During the off-season, you have time to think about all the racecar projects you have been shamefully putting off. It’s called procrastinating and it comes easy to racers. Racecars always need a lot of love and work before a weekend at the track. Things have to be prioritized to take the green flag on time, which means other things get left undone. For our team, we had a Honda Challenge car that we never quite finished correctly, but kept racing anyway. When the hood was open, it was obvious to anyone within 50 feet of the car that the engine bay was a completely different color from the rest of the car.
You could say, “Paint under the hood never made a racecar any faster,” and you would be wrong. The reason we decided to paint our engine bay during this off-season is that: 1. Sponsors want your car to look good for car shows and Instagram pics with their products on them. 2. A light-colored engine bay helps you spot unwelcome leaks, which if you find quickly and fix, can ensure your car makes it to the end of the race session. Long story short, paint under the hood of a racecar actually does make it better.
This project got started when rotating parts normally on inside of one of our Honda Challenge engines found themselves suddenly outside of the engine. This is a bad thing. It meant we would need to yank the damaged engine out to be rebuilt by TEM Performance Machine Shop in Napa, Calif. And since the engine was out of the way, we really couldn’t justify not taking the time to paint the engine bay nicely. It was time to get to work.
The trick to making a good engine bay paint project work is by getting everything out of the way. The more stuff that is removed, the easier and more thorough the paint job will look. Chances are, during this process, you will find a few components you have been trucking around the race track that you don’t need. Useless weight on the front tires of the car. Nobody needs that. Look at the rules, see what you can delete, and make it go away forever. Clean things up. Even if it is a small plastic clip you aren’t using, get rid of it.
For things you can’t remove, take the time to properly bag and tape them off. Nothing looks more unprofessional than a bunch of overspray. You want to have a nice engine bay with clean wiring looms, not a bunch of oversprayed plastic. Before you start this project, buy lots of masking tape. When you think you have enough masking tape, buy two more rolls. I just saved you that third trip to the hardware store. You’re welcome.
Engine bays have grease and oil and fuel and rubber and road tar all over them. None of this stuff will allow paint to stick to the surface. You need to really degrease the engine bay and clean, clean, clean the surface prior to laying down any paint. When you think you have it perfectly clean, you don’t. Start over and hit it all again. You have to get all the grease out.
When the engine bay is clear, you can really start to inspect your bulkhead, often referred to as a firewall. Anything that is a plug on your bulkhead that is made of rubber or plastic — anything that will burn — replace it with a metal plate. I have had a car fire and trust me, the fire will go right through the “firewall” if it isn’t set up properly.
Choose a paint color that contrasts with anything coming out of the engine or transmission you need to know about. For instance having an engine bay that is the same color as axle grease won’t help you spot a torn CV boot. But a white or light gray paint will quickly show you that something is spitting out a goo that it shouldn’t. A light color in an engine bay is used by the pros for just this reason.
Painting the engine bay is the easiest part of this project. You will probably spend more than six hours just prepping the surface of the engine bay and painting it for 20 minutes. Before you begin to spray, make sure everything you want to plug or remove is done before you hit it with paint. We finished our project and saw we left one little plastic tab we didn’t need in a fender liner. When we removed that tab, we saw the original car color from the factory peeking out like an eyesore in our nice newly shot engine bay. “I know you just cleaned the paint gun … but I need you to paint this half-inch spot over here!”
This is a time-consuming project that requires patience and vision. When it is done, your racecar will be easier to work on, lighter, less cluttered, safer, easy to spot problems on, and look great. The total cost of the project is just the expense of lots of masking tape and some paint. The whole thing will cost you less than $100. However, it will take a long time. Good news, for most of us, time is free in the off-season.
The next time you grenade an engine, think about spiffing up the engine compartment before the machine shop is finished building you a new power plant. Chances are they will miss the estimate to get the engine back to you by two weeks anyway. A fresh, clean engine bay makes the car look professional and will help you keep the car on track. Happy painting!