On street cars vs race cars: Accidents, Repairs, and the cost of racing.

Hi all,

I had started writing this article to address the above topic, but soon realized that I would have to go a bit into the different cost factors of racing. Dave has already written about this in his book / this webpage (see HERE and HERE), and this post elaborates on some of the aspects, in part telling my own experience, in part summarizing what I learned in discussions from experienced people – big thanks to the sandbox.

Why do I spend time on this? Because I think it is important to explain this to every beginner before they decide what kind of car to race and write a big check. I do not mean to discourage anyone from racing – most of you who read this blog are likely addicted anyway . The purpose is to help with the decision what kind of car you can not only afford to buy, but also afford to maintain, repair, and race for a good number of events every season. This should maximize the fun and minimize frustration.

It is not a red flag. It’s an orange cone to help you avoid the pothole.


Dave and Kai, testing at Lime Rock Park

Many people look at my car and say “That doesn’t look like a racecar at all.” They are kind of right. It has big numbers and some stickers, but it is obviously an old Honda Civic. There are no wings or aggressive aerodynamics, no huge tires. Is it fast? That depends on the driver, and on what you call “fast”. In its class, yes, the car is fast. Sam and Susan Ryan, who built and raced the car before they sold it to me, were really successful with it. Does “fast in its class” mean “boring Mickey Mouse racing with a grocery getter”? Let’s ask our very own Dave. He holds the SCCA track record in his class (ITB) at Watkins Glen.  Watkins Glen is an active NASCAR, INDY and former F1 track, and probably the fastest and most challenging road course in the Northeast. The racing legends of the past have made history there, and some lost their lives. After his first full-speed qualifying session in the Civic, Dave had a huge smile on his face, his eyes were full of adrenalin. “This car is scaaaary!!!” he said.

His knees were shaking. This was the track that he holds the record on. He had just driven it in an old stock Honda Civic.

Still, it is an old Civic, and it looks nothing like an F1, NASCAR, or World Rally Car – and people say the same thing about other modest club racecars – little sedans, hatchbacks, small 2 seaters like, e.g., Miatas or MR2s. When asked how fast my racecar goes, it becomes clear that its straight-line acceleration and top speed is nowhere near many current street cars or even performance cars that frequently have 300, some 500 or more hp.

I also get that line a lot: “Come on Kai, you are German, you should be in a German car – why not a nice BMW or Porsche?”. No, it’s not because Jake’s caught fire…

So why do we race small older cars that are often just modified “grocery getters” ?

There are two reasons – first, street cars and race cars have little to do with each other, and second, the cost of racing. Let’s look into this:

I. Street cars are not race cars.

Owning a car and racing a car are two very different things. As you will see below, for the amount of money that an average club racer pays each year to, say, be regionally competitive in a compact car, you could make the payments on an older pre-owned Porsche. Yet, to race that Porsche competitively, you would probably need a racing budget that is considerably higher.

However, any nice street car is not allowed in a wheel to wheel race – and it is not suitable for that purpose. It does usually not have the components (eg brakes) that can withstand the enormous stresses, but stock ones that are made for longevity, economy and comfort. More importantly, it does not have the safety gear. See below – racecars have accidents.

In addition, race cars should be expendable, and a new and/or expensive street car with  its resale value is usually not. To begin with, the required safety upgrades (roll cage, racing seat, …) and weight reduction modifications usually mean you have to ruin the street car, giving up most of the resale value. Second, racecars have accidents. Regardless whether it was your fault or not, noone is obliged to pay you anything and the bill is on you.

Let’s take a closer look at these points and some others:

II. Going faster costs more $$$

There is an old wisdom in racing: Speed costs money. As it turns out, in racing it costs a lot more money than on the street (where you technically cannot really go fast).

LeMans - Aston

Let’s look at the cost factors, and some typical numbers for certain cars. A couple of remarks:

a) All numbers I quote below are really just to be considered ballpark. Costs vary wildly from racecar to racecar and how you race and prepare it.

b) There is another old saying in racing: If you want to win, it’s going to cost you. The examples below give the cost of being on the track. If you want to win, especially in a competitive class, or on a national level, your budget will skyrocket. Even for small cars that have limited modifications (Showroom Stock, Improved Touring – “IT”, Performance
Touring – “PT”, Spec Miata, …). There are Showroom Stock cars with $20,000 in developing costs, Improved Touring and Spec Miata cars with $30,000 or even $50,000.

c) This is for amateur/”club” racing. If you want to go “pro” racing, numbers will be from another planet.

1) Donor car and build cost:

The “Donor”, the car that you build into a racecar, is essentially lost for resale. You usually strip the interior, remove comfort items like the AC, put in a cage, racing seat, harness. It is useless (and usually illegal) as a street car. It loses most of its street resale value. While you can sell the racecar you built from your street car, you will never get the same price, much less the money for all the parts and labor that went into it. Remember, an okay ITB car can sell for $3,000 – $4,000 including spares, but cost the previous owner much more to build.

Obviously, turning a newer car into a racecar means losing much money – you throw away all the shiny interior, stereo, SatNav, etc that you paid for. And since you often do many modifications anyway – different suspension, engine work, etc, an older donor car will be just as good as a brand new one. That’s why people often use older cars for donors.

On the other hand, be it old or new donors, remember speed always costs you money.  An old 4-cylinder grocery getter in okay technical shape can be bought for, say, $1,000-$2,000 upwards. A 15 year old Corvette is about $6,000 (BlueBook), A 1970s-1980s Porsche 911 goes for about $12,000-$15,000 on craigslist.

Third, turning an economy car into a racecar is cheaper than doing the same thing for a rare or performance car. Engine builds are cheaper. Performance parts for small cars are often produced in larger quantities, do not need to withstand the stress of a 500 hp car, and are, you guessed it, cheaper.

Finally, the building cost depends on how much you modify your car. A class with few allowed modifications (IT/PT) will be cheaper than building a highly modified (and faster) class like Production or GT.

Below, we will look into cars that are close to stock, since these are the most popular for beginning club racers.

Should you on the other hand decide to buy a ready-built used racecar, which is usually much cheaper than building one yourself (see above), fast classes will be more expensive to buy, too. The basic ITC/ITB car can go for as little as $3000, an ITA car is roughly $6000 and up, ITS/ITR cars can be $10,000 or more, a trackworthy 70s/80s Porsche 911 will be
about $20,000 and up (VERY roughly – watch out, there are really good deals out there!)

2) Your annual racing budget:

If you take a look at Dave’s book/website, you will find that the basic cost of racing for one of the most affordable classes (Improved Touring B or C) is somewhere between $3,500 and $4,000 a year. This will get you out on the track, in a car that can run somewhere in the middle of the pack. Dave’s calculation assumes that you cut costs where possible – camping instead of motels, etc – and that nothing breaks on the car. If you are just a little bit less frugal (I spent a few nights in motels, flat-spotted a few tires – beginner error, and did a few extra HPDEs), you can be out around $5,000 or more without having splurged by most peoples’ standards.

How much more will that annual cost be for a faster car? It depends on many things, but I asked around to get a rough idea. Let’s say you want to go faster than in your ITB VW Golf or Honda Civic, and buy into a faster IT class (or NASA’s PT equivalent), running, say, an Integra in ITA, an RX7 in ITS or a BMW in ITS/ITR. In these classes, your basic annual budget for a mid-pack car can easily be 2-4 times Dave’s ballpark number we looked at for an ITB car. For somewhere north of $10,000 a year you can race a Porsche 911 – an older 70s-80s model with some modest 200-250 hp, in a low-preparation class with the Porsche Club of America or any other sanctioning body.

If you want to go really fast, you can run a Corvette in, e.g SCCA Touring 1. The costs may be even higher. I don’t have a figure for mid-pack cars, but was told of an annual budget of $35,000 for someone’s front-running car at national events.

You see that while you can run a performance car in club racing, going faster costs money not only for the car you buy, but also to keep it running. Think that the higher performance will put much higher loads on brakes, tires, all wear and tear parts, you will run them down very fast, and the spares are pricier for faster and more exotic cars. A pair of brake rotors for a Civic or Golf are $50 at the parts store and last you a season. A friend with a Subaru STi told me that his car “ate rotors”, so much that he rather left it at home from HPDEs, because a set of 4 are $300.

Looking at a few numbers I was given, there *seems* to be a rule of thumb: in club racing, for a low-preparation production car (not formula cars!) that is mid-pack in its class, the annual racing budget is in the same ballpark of what it costs to buy that car ready-built.

These numbers, however, do not include crash damage and major overhauls:

3) Repairs – mechanical and accidents:

Read and speak after me: Every racecar will eventually get damaged. I did not want to believe it when I started, but it is true. No, I am not cynical or depressed about that. It is just important that you know and accept this before you think about how much racecar you can afford.

I had a particularly unlucky first season: my Civic got  scraped and dented 4 times on the right side when cars tried to dive by on the inside of a turn. I finally managed to smash the
entire right side in when I lost the car at a Watkins Glen HPDE and it needed costly body panel and some suspension work.

Ask any racer who has been doing it for years – they all will have stories of either minor or larger collisions. Repairs range from  a can of Bondo and $10 worth of paint to major sheet and frame metal work.

Swapping in a new rear quarter panel on my Civic cost more than $1,500 at a racing body shop. Pulling out a huge dent at the right rear at the friendly Russians’ shop behind my garage was just two hours of fairly priced labor. Some of my body and suspension damage was cheap to fix thanks to used parts from the previous owner, and for a small Honda, VW, Miata etc you can always get cheap spares from the junkyard.

For a car that is a few steps up from an old mass-produced compact, these repairs can obviously be a lot more expensive.

Apart from crashing the car, you might hit a high curb, breaking a suspension part; your engine or drivetrain may die under the heavy racing load; and other major car parts may/will need regular replacements and rebuilds due to the high stresses of racing. Shocks are $60 for a stock aftermarket part for the Civic, hundreds of $$ for a racing-grade part on a performance car; engines and transmissions need to be rebuilt (about $2,000 for a Honda 4-Cylinder engine, north of $10,000 for the flat-6 of the Porsche we talked about above; engines are often rebuilt every 2-3 years).

Greg and Kai, using the Civic as a sun shade.

The question is not if you need a costly repair, but when you will need it – and it will be pricier the faster and fancier your car is.

4) Total Loss

There is a third old saying in racing: ‘Don’t take anything to the track that you could not push off a cliff and walk away from’.

Obviously, your racecar may be damaged beyond repair. I want to repeat what I said above: regardless whose fault it was, you have no claim against anyone. Split second mishap and the beloved racecar and the money in it are gone for good.

Fortunately, that does not happen very often. But if you are in any way responsible with your money, you should be able to pay your racecar with spare money that you can afford to lose. That determines pretty much how much racecar you can afford to buy.


Wrapping up:

Street cars are not race cars. It costs a lot more to race a car than to just own it.

Yes, a modest street sports car you could own could outdrag a modest racecar off the lights. But this street car cannot race wheel to wheel unless you do something really stupid on public roads. Yes, I think racing on public roads is stupid. I was an ambulance driver for a while. The racecar is usually also faster in a turn, which is where much of the fun is.

Even the most powerful street car will mostly go at street speeds, and can only  be competitively used to beat other cars off the lights. That does nothing but measure who bought the car with the faster acceleration. Nothing wrong with that. It is just not what road racing is about. Road racing is about pitting similar or equal cars against each other. It is not about who bought the bigger engine; it is about how much you make out of the limits of your class rules.  This includes your abilities in car preparation and, most importantly: your skills as a driver.

You CAN, of course, have it both ways: if you are fine with driving fast and don’t need the wheel-to-wheel part of it, you can have a fast street car and drive it fast on a track: do HPDEs and Time Trials. The danger of losing the car is lower (but not zero), insurance is sometimes available (ask the organizer), and you do not need that much safety gear (but some is highly recommended, especially in faster cars). If you don’t need the track, go autocrossing – almost no chance of damage to the car, incredible fun, and a fierce competition that is all about driver skill!

So, that’s why many club racers race modest cars – they love racing, racing costs serious money, going faster costs lots more, and for may of us, modest racecars are what we can afford.  When you get started, make sure you choose a car and class that is right for you and doesn’t later spoil the fun by giving you financial headaches. Just ask people in your class about their budget.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with owning a fancy racecar, of course.  If you have the extra money, please do bring out your pride and joy – everyone loves to see some nice rides out on the track! Whatever you race, enjoy it and be happy that you can. Being able to race anything at all is a big financial privilege.