From a state known for NASCAR, this Raleigh driver chose a different road

Tom Long will race at Virginia International Raceway on Saturday afternoon.
Tom Long will race at Virginia International Raceway on Saturday afternoon.

Raised in the state that has produced NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tom Long grew up with a natural affinity for driving. Spurred in part by his dad’s interest in racing, Long’s passion for the sport has been present for as long as he can remember, but it manifested itself in a non-traditional way.

When he was 16 and just old enough to drive, Long’s father would take him just across the state border to Alton, Va., where he practiced with the family’s Honda Civic on road courses at the Virginia International Raceway. There, Long, who ran cross country and track at Millbrook High, fell in love with the winding roadway and its twists and turns.

Now 36, Long remains fully committed to a path different than that of the Earnhardts. Rather than drive a stock car repeatedly in a circle, the Raleigh native decided he’d rather race sports cars on open road courses.

“Growing up I always enjoyed all types of racing, but road courses are really what got me excited,” Long said. “Watching races where there were various types of corners, through the woods, up over hills, lots of elevation, just a lot of different types of challenges. That’s what VIR is, so getting the opportunity to start my driving career there, it was kind of just a natural progression.”

Sports car racing involves drivers of the International Motor Sports Association racing high-performance cars like Porsches, Audis and Mercedes.

The IMSA racing circuit largely mirrors that of NASCAR and IndyCar by having multiple competitions -- the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. Winners of each are decided by point totals accumulated during a season’s worth of races that reward more points to higher finishes.

Long entered the professional racing scene in 2007, starting off in the Continental Tire series. In 2009, he began racing part-time in the WeatherTech circuit, considered IMSA’s first tier of racing, before competing in the WeatherTech series full-time in 2013. At the start of the 2018 season back in January, Long switched back over to the Continental Tires SportsCar Challenge, now racing full-time in IMSA’s second tier.

In the Continental Tires series, Long and his co-driver Britt Casey Jr. are currently second in the standings, just two points out of first place with only three out of the season’s 10 races to go.

The cost of racing

Eleven years ago, Long was first able to enter into the SportsCar racing scene by selling his Honda Civic and saving up for a Mazda MX-5.

“I ended up selling the Honda and getting the Mazda with aspirations to move into this professional series and knew that was probably the best bang for the buck,” Long said. “That really is what catapulted my driving and honing my skills to move into professional racing.”

Buying and racing high-performance sports cars can be expensive. A 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata ranges from about $25,000 to $30,000, according to Mazda’s website. A Porsche 911 GTS costs between $120,000 and $140,000.

However, once established on the professional level, the affordability of the cars becomes far from the primary financial concern. Long now races for a team that competes with an Audi RS3 and occupies a role strictly as a driver -- so he’s no longer burdened with the cost of the vehicle.

Eleven years ago, Tom Long was first able to enter into the SportsCar racing scene by selling his Honda Civic and saving up for a Mazda MX-5. Courtesy IMSA

The team Long races for covers the cost of the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expenses that is needed for the car, tires, engines, fuel, etc., according to Michael Ballaban of in a report by NBC Chicago. Instead, drivers on the IMSA circuit are concerned with purse sizes.

SportsCar drivers make less than NASCAR drivers. Even the most successful IMSA drivers would struggle to make a living off of prize money alone.

In 2015, the last year NASCAR publicly published purse totals, Joey Logano made $1.5 million for his victory at the Daytona 500. According to the IMSA website, the winner of a Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race driving Long’s class of car would make $10,000.

“The purse is not quite as big as what you would find in NASCAR,” Long said. “The purses are typically in the five-figure range rather than the six- or seven-figure range.”

Even then, Long explained that unlike in the NASCAR circuit, drivers in his profession don’t usually directly receive prize money, but instead earn a yearly salary from their teams.

Long says its more about the passion for the sport than the money, and thus, even in the midst of his most successful season, Long says he must work as a driving coach to supplement his earnings as a professional.

“The way I create a profession around racing beyond just driving is I’m actually also a driving coach,” Long said. “Similar to a tennis or a golf pro, I spend a lot of time at VIR and other various tracks helping whether it’s up-and-coming drivers or hobbyist businessmen that have a nice sports car that they want to learn more about.”

Long’s time as a driving instructor has done more than just allow him to keep racing at the professional level. It’s made him better at it.

“It’s kind of one of those opportunities where if you can explain something to somebody and get them to learn it, then it’s obvious that you really know your craft,” Long said. “It makes you a better driver and a better overall communicator about the sport. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s basically been the way for me to make it a full-time career rather than just part-time racing.”

Home again

On Aug. 18, Long, who now lives in Rock Hill, S.C., will race in the typically two-hour-long Biscuitville Grand Prix at VIR, the course that made him fall in love with racing.

Long considers VIR to be his home course, and he’ll need every advantage that racing on a familiar track can provide, as he and his partner Casey will hope to add to their season point total of 223 in an effort to make up ground on the pair of drivers that sit just a couple of points ahead.

Long hopes the race will attract a big turnout, maintaining that the 1300-acre property provides one of the best overall viewing experiences for spectators.

“It’s just a huge, hundreds of acres of park, so people camp overnight whether that’s in motorhomes or tents or the hotels they have outside or whatever,” Long said about VIR. “It’s quite a spectacle when you get on campus, if you will. You don’t have to leave the entire weekend which is pretty unique. Growing up at VIR, it’s always a special place to come race.”

Long hopes his time in the motorsports industry is nowhere close to coming to an end. Interested in the manufacturing and development aspect of sports cars, he looks to one day transition to that side of the business.

In the meantime, Long is looking to return to the top of his sport and race once again in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the pinnacle of U.S. sports car racing in the prototype category,” Long said. “I certainly would enjoy getting back to that level when the opportunity presents itself. Ultimately, I think there’s certain projects that I’m aligned with the manufacturer that are fun to work on, and that’s my goal - to continue the longevity of my career in motorsports and be able to call it a real job.”

If you go

What: IMSA SportsCar races at the VIRginia International Raceway

When: Friday through Sunday. Long will race on Saturday at 2:05 p.m.

Where: VIRginia International Raceway, 1245 Pine Tree Road, Alton, Va

Cost: Three-day tickets range from $75 to $85. A Saturday pass costs between $50 and $60.

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