We Are Running Out of Cars for Club Racing and Autocrossing

The dominance of the crossover means fewer new cars that can be built into amateur or semi-pro race cars. And that's a shame.

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DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

Last month, I yielded to the inevitable and bought myself another open-deck car-hauling trailer to replace the 18-foot steel-deck one that was stolen from my race shop about ten years ago. The place I bought it, Rock's Trailer Sales in Columbus, Ohio, has been supporting SCCA autocross and club-racing efforts since around the time I was born. Their sponsorship and participation in motorsport is so pervasive that I recently saw a Montreal-based pro-racing team hauler with a Rock's sticker on the back bumper.

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While I was waiting for the salespeople to finish my paperwork, I walked through their shop and looked at the dozens of framed photos commemorating various racing efforts over the years. Most of the photos were taken at Mid-Ohio, often from the same angles, and it's fascinating to see the gradual changes in everything from camera quality to flagger positioning. There was just one little thing about the overall display that bothered me, and it took me a few minutes to figure out what it was.

The photos at Rock's are an inadvertent demonstration of how the club-race and autocross ecosystems are collapsing. Not in terms of participation, although the numbers have gone up and down over the years and there was a particularly rough patch between 2008 and 2012, but in terms of automotive diversity.

If you look at SCCA races of the '70s and '80s, you'll see an astounding range of cars. British two-seaters. German sedans. Japanese copies of German sedans. Corvettes, Porsches, Mustangs, Camaros. Pintos, Vegas, Gremlins, Chevettes. SCCA Showroom Stock and junior-pro classes like the Kelly American Challenge put everything from Dodge Aspens to Buick Somerset Regals on the track. As we approached the turn of the millennium, it got even broader. Toyota MR2s. Civics, Corollas, Cavaliers. Tube-frame Tercels from the GT3 class. Apparently there was some madman out there racing a Chevy Citation, too.

Ah, but things are changing. My local NASA and SCCA races still have a few of the oddball old cars—my Neon now qualifies as one, since it's approaching its 25th birthday—but the vast majority of the new builds fall into just a few categories. Miatas, Hondas, German sports cars, and "American Iron" in the form of Mustangs and Camaros. And that's about it.

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The amazingly diverse sedan-racing classes of 20 or 30 years ago? Gone. The club-race fields are awfully monoculture these days. It's easy to see why. Nobody wants to race alone. It's smart to buy and build a Miata, knowing that you have a ready-made infrastructure of knowledge, support, parts, and fellow competitors. I don't blame anybody who starts in Spec Miata and never leaves. Thank you for racing with me and supporting the region.

There's more to it than that, however. Club racing used to draw from a deep pool of brand-new or nearly-new cars that were affordable, sensibly sized, and not too dangerously quick. Think back to the showrooms of 1995. Nearly every automaker out there had a sporty FWD subcompact that was just begging to go racing. You didn't even have to choose a "foreign" car, because the Big Three would all cheerfully sell you a GTI competitor that in some cases would be faster and more satisfying than a real GTI.

I can't express how helpful it has been to me that Chrysler built hundreds of thousands of Neons and sold them at rock-bottom prices to people who drove them into the ground. Until recently I could be pretty sure than any part I needed, from a tie rod to a short block, was readily present in every one of my local self-service junkyards. I bought a lot of perfect fenders for $25 each. I wish I'd bought more of them.

Alas, the Neons are mostly gone from the junkyards now, replaced by the vehicles that were popular a decade ago: Body-on-frame SUVs, big FWD sedans with automatic transmissions, pickups. That's also what you'll find on the used market. Once upon a time, perhaps a third of the vehicles on the road would have made a decent basis for an SCCA racer. Today, it's more like one-twentieth—and that fraction is sinking fast.

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Imagine you're a new racer in 2028 and you're looking to buy a decade-old car as a basis for your build. You've got subcompact crossovers, compact crossovers, mid-sized crossovers . . . You get the idea. Small cars make up maybe 10 percent of the market now. Most of them are sold with automatic transmissions. A significant percentage of them are tall and narrow enough to be a dicey racing or autocross proposition. Anybody who is a serious autocrosser has probably seen a "tall hatch" roll in a Solo meet. I've seen it happen three separate times.

Which leaves Civics, Miatas, Mustangs, and a few of the cars that compete directly with them. That's pretty much the entire list of affordable competition-ready vehicles that are sold in any kind of volume today. Not that it's impossible to build a racing crossover—I just saw an MDX that looked pretty quick and snapped off manu-matic shifts like a McLaren—but it takes a lot of money and time, two things that are in short supply for young people nowadays.

"So what?" you might say. "What if everybody has to start with a Miata or a Civic or a Mustang? Those are great cars." You're right, but not everybody wants to race one of those cars. There are people out there who want to race with their favorite brand and won't consider anything else. That's good news if you like Mazda but it's terrible news if you're a Mercedes-Benz loyalist without enough cash for an AMG GT4.

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There's also something to be said for racing the same car that you drive on the street. That's how we do it in my house: We have an MX-5 Cup Car to match Danger Girl's MX-5 Club and a World-Challenge-spec Accord coupe to match my, ahem, last American muscle car. But if you drive a CR-V or an Equinox, you're not going to have that option.

Last but not least, a reduction in the diversity of the automotive ecosystem renders it vulnerable to shocks in that system, the same way that monoculture wheat fields are susceptible to being wiped out by one particular pest or disease. What if Mazda decided it couldn't or wouldn't build the Miata any more? What's going to happen when Honda stops building stick-shift Civics? When the next CEO of Ford accidentally takes all this "mobility company" rhetoric seriously and cancels the Mustang, where are you going to find a new American Iron car? We could lose entire classes of competition at the whim of a single marketing department.

We all know what the endgame is here. Eventually the vast majority of street and race cars will be electric pods. As Bob Marley said, none of us can stop the times. Still, I'd like to rage against the dying of this particular light as long as possible. A diverse variety of race cars is like the rainforest. You don't think about it until it becomes endangered. And by then it's probably too late. So I'd like to encourage all of you to build an oddball race car as soon as you can. Have your fun before it's too late. We might never be able to recapture the racing spirit of 1975, but we can still party like it's 1999.

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