cars but only on a whim decided to go ice racing and got a little into racing. Through a chance mutual friendship he got invited to dinner with Roger Penske who gave him “one tip of great value.” “If we were going to go racing, we should only go first class. Racing is very expensive, he said, and it was important to only go racing with cars we could afford.”
He took this advice to heart and realized that there was no way he could afford the expense to race his Corvette so sold it and bought something better to start in.
I can’t help but read this and think of how many people involved in rallying over the years that I know that started out with a street WRX and that was where there first interest in rallying came from. One thing I know for a fact is that the majority of these “want” to race their WRX but never do because it is too costly. The few that make the leap and build their turbocharged Subaru do not last in the sport long term. I can only think of one friend that rallied a turbocharged WRX that is still active and he quit for five years before coming back in an Open Light car in recent years. The rest are on the sidelines, most are likely there forever.
Chapter 2:
Mark was racing successfully as an amateur at this point. He was winning events but had just lost to a team that technically was on illegal tires. He protested and the protest was approved but after a friend gave him some advice and he withdrew his protest and allowed the other guy to win. That advice was, “You proved your point but he would have beaten you either way. You’ve got to win your victories on the racetrack or they won’t mean much.”
Luckily in rallying this is never as much of an issue but it is an important one. Some people may take the outlook that cheating is part of the game, protests are required, and use every competitor disadvantage to your advantage. You will come out better in life if you lead by example and with ethics. No one cares about the guy who won over a technicality. No one cares about the guy who won against no competition. Rally and every rally series will continue to flounder until everyone realizes this. Success in motorsports is about beating excellent competition, not about over spending, out engineering, or creating special classes to win.
Chapter 3:
The entire final chapter…
“If that car taught me one thing it was that I wasn’t made out of money. I couldn’t do any more than I had the cash in hand for. When I no longer could afford new parts, it was time to get out. I didn’t see Formula Junior as any great steppingstone to a big professional racing career when I got into it, although it was obviously going to get me further than an Elva Courier. On the other hand, it was a big waste of money to just show up at Formula Junior races and not win. I have to get back into a class where I could win some races again.”
If every racer could learn this lesson motorsports would be more popular and successful than football. Okay, maybe that is a stretch but imagine if everyone took the outlook that they needed to race something cheaper and that they could win their class with instead of choosing the route of increasing spending to try to compete with a higher level.
I can instantly relate to this. My first built rally car was a very high spec Merkur (Ford Sierra) and was a replica effort of the old WRC cars from the 80s. I wanted a car that could be the fastest 2WD rally car at any event and would only be held back by the driver. After spending way too much money I had a car that I couldn’t afford to properly race and that I had spent so much on that I couldn’t mentally commit to the thought of destroying it at any time. That fear, the fear of motorsport financial ruin, leads to more lackluster driving than any lack of skill or fear of death. I sold the car and all parts for around 1/7th of what I had spent and cleaned my hands. I then built the car I could afford, that already had power and handling and could be built and raced for under $10k but still be competitive in it’s class.
Early in ANY career, the most important thing is seat time, practice, and effort. Drivers that do one event per year or have no competition seldom improve. There are many more great words of wisdom and entertaining stories but these are the ones that stood out to me as important to every driver out there.