The legendary Carroll Shelby was well known for his dry humor and quick wit as well as his skill at making race cars go fast. When a young reporter ask Shelby how he managed to make “ a small fortune” racing cars, the slow-talking Texan answered, “Well, first you gotta’ start with a big one.”
How many times has someone said “ vintage racing is just too expensive?” Everyone has heard the stories of lost fortunes or seen the bumper stickers saying “speed costs money; how fast do you want to go?” Don’t believe them -- with energy and determination, anyone can enjoy great vintage racing on a sub-shoe string budget. What is a sub-shoe string budget? I’ve raced five weekends last year and been very competitive in the small-bore production class for less than $2,500.
And Yes, that includes everything--all costs. Other than the initial cost of the race car, tow vehicle and trailer, everything, including licenses, race entries, hotels, tires, fuel, maintenance and spare parts. There was even enough to set aside a small amount for a future engine rebuild and to allow a big dinner out with my racing friends per race date. By watching your wallet carefully and squeezing the most out of every nickel in your racing budget, a vintage driver could save this money for a stronger, faster race car.
Potential low-buck Shumachers have got to make a few key decisions long before they reach the track. Most important, a racer on a tight budget has got to be realistic about their expectations. It is very doubtful that low-buck racers will ever get invited to Monterrey or Monaco. They probably won’t win their group or even their class, but good vintage racing is not all about winning. If a racer can live without an outright win, then a slim wallet won’t keep one from having loads of fun. The second most important decision is the choice of a race car itself. It makes no sense to try to race an Aston Martin, Ferrari, or even a big block Chevy on a shoestring budget. Low cost maintenance parts, tires, fuel, etc. are key to keeping long term costs down. In general, small cars are cheaper to buy and operate than larger ones and more common machines are more reasonable than rare ones.
Many small-bore production sports cars make a suitable platform for low-buck racing. Regular readers of Victory Lane are familiar with the growing popularity of the Spec-Sprite class. This is an excellent, lowcost racing group that offers loads of bang for the buck. The Sprite/Midget cars have all the elements necessary for low cost racing operation: excellent original design, low buy-in costs, inexpensive parts with good availability, and even cheap tires and reasonable fuel consumption. In their lightly modified Spec-Sprite guise, these little cars make up the largest class-within-a-class in our racing organization (CVAR). Large numbers of equally prepared cars makes for close racing and close racing makes for maximum fun. As modifications are minimal to this essentially street-stock class, most cars are built and maintained by their owner/drivers and could be state licensed (under liberal “Classic Car” standards) and driven to the track in true vintage style. Although risky (what do you do in case of a major breakdown?) this could be a way to avoid tow vehicle and trailer expenses.
Smaller production-based cars make some of the best low cost mounts. Their small size and light weight ensure that storage space requirements are minimal and tire wear and fuel consumption are low. Other than the Sprite/Midget, good racing platforms include: Fiat 850's, Volkswagen beetles and Karmen Ghias, Triumph Spitfires, Porsche 914s and even Datsun 1600 and 2000 roadsters. All of these cars can be bought inexpensively, raced in stock form and then modified as the budget allows.
If your tastes run toward formula cars, then low-budget choices are harder to find. A worn-out or basket case formula car is not a good buy, no matter what the cost, if rebuild and part’s prices are through the roof. Formula V is the best choice here or maybe Formula 4 (motorcycle engine powered) if you can find one. Club Ford or Formula Ford would be a good pick if the budget is not so lean, but beware, as spare parts and repair costs are much higher.
All experienced racers know that buying a race car is just a small part of the total cost of going racing. One of the largest purchases to make before heading to the track is the tow vehicle and trailer. Good reason dictates that the tow vehicle should be strong enough and the trailer large enough to accommodate your race car, so this purchase should be made after you know what car you’ll be racing. Perhaps the family car or your daily driver could be pressed into service as a tow vehicle but check the towing capacity and don’t exceed it. The last thing a racer needs is tow vehicle trouble on the way to the race. Make sure the electrical wiring of the trailer is in good shape and the connector plugs match. This will save many headaches when you load up.
Of course, it is important for the low budget racer to do his own repairs, rebuilds and maintenance. A good support network of tools, quality machine shops, parts houses and expert advice is necessary and takes time to set up. No matter what the budget, if a driver has to pay an experienced race mechanic, then costs will rise sharply. Even a driver that can’t handle a race engine rebuild can do his own maintenance such as oil and plug changes and save money. Another point; if the engine compression ratio is kept below 10.5 to one, premium pump gas can be used (saving substantially over race fuel) and engine life should be longer.
Personal safety gear is another area that requires much forethought. In general, this is a rare area where you need to spend as much money as the budget allows for a helmet and fire suit. The extra seconds of protection you buy with a multi-layer suit is priceless if ever needed. Likewise, an upgraded helmet could help save your life and keep your good looks. All racing organizations recognize the date codes stamped into safety harnesses and helmets, so check with your vintage organization and keep your equipment updated. Helmets are only inspected by the Snell Foundation every five years (new Snell 2000 helmets will be available in Oct.) so make sure you buy one that’s up-to-date and with the proper Nomex (SA) lining. When your safety harness is out of date, it’s much cheaper to send them back to the manufacturer and have just the webbing replaced. In the long term, it makes no sense to scrimp on safety equipment.
Since licensing fees, entry fees and tow distance to the track are all fixed, a true low-budget racer has to look hard for other areas to cut costs during a race weekend. If possible, try to tow to the race early Saturday morning. This will save the money spent on one night in a hotel. Another tip on hotels; find a low budget, older “motor court” (with adequate security) or split a hotel room with a friend as this could cut your weekend expenses in half. Some low budget racers in CVAR have converted a small 20' travel trailer into a mobil hotel room/covered car trailer. At the race, the race car is kept outside and the drivers fold down specially-made bunks. Another trick is to bring your own food. Track-side snack bars are usually expensive and poor quality, so a home-made sandwich and cold drink could save money and taste better too. And after racing, there is no better way to “bench race” than sitting around a small grill, flipping hamburgers and talking with friends.
Despite conventual wisdom, racing need not cost an arm and a leg. Next time someone tries to tell you how expensive vintage racing is, just smile and remember: Money is just another tool in the toolbox.