Spec-class racing makes motorsports affordable to the masses, but taking care to spend your time wisely and your money on what matters most can put you at the front of the pack.

No matter what class you compete in, racing costs 15 percent more than you have. Money will always be a big problem, so spending your way to the front of the pack is not a viable option. In fact, that might not even be possible.

Quality time focused on the pursuit of the right goals is a viable substitute for money. In many cases, that time spent is more effective than buying the latest and greatest of everything and bolting those bits together. The challenge for every racer is to do the best he can with what he has. There are two great ways to overcome your competitor’s bigger budget. Make better decisions about things that really matter, and use the time that you have more effectively.

One thing is for sure. Complaining about how much faster your competitor is will never make you any faster. Asking him how he takes tire temps just might improve your game, though. Those two actions take the same amount of time, but only one of them is on the path to success. This is just one small example that illustrates the importance of making smart decisions and using your time productively.

Race cars are propelled by money and guided by passion. It takes huge amounts of both to build a successful racing program. But only a few key elements of your program will determine your performance potential. If you focus your time and money on those elements while spending the absolute minimum on everything else, your competitors will be in your mirrors instead of in your way. Those elements, and what you can do about each of them, are the keys to running up front on a tiny budget.

Spending Priorities

Doing things cheaply is limited only by your creativity and dedication. But there are a few rare occasions when the smartest choice for a low budget racer is to pay for the absolute best there is. Making smart decisions about running up front is not difficult, but few racers actually make the smart decisions. Here are the things that you should spend real money on.

Car Choice

Choose a class that you can afford to dominate, then buy someone else’s race car that is consistently front-row competitive and proven reliable today. When you find the right race car for you, don’t hesitate. Talk to the owner and tell him that you want to buy it. You may have to wait for the end of the season to make the purchase, and it is a very good sign if that is the case.

When you pick the car up, make sure that you get all of the setup and tuning information for it, the spare parts, and a long talk through the “special instructions required” oddities of that car. You want to pick up where the seller left off instead of starting from scratch. That is a huge part of the value that you should get when you buy a currently competitive car, but it may take some effort to get it.

Building a race car one part at a time is disastrously expensive. Don’t do it. Not only will you spend far more than you ever imagined, it will take many months of time and effort to get it going. When that glorious day finally arrives, you will find that your assemblage of shiny new hardware is well off the pace and some of those bits will break or overheat. Let someone else live through that. You don’t have the budget for it.

Tire Replacement Interval

New tires are awesome, but they are only awesome once. The racing world is in desperate need of a genius materials scientist who will invent a racing tread compound that is as good as new for more than a few heat cycles. Until that genius arrives, plan on new tires every weekend. Without that, you will not run up front. It is that simple.


Event Count

Think of your racing adventure as a very expensive self-improvement program. Running up front is the result of running frequently. Twenty events per year is a good start. More is better because you need every outing to develop the car and yourself. In my case, I ran nine events in the first 10 weeks that I owned a real race car, including several autocrosses and test days. Opportunity abounds. Take advantage of it.

Cumulative progress is the most powerful development process in the world. Use it, and remember that there is no such thing as good enough in any part of your program. Although you may never achieve it, strive for absolute perfection in every aspect of your racing program. Every time the car comes to a stop, identify the weakest aspect of your car, and the weakest aspect of your driving performance. Before you go again, make a setup change to the car to address the car’s main weakness, and visualize yourself driving in a different way to improve your main driving technique weakness. Then go out and do it. That is how you make yourself fast.

Those key elements just consumed a bit more than 99.9 percent of your budget. They should. That is the natural order of things in the racing world. Table scraps are the best that you can do for everything else in your racing program, and that is really all that is required.

Program-Level Focus

In isolation, there is no such thing as a fast race car or a fast racing driver. It takes a harmonious combination of man and machine working together at the peak of their combined potential to produce a dominant racing performance. There is no single thing that makes a program competitive. Rather, it is the combined influence of every handling adjustment, every performance modification, every choice, every driving technique, and every lap of experience that makes a racing program strong.

I am sure you have noticed that I keep talking about developing your racing program instead of being a race car driver, or owning a race car. If you think about your racing efforts in terms of how they contribute to the overall goals of an all-encompassing program that you lead, then the thousand pieces of the puzzle will come into focus, and that will enable you to see the big picture. With that, you will make better decisions from the viewpoint of a program leader instead of from the viewpoint of a guy who drives a car.

Doing your own mechanical work at the track saves money, but it takes time away from focusing on racing.
Doing your own mechanical work at the track saves money, but it takes time away from focusing on racing.

Financial Dedication

By now, it should be clear that even a tiny racing budget is going to take a giant bite out of the budget for everything else in your life. When I was racing competitively, I was not dating and I had a 13-inch TV, a 3-foot-tall refrigerator, an old Corvette for a tow car, and a Formula Ford that cost more than the tiny house I bought strictly for the garage that came with it. Every day, when I got home from work, I went straight to the garage for a couple of hours of progress before a short dinner break, then back to the garage until bed time. That did not feel like sacrifice because it was the result of an all-encompassing balance of priorities that was very heavily skewed toward one clear objective: victory in racing. During that adventure, I started 12 races and won 4 of them, so I considered my efforts to be a success. That adventure was only halted by a golden opportunity to enter the world of top-echelon race car design and engineering, and that adventure turned out rather well too.

Table Scraps

Because the vast majority of your racing budget is dedicated to performance, everything else that you need has to be really, really cheap. This is where ingenuity and unconventional creativity enter the picture. It takes a clever approach to figure out how to get things done cheaply, but exercising your brain is free. A few examples of inexpensive ways to get the job done are described here, but there is an endless supply of them in your head just waiting to be discovered.

Of course, there are some big expenses that are obvious opportunities to economize. For example, if you have an enclosed trailer, consider selling it and buying a cheap open trailer. That big box on wheels has doomed you to a life of 8 miles per gallon because of the air drag that it creates, but you can escape that and get better mileage with an open trailer. That cost savings will pay for 2 or 3 more events per year. Yes, sacrifice and compromise are necessary with an open trailer. If you are serious about running up front on a tiny budget, you will figure out a way to make it work.

An open trailer will allow your tow vehicle to get far better fuel economy than when pulling an enclosed trailer, which can save you money better spent on things that put you up front.
An open trailer will allow your tow vehicle to get far better fuel economy than when pulling an enclosed trailer, which can save you money better spent on things that put you up front.

If you cannot do without your enclosed trailer, consider using it for sleeping quarters instead of a hotel every race weekend.

When you need a fabrication tool, you are probably only going to need it once. Don’t buy it if your neighbor has one you can borrow, or if you can rent it. In fact, it is easy to make improvised fabrication tools from things that you already have. The same goes for setup tools, including a setup pad with wheel scales.

Having friends with tools is great, but having friends with the time and expertise to crew for you at the track is much, much better. It is possible to go racing as a one man band, but it is a whole lot easier and more fun when you have competent help. That makes it possible to make more and bigger handling changes in the time between track sessions, so a crew member can make you faster without spending much money. A car-guy crew member can also do a comprehensive preventative maintenance check for you before every session, so your reliability will improve as well.

A friend who is mechanically inclined and is willing to come to the track with you allows you to focus on racing.
A friend who is mechanically inclined and is willing to come to the track with you allows you to focus on racing.

There is no need to buy two sets of tools, one for the shop and one for the track. Just work out of your small track tool box at the shop, too. If you need something from your shop box on a regular basis, it should probably go with you to the track in your track tool box. When you need to buy simple hand tools with no moving parts, the cheap ones will work just as well as the premium tools. That is not the case for anything that is battery powered, though.

Set up your tool box at home so that it’s easy to pick it up and take it to the track, and have everything you need.
Set up your tool box at home so that it’s easy to pick it up and take it to the track, and have everything you need.

Because you are going to run through tires at a crazy pace, either make a standing discount deal with a local tire shop, or buy tire changing and balancing tools and do it yourself. You can turn that into a profit center by changing tires for other racers too.


Between events, you have the time to make major changes that are not practical at the track. So make those changes. Cumulative progress is the name of the game in developing both the car and yourself, both at the track and at the shop. It has been said that the majority of your performance at the track is a result of the quality of your preparation before you got there.

Because there is time available at the shop, a common mistake is spending time on things that do not make the car faster or more reliable, such as making cosmetic improvements instead of performance improvements. You do have some time in the shop, but it is limited like everything else. There is never enough time to do everything that you want to do. The easy way to maintain a consistent focus on your program goal is to plan your work, then work your plan. Planning makes you to decide what must get done, and what can wait. Your global list of priorities should be: safety, reliability, performance, and cost, in that order, only and always.

The result of using ultra-cheap peripheral equipment so that you can afford no-excuses performance equipment will end up looking very unbalanced. That is a natural consequence of the challenge of running up front on a tiny budget. You might look like a hillbilly on the way to and from the track, but all of that will fade into the background as soon as you fire up your mighty steed and roll it off the trailer. Then you are ready to get down to business and run with the big dogs.


Neil Roberts is the author of “Think Fast – The Racer’s Why-To Guide to Winning.”

Image courtesy of Brett Becker

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