How cheaply can you make a race car? We found out.
Racing cheap cars is shockingly not cheap.
About a decade ago, I heard about the 24 Hours of Lemons. The idea was to take a car worth $500 endurance racing for a weekend and do your best to keep it running. I was hooked instantly, making it a goal to get a team together and make it to a race, and you can read all about the shenanigans of our first race.
Most of us want to be a race car driver at some point or another. This ragtag group of inept friends technically fulfilled that dream.
Our first car was purchased from another team, only needing a little preparation. After the first race, our sights turned on building our own car from the ground up. Such a task is far from trivial, with astonishing amounts of time and money being needed.
Building the car
After we started racing, an old friend of mine gave me a call about his old car. He had a 2007 Subaru Impreza Outback sport that had been parked with transmission issues five years earlier. He was tired of watching it rot, so he offered it to us for free if we promised to make it a race car. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I accepted.
The car had started to rust into the ground, with all of the brakes locked up and most of the paint being covered in a healthy coat of moss. We dragged it onto a trailer and pulled it home to assess the damage.
The early days of waking the Subaru from its slumber involved a lot of lift time.
Right away, we found the transmission issues stemmed from the mounting point for the clutch fork had broken cleanly off of the transmission, making the clutch as useless as the speed limit signs on the Pittsburgh Parkway. A little bit of JB Weld helped us get our shift together, along with a brand new clutch set that set us back $150.
After getting it running, our focus turned to the brakes. The original parts were rusty and useless, so we swapped them out for the biggest brakes we could find in the Subaru parts bin. Massive front rotors and calipers, along with replacement parts for the rear got the car stopping well. These parts were sitting around the shop, so we got lucky with the free upgrade.
Being an Impreza Outback Sport, it had a higher ride height than the standard Impreza, which is great for tackling snow and dirt, but less than ideal for a race track. We had some used 02-07 WRX struts floating around, so they want on the car and immediately dropped it a few inches.
Getting it running: $150
Now we had a car that shifted, stopped, and turned, so it was time to unveil it at a local autocross event. We didn't bother to wash the moss off of the paint, but we did add a snowboard for a rear wing. It may not be useful, but it's a wonderful addition to the car.
Big stupid wings make everything better.
Race Car Conversion
The car ran, and it ran well, so it was time to rip out the smelly interior and continue the transformation into a race dominating machine. A weekend of gutting and cleaning meant it was ready for the safety gear installations to begin. Safety gear doesn't count towards the Lemons $500 limit, and it's where most of the costs lurk in a new car build.
First, we got a roll cage. Roll cages are incredibly important, and have to be designed and built precisely to the rules to keep your driver safe when something inevitably goes wrong. A good roll cage is the difference between a bad day at the track and a tragic day for all, so this is not an area to skimp out on.
We took the measurements and ordered a custom cage kit from Roll Cage Components. $650 got us all of the beautifully cut and bent pieces to a legal cage that we had to weld together. We were lucky and had a very good welder on our team that was up to the job, because a roll cage install can run over $2000 in a hurry.
Once the roll cage went in, we had to get a proper racing seat and racing harness, both meeting certain criteria to allow us to pass tech. A midrange seat cost us $450, and the seat belts ran $150. To add insult to injury, the belts have to be replaced every other year to maintain their safety certification.
It was starting to look like a race car at this point, with its empty shell now filled with a labyrinth of steel tubing. Next on the shopping list was the fire suppression system. This system involved a little pull handle for the driver if things started to get a little fire filled. This handle would dump the extinguishing foam from a tank onto the lap and feet of the driver, and into the engine bay. This might save the car in case of a fire, but it's mostly there to buy the driver a precious few seconds to escape as the flames get closer. This cost us $500 for a basic system.
Safety Parts: $1750
Our debut race at Gingerman Raceway in Michigan, June 2020
After dropping a few thousand dollars into a free car, we had something that looked like a race car, but it wasn't done. Next came the consumables that we would need to buy every race or two. This included things like brakes, tires, and fuel.
Tires get expensive in a hurry. We use the Falken 615k+, a 200tw tire that is cheap, grippy, and wears slowly enough that we can usually get a race weekend out of a set. A set of 17" tires for us runs $550.
Brakes are another important consumable. If you don't get the best, you can find yourself flying into a turn at 120 MPH with overheated pads and a brake pedal that is now more of a suggestion than a control. We run EBC Blue pads, with a front and rear set costing around $300.
Shockingly enough, racing takes fuel, and a lot of it. We'll typically burn around 7 gallons of 93 octane per hour of racing. After unloading the car at the track, we run down to the local station and fill up 20 gallons in fuel jugs, and a 55 gallon drum of fuel. At $4 per gallon, we'll go through about 100 gallons in a weekend, assuming the car stays together and on track for the whole time. There's another $400 down the drain.
Consumables: $1250 per race
My wallet typically cries by this part of the weekend. This free car that needed $150 to get running ended up costing over $3,000 just to prepare for its first race. Of course, that's just the car. Every driver also has to pay for their own fire suits and helmets, entry fees, and garage rental, making each weekend a significant money drain.
Of course, this is all assuming the best case scenario of the car surviving the weekend with no problems, which never happens on a new build. Racing is hard on a car and a person, and you're going to break things along the way. Suspension components that would last a decade now need to be changed after 30 hours of track time. Even the best drivetrains that typically last the life of the car are a ticking time bomb, with it not being unusual to see a team go through an engine or two (or three) in a weekend.
Our 2 car race with a Queen theme - "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races."
It is well known that the fastest way to make a small fortune is to go racing with a large fortune, and we won't disprove that law anytime soon. Of course, there are better ways to spend money, but when you get locked into a racing addiction, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Fall 2020. We won a trophy for this one, and not for being fast.