Most amateur racecar drivers obsess over every detail of their cars. Well, in my experience, the psychotic successful racers do, anyway. These attention-to-detail car owners not only obsess over tire pressure down to a tenth of a psi, but they will also obsess about the weight of their car down to the ounce and where that weight is placed.
How will that weight placement make them faster around the track? How will adjustments to weight ensure they are the one standing atop the podium? I believe this is the right mindset to be a successful amateur driver/mechanic who prepares his own car for racing. However, some things are often out of your control. Sometimes the car you started with has a bunch of weight in all the wrong places, and due to the rules, there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it.
The solution is not to start with the wrong car. Any Spec Miata nerd can tell you with great detail exactly what year Mazda Miata not to run better than a preacher can quote the Bible. It is impressive because it needs to be. Spec Miata is an incredibly competitive class and nobody wants to be hindered by his equipment. So, the lesson learned here from Mazda folks who would know, “Don’t start with the wrong car.” When you are looking to get into racing, your initial car choice is the ultimate “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Choose wisely, my friend.
Unless your great grandparents did well in real estate in the 1930s and you wait each month for your trust fund stipend before you order a new factory racecar from Stuttgart, then you are probably searching for a used car that you will eventually turn into a racecar. This is the place where most NASA folks live. That means when you take the leap and buy a car, that will be the one you wrench on, weld on, paint, and slave over for the next few years. I plead you to ensure it is the “correct” car for what you want to do.
You need a plan, and that plan should include a goal. The car you choose should work the plan to achieve that goal. This all sounds so obvious, but many of us unintentionally choose the wrong adventure. Knowledge is power. You need to learn about the car and the racing sanctioning body rules that will limit that car’s modifications. That pairing needs to work.
Sometimes you get lucky and the car you have in your driveway will work. And that car will get you pretty far along in the initial process of racing — school, licensing, rookie races, etc. — but eventually, when you really want to compete at the highest level, say the NASA Championships, you might find that the car in your driveway has almost zero shot of getting you onto the podium. Here is where the frustration builds. You can throw money at the car, but sometimes money isn’t enough. Sometimes the car just won’t get the job done, regardless of the modifications tossed at it. Face it, you chose the wrong adventure.
The trick to avoiding that frustration is doing homework. Nowadays with the internet there are countless sources to help you make a decision about finding the best car. And guess what? Those sources are almost always wrong! Yup, sorry to burst your bubble, but car forums are inherently terrible places to collect accurate data about cars. The people I trust most about cars are in a shop working on a car. They are not hacking away on a keyboard, getting into Facebook fights and “flaming” people about the underappreciated performance prowess of the Chevrolet SSR. Yes, the internet is amazing and there is a lot of information, I just caution you how you sift through and use that information.
Working through option data through the manufacturer can help you make decisions on the car you want to purchase. As racers we always want the obvious: the most power possible, limited slip and lightness. You can keep the rest. One of the things I have found is that the first model year a car is released will almost always be the lightest version of the car they will sell from the factory.
As a model ages, it is inherently updated by the factory, more safety, more options, more fixes. All of those things mean added weight. When I purchased my C6 Z06 as a used car, I intentionally chose the 2006 model. The internet did everything it could to scare me to death about a valve issue, which never arose, not to buy a 2006. But, talking to Corvette racers — actual racers, not internet racers — they told me GM detuned the car after 2006 to limit the amount of rear axles they were breaking. They also added thicker rear axles for 2007 — more rotating mass — and more sound deadening because Corvette owners complained about interior noise. All of this information made me only want a 2006 model! It was the lightest and the fastest. Period.
Our Nissan Sentra SE-R fell into the same first-year-produced mantra, 1991, when the car was produced from 1991 to 1994. Ours was light. It didn’t even come with radio speakers or wire. People have argued with me that most racecars are gutted and have to make minimum weight to race with NASA, so it doesn’t matter what the car came with from the factory. They will just take the parts out they don’t want anyway. This is a fallacy.
You don’t always know what part the factory made thicker. Was it the A, B and C-pillars or the roof? Probably. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards have been mandating better roof crush standards for years. It is difficult to take weight out of a C-pillar, and it’s usually against the rules. If you are looking to have the lowest center of mass as possible — and you should — then you want the lightest car produced as your baseline. Most of the time, not always, as we’ll discuss below.
Now, this doesn’t mean that for every make and model the first year the car was produced is the best car for racing. Many cars had substantial horsepower gains over model year increases. Sure, the car may have had 10 pounds added to it during a new model year, but if it gained 50 horsepower and a limited slip option then you have to go for the power and grip. This all gets tougher and tougher to navigate when chasing a used car. This is where using different VIN decoders on the internet can help.
Not every VIN provides every option, but you can use the VIN to learn a lot and to chase more data from a local dealership. And if your rules allow you to update and backdate within a model series, then get the lightest chassis and then drop in the biggest engine. This really depends on the rules of the series you are running in. Know the rules before you buy.
Using VIN data, talking to racers, carefully sifting through trash on the internet, and working with dealerships is all a minefield trying to find what you want. And even if you look at the rules and you know what you want, it doesn’t mean you can find it. I’ve built multiple Acura Integras for Honda Challenge over the years, and even with my hands-on knowledge, some of the cars we built at Double Nickel Nine Motorsports weren’t the perfect start.
One big mistake on my part was “assuming” an automatic chassis was the same as a manual chassis. I “assumed” the only difference was one came down the assembly line and Honda put an automatic in it. Wrong! The front frame is completely different. Whoops! We spent a lot of time and a lot of money making a manual work in an automatic chassis. I never should have picked that chassis up. I simply didn’t do my homework.
Even when you aren’t trying to convert a grocery-getter Honda into a racecar, actually purchasing a performance sports car doesn’t make the chase any easier. Porsches are extremely option-able from the dealer. Almost all Porsches you can find on the used market were built and optioned by the initial buyer. That means you might find one with Porsche Torque Vectoring, but the guy optioned a red leather interior and the pimp daddy stereo system. All his dreams came true when the car arrived, but his dreams and your dreams as a racer may differ quite a bit.
I have found it is extremely difficult to find a reasonably priced race optioned Porsche on the used market. I don’t have new GT3 money. But, patience does pay off. If you know what the right car is for your future racing project, don’t compromise. Try to find the “it” car and chase it until it becomes yours.
Full disclosure on that 1990 Integra RS with no sunroof: I didn’t find it on the internet sitting in a barn in Australia. I actually saw it parked in the front of a tow yard. I slammed on my brakes, pulled over, checked the VIN to see what year it was, went directly to an ATM and purchased the car for cash that day. Smartest thing I ever did. Unless my wife is reading this, then of course marrying her was the smartest thing I ever did. Have a plan and never quit learning. Happy hunting!
Rob Krider is a four-time NASA Honda Challenge 4 National Champion and the author of the novel, “Cadet Blues.”