"WAIT A MINUTE. Your so-called 'race car' is . . . a Ford Focus?" I can’t tell you the number of times I heard that exact question during the summer and fall of 2007. One of my co-workers, or a friend of a friend, or a family member, would hear a rumor that I was some kind of race car driver, at which point they’d ask me to see a picture of my "race car." At the time, I had a fairly stout stable of street drivers, including a Porsche 911 and a big AMG coupe, so it seemed reasonable to my interlocutor that I would be racing something similar.
Imagine their surprise when I pulled up a photo of a fairly standard-looking Ford sedan, not much different from the one driven by their grandmother. How could this be a race car? The next question was just as predictable. "Why would you race a Ford Focus?" Eventually I developed an answer that was both accurate and at least mildly amusing, at least to me:
Because racing a Ford Focus hardly costs any more than leasing a new Lamborghini.
If you’re a club racer, you’re probably nodding ruefully at this point, but if you aren’t, allow me to explain. Back in 2007, I could have leased a new Gallardo for less than $2000 a month. The "arrive-and-drive" fee for a weekend of Spec Focus racing, by contrast, started at $2500 and went up drastically every time I bent a wheel or knocked a fender off the thing, which was fairly often. My total cost for three NASA regional weekends the National Championships was north of 20 grand. Mind you, this was in a car that retailed for 18 grand at the most but which had actually been "sold" for a dollar to the team by Ford. If the team had been forced to pay retail, I would have been charged even more.
Like the vast majority of people who have just read the preceding paragraph, probably including you, I decided that spending $20,000 in (post-tax) money to race a Focus wasn’t smart. So that winter I bought a used Neon ACR with a rollcage for $5000. The cage wasn’t NASA legal; neither was the seat. After a few other upgrades and a set of tires, I had a $10,000 Neon. Three weekends into the season, some fellow in a rented Focus put me into the wall at Mid-Ohio and the impact gave the Neon’s unibody a French twist. So I built another Neon from scratch. When I added up all the costs from 2008, I’d actually spent quite a bit more than I would have if I’d just kept driving a Spec Focus.
Little did I know how good I had it back then. The price of everything has gone up in the years since: fuel, tires, trailers for sale or rent, entry fees, $450 seatbelt kits that have to be renewed every two years to keep abreast of the rules. When the track is hot and dry, my Accord can eat $1200 worth of tires in 40 minutes. When people ask me, "why would you race a Honda Accord?" my answer nowadays is:
Because racing a Honda Accord hardly costs any more than leasing a Huracan with options.
And there’s always a bit of snobbery in that response, a suggestion that a real enthusiast would rather race a Honda than relax in a Lamborghini, the same way that many rural Ohioans would rather push a Chevy than drive a Ford. (To which, when I was a Ford salesman, I always replied, "And you’re gonna get a chance to do it!")
As a track rat, Nationals autocrosser, or club racer, I always felt morally superior to the people who participated in "show-and-shines" or visited the Saturday-morning Cars-and-Coffee gatherings. After all, I was competing! I was part of a great automotive tradition than included everybody from Barney Oldfield to Paul Newman to Michael Schumacher. The show-and-shine guys, the "hard parkers," were just poseurs who didn’t deserve to own the cars they displayed with such relish. I could be quite nasty on the topic, given an opportunity.
Nowadays I’m not quite so sure about it. Working for this publication has given me a chance to meet a wide variety of people who enjoy their cars in many diverse but equally valid ways, from off-roading to hypermiling. I’ve also seen firsthand just how much of a positive difference these varied forms of automotive enthusiasm have made in the lives of the people involved. The scales really fell from my eyes, however, at the beginning of this year, when my eight-year-old son decided he didn’t want to race his Junior Sportsman-class Birel kart in the 2018 season.
"I’ve thought about it," he informed me, "and I’d rather focus on racing BMX this summer." In the conversation that followed, it became crystal clear to me that while I saw racing karts as being infinitely cooler and more desirable than racing bikes, he saw the situation as two sides of the same competitive coin. Furthermore, he rated his chances to win on two wheels above his chances on four, largely because I’m an incompetent kart mechanic but a functional wrench when it comes to bikes. So far, his decision has been the right one, at least in terms of trophies won. A few weeks ago, though, he told me that he thought he'd like to try the new 206cc four-stroke class in 2019. "Unless it keeps me from getting a good National rank on the bike," he clarified.
Understanding his thought process helped me understand my own. I didn’t start racing cars until I was no longer competitive as a cyclist. I entered club-level competition with the same mentality that I brought to racing pro BMX, which is why this column is called Avoidable Contact; they kept penalizing me for the kind of knock-around hijinks that don’t raise an eyebrow down the first straight of an Elite-class USABMX moto, but which are frowned upon when you’re doing 120mph in a tight-knit line of Performance Touring racers.
I’ve raced over a dozen different kinds of cars and karts in the past decade, mostly because, like my son, I’m more interested in the competition than I am in the tools involved. It doesn’t embarrass me to race a Neon, or a Mustang, or an Accord, or a Miata. I’ve raced a Ford Granada at Texas World Speedway and I’ve raced a Ford Tempo at Flat Rock. I’d race a lawn mower if I had the chance. Nothing about the above makes me more of an enthusiast than the fellow showing off his 'Vette droptop at the drive-in movies. Hell, you could argue that I’m less of an enthusiast than that Corvette owner is. He loves Corvettes in general and his Corvette in particular. I just want to race.
I mention Corvettes because I’ve visited the National Corvette Museum four times this year, usually as a way to kill an hour or so during a race weekend. It’s rather fashionable in the automotive journalism cliques to dump on the place, but I love the NCM for what it says about our national love affair with cars. You might walk in as a skeptic but you’ll walk out a convert, because the museum and its displays make it plain just how important the idea of the Corvette is to people.
For some folks, a Corvette is a weekend toy bought with bonus bucks. For others, it’s the fulfillment of a lifetime spent scrimping and saving. Still others are obsessed with the car’s abilities on a racetrack or autocross course. Everything about the car itself has changed over the years; it’s been an American XK120, a swoopy two-tone boulevard cruiser with mirrored T-tops, a Nurburgring bruiser. Yet there’s common ground for all of the cars, and all of the owners, and all of the fans, at NCM.
I can’t help but respect and admire Corvette enthusiasm in all of its forms. Which means that I also can’t help but respect and admire Viper enthusiasm in all its forms. And Porsche enthusiasm. And so on, all the way down to the fellow who sent me an angry e-mail in 2008 when my first Neon got totaled. "That car was an original ACR and Neon Challenge car . . . and you ruined it," he wrote. "You destroyed a valuable piece of Mopar history because you wanted to be selfish and goof around in a NASA race." At the time I laughed—how could this guy think any Neon would ever be worth anything?—but now I see that he had a point. My enthusiasm trampled his, and I’m sorry.
(For the record, every time I see somebody vandalize a bone-stock air-cooled 911 into some kind of "outlaw" hodgepodge, I feel the same way that my Neon-historian correspondent did when he found out I’d totaled a 1994-build ACR sedan.)
This doesn’t mean I’m going to drag myself out of bed on Saturday morning to visit my local Cars and Coffee. Nor do I have any plans to attend a car show in 2019. My own personal enthusiasm for automobiles will probably always be competition-related. But I’m gonna try to meet the show-and-shine crowd halfway. This upcoming August, the shell of my current SCCA/NASA Neon will turn 25 years old. I think I’m going to take it to a few vintage races. I’ll shine it up a bit. Find all my old sales brochures and marketing materials from when the car was released. I’ll make a personal commitment not to have even the mildest of with my fellow vintage racers.
Think of it as an Apology Tour. I’m going to reconnect with different kinds of automotive enthusiasm. I’m going to listen to everyone’s stories and maybe tell a few of my own. It might cost me a couple of bucks. And when someone asks me, "Why would you vintage-race a Neon?" I’ll answer something along the lines of:
Well, it costs me just a little more to vintage race a Neon than it would to have a Ferrari 308GTB refurbished for Cars-and-Coffee duty. But if that’s your thing, you know, taking an old Ferrari to a parking lot . . . hey, that’s great too! Can’t wait to come out and see it sometime!