Building a Racecar

People hold mixed opinions as to whether or not building your own racecar is an intelligent decision. Financially, it is often not the smartest option, and it will definitely consume many, many hours of your time. Many people who have built their racecars say they regret it. But don’t let this completely stop you! While there are downsides of building a racecar, there are many legitimate reasons why it might make sense for you. If you respond to most of the following questions with a “Heck Yeah!”, maybe building a car is the right decision for you.

  1. Do you like to work on cars?
  2. Do you have a place to work on cars?
  3. Do you already have a car that fits into a racing class?
  4. Are you willing to turn that car into a dedicated racecar?
  5. Do you have a “thing” for that car? (Are you an enthusiast?)
  6. Do you know how to work on that car and are familiar with its idiosyncrasies (or know someone who does and would love to help you)?
  7. Do you know where to get cheap parts for it?
  8. Do you have a pile of spare parts for the car, or a parts car?
  9. Are you a mechanic?
  10. Do you have the time for it?
  11. Are you nuts?

I was attracted to building my car for several reasons. The first was that I had an older car that would have been worth very little if I had sold it. I had gained experience driving it in high-performance driving events, and I liked how it drove. The next reason was that I had convinced myself I could slowly build the car, which allowed me to gradually spend my money instead of needing to pay it all upfront. Maybe I lied to myself a little for that reason, but it could be argued both ways. The best reason for my building the car was that I had very little knowledge about working on cars. Does that seem like a very odd reason? Well, I did answer yes to question number 11 above. For me, building a car was a great experience. I learned more about how things in a car work than I could have ever anticipated. It was also a very gratifying (while very frustrating) experience. Just because I am a car enthusiast who loves to build them, it may not be the same for everyone. For others, building one might sound far-fetched.

If you’ve read this far and are still actually considering building a racecar, first you must commit to the Oath of Frugality (and actually mean it), written by a friend of mine.

Oath of Frugality
by Jake Fisher
(Read with one hand on the shifter)

“I, [your name here], solemnly swear to build my car so that it is legal in my region. I won’t put any more money into my car than absolutely necessary to make it reliable and reasonably competitive.* I will strive to find parts that are used, take the time to sell off parts that I don’t use, and resist the temptation to buy parts that will make the car just a tiny bit faster. I will choose tires on the basis of longevity and cost over lap time. My car doesn’t have to be pretty. And most importantly, I realize that the best bang for the buck for lower lap times is seat time, and not those fancy wheels that look really, really cool.”

*Reasonably competitive: A car that can compete mid-pack and does not struggle from becoming last with a decent driver.

Any money that you spend on a car, consider it money gone, and assume that the car won’t be worth a dime. While this sounds like a negative, glass-half-empty viewpoint, I believe it is the best mental approach to building (or buying) a car. Unfortunately, wheel-to-wheel racing related damage can be done to a car beyond repair. And no, your insurance company won’t cover damage incurred while racing, nor will other competitors reimburse you for any damage they may have accidentally caused. While building a car is stressful and very time consuming, make sure that you have fun throughout the process. If you start to get frustrated, and you will, take a break for a little while or start working on something else on the car.

In addition to developing a financial budget, you really should also develop a time budget. Like many other types of projects, it is very easy for the time line to grow two to three times the original estimate. Creating this time line is especially helpful if you have a significant other and/or children. If only I had thought about doing this! I found myself going to the garage many, many evenings right after work and busting my butt on the car. I became very focused on what needed to be completed and became too wrapped up in the car build project. The time I spent with my wife became very limited for a few months and caused a few arguments that really could have hurt our relationship. If I had been a bit smarter, and hindsight is always 20/20, I would have explained some of the various projects I had to complete during the car build process. You do not need to complete the entire project you are working on in one day; usually you can find good break points during the process. Ask how much time your family feels would be appropriate for you to spend working on the car on various days, and schedule your time accordingly. Or plan to work on a project when it won’t cut into family time. Maybe your significant other could plan an evening with some of her or his friends that would allow you time to work on the car. The best solution I’ve found is to involve your significant other and/or children in the various projects. I have since learned this concept, and now my wife actually helps me with my repairs. How cool is that? Although she had very little car knowledge and hates having her hands dirty (disposable latex gloves are wonderful to have), she became more interested in what I was doing. I just have to make sure she feels useful – she does not like to hang out in the garage with nothing to do! Another idea may be as simple as having her or him bring something else to do out into the garage while you are working on the car.

It is now time to develop a plan of how you will approach the car build process. The primary goal at this point is to build the car to a point where it meets all safety requirements and can obtain a logbook. The Moving On pages in the Build, Repairs & Maintenance section contains additional information about further preparing the racecar.

Locating the Donor Car
Maybe this process is as simple as looking outside your window at the car sitting in your driveway. Or it might require that you begin shopping around. By now you may have begun to narrow down the vehicles of interest. It can be difficult, but take your time finding the donor car. Look in your local newspaper’s classified ads, watch as you drive around town for cars being sold by private individuals and, of course, search the internet. Consider doing general searches of all cars under $1,000 on various automotive websites; you might be surprised at how many options there are. When looking at the car, if there is some cosmetic body rust, dents or the car’s paint job is not the prettiest, don’t worry. On the other hand, if the frame is completely rusted through or needs other significant work, it would be wise to move onto the next car. Basically, you should be looking for a car that is in good running condition and won’t require immediate work done to it other than cosmetic items. If it does require repairs before it can be driven, be sure to include those figures into your budget.

Self-Inspection of the Car
Once you have your future racecar home, you should thoroughly re-inspect the car to determine what repairs may need to be done prior to preparing the car for club racing. If you are not very mechanically inclined like me when I began, you will put the car on jack stands, take a concentrated look at it and say, “yup, looks good to me, other than some cosmetic items.” While this may be an accurate assessment, you should at least begin to acquaint yourself with the car. As a minimum, put the car up on jack stands and verify that there is not a significant amount of play in the wheel bearings. To do this, attempt to move the wheel by pulling on it with one hand on top of the tire and the other on the bottom. This simple test will also tell you if there may be issues with suspension linkage. Take the repair manual(s) you purchased and start looking through them, while at the same time identifying the parts and their locations on the car itself. Typically a manual such as Haynes or Chilton will provide a checklist of items to inspect in the tune-up and routine maintenance section.

If you identify any parts that need to be replaced, evaluate how important those repairs are. If they are non-critical parts, consider adding them to the to-do list, and take care of them later. By doing this inspection now you will have a good idea of items that need repair before they affect you in an event. You will also become more familiar with the car.