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Old September 30th, 2003, 02:34 PM   #1
Magic Mtn Dan
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A fast look at amateur auto racing

A fast look at amateur auto racing
By Thane Peterson, BusinessWeek Online

Every weekend, otherwise-sane people spend large sums to hurtle around at breakneck speeds. Why? They say it's more fun than golf.

IT'S A BEAUTIFUL, early autumn Saturday afternoon, and I'm standing next to David DelGenio in the control tower at the Lime Rock Park race track near Lakeville, Conn.

We're watching 30 Mazda Miatas zoom around the 1.5-mile course at up to 120 mph. I'm keenly interested in whether car No. 40, driven by Ben Hohn, 33, a management consultant and up-and-coming amateur racer, can overtake the leader, Ken Payson, 59, the wily veteran in car No. 95.

DelGenio, a pony-tailed 50-year-old who makes his living building race cars, is alternately barking instructions to one of the other drivers via a headset and explaining to me out of the corner of his mouth why Hohn has his work cut out for him. "See the way the car's rear end is sliding around?" he asks me. "Watch Ken go through the curve and then watch Ben. Ben's sliding a lot more."

I had been hearing about Ben Hohn's racing career for two years now from his uncle, Chris Hohn, an old friend. The more I heard, the more I wondered: Why would a management consultant who works out of a Manhattan office spend weeknights bruising his knuckles in the garage and his weekends hurtling around race tracks at life-threatening speeds?

This much is clear to me now: Amateur car racing is surprisingly exciting -- and amazingly competitive. Most of the drivers are consultants, engineers, and other professionals who do it as a hobby. Yet, it really does have the feel of a hotly contested duel in which the tiniest miscue can make the difference. The day before, in the qualifying race, Hohn beat Payson for the pole position by just a few thousands of a second.

As the two leaders pulled away from the pack in today's race, a furious battle developed for third place. One of the three drivers vying for it ended up slamming into a wall and barely finishing. "The cars have to be expendable," says William Casson, 45, a software engineer from Portsmouth, N.H., who ended up finishing ninth. "You can't be a top finisher unless you're willing to risk crashing."

Miata racing is one of the fastest-growing classes among amateurs. DelGenio, owner of an Acworth, N.H. company called Driven Performance and one of the original organizers of the sport, figures about 700 of the curvy little economy sports cars are now being raced nationally, up from zero five years ago. "We've all been a little dumbfounded by how quickly this has taken off," he says.

You can race anything from expensive Porsches and Corvettes to battered Volvos and VWs, but Miata racing provides some of the best bang for the buck. The little sports cars first came out in 1990, so plenty of used ones are around at relatively low prices. You can buy one already tricked out for racing for around $12,000. Or you can rent a car for the weekend for around $1,300. (The disadvantage of that approach is that you have to pay for the car if you wreck it -- no company will insure rented race cars, for obvious reasons.)

Or if you're on a tight budget, you can save money by doing what Ben did when he decided to get into racing three years ago: Buy a wrecked Miata for around $2,000 and rebuild it in your garage, adding the roll cage, racing suspension, seat, and tires yourself. Hohn takes care of all the mechanical work, aided by two friends who serve as his crew: David Hirsch, who works for a sail-making company in his day job, and Hohn's brother, David, a contractor.

The best first step in getting involved in amateur car racing of any kind, says Robert Davis, senior vice-president for marketing and product development at Mazda's North American operations, is to bone up on the sport via the Web sites of the main racing organizations, The Sportscar Club of America and The National Auto Sport Assn. Then, sign up for driving lessons at an accredited school, such as the Skip Barber Racing School or the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School. If you find you like it, start going to races and talking to amateur drivers to decide which kind you want to try.

The variations are endless, even within Miata racing. Tinkerers who work on their own cars tend to opt for older Miatas like the ones Hohn races, the so-called Spec Miata class that includes only 1990-97 models. On the other hand, Mazda's Davis, a talented amateur racer in his off hours, competes in the "showroom" class, in which newer, more powerful Miatas are raced with relatively few modifications. A new showroom-class Miata costs around $20,000, though a 1999 model can be had for around half that.

Of course, as with most hobbies, one thing tends to lead to another. Since getting into racing, Hohn has bought a second Miata, two trailers, a powerful Dodge pickup truck to tow the trailers, tools, spare parts, and a new engine and various other upgrades for the cars. His wife, Amy Wilensky, also notes that he has expanded a one-time farm-machinery building on their property in Connecticut into a rather large workspace. "I think it's now a nine-car garage," she says somewhat incredulously.

Amy is supportive, but far from passionate about her husband's hobby. Some other drivers' wives attend every race and help out as crew, but it's hard to imagine Amy in that role. She's an author whose memoir -- "Passing for Normal" -- was a great critical success when it came out three years ago. Her interests tend toward plays and book-readings, and she only rarely watches her husband race. "He loves it, and he's really good at it, which makes me happy," she says. "But I'm just not a car person. I probably wouldn't even own a car if I weren't married to Ben."

So why does he do it? Hohn never did overtake Payson in the race on Saturday. He says his suspension got knocked out of whack in a minor collision with another car right after the start. Payson and DelGenio also think his tires may have been overinflated by a pound or so, which gives you an idea of the fine details that can determine the outcome of these races. Hohn ended up losing to Payson by 3.3 seconds.

He seemed happy, nonetheless. "This isn't something you get into lightly," he told me before the race. "You have to feel your life isn't going to be complete unless you do it." If you've been "car-obsessed" since early childhood, as Hohn says he has, it beats playing golf on the weekend by a long shot.

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