Congratulations! You’ve done it! You’ve planned ahead and bought your race tickets on sale, you’ve booked your flights, you’ve made lodging reservations well in advance, which can only mean it’s time to actually get to the track. And you have no idea what the hell to expect.
Going to a race weekend on the cheap does not mean you’re going to be skimping on the experience. You can save money and still have a great time watching the cars—and, after trial and error and too much money spent on trackside booze, I’m here to help you understand what to expect and how to maximize your experience.
(Welcome to the Race Car Survival Guide, a series where we outline all the tips and tricks that will help you make it through a race weekend intact. Whether you’re heading to your first race and are totally lost or are a veteran just checking out how other race fans do it, this is for you.)
Don’t Expect Luxury
I’m going to be honest, traveling on the cheap can be uncomfortable. If you’re flying budget airlines, driving long distances, sharing a tent with several other people, and/or camping at the track, you’re going to have at least one instance of “dear God why did I think this was a good idea.” Nothing is worse than waking up to the sound of loud cars on track on the icy cold ground in your tent in Austria next to three people you did not meet until that weekend with a roaring hangover—and your next hot meal and lukewarm shower is still four days way.
You’re going to want to be aware of potential discomfort before you make your plans. It’s not a big deal for some people. Finding new and improved ways to spend less money and put my body through the ringer is a hobby for me. I have a friend, however, who suffers from chronic pain that can be provoked by doing even a small portion of the dumb shit I do, so she spends money to fly and sleep comfortably—but she still has fun.
My return flight from Europe was just over $200 because I flew a budget airline that didn’t serve food, had a twelve hour layover in Dublin, and an eight hour layover in Newark, where I just slept at the airport. It was a shitty and unglamorous way to end a great trip, but it was affordable, so I took that option. Unless your experience is truly, horribly awful, the cheap travel probably isn’t going to be the single thing you look back on when you recall that time you went to a race.
If flying isn’t your jam, get ready to road trip—which can be just as uncomfortable. I’ve done the full fifteen hour drive from Boston to the Indy 500 with three friends in a Toyota Yaris for the Month of May (aka, the entire month of on-track practice and qualifying that goes on ahead of the 500, as dictated by tradition). That meant I was Tetris’d into the backseat in and amongst luggage, food, and travel supplies. It sucked! It’s also one of the last things I think of when I remember that time I did the Month of May!
“Budget” is a really subjective term. Be aware of your individual needs and plan around them. But you are, unfortunately, going to be charged more for flying in a nice airline seat or sleeping in a real bed.
Hoof It In General Admission
There’s nothing more disheartening than browsing grandstand seats and realizing that some are as expensive as $1,000. Do not let that deter you! Going to a race does not require a guaranteed seat!
General admission is always the cheapest option. You’re probably going to have to show up early on race day (like, long before gates open) in order to secure the best possible location, but I’ve never ended up in a situation where I would rather have spent five times more money to sit on a bench all Sunday. Bring a blanket or a folding chair, make friends with the people next to you so they’ll hold your spot if you need to use the bathroom, and you’re golden.
Let’s set up a comparison: US Grand Prix general admission tickets at COTA in 2018 cost me about $200. However, grandstand tickets (especially in Turn 15) have been known to run as high as $1,500 for the best seats. At the Turn 1 GA area, you can see most of the track, with the exception of the hairpin and back straight. From the T15 grandstand, you can see the entire track, minus the front stretch. Is that slightly better view worth over $1000? No, not for me. Other grandstands are cheaper (often in the range of $400-500), but at COTA, nothing rivals the GA view for the price you’ll pay.
There are instances when splurging on a grandstand seat is preferable to GA. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to fight the crowd to be able to see the track on a Sunday morning, it might be worth it to get a grandstand. Street circuits, too, are notoriously awful when it comes to GA (you’re usually going to see a strip of the track about 1000 ft long). GA at road courses and ovals, though, is usually pretty great.
If you’re attending the whole weekend, scope out the best GA areas during practice and qualifying. It’s also good to see if you can find a firsthand fan account online—trust the people who have shown up to the track on race day and realized that they should have arrived earlier or found a hidden gem of a viewing spot.
Bring Your Own Snacks
Food at race tracks is obscenely priced. Do not be the fool who pays $13 for a beer. Be the genius who spends $13 and feasts like a king all day.
Check the rules at your tracks. Most tracks I’ve been to don’t allow glass bottles, but you can bring cans of beer and food. Some tracks, though, don’t allow you to bring in anything (I’m looking at you, COTA) other than a sealed water bottle.
This is the opportune time to get creative and figure out how to hide things on your person! Opt for things that are easily compacted (instead of bringing a whole apple, cut it up and put it in a ziploc bag) or not awkwardly shaped. You’re going to get your bag searched, but chances are, no one is going to make you unroll the blanket you’re going to use for general admission or check the sleeves of your hoodie for granola bars unless they’re really obvious. Be smart and make it work.
If you, like me, enjoy sipping on a boozy beverage while watching the cars, the whole “you can’t bring anything past this gate” rule really blows. In these instances, you’ll once again be tasked to use your brain. I’m fond of emptying out my water bottle and filling it with vodka instead. That way, once I’m at the track, I just have to find a vendor selling orange juice and a cup (I highly endorse buying a commemorative mug because it is the only race car merch I use on a regular basis, or just begging a vendor for a water cup) and, voila! You’ve got screwdrivers!
Another trick: bring a rolled up blanket or a folding chair to the track and use it to conceal your booze wrapped up inside of it (this is where I recommend cheap bagged wine). I’ve never had a security person so dedicated that they also made me unroll my blanket or set up my folding chair. It’s honestly pretty rare for them to even squish that stuff before you go inside.
Get Used to Cheap Lodgings
Camping is often—but not always—the most affordable option for staying somewhere. You save money by not having to commute to the race, and if you split with friends, it’s not terrible.
Stay tuned for a future blog diving into the nitty-gritty of how to camp at the track. For now, all you need to know is: practice pitching your tent before you get to the track, and make sure you’re familiar with the weather. If you have the luxury of bringing a carful of blankets to the track, you’ll find some way to use them—even if it’s just pitching them in a cozy nest on the ground. If you need a little extra support, invest in a self-inflating air mattress or a cigarette lighter converter for your car to plug the mattress into (it’s genuinely life-changing).
That said, sometimes you can’t camp—like at street circuits—or it’s just egregiously expensive. In those cases, investigate youth hostels or Airbnbs. If you’re determined, you can find something decent no matter where you go. Make a point of inspecting reviews before you go, too—you don’t want to end up somewhere that had a pretty website but is, in reality, a complete dump.
And, as always, making your bookings as soon as you possibly can in anticipation of the race weekend is essential to securing the cheapest price. You want to get your deals long before anyone realizes there’s a race weekend going on!
(Yes, folks, this means communal showers are probably in your future. Bring flip-flops. Always bring flip-flops.)
Investigate All the Free Stuff
Chances are, wherever you end up, there’s going to be some add-ons to the race weekend that will enhance your experience. You’re going to want to patrol social media to make sure you have fair warning on any contests, events, or opportunities that will make your race weekend a hell of a lot more fun.
Twitter and Facebook accounts for the race circuits, teams, or series often run contests for free tickets or paddock passes. Sometimes there are special meet-and-greets held before the race. Some will require something as small as a retweet, others somethings as large as channeling all your skills into making a cool piece of art.
I went to my first F1 race when I was eighteen with no expectations that I would get to do anything cooler than just seeing cars on track—but Red Bull Racing tweeted about a contest: design a movie poster about your super-cool race weekend that you’ll ideally spend with the drivers on the team. I spent a solid two weeks designing a great pun and photoshopping a poster with what was then nonexistent editing skills—and won.
In another instance, I just responded to a Formula E team’s question of who was at the track and won paddock passes. In another, I made a meme and won (another) Red Bull contest, where I was invited to a Sky Sports filming day and cricket match in Milton Keynes. In yet another, I won enough tickets to the IndyCar race at Pocono that I was able to bring more friends with me. It’s great.
Just stay on top of things! You never know what you can wind up with if you’re adamant in your pursuit of free things.
That’s all we have for this edition of our Race Car Survival Guide! If you have any tips of your own or an idea for a blog you’d like to see, let us know in the comments or email me at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!