I love racing cars and working on them, but it sort of prevents me from enjoying certain things—like fingernail polish. I can’t get a manicure without it chipping immediately. So, I tried out a ridiculous manicure that had to be baked on like automotive paint to find out if pretty nails could finally hold up to oily goo and vehicular muck.
I’ve long resigned myself to the fact that I can’t have nice nails unless it’s a special occasion, and even then, it’s going to chip as soon as I do something awesome like smash an empty can on my head or decide that forks are for losers.
I will get a pedicure, though. My feet are usually holed up in a shoe whenever I’m dealing with my less than perfect Porsche 944 race car. Pedicures last! Besides, even if you don’t plan on leaving with pastel purple polish, it feels really good to have someone massage your feet and calves and most importantly, clean up your gross, smelly feet.
I’m a real sucker for polish that matches my car, so I usually go with red. This preference has some root in nail polish’s history, after all. According to Good Housekeeping, the first modern nail polish as we know it was actually inspired by automotive paint.
My Porsche’s Guards Red isn’t hard to match. It’s a vibrant red just on the edge of being more cool than warm in hue. It’s a shade that looks good on everyone, so of course, it’s frequently sitting in nail salons everywhere, waiting for me to put it on my feet.
The Rally Red on my daily driver Mitsubishi, however, is a bit tougher to match. It’s a slightly darker metallic red which looks almost as if they said “let’s add some brown flecks in here, because rally.”
I don’t see a good match for it often, but I spotted it one day among the sets of fake nails that displayed all the gel polish colors.
Gel! I’d never tried gel before. It’s a little pricier than a standard pedicure, but supposedly can go through Hell and back without chipping for a good, long time. Gel polish, said the masses, could be the answer to my manicure problem as well.
I took the little fake-nail-swatch of Gelish’s “Queen of Hearts” polish out to my car. Sure enough, it was a near-perfect match. This is what got me to try a gel pedicure: it matched my car.
I quickly learned why it cost just a little more than a regular pedicure by observing the meticulous manner in which it was applied. A base layer of gel is applied before the polish itself goes on, which allows it to grab onto the nail a little better than your average nail enamel. After each layer of polish, a UV light is used to bake on each layer. It wasn’t particularly relaxing and kind of burned a little bit since my pasty feet don’t usually see much daylight, but now my toenails knew what it was like to be a Mitsubishi.
This was the pedicure I got before I covered the 24 Hours of Daytona, where I hiked all over the famous track’s grounds in sandals because Florida in January was gorgeous. The gel felt a little more rubbery on my toes than regular polish, but it seemed indestructible.
It survived the most toe-stub-prone environment in the world without a single chip: a full 24-hour race weekend, where sleep is for the weak and you don’t want to miss out on a good story to someone who found more caffeine.
Could gel polish on my fingers stand up to the abuses of amateur racing? It was time to find out.
To put gel polish on my fingernails, I had to go through the same odd “something about this probably causes cancer, right?” process on my hands as I went through on my feet, but I had a plan to test out a gel manicure’s worth once and for all.
I would leave the polish on through the end of February, when I was planning on doing two endurance race weekends in a row, because I am a crazy person.
I wouldn’t be subjecting them to a full car build, but these nails would have to live up to every bit of last-minute car prep on the “Porschelump” 944 and whatever else I wanted to do in the meantime. I couldn’t help the removal process along, either. If the polish starts coming up, I can’t pick at it.
Having this manicure was beautiful, but strange. When you go for years between manicures, there is nothing more distracting in the entire universe than having shimmery bright red on the ends of your fingers.
I would stare at it for a little while, moving my fingers back and forth to make the metallic flake dance in the light. Every time I would do anything that involved using my hands, I would find myself distracted again by the bizarre coating on the ends of my fingers.
Of course, one day later, I scuffed it on something when I was moving around spare parts bins in the house.
This small white scuff was peculiarly devastating, as if someone had dinged the door of the Lancer my thumbnail matched in a parking lot without leaving a note.
How could my great nail experiment be blemished so soon? It had just started! I kept rubbing at the scuff, hoping that somehow a finger could polish it out. That didn’t work.
Regardless, I had to leave the scuff, and I wanted to do a rallycross, so I went with my day-old scratched-up nail to go play with cars in the mud.
It was a miserable, wet day, and Central Texas’ soil sticks to everything when it’s moist. There’s also very little grip when the mud slicks over. You may leave with some additional height on the bottom of your shoes and a brown crust all over everything you own, but you will have fun.
I dug my hands right into it several times to form mud-balls and pluck clumps of mud off the car. The nail polish didn’t seem to care at all.
In fact, other people cared more about this polish than it cared about the mud. Some gave me puzzled looks as I globbed large clods of mud together with my expertly polished hands. Others were more used to hearing me talk about farts and poop than partake in anything remotely feminine and wondered what on earth I was doing with nail polish.
“What is THAT?!”
“What’s up with the polish?”
“What’s on your fingers?”
Oh, come on, everyone. If you thought you could pull it off, you’d have shiny fingers to stare at all day, too. You’d have Viper Green or that pattern from the Jazz cups on the ends of your fingers in a heartbeat.
Once I washed off the mud, though, it was back to normal. I think the grittiness of the mud I was playing with even helped buff out the scuff. I took a nail buffer to it at home to work out the rest, as my self-imposed rules only prevented picking it off to remove it faster, not trying to fix any scratches. That helped, too. Afterwards, my thumbnail barely looked as if it had been scuffed at all.
A success, for now.
It took about a week of seemingly benign work time for the first actual chip to appear at the base of a nail. I hadn’t really had the opportunity to dig into my 944 yet. All I had done was buy a few parts to bring the race car out of hibernation, and one corner had come up on my pinkie finger.
Luckily, it was small, as the real work was yet to come, but after a little over a week of pretty pretty princess nails, the edges had started to come up just a tiny bit at the bottom of my nails. Instead of sitting smoothly against the surface of the nail, it was rough to the touch, as if the gel underneath had contracted and started peeling up concave from the surface. This was the opposite from my usual pattern of polish failure, as normal polish cracks off at the top edge first, where my nails come into contact with the most things.
My first order of race car business after bemoaning my chipped nail was to swap out the harnesses for a new, in-spec set. Belts are terrible in every single way to deal with, but I was hoping that swapping one set of clip-in Schroth belts for a similarly laid out set of clip-in Schroths wouldn’t be too annoying.
Problem is, the 944 is a low, short car that doesn’t afford a lot of space underneath the seat, as the giant beasts (read: people of average height) who you share the car with can’t have their heads stick out over the roll cage tubing. The seat is mounted as low as I could get it in the car.
Wrapping the shoulder belts around the harness bar in the cage is easy. Zip-tying the leftover shoulder belt length in place is also easy. Unclipping the old lap belts, clipping in the new lap belts and cotter-pinning the clips in place is not hard, either.
Wadding my fingers under a low seat to fumble the crotch belt clips out of and into eye bolts that I can’t see makes my fingers cramp up just thinking about it, and makes the rest of me want to light a dumpster on fire. It’s the absolute worst. I like that my early 944 has a huge engine bay and a relatively small engine for a reason, and yet I get stuck cramming my already tiny hands into a space they don’t even fit anyway. Such is life.
Next up was a quick oil change. Remove the filter and the oil pan drain plug, letting the oil drain out from both spots, covering your hands in gross, dirty oil belched from a questionably maintained 1984 Porsche in the process. It is an eighties Porsche, therefore, it poops oil all the time like it’s eaten nothing but chia seeds for a week. The entire underside of the oil pan is coated in oil, grime and dirt, so “remove plug” is code for “put your hands in flergh.” How did my nails fare after harness-and-oil day?
Not bad! I had a small chip at the edge of my right middle finger, a narrow chip on the inner edge of my right pinkie finger and some spots around the edges that were starting to feel looser than before, but otherwise this was a solid 3/2 polish job.
See, the Porsche’s paint job is about a 50/50. From 50 feet away at 50 mph, it looks like a real, serious race car with Salzburg stripes like the first Porsche 917 that won Le Mans. Up close, it looks like a previously totalled 944 with multiple versions of Guards Red and dirty house paint stripes that desperately need touching up. I’d say that my nails still looked perfect from about 3 feet away, to someone riding a 2 mph motorized cooler.
The bulk of my work on getting the car ready was done. All I really need to do was ensure that all of my parts were organized in case we needed something during the race, run the car some to check for any issues, and swap out the coolant for water right before the race.
The first race weekend of the month—ChumpCar at Harris Hill—went incredibly well, with the only real mishap being a blown-out tire that was changed before I could even get down to the paddock. The biggest nail-killing hassle I had left to deal with was getting spare parts, fluids and tools out of my second-floor apartment down to the track, and then down to our paddock space.
Our car fared wonderfully. After twelve hours of racing, the muffler finally rusted off, we got a crack in the windshield from something that flew up, and it now desperately needs to be realigned, but it ran until the very end and took the checkered flag on both days. We finished in the top half of the field, despite being one of the floppiest, most underpowered cars there.
My nails were another story. Behold, the carnage as it developed the week of the race:
Most of the polish was fairly intact the Saturday before the race, with a few loose edges starting to worsen.
Once I started working overtime on getting spare parts to the track and making sure all the random make-ready tasks like having new tires mounted and sourcing ChumpCar’s numberplates were complete, the manicure went downhill fast.
Moving all the spares around certainly helped break off all the polish that was starting to peel.
After a week of trying to get things done as quickly as possible, mashing hands in and out of gloves and touching all manner of race-worn, dirty 944 parts, the gel holding everything together started to get brittle and fail. I could see cracks developing across the surface of the polish on my thumb, for example. The bottom edges were peeling pretty severely, and chunks came off fast all weekend long.
The gel, unfortunately, seemed to be reaching its limits.
After the race was almost finished, complete with dirt smudged near eyebrow.
If I’m going to test something, though, it needs to be tested to complete failure. The nails that weren’t in bad shape were looking pretty tacky just from my nails growing out, but I was committed to seeing this through until the end of the month.
I had one more endurance race before the month was done: the 24 Hours of LeMons at Eagles Canyon Raceway in Decatur, which is in North Texas. Will the rest of this polish cling on for dear life, or fail miserably?
Monday after ChumpCar. My bets were on “fail miserably.”
Instead of risking the chance that the Porschelump would be too broken after ChumpCar to race in LeMons the next weekend, I decided to do an arrive-and-drive with the Tetanus Racing team. The plan was to head up there Thursday, stay the night in Decatur, and then camp at the track for the rest of the weekend.
We got snowed in instead. (Yes, that can happen in Texas, but it’s seldom this severe.) While I helped another team who was hoping for the weather to warm back up get their Dart race car to the track and did a hilarious snow-lap in the loaner tow-beast, the closest thing I got to do to any racing all weekend were some sweet, sweet donuts in the empty overflow lot.
Instead of Nails vs. Race Car, this weekend became Nails vs. Snow. Snowmen. Snowballs. Snow-nuts. Ice cream, because I wasn’t racing. Snow everywhere. While it was disappointing not to race, I relished the opportunity to frolic in the kind of winter wonderland we rarely see in this part of the world.
Saturday and Sunday became more hazardous, as what melted in the daytime turned to ice overnight in many spots. One of our crew members fell on the ice, which sent the track’s lone ambulance into town and ruled out racing on Saturday. Sunday was even more treacherous, so the organizers called the entire weekend off fairly early.
Meanwhile, my hands were mostly cooped up in mittens or gloves all weekend. The peeling and chipping nails had to suffer through gloves being put on and taken off over and over again all weekend long, pulling on whatever edges were loose.
My nails were toast once the month-long experiment was officially over. The polish that was left was so brittle and flaky that most of it peeled off with relative ease, although it felt like it peeled off some of my nail with it. My nails were left completely scratched up after I removed the rest which in hindsight, was a very bad move.
My toenails, on the other hand, were sheltered from the elements all weekend long and fared pretty well, but they had grown out long enough that it was time for a new pedicure anyway.
I let the salon remove my pedicure since it was still going strong, only to discover that their removal process didn’t feel much better than my peel-off method. First, they filed on top of my nails to sand the top of the gel polish down. Then they wrapped my toes in acetone, which stung like crazy. Yep—good ol’ acetone, a harsh chemical known for drying the crap out of your nails. Then there was more filing on top and what felt like jackhammering with an orange stick. Orange sticks are usually used to gently push your cuticles back off of your nail, but in this case, they were used as a scraper. I fired off a few text messages from the salon chair that read like “aughhhh, my poor nails,” “SOS” and “SEND HELP.”
There is no worse feeling I’ve had in a pedicure chair than a bunch of salon implements scraping off the top of my nail. You feel it down in your bones. My naked toenails didn’t look all that healthy after the removal process was over, so I was genuinely glad I’d picked a conventional nail polish to go on afterwards and cover that hot mess up.
So, will gel polish hold up to all the dirty, smelly, grimy and muddy abuse you can throw at it? Yes—for two weeks.
Would I do it again? Probably not. The removal process kind of hurt, and for a polish job that really only lasts two weeks before it starts to chip and fail, that’s a lot of harsh scraping to subject my nails to on a regular basis.
I’d rather keep them healthy and strong — you’d be surprised how often a strong fingernail comes in handy working on a race car.
Illustration by Sam Woolley
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.