The Joy of Building Cars

When I first started with NASA, I knew I was going to be the one who built my first racecar. I tend to insist things be a certain way, and I knew that if I bought an existing car I would likely spend so much time tailoring the car to my likes, that it would be better just to do the whole thing myself.

That first car carried me from HPDE1 through HPDE4 and on to competition school. I enjoyed my time going through HPDE, which means I built that first car slowly over time. I think it turned out pretty well, but that car met an untimely demise early in my racing career. That was a miserable day.

Eventually, after much household upheaval, I was able to build another car, using what I head learned from the first one to make the second one better — with leftovers from the crashed car. A few years later, I sold that car, and as far as I know it’s still somewhere in Utah.

Each time I built a new car, I’d try to make it better than the last. In a previous life, I used to inspect and test high-performance powerboats, upward of 90 a year over five years. I believed then, and still do now, that performance boat builders do some of the finest rigging and wiring on the planet. DCB Racing, MTI and Skater were probably the best in the field. When I build a car, I aspire to the workmanship of those builders, not that I’ve reached it.

If you can peek under the engine hatch or behind the dashboard of one of those boats, you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Over the years, I built another two cars for myself, and then a buddy and I took it upon ourselves to build a Spec Miata on spec. A racing team wanted it before it was even finished, so that worked out well. The car turned out nicely and it’s now out there winning races in the capable hands of a Teen Mazda Challenge driver.

We also built a Super Touring 5 car for a racing buddy when he crashed his team car. We took the crashed car and a donor and made one racecar out of the two. We learned a lot from that build, too.

I guess I’m prattling on about building cars not to toot my own horn, but because I’ve come to derive a lot of joy from it — and I’m itching to build another. What began out of necessity and the desire to go racing has become something of enjoyable pursuit in itself. It’s one of the most challenging and interesting things I can think of doing, and it’s probably a good outlet for what I’m told is a discernible case of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Car construction is a bit like writing in that the longer I do it, the easier it is to get it to come out the way I want. The process itself never gets any easier, but the end results are more likely to look like what I had in mind when I began. Given the amount of time and effort it takes, that’s where the satisfaction comes from.

Of course, there is that part of any project, about 45 percent of the way through, what I call “the doldrums,” that point at which you’ve been at it for a while, yet there’s so much left to do that you struggle with motivation. That’s also part of the challenge.

I’d tell you I enjoy doing it in part because it keeps me sober, but whiskey is as much a part of the process as any tool in my toolbox. However, it does keep me from lying about and staring at an iPhone, and I find joy in that, too.

Images courtesy of Brett Becker and DCB Racing

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