How To Race Your Car: Part 2
Pick your poison – whether it’s a full-throttle blitz down the quarter mile, heavy trail braking at the autocross, a frenzied dice on the road course, a driveline-thrashing clutch kick at the drift event, or gravel-chucking insanity in a rally car, racing can transform even the most mild-mannered citizen into a superhero.
The truth is a lot of people have the desire, but end up couching it for one reason or another. Expense, accessibility, even intimidation can keep would-be racers at home. But here’s the thing – taking your passion to its limits is easier than you might think.
In Part 1 of this series, I gave a general overview of different entry-level motorsports, a few of the more prominent race organizations operating in the U.S., what to bring to the track, and what to expect once you get there.
For Part 2, I’ll dig a little deeper into the specifics of amateur auto racing, including car suggestions, a breakdown of costs, and an analysis of modifications.
Continue reading to learn more about how to race your car.
In each of the following sections, you’ll find a few of the cars that’ll shine in each respective motorsport, including what makes them so good, how much it’ll cost to pick one up on the used market, a few top alternatives, priorities when thinking about modifications, and where to race.
One caveat before I jump into this: just because your car isn’t listed under a category doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of performing well in that particular sport. Anything can be fast – all it takes is a little research and creativity. That said, some rides are just natural fits for certain activities.
Finally, before you go off and build your own race car, consider purchasing something that’s already seen competition. It might save you a lot of money and more than a few headaches in the long run.
TopSpeed Recommends: ’87-’93 Ford Mustang 5.0
Why: Lightweight, gargantuan aftermarket support, and five liters of displacement that make more power just by looking at them funny. Simple, effective, and brutally fast with the right parts. This is the quintessential drag racer, and it’s just begging to get hot-rodded. The trick is finding one in stock condition from a “responsible” owner.
Try to pay: $3,500 - $8,000
Modifications: Weight should be your first concern. Strip the interior of anything unnecessary, including the spare wheel, rear seats, cheeseburger wrappers, etc. Next, look into a set of sticky drag radials. You might need a pair of new wheels to mount them, so budget appropriately. Next, maximize your newfound traction with a few suspension tweaks. Just do a little research – you should find the right set-up for your application and goals without too much hassle, depending on your dragster of choice. After that, start adding power – do you want to go forced induction? Nitrous? All motor? The possibilities are practically limitless.
Series: Check local tracks. Start with a test-and-tune night and see what it’s like. If you want more, read up on bracket racing and start asking the regulars about organized competition. But be warned — the next step might require a dedicated race car.
Why: Incredibly low curb weight, pocket-sized dimensions, and a suspension capable of ripping your face off when done right. This was the generation that Honda blessed with double-wishbones at all four corners. Translation – throw on gummy tires and get ready to run. Autocross is all about carrying speed rather than making it, which means this nippy front-wheeler should fit the bill quite nicely.
Try to pay: $2,000 - $4,000
Modifications: Weight first. Every pound saved will make a difference in the corners, especially if you start with a lightweight platform. Next, get the grippiest tires you can, possibly upgrading the wheels while you’re at it. Next, look at the brakes – the better rubber means you can actually take advantage of high-end stoppers. Finally, dig into the suspension. Anything squishy and old (like bushings and shocks) should be replaced with something new and solid. You can add power eventually, but it’s not nearly as important as the other upgrades. When you do go under the hood, look for something that’ll provide linear delivery with lots of bottom end, i.e. superchargers, not peaky turbos.
Series: Regional SCCA autocross events (also called “Solo”) typically cost between $25 and $45 for entry, while NASA’s autocross events (NASA-X) cost between $35 and $75. Check out each organization’s website for scheduling information. Also look into local car clubs to see if you can dig up some grassroots fun.
TopSpeed Recommends: ’92-’99 BMW 3 Series
Why: Bimmer’s E36 is one of the best handling chassis ever made. Period. Engine up front, power in the rear, this thing helped define the German automaker as a modern producer of vehicles with serious sporting intent. Every trim level has potential, and upgrades are both relatively cheap and surprisingly effective. Strip out some weight, throw on some decent rubber, and hold on. Just stay away from the convertibles.
Try to pay: $3,000 - $6,000
Modifications: First and foremost, take out all unnecessary weight (see a trend here?). After the diet, look at safety gear. Any sort of wheel-to-wheel or high-speed lapping event will require stuff like a roll cage ($2,000 to $5,000), a racing harness ($100 to $500), a window net ($20 to $100), and a fire suppression system ($400 to $600). These are the kinds of parts that will transform your car into an uncivilized track rat (for example, running a caged car on the street without a helmet is a recipe for spilled brain matter), but that’s the price you gotta pay for unlimited speed. Of course, if you’re just interested in HPDEs, you don’t need to worry about any of that. Just run what you got, and if you like it, budget for the next step.
After cutting weight and meeting safety standards, upgrade the tires, then the brakes, then the suspension. Only after you’ve dialed in your handling package will it be time to put money into your engine. Adding horsepower right out of the box is incredibly tempting, but trust me – getting a few extra mph at the exit of a corner is much more effective than at the end of a straight. Plus, more power will usually bump you up to a faster class, and it’s bad times if you’re stuck at the back because your car isn’t handling like it should.
Series: Start with SCCA and NASA HPDEs, and work up from there. You can also find smaller organizations running similar events, like Speed Ventures, but SCCA and NASA are the most common. The HPDE is specifically designed to help novice racers progress and improve, so don’t worry if you’re totally new to the sport. They also help you sort out any issues you might have with your car and should give you a better handle on the sort of expenses to expect at the higher levels. Stick with it, budget appropriately, stay away from the tire wall, and you’ll be diving for the inside line in no time.
TopSpeed Recommends: ’89-’98 Nissan 240SX (S13/S14)
Why: Anyone even remotely familiar with drifting should’ve seen this one coming. The 240SX, also called the “Silvia” in Japan, is incredibly popular among the sliding set thanks to its well-sorted FR chassis, an advanced and highly tunable suspension layout, and a multiplicity of engine swap options. Some of the more popular powerplants include the JDM-spec 2.0-liter turbo SR20DET and an LS V-8.
Unfortunately, drifting’s rise in popularity has brought with it increased demand for this superb little two-door (aka the “drift tax”), so finding a clean, low-mileage example for anything less than an arm and a leg will be a stretch.
Try to pay: $4,000 - $8,000
Top alternatives: BMW E36, Nissan Z, Toyota AE86, Ford Mustang
Modifications: At the outset, building a drift car is not dissimilar to building a road racer – weight and safety should be your first priorities. Brakes and tires are next, followed by suspension bits with as much adjustability as possible. To keep the rear tires spinning in harmony, upgrade the rear diff with a limited-slip unit. If cost is an issue, you can always weld your open diff for a few hundred bucks (or do it yourself!). Under-hood muscle should be a top priority. You’re going to want a nice, fat torque curve to help you modulate angle, because after all, you’ll be steering with your right foot just as much as your hands.
Drifting is a sport of exhibition – it’s all about impressing the judges, right? With that in mind, you might consider a decent paint job and body kit to be good investments. My advice: stay away. The pros have those things because they have sponsors, and when they crash, fixing the problem is usually just a phone call away. Rather than a clear coat, anyone without corporate backing should instead think about bash bars to protect things like radiators and intercoolers. I don’t care who you are – if you’re drifting, you’re gonna hit something solid eventually. If you don’t, well… you aren’t trying hard enough.
Series: While finding a cherry 240SX might be close to impossible now that even your Grandma has a Keiichi Tsuchiya poster, the upside is a proliferation of amateur events throughout the country. Entry fees are minimal (usually no more than about $100), and street cars are commonplace. Still, it’s highly advisable to have a dedicated race car for drifting. Don’t come crying to me if you rip off the rear suspension and get fired because you can’t get to work
TopSpeed Recommends: ’93-’00 Subaru Impreza
Why: Born from the car-crushing pressures of the WRC, the Impreza comes with good sporting potential and absolutely bulletproof reliability. Its mechanical AWD system offers enough grip to master any road condition, and any of the three body styles are ripe for modification and upgrade. Try to find one without a 2.5-liter motor, though, as head gasket issues are quite common. If you can afford the turbocharged WRX, then by all means, go whole hog. Just realize that rally racing isn’t exactly kind to mechanical bits. Budget for extreme wear and tear of every variety.
Try to pay: $2,500 - $6,000
Modifications: Rallycross is typically open to a variety of cars and drivers, with minimal required equipment. By contrast, stage rally is much more restrictive, and takes a dedicated vehicle for participation. If you really do want to take the plunge, the first step in building a proper rally car is stripping the interior and welding in a cage. Racing harnesses and bucket seats are next. Throw on skid plates and exterior protection where you can, then upgrade the brakes. High-strength wheels wrapped in rally tires, robust and adjustable suspension components, and a splash of power are all part of the formula. You really can’t skimp when to comes to rally racing, which makes this one of the more expensive amateur motorsports out there. That fact is compounded when the inevitable botched pace note sends you off into the weeds, so be wary.
Series: The SCCA holds rallycross events throughout the US, so check the website to find one near you. Costs are low, around $40 to $60. There are also many smaller grassroots organizations putting on these types of events, so dig into your local scene. If you want to go stage rallying, Rally America can provide the venue, but costs are much higher. You’ll need a proper race car, a competition license, tons of spares and support gear, and a variety of other things that will handily obliterate most budgets. I guess that’s why Ken Block sells energy drinks.
In the next part, we’ll look closely at how to prepare for a race weekend and give you a few suggestions for boosting your skills from ham-fisted noob to laser-guided Stig. See you then.