How do I make a career out of test-driving high-performance cars for, say, BMW's M Division and so forth?
January 25, 2012 10:52 PM   Subscribe

How do I break into a career of test driving vehicles for the performance divisions of luxury automakers (BMW's M division, Mercedes' AMG division, Porsche, etc)?

I love driving, period. My passion is cars and I could spend all day talking about them.

Nothing gets me more excited than driving a well-balanced, fast car. In fact, I have a stable, corporate job that pays the bills, but I am interested in becoming a valet driver for the sole sake of driving (parking) amazing vehicles.

I would love to be one of those test-driver technicians for a luxury car maker who drives the cars around a track, gives feedback on suspension settings, engine tunes, etc.

How do I go about doing that?
posted by 6spd to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Win a few formula 1 or world rally championship races, then talk to your sponsors.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:58 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Become a performance automobile journalist.
posted by Kerasia at 11:20 PM on January 25, 2012

Best answer: To be a bit less condescending, I have a friend who writes articles like this one for a living. It's not quite what you want to do. In fact, if anything, it's less exclusive.

He has lived and breathed cars for as long as I've known him. I remember him buying a project Porsche 914 when we were in high school. He has an old Fiat, or most of one, in his garage right now, I think eventually it might be a race car. His Facebook photos are of him at concours shows and driving Shelby Cobras up the PCH or Subaru XVs around Italy. This is what he's been doing for the past 15 years. Finding the best cars he can get access to, and the best car people he can get access to, and driving them, fixing them, modifying them, restoring them, and making friends with them and meeting their friends. There are lots of people who want jobs like this, and not very many jobs available so it's competitive. You need to convince the guys who hold the jobs that out of all the car aficionados out there, you're the one they want to hire. And first, you have to meet them - so spend a decade or so attending their car shows and amateur race days and fixing up cars to show yourself and basically just dedicate your life to cars and get to know this community and eventually someone might say "yeah, 6spd is pretty good, why don't you give him that entry-level part-time spot?" and then spend another half a decade moving up to the position you actually want.

The question you're asking is a lot like, "how do I become a rock star?" its not by going to rock star school, but by playing a lot of music, in places where people will see you, and doing a good job of it, possibly for years before you make any appreciable money at it at all.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:32 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

^thats a great answer, I was going to chime in with some variation of the same.
You will need to promote yourself to the right people, the engineers in charge of testing cars. Among the qualifications it will be good to have are race wins - more is better. The engineers have a job to do, they are contracting out the testing of the car (whether or not the driver is on salary), so be the best subcontractor.
This would likely mean you would have to quit your day job. Perhaps journalism would be a more feasible way of getting hands on the wheel.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:45 PM on January 25, 2012

Oh, and this friend of mine -- he wrote for our high school newspaper, and he wrote for his college newspaper, and he's been writing ever since, so he's been just as dedicated to journalism for just as long.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:50 PM on January 25, 2012

As I recall, test drivers for car companies are often themselves automotive engineers.
posted by Good Brain at 12:17 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

One route is to be a racing driver. But you need to have some kind of an engineering or mechanical interest to then transition into manufacturing because as the test driver you need to be able to talk directly to engineers to help them make the car better.

This is a common path, but there is more than one type. There are retained test drivers, who are generally company employees. There are also non-retained drivers, who still race, or in some cases who teach at driving circuits - the driving circuits, or places (for winter or desert conditions) used by the manufacturers to test their vehicles.

A really bog standard route is simply to be a good engineer, apply to one of the companies in question and then internally move into the performance divisions. You won't be a test driver as such, but you'll spend a lot of time test driving the cars.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:17 AM on January 26, 2012

To build on what MuffinMan said, a friend of mine gets to test drive for an F1 team with a supercar division, but he gets to do that because he helps to design the stuff under the bonnet in their supercars.

He's not a good engineer, he's an insanely, breathtakingly great engineer. He gets late night calls from F1 team bosses trying to headhunt him.

This was his plan since he was about 12, and every choice he's made about hobbies, university, summer internships etc. was leading up to being a lead engineer at this organisation.

But he worked at their F1 team for a decade before getting near the road cars and then getting near test driving, so it's a long haul. You could say it took him more than 20 years to get behind the wheel on a test track. He spent those 20 years getting a reputation and getting trusted by the people who would hand him the keys - both in his ability not to crash the thing and his ability to come off the track and help them make a great car even better.
posted by dowcrag at 1:51 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

... and the only other people who get handed the keys are clones of him or F1 drivers. God knows I've tried...
posted by dowcrag at 1:53 AM on January 26, 2012

I know somebody that has dedicated his life to racing - he started winning at the go-kart level as a kid and a couple of years ago was second in the Indy Lights series. He still couldn't stir up a ride at all last year, and he is still not making a living racing or driving. If you want a dream job like driving awesome cars for a living, you have to dedicate you life to it, and then you still need to get lucky.

Which is to say it's probably too late for you to have any realistic chance of making a living at it. At a minimum, I think you'll need to go back and get an automotive engineering degree, then start at the bottom and work your way up to the cool jobs. Of course, you'll be competing against all those people that have dedicated their lives to cars since they were 12 years old, and also have the degree, plus 20 years experience.

You should probably use your nice stable corporate job to fund your hobby of driving awesome cars. Get yourself a used Porsche and join the Porsche Club of America.
posted by COD at 5:51 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As I recall, test drivers for car companies are often themselves automotive engineers.

I know a few people that do this (surprise). This is very much like the answer above that states that you are asking "How do I be a successful Rock Star". It's that rare and tough to get into and if you don't have the natural talent, you are wasting your time. The types of people that get this kind of role are the following:

Professional Engineers - two of my friends that got to do a little of this worked as designers/suspension analysts in an automotive consultancy. After several years of working hard they got promoted to the point they were able to do some of the actual driving. However, they still had professional test drivers for a lot of the stuff and even now, where one of them is the head of chassis development at a very successful automotive consultancy, they only get to drive occasionally and not so often on a track. Driving the cars is a fraction of their job and they had to be very good Engineers to get to that level. Their evaluation comes from professional drivers doing professional testing.

Incidentally, the boring ride quality stuff usually gets done by the Engineers. The technicians will only get to do the long haul reliability testing and even then only the truly trusted (likely head technicians) will get that gig as it is the real perk of the job and you need a tech crew anyway, so it makes sense for the techs to be driving. The perfomance driving (which is a smaller proportion of the development) falls into category two:

Ex-racing drivers - While I do know of one or two that started out as engineers and showed a particular talent for vehicle analysis (well, two and one of them was 10 years ago so this is RARE in a rare field) usually the kind of drivers that people use are established, pedigree race drivers with lots of years of vehicle development. It's actually not always the race winner, excellent drivers that get these gigs as a winning driver and a good development driver are not at all the same thing necessarily. A natural understanding of the physics and ability to translate the tiniest feeling and interpret it correctly is essential.

Schumacher, Button, Perry McCarthy (Stig 1), Ben Collins (Stig 2), Darren Turner - Good development drivers. (Google any you don't know!).

Hamilton, Senna, Mansell - not so much.

Even then, the drivers that get these gigs are usually 10 years into their professional experience (ie full time racing at a high level) at the very least, so they need to have been doing something with relevant technology and development of such to have applicable skills (ie NASCAR, Dirt track and loose surface specialists are no use).

The kind of person that gives good, accurate and quality feedback is a rare, rare commodity. They are usually exceptional drivers (and I use that in my context as a professional race engineer, not the lay person context of exceptional). They need to be able to drive at the limit of a car and constantly analyse it (it takes a decent chunk of brain power) accurately and (more importantly) repeatably and consistently. It's bloody tough.

In short, like a Rock Star, this is not something you can train to do. This is something you need to show and develop a natural talent for. Do some racing (start with karting - proper stuff, not the rent by the hour crap) and if you start winning at that then you're not wasting your time. From there,

1: either become a very good auto technician if you just want to drive the cars and work your way into a top flight company against all the hundreds of thousands of other top rate mechanics with years of experience. Good luck with that, think of getting to drive the cars in around 10 years at the least. And even then it's likely if you speed you'll lose your job.

2: Gain and demonstrate a 7-10 year moderately successful racing career showing lots of good chassis development and then find one of the Hen's Teeth jobs with a manufacturer (any manufacturer) to get some development driving in. Likely you'll have to do contract work here and there and be available at all times. You'll need a second job to support you that is completely flexible while you wait at the beck and call of the manufacturer.

In short, you are (in the nicest way) dreaming. Your best chance of driving a fast car as someone with 'a stable, corporate job that pays the bills' is to work harder at that and do one of those track day experiences or just track day your own car. The chances of you being paid to do something like that are I hope we have now demonstrated, almost vanishingly small unless you have a lot of money to invest in your experience gaining plus natural talent, plus lots of time, plus a lot of luck. There are so many superb drivers that will be good for dev driving that don't work out. You have to fight it out with them, too...
posted by Brockles at 5:54 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I know somebody that has dedicated his life to racing - he started winning at the go-kart level as a kid and a couple of years ago was second in the Indy Lights series.

Trying to work out who that is - Antinucci? I didn't know he wasn't set for this year. He's a pretty decent shoe.

Indy Lights is a relatively high level championship and is a perfect example of how hard it is to progress in racing - it will likely have cost each of the top ten drivers the following to be near the top in Indy Lights:

7 years of karting all over the US (at a bare minimum) - costs of say $40 ramping to $75K a year.
2 years of FBMW/USF2000 - $300K per year average
2 years of FMazda - $400K per year

Then you get into Indy lights, which is around $5-700K per year.

So to get the kind of experience that is pretty much unsellable still and won't even guarantee any sort of vehicle related job costs something in the 2 million dollar range plus living costs and travel for the 12 years it took you to get there. Just to throw some perspective out there...
posted by Brockles at 6:15 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

...was second in the Indy Lights series

Correcting myself. He was 2nd in the Atlantic Championship series. He has finished 2nd in an Indy Lights race, but has only run a few races in the Indy Lights series, so far.

But the point holds. This kid is a real racing talent, and he is having a very hard time finding a way to make a living behind the wheel (or just around) race cars.
posted by COD at 6:49 AM on January 26, 2012

Best answer: I had a look back at your question history. It seems you're very young and quite well off.

It also seems you're starting from a pretty low base, knowledge-wise, of what motorsport is like. So I might err on the side of telling you things you already know, but if you're keen to start driving a lot, then I'd suggest starting off with something like 24 hours of Lemons. You'll need people to enter with, but if you go along to one with a paddock pass, I imagine you'd be able to get involved somewhere with one team for the next one, if only helping with a trailer to get the car there or something.

And yeah, that would probably be a good starting point to learn some technicians and see where you could fit in doing something, or get enough of a life driving that you fit your career around it.
posted by ambrosen at 12:30 PM on January 26, 2012

Response by poster: Le sigh. I guess I was dreaming. Thank you to everyone for the insightful answers.

New question: who wants to start a supercar rental club with me?
posted by 6spd at 2:36 PM on January 26, 2012

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