Alright, what’s wrong with the picture above? It’s from last weekend’s Great Lakes NASA race at Mid-Ohio, but like the song says–one of these things is not like the other, and one of these things just doesn’t belong. Maybe it’s more correct to say that three of these things don’t belong, because the tide in club racing has turned away from true race cars like the lovely NP-01 prototype and very slick Thunder Roadsters in this shot to converted street cars like my Honda Accord coupe.
It’s a change in sentiment that was very much on my mind this past Sunday, because my nine-year-old son clearly preferred the “cool cars” to my 3,150-pound winged wonder. He really digs the Thunder Roadsters and he’d like to start racing one ASAP. That makes two of us. I’ve spent the past couple of days browsing through the classifieds for one. Right now I’m telling myself that it would be for him, so he could have an easy transition from karting to NASA and SCCA racing in four or five years, but what would the harm be if I took, oh, let’s say, just a few starts in the car between now and then, just to keep the cobwebs away?
My racing garage currently contains a 2.4-liter Plymouth Neon, an MX-5 Cup racer, and the Accord seen above. I’ve never owned a purpose-built racer. It never occurred to me that I should buy one. Not in 2001, when I bought a miserably bad Lotus Seven clone for enough money to cover a trio of solid-condition Thunder Roadsters. Not in 2007, when I went arrive-and-drive racing in Spec Focus. Not in 2008, when I built two Neons with cost-no-object cages and $2,000 custom drivers’ seats. And not in 2018, when I took delivery of my Accord for a price that would have put me in one of SCCA Enterprises’ very enjoyable Gen III Spec Racers. What’s my problem?
To be fair, it’s not just my problem. Club racing in this country used to rely on a foundation of affordable formula cars, powered by Beetle boxers and Pinto engines, built by everybody from Lola to Dan Gurney’s AAR to some rando in a shed somewhere. Through the Eighties, the closed-fender Sports Renault, which became the Spec Racer Ford, sold well over a thousand copies to SCCA members who wanted to increase the ratio of track time to wrench time.
These were all “real race cars” and although most of them weren’t super-fast, it didn’t matter at the time. There are two kinds of club racers: the guys who are obsessed with the car itself and the guys who are obsessed with the chance to shine in competition. We have NASA Super Unlimited for the former and Spec Racer Ford for the latter. I respect both kinds but I particularly respect the latter.
I also respect the idea of racing in something that any child can easily identify as a “race car.” My Accord is faster around a track than all but the brawniest purpose-built club-race cars, but at the end of the day I’m still in something that looks just like the frisky little coupe that thousands are driving to work until they can afford a brand-new crossover, the addition of a little fast-n’-furious bodywork.
There are all sorts of great purpose-built racers out there, and some of them are remarkably affordable. You can get a decent SRF for $20k. A good Thunder Roadster is half that price. The NASA NP01 is north of $70,000 by the time you put the whole package together but I know a dozen people who have spent that kind of money building C5 Corvettes to go racing. Heck, if you want to race a 2011 Mustang in the Spec Iron class you should plan on bringing $40k or more for a full shop-built car.
And that’s just the cost of entry, which is never the cost of operation. The SRF, Thunder Roadster, and NP01 are designed to be repaired inexpensively at the track. A Corvette is not and neither is an Accord. None of this seems important when you’re buying the race car of your dreams but when you’re on the trailer because your car is throwing a mystery code at the OBD-II reader while the Spec Racer Ford is fixing his car between sessions with a hammer-and-crescent-wrench combination well then, my friend, you will see the light.
So why has “sedan racing” become so popular, and why has Spec Miata overtaken all of the real racer cars to become the 900-pound gorilla of club competition? I wish I knew – but I have a couple of theories as to why this is the case.
To begin with, I think that most novice racers are a little scared of Thunder Roadsters and the like. They don’t have traction control, stability control, or ABS. Some of them have carburetors. And they look a little fragile on-track next to Mustangs and Corvettes. Those of us who are arriving in the sport as adults are just more comfortable with street cars. We’ve been driving them our whole lives. They seem easier to understand. That’s an illusion – you can rebuild a Spec Racer from the ground up in the time it takes you to work through the wiring harness of a modern sports car – but it’s a pervasive one.
The way that people get involved in racing has also changed in the past twenty years. In my father’s generation, you got started in the SCCA by purchasing a Formula Vee and then going to a license school. Then you were a racer, more or less. Nowadays, the vast majority of drivers go through a trackday ladder system in their street cars before making the transition to racing. If you’ve been tracking a Miata for half a decade, of course you’re going to feel most comfortable racing a Miata.
Last but not least, there’s the arrant stupidity that most of us bring to the beginning of our racing careers. We really think that we’re going to build our first sedan racer for the low, low price of that project car we saw in a magazine. Or we’re making our estimates based on our buddy’s dim recollection of what it cost him to put his American Iron Mustang together a decade ago.
In reality, it’s hugely expensive to turn a street car into a modern racer. The cage, seat, and fire system alone will cost you five grand. If you’re lucky. Then you have to put a suspension under the thing, and buy a couple tubs’ worth of spare parts. It always runs into five figures. I’ve seen 24-Hours-Of-Lemons racers where the tab for “safety gear” and spares hit $15,000.
Compare that to the Thunder Roadster that I just saw on a classifieds site for $7,900, with spares and one set of tires. You’ll probably have to renew the belts and maybe the fire system. That will cost you $800. Then you have a real race car. No excuses necessary.
I probably won’t run out and buy a real race car any time in the near future. I have too much invested in my Island Of Misfit Production-Based Racers at the moment. When it comes time for my son to start with NASA, however, I’m going to ask myself some tough questions about what’s best for him as opposed to what’s easy for me. I won’t be surprised if the answers to those questions steer me in the path of a proper factory-built racer. If you’re just starting out, you should ask yourself those kinds of questions, too. Look at it this way: When you put up a picture of your first win at work, do you really want the dude in the next cubicle to look at it and say, “Uh… is that a Plymouth Neon?”