What we’re about to tell you isn’t shocking. Racing is expensive. Parts, consumables, upgrades, entry fees, hotel bills, food, the ways to spend money are endless when it comes to the cost of racing. Let’s face it, there are more ways to spend money than any budget will allow, even at the top levels of the sport. What you need to do is best smart where you invest your racing dollar, In essence, where is money best spent to go faster.
Buying Versus Building
First of all, let’s talk about the race car itself. There are two philosophies about buying a race car. One costs more up front while the other costs more over time. It depends upon how much cash you have up front and how quickly you want to progress.
The first is, “Get the very best car that you can afford. And if you can afford a race winning car, then buy it.” That way, when you arrive at the track, you know the true potential of the car. If you’re off the pace, the chances are, it’s not the car, but rather the driver or set up at fault. One SCCA National Champion, who achieved the feat by having a car constructed for him and developing it over a number of seasons is quoted as having said that the best way to buy a race car is straight out of the winners circle of a national championship.
The other philosophy, is “buy something decent that needs work and get busy working on it yourself, or have an experienced, trusted professional shop build it into a winning car.” This will most likely be the more expensive route over the long run but provides the buyer a more intimate knowledge of the specific components and the work done on the car. It also stretches out the cost of what could be several years. This pays off in confidence in the car being built to a certain standard.
If you pursue this strategy you can reduce the cost of getting on the track by purchasing less-expensive components that you can easily replace as you acquire experience and become more competitive. Starting out you don’t necessarily need the lightest wheels or the latest shocks, for example. What you do give you, though, is a car that you know has been properly set-up.
Regardless of which way you approach acquiring your race car, by buying or building, if you want to be competitive, you’ll need to be ready to pony up.
It goes without saying that there are inherent and very real dangers in motorsports. Do not skimp on a roll cage, halo seat, head and neck support and harness, all of which should be mounted according to manufacturer recommendation.
Even if you just plan on running track days and HPDE events, invest in safety equipment that’s NASA or SCCA legal, as if you should sell the car, it provides more options for potential buyers.
Furthermore, many sanctioning bodies allow for a hand held fire extinguisher as the fire safety device, and my recommendation is to purchase and install a full fire system. If things go wrong, you’re looking for simplicity. Pull the trigger and let the system do the work. Lifeline, the company that makes fire systems for F1, Le Mans prototypes, and other high-end race cars offers an FIA-approved Zero 2000 budget system at an absolute steal of $399.
To learn more about fire systems, see Rob Krider’s article here on TURNology. Also under safety, I recommend fresh fuel and brake lines to keep both systems properly working. Rubber hoses are inexpensive and hard lines are readily available. Bottom line, before you go fast, you must ensure the safety of yourself, and those on track with you.
Taking care of the little things matters in racing. Whether it’s doing a thorough nut and bolt check before every day on the track or having a tidy interior. Just look at the impeccable care that goes into professional race cars. Beyond impressing sponsors, there’s a reason that professional race cars are so clean inside – it’s easier to spot a problem. Wonder why so many race car interiors are painted white? It’s so cracks are readily apparent. And if your race car is tidy inside you’ll be able to spot that loose 10 mm socket inside the before you roll off to the grid.
Invest In Yourself
Tires, big brakes, pads, rotors, exhaust, cams, aero improvements – depending on what class you are racing in, winning can become a matter of who has the deepest pockets. The market for upgrades is endless, and nothing is quite as satisfying as installing a mod that makes the car faster. However, a long running corny joke is that the best mod is the “driver mod.”
We’ve also heard that the best mechanical work should be done on the “loose nut behind the wheel.” These dad jokes are regulars in the paddock and race schools for good reason. Spending endless amounts of money on modifications can only net as much as the driver can handle. If a driver can’t maximize the current set up of the car, the mods are extraneous expenses. Ask most instructors and they will tell you that the best investment you make is in yourself as a driver.
A while ago, a good friend used social media to reach out to a rather well known race car driver who, though retired, has a number of Rolex watches earned from his days as an ornery race car driver for one of America’s prestigious racing programs. I will paraphrase but basically he asked him, “What is the secret of getting faster?” Shockingly, he got a response, the gist of which was, “Spend as much time going fast, as you can.” Track days, test days, Lucky Dog, Champ Car or LeMons races, any kind of real seat time will prove invaluable, as one of the secrets to going fast is being comfortable at speed.
When I was growing up, a typical track weekend cost about 750 dollars and required a membership to clubs like BMWCCA or Porsche Club. These days one can find track experiences with a reputable club for less than $200 a day. Sure, you will use up tires and brake rotors and pads but that is part and parcel of the sport. In the past, I’d often try to save my tires, and go home early. Not anymore – each time I hit the track I’m there to maximize my day. There’s simply no replacement for seat time, tires and brake pads be damned.
I’ve said this for a long time and I stand by it. If elite athletes like Olympic legend Michael Phelps can have coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists and mentors, then well, so can we. There is so much to be learned and even the fastest drivers have more to learn. The best way to start is to invest in a professional driving school. Sure these can amount to several thousand dollars. But it moves you ahead if you’re seeking to achieving a racing license, and you’re not putting miles and miles of wear and tear on your own car. More importantly you’re driving a car that’s properly set-up so you can learn what a good handling car should feel like. Moreover you have professional instructors that can help nip developing bad habits in the bud.
Learning doesn’t stop once you’ve been handed your diploma from a racing school. Consider hiring a driving coach. Why? A good coach can help you refine your skills, refine your thinking and the way you process information, and open your eyes to what you didn’t know was missing. There are many fine coaches with racing pedigree, and you needn’t look far down the paddock to find someone in another class who knows how to haul the mail. Have conversations, compare data, and if you can, have someone spend the day or weekend coaching you.
In addition to instruction, I’ve found that there are a number of great books written on the subject of high performance driving. They can keep your mind thinking and stimulated whilst away from the track and also give a solid foundation of the physics behind racing. Feel free to email me if you want my recommendations. Ross Bentley and David Murry both have a series of webinars available on their respective sites.
Is there magic advice here on how to parse your budget to get fast and win races? No. But one of the lessons we’ve learned, is if you can help it, don’t waste money. Arrive at the track with a prepared car, that’s been nut and bolted and with fresh fluids. Bring a game plan for each session and stay on task. Take notes and record data and video and look for where you can seek improvement. Time is money and maximizing your track and race weekends is the best way to get the most for your money.