Painting the Racecar: Exterior

If you are thinking that painting the exterior of the car will be a quick project to complete yourself, that is not the case. If you have a racecar that currently has a decent paint job, you should strongly consider keeping it as-is. Assuming that you choose to paint the exterior of the car, you have a few different options. The first one is to bring the car to a body shop to have it painted. The benefit of this option is that it involves very little work on your behalf, and you should have a nice looking paint job when it is completed. If you shop around, you may also be able to get the car painted at a low-cost automotive painting company. However, be aware that, with many of these companies, you get what you pay for. There is a reason why, when you compare their cost versus that of a reputable body shop, the price will typically be much less than what a reputable body shop will charge.

I was very fortunate to have a body shop sponsor me in my racing efforts. We had an agreement where I would do the basic prep work on the car at their shop, and they would then paint it at no charge. One day, while I was at the body shop, I spoke to the owner about these low-cost automotive painting companies. This was at a point in our relationship where he was very open with me and did not feel as though he needed to sell me on his company’s work. He suggested for me to contact one of these well-known companies and ask some basic questions about the paint they use, and then compare it to what he was using on my car. Remember, the body shop that was sponsoring me didn’t want to use the best and most expensive stuff on my car either. After probing an employee who worked at this low-cost painting company a bit, he surprised me by admitting that their paint quality won’t match what a body shop would use. At the same time, he also pointed out the cost difference and savings his company provides their customers. Would having this low-cost paint job be better than painting the car yourself? That is something you will need to evaluate.

As previously mentioned, in the world of wheel-to-wheel racing, off-road excursions and accidents do happen. While my body shop sponsorship deal was great at first, and I learned many of the tricks of the trade, having to bring the car to them each time became very inconvenient. One of my friends painted his car using the spray paint method, and although it was not the prettiest paint job, it sure did the trick. Painting the car yourself has its advantages beyond the long-term potential cost savings. During the 2005 season, my car was a bit beaten up and needed to be repainted. The body shop that was sponsoring me was too busy at the time to paint the car, as it was right in the middle of their peak business season for the year. I evaluated the various options and decided to give painting the car myself a try. What really attracted me to this option was having much more control over the situation and not having to bring the car to a shop each time it needed to be touched up. Looking back on it, this was a great decision for me. While the car does not look as pretty as it did when the body shop painted the car, it still looks decent (especially from a few feet away). Besides, it is not a show car – it’s a racecar! If you decide to attempt painting the car yourself, be aware that the process does take time, especially if you are completing the job properly. With automotive painting, the prep work is 95% of the project, and it will take several hours to complete.

If you have any body damage that could use attention, complete that work prior to any of the other painting prep work. Once that is complete, it will be necessary to prepare the existing paint surface using scuff pads. (Scuff pads can be bought at most automotive parts stores.) What you need to do with these pads is literally scuff the surface of the paint to a point when it becomes dull, thus enabling the primer to better adhere to the surface. Do this to all of the exterior areas that you will be painting. This brings up the subject of identifying which areas you will be painting. If there are areas on the car that are currently black or unpainted, such as molding or plastic mirror casings, it might be easier and/or look better if they are painted. If you have the ability to scuff the paint outdoors, that would be optimum. No matter where you choose to scuff the car, be aware that this process will create plenty of dust. Once you have completed this step, clean the car using a paint prep solvent. This, too, can be purchased at most automotive parts or paint retailer stores.

One of the difficulties in painting the car yourself is not having access to a dust-free, well-ventilated area. It seems that no matter how hard you try, something always lands on the car when the paint is wet. Move many of the larger and other important items from the garage into another location until the painting process is completed. Assuming that you will be painting the car in a garage, sweep, then vacuum the area very thoroughly. During the course of painting the car, paint dust will find its way onto just about everything that surrounds the car when being painted. An effective way to cover the walls is to purchase a roll of painters plastic at a home improvement or painting store. The painter’s plastic is a roll of light plastic which can be taped or tacked onto the walls. With the use of tacks, you could also cover the ceiling, but I typically choose not to. When using this plastic, also tape the bottom to the wall or floor. This will prevent any breezes from blowing the plastic against the fresh, wet paint on the car. With the car outside of the garage, cover the floor. I suggest using a roll of paper that can also be purchased at most home improvement or paint stores. Newspaper works well, too. Cover everything! I made the mistake of not fully covering the bottom of the floor thinking that no paint would go directly under the middle of the car. Well, I was wrong. It is also important that the area be well-ventilated not only for your safety, but to prevent the “paint dust” from falling back onto the car after being sprayed. Failing to do this will negatively impact the quality of the paint job. Keep the garage door and windows open when spraying the car. I do recommend you cover the outside of the garage door as well. When painting, the garage door should be open and as I learned, overspray will get on it if not covered. Before painting the car, make sure that your other vehicles are away from the garage. You certainly don’t want the paint you are spraying to land on your streetcar. To help ventilate the area further, I use a couple of fans to blow air outside. Another step that can often be overlooked is the lighting in the area where you will be working. People often believe that they have enough lighting, but once they start painting learn differently. Having ample lighting will make your painting job much easier.

When all of the above steps have been completed, move the car back into the garage and start masking and covering the areas on the car that you don’t want painted. One tip the body shop showed me when taping is to quickly tape around the area, then use a razor blade to trim it to the proper size. It is also easier to tape a “perimeter” around many areas and then tape newspaper to that afterward. As noted earlier, use painter’s tape, versus masking tape. To cover the wheels, a few old bed sheets or large plastic bags work nicely.

Once you are sure that everything is masked and you have double-checked the car just in case, clean it again very thoroughly with paint prep solvent. Again, as noted earlier, be sure to wear latex gloves. The primary purpose of wearing latex gloves during this step is to prevent the oils from your hands getting on the metal. After this cleaning, be careful not to touch the car with you bare hands. Next, go over the painted surface with a tack cloth to removed residual dust. This step may not be absolutely necessary, but can’t hurt.

There are two primary paint application options when doing this project yourself. The first option is using an air compressor and spray gun. This method is the preferred choice if you have access to the tools, and are willing to spend the extra money, as it will produce the best results. For the spray gun, it is not necessary to purchase a very expensive gun in order to still obtain a nice paint job. I personally use a bottom feed (also known as siphon feed) style gun that can be purchased for under $60. When shopping for paint to be used with the spray gun, acrylic enamel auto paint is generally recommended over acrylic lacquer paint. (The acrylic enamel is much easier to work with.) To find the paint for this method, you need to look for automotive paint suppliers. I suggest that you mention to them that you will be painting a racecar, and ask what paint recommendations they have. You should choose a paint that is easy to work with, versus paints such as metallic and pearls, which are more challenging. The other reason to mention that you are painting a racecar is because many companies offer customers discounted body shop pricing when being used on a racecar. Maybe it is because they know the person will be there often for additional paint?

The other option is to use good ole canned spray paint. When purchasing canned spray paint, look for a brand that is made for automobile applications. When I painted my car using this method, it was necessary to make a few visits to various automotive parts stores in order to obtain the quantity of cans needed. The other option is to order the paint from one of the many on-line sources.

Regardless of which of these two methods you choose, purchase primer for the car that is compatible with the paint. Also verify that both the primer and paint are compatible with the paint prep solution you are using to clean the car. Due to time limitations I had to paint my car one year, I thought that I would skip the priming step to save some time. At first the paint went on very nicely, but as I got further into the process it started bubbling. Now that was a horrible feeling! Fortunately I was able to strategically apply decals in those locations. No, I’m not kidding. The other advantage of using a primer is that you will not need to utilize as much paint later to evenly cover the car. This is especially valuable when using an air compressor and spray gun, where the price for primer is much cheaper than the cost of automotive paint. After the primer has dried, and you have lightly sanded the car again and cleaned the surface, it is time to complete the fun process of painting the car.

Regardless of the painting method, it is extremely important that you thoroughly read the instructions on the painting products. I also recommend that you speak with the retailer you are purchasing the paint from to obtain their recommendations.

Most paints also have temperature and humidity limitations for when the product should be applied. If you have bare metal, I recommend that you use a self-etching primer on those areas before spraying the car with the primer coat. Many paint suppliers sell a self-etching primer that comes in spray cans, making this step very easy. While you could also apply a clear coat after applying the paint to make the car shine even more, remember that it’s a racecar that it will get beaten up. I personally don’t feel it is worth the extra money, time and effort to apply a clear coat. Especially if you are spraying the car using a spray gun and air compressor, test spray on a piece of cardboard to set the gun properly, and again each time you add new paint to the canister. When painting with a spray gun, you need to monitor the level of paint in the canister – the gun will “spit” paint as it begins to run out. One other tip is to put the car up on jack stands to allow easier access to the lower areas on the car. When using a spray gun, you may find it to be very challenging to position the gun to spray these lower sections, especially when using a bottom feed, siphon style spray gun.

Again, as with any painting you do on the car, at a minimum you should wear a paper painter’s mask and safety glasses to protect yourself from harmful paint fumes and paint particles. Also wear the finest junky clothes you own, including a matching hat. Yes, you very well may have paint on you by the end of this process. As stated earlier, be sure to ventilate the area where you will be painting the car as much as possible for safety reasons, and to prevent paint particles from landing back on the freshly painted surface.

Summary of Primary Costs:

  • Painters mask: $20 – $35 depending on the style
  • Bondo (½ gallon can): $13
  • Sand paper: $20
  • Paint prep solution: $8
  • Scuff pads (4): $8 total
  • Tack cloths (2): $4 total
  • Painter’s tape (2 rolls): $14
  • Painter’s plastic sheeting (12’ x 50’): $10
  • Self etching primer (1 spray can): $12

Spray gun using an air compressor method:

  • Economy bottom feed spray gun: $60
  • Disposable in-line spray gun filter: $7
  • Automotive primer (1 gallon): $40
  • Automotive paint (2/3 gallon): $130
  • Paint hardener (1 pint): $30
  • Lacquer thinner (2 gallons): $16
    Or
    Spray paint cans method:
  • Primer (6 cans): $35 total
  • Automotive spray paint (estimated 12 cans): $84

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