The quickest drivers at your local track have more than a few things in common. Odds are they are the most focused, and they probably have accumulated more instruction and track time than the also-rans. It’s also a safe bet that they don’t drive their race car to and from the track. They trailer it.
Of course, a car trailer will not make you a faster driver—but it doesn’t hurt.
You know your goals, and whether you should commit to a car trailer depends on what those goals are. Are you just out to have fun hanging out and driving fast with a bunch of like-minded friends, or do you want to finish regularly on the podium? Are you happy pulling a small tire trailer behind your daily driver to autocross and track days or do you want to race wheel to wheel?
If you are among the former group, you probably do not need a trailer. If the latter seems more aligned with your goals, maybe it is time to consider one.
“For me, I started out running HPDE3 and slowly prepping my car,” said Steffen Thompson, a project engineer for Solar Turbines in San Diego. “So at first it was pretty ‘streetable,’ you know, street tires, stock seat, and now I’ve got a roll cage and a race seat and the car is becoming less and less friendly to drive on the street.”
Advantages of Towing
Picture this. Say it’s 4:30 on a steamy Sunday afternoon in August at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga. You just finished your last HPDE session on track and it’s time to pack up and go home. If you have a trailer, you already have the ramps out so you can pull the car onto it immediately after the session. You tie down the car, start the truck and get the A/C going, then pack everything up. By the time you finish, the truck’s interior has cooled to a hospitable 72 degrees. You climb in, drop it in gear and make the six-hour drive home in air-conditioned comfort.
As you pull out, you wave to the guy putting DOT tires back on his car and loading his tire trailer. Then wave to the guy who wadded his daily driver car in Turn 12. He’ll be the one signing paperwork for the tow truck driver.
OK, that’s a bit exaggerated, but you get the point. The time comes when you are pushing hard enough on track that you need to ensure you and your car always have a ride home. A car trailer will do that.
“When I was driving the car to the track, I did start to worry about having an incident that would require me to have the car towed home,” said Eric Green, a freelance cameraman from Santa Barbara, Calif. “And because the tracks are all so far away, I was afraid of that cost.”
Rent or Buy?
Look around the paddock during any race weekend and you will see a lot of “U-Haul orange,” and there are good reasons for it. First, U-Haul stores are everywhere, and they provide probably the simplest and most cost effective way to tow your car to the track, about $54 a day.
A U-Haul car hauler measures about 16 feet long, and weighs 2,210 pounds. With a gross trailer weight rating of 7,500 pounds, a U-Haul car trailer can carry as much as 5,290 pounds. The ramps pull straight out the back, and it is not too difficult to load a sports car—even one with a lower ride height. What’s more, they are fitted with hydraulic surge brakes so there is no need for an electronic brake controller in the tow vehicle.
However, rental costs can add up quickly, and availability isn’t always a slam-dunk, either.
“There were a couple of times when I was renting U-Hauls that it really was tough to get them at the last minute,” Green said, adding that it influenced his decision to buy a trailer. “Or if a track event happened to be at the end of the month when people are moving, a couple of times, it was difficult to get a rental trailer.
“So that was part of it, then just the cost of it each weekend. It was the better part of $200,” he added. “Buying a trailer started to seem cheaper, but when you start thinking about the storage costs, I’m not sure if it’s as much of a better deal. I think having it around at my disposal is probably the best part.”
One way to help pay for storage fees is to convert your track car to “nonoperative” status with the state. It varies by state, but it lowers registration costs. Then you can cancel the insurance and use those funds to cover storage costs.
“The advice I would give, before you buy a trailer, would be to figure out what it’s going to cost to store and how accessible the storage place is, wherever that might be,” Green said. “I store mine at a friend’s house, but it’s about 20 minutes away. I do pay, but I pay him less than I would pay a local storage facility. My local storage facilities are about a hundred dollars a month.”
Whether you buy new or used depends on your budget. New, open car trailers run anywhere from about $2,000 to $4,000 for models with wood or steel decks, and up to $6,000 for aluminum construction. New enclosed trailers range from roughly $5,000 to as much as you’d care to spend.
Buying new means you can get exactly what you want, when you want it. Dealers such as Trailers Plus, which has more than 35 stores in the United States, has good prices on open and enclosed trailers. Also, eBay is a viable source for new trailers, and you might even find a good deal close to where you live.
However, if your budget is like that of a lot of weekend racers, you are probably looking at buying used. The secondary market presents a bigger challenge because buying used requires patience — and a lot of time spent poring over Craigslist, RacingJunk.com and eBay ads. It is possible find a used enclosed trailer for what you might spend on a new, open trailer. Used enclosed trailers with reasonable prices sell quickly, so if you find one, act fast. If you miss out on a deal, just wait for another one to come along — because there is always another one out there.
One mantra applies when buying a used trailer: Quality and good maintenance matter. Ultimately, you want something you can rely on, because it can be catastrophic at worst when a trailer breaks down on the freeway. At best, it’s a huge inconvenience. Generally speaking, stick with names you know. Pace, Featherlite, Haulmark, Carson and Wells Cargo are all national brands with good reputations. You also want one that has been maintained well. Look for a clean trailer with recent brake and bearing services and new or recent tires.
One advantage to buying used is that much of a trailer’s depreciation already has occurred, so odds are that if you sell it within a few years, you likely can get most of your money back out of it.
“It seems like trailers don’t really lose their value that much,” Thompson observed. “You could look at it like you’re buying it and getting some good use out of it, and then if you end up selling your race car or changing what you want to do, you could probably sell it without a big loss.”
That applies to open and enclosed trailers. If you can afford to buy an enclosed trailer, you will find it was money well spent. If you buy an open trailer, and you continue racing, you likely will want to upgrade to an enclosed model in a few years. Why?
The advantages of an enclosed trailer are many. At the track, they provide a place to get out of the sun and heat. They also don’t have to be anchored like an EZ-Up does, and they won’t blow away if the wind picks up. You can outfit them so that you can camp inside them at the track, which saves on hotel bills. They also provide locking storage, which means you can free up garage space at home. For example, you can store your spare wheels and tires in the trailer, the racing jack, driver gear, spare parts, lubricants and aerosols.
Open or enclosed, the most common type of entry level car trailer typically has two 3,500-pound axles with brakes on one of them. That means the combined weight of the trailer and contents (GVWR) can be no more than 7,000 pounds. On open trailers, width isn’t much of an issue because it doesn’t block your rearview mirrors. What can be an issue with open trailers is whether the fender will let you open the car door wide enough to get out. Look for removable or hinged fenders.
Entry level enclosed trailers tend to have the same axle weight ratings, but widths do play a part in how easy they are to tow. If you have a small car, such as a Mazda Miata or a Lotus of any kind, you can get away with an 8-foot-wide trailer. If you have a Corvette or an Evo, you’ll need an 8.5-foot-wide model. Enclosed trailers are heavier than open models and present far greater wind resistance, which puts more of a strain on the tow vehicle. Make sure you have a tow vehicle that can handle not only the car with the trailer, but also all the gear you’re loading in the truck.
A Chevrolet Suburban or a Ford Excursion is an excellent tow vehicle, but for our purposes, one mantra seems to apply (and forgive the colloquialism): “Sometimes, ya’ just gotta have a truck.”
A pickup is invaluable for towing to the track, and better than an SUV. You can store gas cans in the bed and not have to smell raw fuel all the way home. You can carry spare wheels in the back and not worry about getting your interior dirty or having to remove third-row seating. You also can carry engines and other grimy bits without having to lay down mats. Then, of course, pickups are handy for family duties such as hauling mulch and pots of flowers your wife wants you to plant on the weekend you’re not at the track or wrenching on the car.
As with anything automotive, there are a lot of emotions connected with trucks in terms of which ones are best — Ford vs. Chevy, etc. — so let’s skip that nonsense and keep it simple. The newer trucks with five- and six-speed automatics are much better for towing over mountainous terrain. If you live in Florida or Indiana, a four-speed automatic will suffice, but be sure whatever you buy has the towing package.
What is key is knowing how much weight you are pulling and having an extra 1,500 pounds of towing capacity over and above that weight. That way, you’re not asking everything of your truck each time you tow with it. In terms of gas or diesel, any diesel in a full-size truck is plenty capable, but if you’re pulling a Caterham Super 7 on a single-axle trailer, you don’t need a Chevy HD or a Ford Super Duty for towing.
Whatever truck and trailer you end up with, remember that they probably won’t lower your lap times, but they will get you home safely, even if your car will not. If that happens, you’ll be glad you committed to buying a trailer.
“I have required the use of a trailer to get my car home after an on-track collision with another car,” Green said. “It was absolutely undriveable. In fact, it was even a challenge to get it on the trailer. It had to be towed home, absolutely.”
Costs of Ownership
As previously mentioned, there are a number of costs associated with owning a trailer. Some on the list below are one-time expenses and others are ongoing, but they should help give you an idea of the true costs of ownership.
Storage – Most storage lots charge by the foot and include the tongue as part of its overall length. I found a nothing-fancy storage facility that charges $75 a month for a 20-foot enclosed trailer. I also was quoted as much as $125. Shop around.
Maintenance – Wheel bearings need an annual service, at which time the brakes need to be inspected. Having bearings serviced at a shop averages from $150 to $200 for a dual-axle trailer, and figure a brake adjustment is about $50 per axle. Doing the work yourself saves money, but trailers are nowhere near as much fun to work on as race cars. Online stores such as NationalTrailerSupply.com sell complete brake assemblies—backing plate, shoes, hardware and magnet—for $45 to $65 per wheel.
Insurance — It varies by state and insurer, but trailers typically are covered under the liability portion of your vehicle’s insurance policy. You can get a policy to cover damage to the trailer, and it is not expensive.
For example, on a 20-foot enclosed trailer valued at $4,000,
a 45-year-old safe driver can get a policy through Mercury Insurance with deductibles of $50 and $100 on comprehensive and collision for less than $50 a year.
The policy would not cover the trailer’s contents, though. That means an uninsured nonstreet-legal racecar would not be covered, nor would tools, spares, wheels, etc., because they are not directly related to the use of the trailer. Progressive offers specialty policies to cover items in the trailer, but still not the race car. You can get comprehensive coverage on the car itself, which would cover it while towing, but probably not on track. Contact your agent for specifics.
Brake Controller — Most car trailers have electric brakes, which means you’ll need a brake controller, which range from $100 to $150. On late-model trucks, you can usually get a pigtail that plugs right into the factory dash harness, but for vehicles older than model year 1998 or so, you likely will have to cut and splice into it. I like the Hayes G2 for its simplicity, its aluminum housing and that it’s made in the U.S.
Trailer tires — Trailer tires don’t last forever, but at least they don’t heat-cycle out after five races. They degrade mostly due to sitting and photo-aging. A typical lifespan is three years. Figure about $90 apiece for 15-inch radials. To get the most life out of them, you can buy a set tire covers from Harbor Freight for about $10 per axle, which shields them from UV.
Coupler Lock — A coupler lock just keeps honest people honest. It locks into the trailer coupler to keep people from stealing your trailer.
Tie downs — At a minimum you want 3-inch straps. Cross them over front and rear the car in all dimensions.
Ramps — Even if your trailer has long ramps and a dovetail, you might need additional ramps to get the car loaded without rubbing the undercarriage. Race Ramps makes lightweight closed-cell foam ramps, which start at $308. You can make your own from a set of 2 x 12s from Home Depot for less than $20.
Backup Camera — My favorite is the $200 Swift Hitch camera system from Hardline Products. It’s wireless and portable, and you can use it for other purposes, such as diagnosing noises and mechanical problems you can’t see from behind the wheel.
Tongue box — Almost a necessity for an open trailer, a locking tongue box is an ideal place to stash tie down straps, coupler lock and other gear.
Trailer Ramp — Your racing jack will not lift a trailer with a race car in it. A simple ramp like the one from TrailerAid.com is an easy way to lift your dual-axle trailer to change tires or perform other services.
Getting Under Way
Slide the draw bar into the receiver and insert the pin in from the left. That way, if the cotter pin falls off, you have 1 to 2 degrees of road camber to help keep the pin in place. If the draw bar has multiple holes, use the hole that brings the hitch ball closest to the rear axle of the tow vehicle, which creates less downward leverage that can unload the front wheels.
If you don’t have a backup camera or a friend to help you back up to the coupler, try it this way: Back up in 4- to 6-foot intervals at first, to get your truck pointed in the right direction. As you get closer to the trailer, make the intervals shorter, periodically stopping and getting out to check your progress. Before long, you will have stutter-stepped the hitch ball into place under the coupler.
Once you’ve lowered the coupler onto the ball, lock it in place and raise the tongue jack to its highest position. Crisscross the safety chains under the coupler, connect them to the loops on the receiver and plug in the wiring harness and breakaway cable. Crisscrossing chains forms a “cradle” that will catch the coupler should it come off the hitch ball. If you have “S” hooks, put the “S” over the eyelets on the hitch — open side down — to minimize risk of them falling off. Your chains should be long enough to accommodate tight right- and left-hand turns without dragging the ground. If they hang too low, twist them to reduce their length. Have at least 4 to 5 inches of clearance.
If you have a hand wheel-style coupler, be sure it’s as tight as can be. If you have the throw-latch coupler, padlock it closed. Now check your turn signals and brake lights.
For proper stopping power, you will need to adjust the brake controller for different loads. For example, when the trailer is empty, you need minimal gain so you don’t lock up the trailer brakes and flat-spot the tires. A good starting point is 10 percent gain for an unloaded open car trailer and 15 percent gain for an unloaded enclosed trailer. Once you load the car, bump the gain up to 15 percent for open haulers and up to 20 percent on enclosed trailers.
Because trailers are almost invariably wider than the tow vehicle, set your mirrors so you can see the trailer’s orientation within the lane you are using. In terms of actual driving technique, the trailering line around a corner is not much different from a racing line. You want a late apex. A good rule of thumb is that the trailer wheels generally follow the path of the rear wheels of the tow vehicle.