There are plenty of forms of motorsports to make that jump from fan to driver. My own path started with autocross. Autocross is a great way to get started. While race tracks are usually far away from big population centers Autocross events typically take place in giant parking lots, and are often much closer to home (At Least if you live in a dense state like me).
If you don’t know what autocross is, google it, check out some youtube videos too. Autocross is a time trial race with a temporary racetrack mapped out by cones in a large parking lot. Cars race one at a time through the course, fighting for the lowest time. Speeds are pretty low, hitting third gear is rare. However, these tiny tracks are super tight and pack a ton of turns in a 40-60 second course. Doing so much in such a small space teaches a lot of car control very quickly. Entry fees are lower (typically around $50 but can be nearly as high as $100 in certain areas) and you can race with almost anything with 4 wheels that isn’t a high-centered SUV.
Autocross is competitive. At a HPDE track day, you turn laps but aren’t fighting for position and don’t get officially timed. Autocross is a timed event; no experience or special license required. You will not be kicked out or shamed if you are off pace (It is expected for newer drivers) but as you get better and faster, the competition becomes a lot of fun.
Autocross isn’t perfect: While it is cheap and accessible you don’t end up with much time behind the wheel. In my area the norm seems to be around 8 runs (individual laps) in a day, with each run typically lasting 40-60 seconds . That’s about 8 minutes behind the wheel in anger… It’s still WAY more seat time than if you went drag racing, but it doesn’t even come close to comparing to a track day. Also, at an autocross ALL drivers are expected to work for some portion of the day. Most of these work assignments involve “shagging cones”. With shagging cones you will be standing (at a safe point) near the track, and if a passing car moves or knocks down any cones, it’s your job to run out and fix them before the next car comes. It is fun out there, you get to be pretty close to fast cars driving near, at, or over the limit….. but expect these assignments to last over an hour, sometimes two hours and it can get tedious. Bring water and sunscreen.
You will hear mixed things about track days from the regulars at an autocross. Some are track people looking to get their adrenaline fix on weekends when there are no track events. If you talk to them, they’ll encourage you to keep autocrossing, but also come out to a track day.
On the other side of that coin: Back when I autocrossed, I met a very surprising amount of skilled, fast drivers who seem scared of driving on a track. These people initially scared me away from track days. I heard that a car needs to be absolutely stripped and rebuilt with all brand new components to be “ready” for a track. I heard from others that it’s not a matter if if you wreck your car, but when. Don’t let these people scare you away. Sure, track days are not without risks, but don’t let exaggerated anecdotal evidence scare you off.
Some local clubs putting on Autocrosses in my area: Motorsports Northeast, SCCA, BMW Car Club of America, Porsche Club.
Autocross is a great way to get involved with driving, It’s initial lower cost of entry and smaller time commitment may fit your schedule and budget, but at the cost of speed and seat time: