Cheapo beater endurance racing series such as the 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar are a great chance to do wheel-to-wheel racing for a relatively small price. In these series, the first decision you make is often the one that can make you a racing hero or destroy what's left of your sanity. So how do you pick the "right" car?
(A Guide To Crapcan Racing is a new series we're trying that we hope will give you an overview of how to compete in one of the many new cheap racing formats. — Ed.)
Before I even start, let me clear up one thing: these "$500 racecars" usually end up costing far more than $500. A cage alone typically costs upwards of $1500 if you send the job to a professional welder, which you should do if you're anything less than confident in your welding abilities.
That's the biggest component that protects you in a crash — don't tempt fate here.
Then you have the costs of making the car run. Then you have the costs of making it reliable. By the time you factor in additional safety equipment that does not count towards your $500 total, general maintenance of the car, wear items, post-work burritos and probable budgetary cheatin', you're looking at a grand total closer to $5000 than $500.
Regardless, if you're going to be eating ramen for the next few months, you need to choose a car can get excited about and that you will gladly finish sometime within this century.
There are so many cars out there that plausibly pass for $500 that the choices can be a bit overwhelming. Let's narrow down that selection a bit. First, a question:
Why are you racing?
"I just want to try it out, and maybe cross an item off my bucket list."
If this is the case, why go to the trouble of building a car yourself? Hop on to an existing team or at the very least, buy an already prepared racecar. It's best to see if you even like crapcan racing before embarking on your dream build of a 4G63T-swapped glow-in-the-dark LeMons Trabant.
It's far less time intensive to try out a race this way, and much less expensive as well. Check the forums related to the series you would like to run before you even think about searching for "Simca" or "no title" on Craigslist. There are always teams either looking for more drivers or trying to sell an old car that has already been built to accommodate the series' rules.
When considering teams to join, doing a little research into the team you're considering can hedge your bets against disappointment later. Look for a decent record of finishing races as a good indicator as to whether or not you'll get seat time. Ask other racers in the series for references — is this team reliable? What is their personality like? Will I be able to stand their company for an entire weekend? (I know this paints my team as a questionable choice right now, but it's solid advice.)
Alternately, look for a team who is running the same type of car that you are interested in. If you would eventually like to race a car that is so terrible that only the LeMons Supreme Court could love it, you may not get as much seat time running with a like-minded team, but it could be the kind of team who you enjoy hanging out with more than a team that's gunning for the win on laps.
Most teams with arrive-and-drive seats available expect payment up front, but even then, it's still cheaper than buying a car to run yourself. Clarify expectations ahead of time so that there are no surprises after the race.
If you have a whole team together who wants to try a crapcan race, you may want to go ahead and buy an already prepared car. Look for good deals that include spares and other valuable items, such as hard copies of the factory service manual.
These items will save you money when it comes to preparing the car. Even if you are buying an already built racecar, you still need to perform some basic maintenance and ensure that everything about the car still meets the technical regulations of the series you are entering. Although series like to make only small changes in the rules from year to year so as not to catch anyone off guard, a car that has not been entered in an event for a while may have more items to bring up to spec than you'd initially suspect.
Be sure to avoid any cars with potentially pricey problems, such as cage build quality issues and the telltale signs of impending engine failure. Bring someone knowledgeable about the mechanical side of things to help you inspect the car if you're clueless about it.
If the seller is friendly, keep him on speed dial. You may need to ask him about any unforeseen issues with the car later.
The last thing you want to do in this case is to overspend on a hobby you may never end up doing again when there are ways to try it out without breaking the bank. Save investing in the coolest car ever for when you know if it's something you love.
"I'd like to get a ridiculous amount of track time"
There's only one way to maximize the amount of time you get in your car in a beater enduro: stay out of the pits. I'm not even talking about rehearsing your pit stops over and over again like you're the Team Joest Ballet, or running the minimum number of teammates required. What I'm saying is: You must keep your dumb car from breaking down.
In this case, reliability should take priority in your car selection.
There are three things that will survive a nuclear apocalypse: cockroaches, Twinkies and Miatas. Thus, Miata is the obvious answer here. However, whether you should run one is highly series- and team-dependent.
ChumpCar doesn't seem to care if you bring a Miata as long as it's mostly stock. LeMons, on the other hand, is just plain tired of seeing them. If you're all there for the experience and the track time, you may be fine with the extra heckling that goes with bringing yet another Miata to a LeMons race. You may even think it's fun to try and theme the car in an over-the-top manner to hedge your bets against BS laps. However, be forewarned that the LeMons powers-that-be tend to give preference to cars that do not belong on a racetrack (read: nothing you ever hear with "Spec" in front of it) when picking teams to run races where there is only a limited number of spots available.
Fortunately, Eric Rood just updated the LeMons Torture Test rankings with data through the end of 2013. These are rankings of how well different makes and marques have done in the series. Reliability-minded teams looking for something more unique than a Miata should consider the more interesting items on this end of the rankings.
Alternately, if you have ample experience wrenching on a certain kind of car, choose a car that you know how to make reliable. Everyone loves to see a car that's supposed to explode by lap 4 go the distance.
If the car you know and love could never pass as a crapcan, consider running a related vehicle. For example, you could never run an Evo, but front-wheel-drive Lancers and Mirages are fair game. They'll still use many of the same tools, plus many of the components and layouts are very similar. (Bonus: no turbos mean more space to work in the engine bay.)
Knowing all the tips and tricks to make a car with a bad reputation last for an entire race is exactly the kind of skill needed at a crapcan race. LeMons bases its highest award off of who can do the most with the most unlikely car, plus a friend's team won a trophy at ChumpCar for holding their own in a Triumph. It earns respect because it deserves respect.
Speaking of things that go boom...
"I love building stuff."
Behold, the Sensory Assault RX-7, featuring a functioning air brake, a Home Depot-spec switch panel and an exhaust-mounted rib cooker. Those ribs are good. Really, really good. Build-happy crapcan enthusiasts, this is your benchmark.
The one question I have for people who are into crapcan racing because they love to build is "are you any good at it?"
If the answer is "yes," the world is your oyster. Pick one of the next two responses and act as their evil enabler, building unbelievable frankencars or making things stupid fast as needed.
If the answer is "no," you need to start off with a car that's both easy to work on and that has ample aftermarket and community support. The former makes it easier to figure out how to put things back together when they break. The latter saves you from having to fabricate or wait forever for track-worthy parts.
Yes, this means a Miata or an E30 BMW is probably a decent choice, but so are a Datsun Z cars and aircooled Volkswagens.
Even Porsche 944s aren't too heinous to learn how to work on — unless you need to swap a clutch in a hurry, that is. Almost every OEM part is labeled, so it is easy to look up the number whenever I have to figure out where things go or source replacement parts. Parts catalogs and the factory service manual are readily available online. The fact that they are frequently used as track beaters and racecars means that sourcing hoonable parts is easy, with many different vendors to choose from.
If possible, get involved in your local marque-related club (cars with a large following likely will have one) for advice, help and other resources. Finding other locals who know how to work on your car is a huge help whenever you get stuck on something. Oh, and you get to blow everyone's minds with your crapcan racing plans.
"I'm in this for the lulz."
I love you. Can I join your team?
Seriously, these are my favorite kinds of crapcan racers: here for the fun of it. The kind of lulz depends highly on mechanical skill, though. So, can you turn a wrench?
If you chuckled at this question and bellowed out "I AM GOD OF TOOLS," please eversokindly come up with the most ridiculous thing you can think of and race it.
Obscure marques! Bizarro swaps! Trabants! Electric cars! ZOMG TRABANTS! Road-going planes! Donks! YES.
Or just build your car in the paddock.
If you're ever short on ideas, oh lulzy one, Judge Phil puts out a list of "Cars We'd Like to See in LeMons" every now and then. Build one of those.
On the other hand, if you lack wrenching ability but are a creative kook, let it come out in other ways. If you run LeMons, theme everything. Theme your car. Coordinate matching outfits. Bring themed bribes. Cook themed food. Fart themed toots if you must.
If you're running ChumpCar, congratulations, this is your opportunity to party the hardest and leave all the serious business to everyone else. While there's no real emphasis on themes or bringing oddball cars there, you can still usually get a fist-bump or two for being the fun team. Bring whatever you enjoy driving and have a ball.
"I'm here to win on laps."
Okay, but can you? Really?
If you've been at this for a while and run good, clean, consistent, fast laps, then concentrate your efforts on getting the fastest car you can that fits into the rules of the series you're running.
The coveted item changes from year to year. This year, it seems to be the E36 BMW. Get it over with, buy the E36 and pwn n00bs all day long.
Or buy whatever you're familiar with and know how to drive well. Fox-body Mustangs and Miatas are two cars that seem to place consistently high. Obviously, this is a matter of preference as to what kinds of vehicles suit your driving style.
Look at series results: who's near the top? Look at the tracks you'd like to run: do they favor horsepower or handling? Get a car that works for both you and the venue.
On the other hand, if you are the aforementioned track n00bs and you're saying this, you may want to pick a different reason to run these series. Otherwise, you're going to get really frustrated, really fast.
That being said, things like "getting more experience" and "becoming more comfortable in race traffic" are perfectly valid reasons to race a crapcan that are still en route to saying and meaning "we're going to win this."
Get some of that experience with an instructor in the right seat—do a high performance driver's ed trackday, sign up for private instruction, or swap seats back and forth with more experienced teammates. Those are all good ways to find areas to improve, and all things I'd recommend doing before showing up to a crapcan race.
For the race, though, pick a car that will be hard to break, spin or crash in hopes of causing as little team strife as possible. You're going to make newbie mistakes. Everyone does. Even experienced folks. Something with predictable handling, but not too much horsepower to handle is ideal. Front-wheel-drive econoboxes and Miatas are perfect for this.
Where are you racing?
As mentioned a few times above, where you are racing has some influence on the car you should buy to run. The two main series are still the 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar, but several newer and regional series have sprung up in an attempt to fill racers' schedules. Some SCCA regions even allow a class for crapcan racers now as well.
LeMons favors the wild theme and fun build crowds. They prefer people to show up with something interesting and have a good time. Multiple classes allow different kinds of cars to compete for a win on laps, even though doing well with a terrible car is valued more than the overall win. If you're thinking about bringing a Miata, consider a 914 instead.
ChumpCar, on the other hand, has one class where the fastest car overall takes the top prize. It may be geared more towards the guys who are out to win and take their racing a little more seriously, but they still appreciate slower cars who are set up and driven well in addition to less serious teams who are there for the fun of it. While Miatas may be more welcome here, oddball engine swaps are more difficult to have under their ruleset without being bumped to the here-for-participation-only Exception Class.
There's enough overlap between the crapcan-friendly endurance series that it's easy to build a car to fit multiple rulesets and thus, run as much as possible. When preparing a car for multiple events, whip out the other series' rulesets to make sure what you're doing to accommodate one set of rules won't be difficult to adjust or need removal to run in other series.
The biggest car differences between LeMons and Chump are fairly minor: fire suppression system requirements, rollcage backstay locations, glass removal, decor and window net requirements.
Keep these in mind when building a multi-series car, go forth, and have as much fun with your crapcan as humanly possible.