Ross Bentley of Speed Secrets
As a successful racing driver, performance coach, guest speaker, author, and businessman, Ross Bentley is one of the most influential people I’ve had the privilege of connecting with. His decades of experience in the racing world has spawned nine educational books that include topics like race driving techniques, mental preparation, and the business aspects of motorsport.
With over 130,000 copies sold the Speed Secrets book series offers comprehensive instruction in race driving techniques, mental preparation, and the business aspects of a racing career. With decades of real world experience in race driving, coaching, networking, marketing, and business startups, this series is sure to give you a leg up in your motorsport career.
Having spent many successful years in the racing world Ross has unique and incredibly valuable insight into what it takes to make it in the ever-competitive motorsport industry. I’m so grateful for his willingness to share his knowledge with the Racers HQ community.
Let’s get right into the tactical interview and Ross Bentley’s 10 best tips. My favorites are #5, #7, and #9. You can also listen to this interview for free at this link.
#1. Always be on the lookout for opportunity.
Racers HQ: Most people want to be pro racing drivers because they simply love driving. But I’m pretty adamant that being versatile is almost a necessity if you want to make it. In your case coaching has become a large income stream for you. Tell me a little more about that.
Ross: The first time I instructed was back in 1980. I found that I love helping other drivers, I loved it just as much as I love driving myself. And through the years, trying to make a career as a racecar driver, as you know that’s one of the most difficult businesses in the world to make a career in, I’ve always said that it’s the only profession that I know of where you have to compete for your job with somebody who’s willing to pay to do your job.
Imagine going to work as a school teacher and there’s somebody who’s there saying, “I’ll pay to do your job.” That’s what it’s like being a race driver. So the instructing thing just happened because it was a way, at first, to supplement my income or at that point in time the only income. But I just learned that I loved it as much as I love driving.
So it’s just continued on and it’s growing and growing and as the sport has become more accepting of coaching, my business has grown and I think I was one of the very few that kind of got in at the very, very beginning of that. And probably had some impact on that, I guess. I get up every day and I think about driving and I think about coaching and thinking about how I can share that with others.
So it just kind of evolved through the years. When I was 18 if somebody had said, “someday your job will be just coaching race drivers,” I would have gone, “That’s cool. But I just want to go racing.”
I’ve been very, very fortunate to do what I love to do all my entire life and then get to a point where I can share it with other people. And I’m no expert. I just have the opportunity to get up every single morning and all I do is think driving all day long. And have been able to do that for decades. And so I’ve collected a lot of different things that I can share with other people.
#2. Never hesitate to try something new. It might change your life.
Racers HQ: So coaching has obviously worked out for you, you’re making a great living as a racing instructor. Another thing you’re well known for is writing the Speed Secrets book series. Tell me about how you expanded into writing books and generating income that way.
Ross: Well, tell me, is there anybody in the world who doesn’t want to write a book? It seems like everybody you meet says, “one day I’m going to write a book about something.” Anyway, to be honest I was not that person. I was probably the kid in school that was voted most likely to never write a book. And in fact I never set out to write a book.
When I started a high-performance racing school at the local track, I had students coming to me so I put together a little handbook. I think the first one was like three pages stapled together that I handed out. And then I kept just adding more, more, more and it became a nice little handbook that was given out to students at my school.
I kept adding to that when I was starting to work my way into driving Indy cars. And at the end of a weekend I would just write down notes of things that I learned and things that I wanted to remember. And I just started collecting notes into this one big document. I can remember being on a plane coming home from a race and writing stuff in a notebook. When I got home I’d type it up and stick it in this document.
And it kind of just grew and grew and grew, and then one day I showed it to somebody and they said, “this is a book.” And I’m like, “yeah, right.” And they said, “I’m going to send it somebody.” The next thing I knew I was contacted by Motorbooks International, MBI which is now Quarto Press. They’re the same publisher that I’ve always been with.
They said, “Hey, we want to publish this.” And I’m kind of like, “Me? Write a book?” So I never set out to do it. It’s just kind of one of those things that happened. But at the time I was also writing a weekly column in my hometown newspaper the Vancouver Sun. I’d write an article every week about driving.
So I did that for four years, I think. If anybody ever wants to write, that is one of the best things that you can ever do. Because it forces you to write every single week, it forces you into the discipline of what it takes to be a writer, it also forces you to start thinking about how you can be a better writer. Fortunately, my wife is a great editor and I learned a lot from her.
Anyway, I wrote that first book and at that time it was being published I went, “Hey, this is just part of the information.” So then it was like, “I’m just going to keep writing.” And I guess I’ve always had a little bit of a creative side in me and writing became my creative outlet. So it’s kind of grown through the years.
#3. Versatility is the key to success.
Racers HQ: There are a lot of other racing books that came before yours, but your series doesn’t just stick to techniques on the track. You explore the mental and physical aspects and the marketing and business of racing. So for someone who’s interested in a racing career, how does driver skill compare to the relationships and business and sponsorships when it comes to overall success?
Ross: First of all the whole business, marketing, the mental game, all those other pieces are as important as how fast a driver you are. Yes, if you want to make it in racing you have to be a fast driver. But that’s just a small part of it. I look at somebody trying to make a career from race driving and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a paying career.
But anybody that’s trying to make a career has to look at it as a job. And yeah, one of the things you need to be is fast. But there are many other parts. You have to be a good team builder, you have to know how to market yourself, you have to understand the business and contracts and all those other pieces that are part of it. And so I think they’re just as important as sheer driving skill. It’s all part of that package.
#4. Be careful where you get your advice.
Racers HQ: Where can an aspiring driver go to improve those necessary skills beyond driving? And how do you avoid bad advice? The internet is a truly amazing resource, but anyone with a keyboard can become an “expert.”
Ross: There are some people out there who offer motorsport marketing services. There’s only one or two of them that I actually trust. This whole sport is driven by passion. People will get into the business of motorsport marketing and they’re very, very, very passionate about it, but they’re not always strong business people. And so I think it’s difficult, from that perspective, to find the best quality people.
I think if you’re going to look for career advice, business advice, or motorsport marketing and sponsorship advice, you really need to look at to who you’re getting involved with and look at their background. Look at their reputation, look how long they’ve been around, look what they’ve done. Because I hate to say this, but there are more bad ones than there are good ones out there.
I can tell you from experience that free isn’t always free. I’ve had free. I’ve had free things cost me a lot of money in the end. You have to take your time and really sort through it and not just jump at something because, hey, it’s free. You’re right, I mean a lot of people can just sit down on the keyboard and all of a sudden put a bunch of content and go, “I’m now an expert.”
And again that’s great because it’s getting more information out there to people. But just because it’s out there and it’s available it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right stuff.
One of the things that you’re doing really well is you’re collecting information and you’re working with and learning from a lot of other people. And I did that at the beginning. It was hard. In a way it was harder because I couldn’t just Google somebody. And I don’t mean I was anything better because I got through that.
But I think what you’re doing really well is you are learning and you’re not just saying, “Hey, I’m the expert.” You’re saying, “I’ve learned a lot and here’s some other experts that you can learn from.” And it’s something that I’m trying to do more and more. I’m doing more webinars where I work with other coaches. They are a blast because I’m learning as much as anybody else is.
#5. You may not need to know the technical stuff. But you should.
Racers HQ: Well I genuinely appreciate the positive feedback, that means a lot coming from you. So we’ve talked about versatility away from the track, and I’ve been dying to ask you this question: how important is it for a driver to be technically savvy, understand basic engineering, and to communicate effectively with his crew?
Ross Bentley: I think it depends a lot on your funding. If you have a lot of money to fund a racing career where you’re going to be driving for the best teams with really strong engineering staff, you can get away with knowing a little bit less. But if you’re having to come up with some of the developments, some of the engineering, or some of the car setup work by yourself then obviously you’re going to need to learn more.
And I think a great example of that back in the late 90’s I was driving a prototype car at Daytona in the 24 hour race. The team owner hired Danny Sullivan. Danny Sullivan spin and win, an Indy 500 winner who drove for Penske. An Indy 500 Penske guy as my co-driver. And at one point he drove the car, came in, I get in the car, go out, I come back in and I go, “So Danny, I think we need more front rebound in the shocks because of this.” And he just looks at me and goes, “I don’t even know what a spark plug is. So don’t talk to me about any of that stuff.” He says, “I don’t care. Fix it.”
And I kind of went…wow. I always thought a guy like him would know be really heavy into the technical stuff. So I think what it shows is that we all have strengths and weaknesses. The more complete a package you are, the more complete a driver you are. I wrote a whole book on that, to better your chances of making it.
So can somebody make it to the very top and drive for Roger Penske not knowing what rebound shock is? Yes, they can. But you decrease your chances of making it. Do I recommend that every young driver reads every Carroll Smith book ever written? Yes, I do recommend that they understand and have a solid understanding of the engineering and car setup stuff. Because it’ll just make you more valuable along the way.
And again, the job description says you have to drive fast, you have to know the marketing side, you need to know how PR works, you need to know the business side and contracts, and you need to know the technical side. And the more complete a package you are, the more complete a driver you are and the more likely it is that you’re going to have a career as a race driver.
Racers HQ: Danny Sullivan is a legend, there’s no question. How much better do you think Danny would have been had he really understood all the technology he was working with?
Ross: Good question. It’s hard to say because there are some drivers who are fast because they don’t think too much. And the best drivers in the world have this great balance of being analytical up to a certain point and then they turn their brains off and they drive stupid.
And I mean that in a good way. In fact, I use that term a lot of times. Some drivers over think things and I just say to them, “Drive stupid.” And the best drivers have that ability to be very analytical and help set up the car in the very beginning. But when it comes to the race, just turn that off and drive the wheels off the thing.
And if Danny Sullivan had sat down and studied engineering and all that kind of stuff, would it taken some of his ability to just let go and drive? Sometimes that happens. So I can’t say it would have him better, but I still believe that if he had a better in-depth knowledge of the engineering and car set-up, he could have even been even better still, as long as it didn’t get in the way.
Again, the more complete you are the better your chances. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. Danny Sullivan’s strengths? He was an incredible networker, he was incredibly promotable, he was great with sponsors. He was better with all that stuff than most other drivers were in that area. And that helped to make up for the lack of his technical knowledge. If he had lacked that then his lack of technical knowledge would have really hurt his career. But he made it up for by being so strong in another area.
#6. Take advantage of new resources as they come along.
Racers HQ: So you’ve been doing this for quite some time now, and I like the way you’ve taken advantage of how technology has changed over the years. I think to stay ahead and continue being relevant and successful, a person has to stay innovative. How has the internet changed the coaching world for you?
Ross: I just look at everything as another tool that I can use. At one point in time the main tool was my eyes and my words. Now I just have more tools to work with. I guess on one hand it’s become easier for other people to get involved and do coaching. I guess that’s a good and a bad thing because it’s allowed more people to get involved in doing that, which is needed. But on the other hand it’s made it so that anybody could kind of put their cap on and say, “Now I’m a driver coach.”
The stuff that I’ve been doing more recently online, and that part of it I think is for me personally, is super exciting because I get a kick out of is sharing what I’ve been able to learn and if I’m out there coaching one driver, having an impact on one person. When I do a e-course online or webinar or something like that, I can have an impact on thousands of people so that’s what I love about it.
#7. Novice and professional racers aren’t that different.
Racers HQ: What have you learned from coaching both novice racers and professional racing drivers?
Ross: I get as much of a kick out of going and working with a novice HPDE high-performance driver education student as I do working with a pro driver. They’re different in some ways and yet surprisingly similar in other ways.
You would think of a novice coming in, being nervous, and not being very confident. But you’d be surprised at how many elite level pros are nervous and not as confident as you would think. You start looking at the basic skills and a lot of people think that elite level pros are special, that they’re getting paid because they have some super secret thing that they do.
Like something deep and complicated is going on inside the car. And it’s not true. The very, very best drivers in the world, they just do the basics better than anybody else does, and so I can find myself one weekend working with an elite-level pro, talking about the exact same thing that I talk to a novice HPDE student the following weekend.
If somebody told me that years ago I would have said no way. But it’s something that I’ve discovered to be true. They aren’t so different.
#8. You’re not entitled to success. If you ever stop learning, you lose.
Racers HQ: So you’ve obviously coached all types of levels and skills. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see in people’s racing careers? Not necessarily on the track, but in their careers.
Ross Bentley: Well, I think the number one thing is relying on talent to get them somewhere. The number one thing I see is driver is going, “I’m fast. Therefore somebody should drop a car in front of me and say drive it.” And with a load of cash attached to it saying, “We’re paying you to do this.” We could talk all day long about how much talent somebody was born with and how much they can build.
But the bottom line is that most of us were born with about the same amount of talent. And it’s what you do with that talent that makes a difference.
And I’d say the best drivers in every form of motorsport, from rally to NASCAR, from Indy cars to sports cars and drag racing and motorcycle racing, the very, very best work harder than most people ever imagined. So I’d say the biggest mistake that most drivers make is thinking, “I’m fast,” and then they coast and they don’t focus on learning to be better.
I’d say number two is the reluctance to focus on the mental game. Some drivers are almost to the point where they’re kind of like, “Well, if I focus on the mental game that must mean that there’s something wrong with me.” But again the very, very best work up their minds as much as they do their bodies. One of the things I do is put people on mental fitness training programs.
#9. How you release the brakes divides the best from rest.
Racers HQ: And what about physical driving techniques? What are some common errors you see?
Ross: From a pure technique perspective, it’s the lack of awareness of what you can do to a car if you get the brake release right. I could go on for days just talking about how to release the brake pedal properly. But most drivers drive the line about right. Most drivers kind of get on the throttle around the right time. And most drivers are actually close to braking at the same place. But what drivers do at the end of braking as they release the brakes, as they’re coming into the corner, that’s where the magic happens.
Mark Donohue once said that “driving a car at the limit in a corner is like tightrope-walking. Entering a corner with the car on the limit is like jumping onto a tightrope blindfolded.” That’s perfect, because once you’re in a corner you can kind of go, “Okay, I have this amount of grip. I can use this amount of acceleration or throttle.”
But coming into a corner it’s like, how much grip do I have? It’s like jumping onto a tightrope blindfolded. And that’s where there’s a difference between the best and the rest. It’s in that area – that corner entry section.
#10. Your situation doesn’t matter. If you want to be a pro racer, you can.
Racers HQ: OK, let’s get to something very tactical. The majority of Racers HQ followers are underfunded. So imagine you were starting over as a very determined aspiring driver with all the knowledge you have now. If all you had was a mid 90’s Miata and $2,000, what would your plan be?
It really is a great question. So can I make the assumption that I still wanted to race Indy cars and I wanted to race prototype sports cars?
Racers HQ: Absolutely.
Ross: If it was today, I would look at how to get involved with the Mazda Road to Indy or the Mazda Road to 24 program. And I would look at that and go, “Okay, how am I going to do that?” I’ve got a couple of different options. One option would be sell the Miata, get whatever cash could out of that. And I’m going to work to get myself into a position where I’d get invited to the Mazda Shootout and have a shot at proving myself to see if I can be selected to get a scholarship from them.
Mazda is doing some really, really cool stuff helping young racers along in the sport. It’s the best opportunity right now for young drivers. So I’d look at that and go, “How can I take what I have right now and turn that into something?” And I would do a lot of things that don’t cost any money or very little money, and that’s a lot of networking. I’d figure out how to get myself connected with the right people.
In fact, that’s probably almost the very first thing I would do. I had one of those “ah ha!” moments in my career where I’d been pounding on doors, looking for sponsorship, trying to find money to fund my racing. There was an article I read somewhere, I think it was in a business magazine and it was about networking, and it was focused on people who need help from other people. I kind of went, “That’s what I need to do.”
I spent a year focused less on looking for money and more at how can I get myself connected to more people. As I shared my passion and my commitment and my willingness to do whatever it takes to make it to the top, a bunch of those people started going, “We’d like to help you.” And all of a sudden they started to help me. I wasn’t at the point where I could stop looking for money, but they helped me look for money. And that was a big big turning point in my career. I wish I’d learned that earlier.
I was overly focused on the how to put a good marketing program together that benefited that company. And that’s important and it was a good education. But the second I really started to work on how could I build the team of people around me, things changed. I learned do it in a way that inspired people around me to want to help me. And you know what? That doesn’t cost anything.
I’m a very, very introverted person. So to put myself out in front of a lot of people and force myself to go to networking and business events was really, really uncomfortable. But I looked at that and went, “Okay, I can either do that and be uncomfortable or I can sit at home and whine and complain that I’m not driving a racecar.”
I’ve talked to people that say, “I’ve never driven a racecar. But I have a Miata in the driveway and I have $2,000.” For that person the answer would be a little different. It might be go autocross every single weekend. You’ve got to get some seat time, you’ve got to drive, you’ve got to learn the craft. In some ways it’s actually gotten less expensive to start racing. And the main reason I say that is because autocrossing has always been reasonably inexpensive.
But there’s this whole world of affordable endurance racing. Everything from Lemons to Chump Car to World Racing League, you know what I mean. And they’ve made it so it’s relatively easy to go and get some of that experience. So if you don’t have some basic skills, some of the craft already developed you need to go and do that. Just go and drive stuff. Between karting, autocrossing and affordable low budget endurance racing, you can learn an awful lot of your craft there.
Ross Bentley Interview Summary
I want to extend a final thank you to Ross Bentley for providing this valuable information and insist that you investigate his Speed Secrets book series. I’m not an affiliate for his company and I don’t make any money by recommending his products. But I do own multiple books he’s written and the content is worth far more than the price tag.
I got three huge takeaways from this interview:
- Did you catch that part about how pro racers and novices aren’t that different? This completely blew me away when he said it. But the further I dive into this industry the more I see that being true.
- The best racers on earth are only better than novices because they’ve mastered the basics at a very high level.
- Braking is what separates hobby drivers and elite drivers. It’s not when you apply the brake or how hard to press it. It’s how you release the brakes at the end of deceleration.
All the best,