Bitten by the racing bug
Or, “0-130MPH in 25 years”
I’ve been a fan of car racing since way back. It started with random viewings of the Indy 500 back in the mid-’70s, but didn’t get serious until I stumbled across a BBC feed of a Formula 1 race in 1980 or ’81. I don’t know what it was about the race I saw, but I wanted to see more, so I made an effort to find the next telecast. And then the next telecast, and the one after that, and so on. Now you have to realize that these were shown live and mostly from Europe, while I lived on the west coast of the US. We didn’t own a VCR in those days, so I had to drag my not-a-morning-person self outta bed at anywhere from 3:30 to 5:30 in the morning to watch!
Over the years, I had to chase F1 around the TV dial, as it moved from CBC to ESPN (although the Grand Prix of Monaco was usually shown by ABC), then to ESPN2, then to Fox, then Speedvision (which became SPEED Channel before it got NASCAR-ized and morphed into Fox Sports 1), and “finally” NBCSN… I somehow managed to never miss a race in all that time. We eventually got a VCR (and a TiVo in recent years), so I could finally watch at a normal time. Also, since the days of Speedvision, the coverage expanded from just the races to include Saturday qualifying and even one of the Friday practice sessions.
In about 1995, I started getting a little bored with F1, so I flipped on a couple of what-were-at-the-time CART races (then ChampCar/IRL and now IndyCar). I wasn’t too excited by the oval races, but the rest was awesome! Not only did I start catching all the CART races, but it helped rekindle my interest in F1. Looking back, I realize it was also the beginning of a different phase of my interest in auto racing, one that was a little more… I dunno, mature? Sophisticated? For one thing, I came to realize that oval races (at least in CART, and here I’m mainly speaking of the super-speedway stuff) weren’t the “Bubba goes left” affairs the snobs would have you believe. For another, my primary interest started shifting from the overall spectacle of the race and toward the technical and driving aspects of auto racing.
Of course, between my newfound interest in the “doings” of the sport and the access to SPEED, I discovered a whole new pile of races and racing series to follow. It started with some of the bigger endurance races (Le Mans, Sebring, Paris-Dakar, etc.), moved on to sports car racing in general, and then on to development series like Barber Dodge and GP 2 (now Formula 2).
I suppose I should’ve expected that, as my interest in the driving side of racing began to grow, I would want to develop my own high-performance driving abilities. This first manifested itself as a growing dissatisfaction with the cheap (but reliable), used econoboxes I’d been driving all my life and eventual led to progressively faster, better-handling, performance-oriented vehicles including a VW GTI, Mazda MAZDASPEED3, Infinity G35, Chevy TrailBlazer SS, and a whole host of BMW coupes (and one random 5-Series sedan… and an X5). Except for the TrailBlazer, all of ’em manual transmissions, because “rowing your own” is half the fun of driving.
It was only a few months after I got my first BMW (a 2002 330Ci) that the idea of taking it to the track wormed its way into my head and wouldn’t let go, so I took it down to Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington for the “One Day High Performance Driving Clinic” from ProFormance Racing School. The first half of the day is spent on driving in emergency situations (something they should really teach in Driver’s Ed), but the second half is spent with an instructor on the track. Hoo-boy, now we’re talkin’!
Why don’t you just go ahead and do it?My wife, full of innocence…
Once I’d taken the class, I was qualified to zip around by myself on lapping days. It was after a few of these lapping days, where I was able to (somewhat) compare my abilities with those of other drivers
—including guys who were already racing
—that I started to believe I might not be completely deluding myself if I thought I could step up to racing.
In fact, one of those guys-already-racing was Richard Cabe, who invited me to come to a Conference race and check out his simple, one-man operation and learn more about local racing and the costs involved. Apparently, I couldn’t stop talking about it after because one day my wife finally just said, “You know what? You’ve been into racing for years and this is clearly something you want to do, so why don’t you just go ahead and do it?” Uh-oh!
It was time to start looking for a racecar.
Something I definitely didn’t expect when I started this journey was that I’d own so many cars! My vague sense at the beginning was that I’d run a “tin-top” car converted from a street car for a few years before eventually moving into a “real racecar” like a Formula Mazda or maybe, if I could somehow afford it, Formula Atlantic. Instead, I’ve raced nothing BUT racecars that started out as production street cars, and rather more of those than my finances think is wise.
For more details about each car’s equipment, click the accompanying photo.
Car #0: 1987 BMW 325is
2002: Initially, the plan was only to buy a car I could use exclusively for track days that I could also, eventually, turn into a racecar. Partly because I was a Bimmerhead at that point, partly because a lot of the people I was talking to about track days and racing were in BMWs, and partly because the class I wanted to eventually race in (SCCA’s ITS) was full of them at the time, my plan was to buy an E30-generation BMW 325i or 325is.
Long story short, I rather foolishly, or whatever the “fundamentally lacking in knowledge” equivalent is, I decided that a late-80s BMW was too old, complicated, and expensive to turn into a racecar on my own. Yeah, yeah, yeah… live and learn.
Car #1: 1997 Acura Integra GS-R
–2005: After giving up on the idea of a 325i/is because I thought it was too old to build into a racecar (yes, I know), I decided I wanted something newer, as A) I was going to be driving it to the races and B) I wasn’t sure how quickly I was going to be replacing “street car parts” with “racecar parts.”
At the time, RealTime Racing had been super-successful with their Integra Type Rs in the World Challenge Touring Car series. I was intrigued by front-wheel drive cars that didn’t have your typical FWD torque steer, not to mention the RTR guys seemed to be quite competitive with the BMWs, and price-wise they seemed like something I could handle buying, building, and maintaining. As raced, this car was about as turn-key as you could get, requiring just regular maintenance of fluids, brake pads, and tires.
Unfortunately, once I graduated from the Novice program and started racing with the regular run groups, I quickly found that, while I always had someone to race against, they were rarely from my same class and so the motivation to compete wasn’t really there anymore.
Car #2: 1990 Mazda Miata
2005: In the interest of finding a class with more people to race against, but still keep things relatively inexpensive, I thought I’d try Spec Miata. All the cars are more-or-less identical in performance and there were a ton of ’em. In the end, though, I had safety concerns about my overall fit in the car and sold it after a test day. Should’ve given it a try for a season, though…
Car #3: 1997 BMW “M3-R”
–2012: (Yes, I actually owned three racecars over the course of 2005…) After my almost-experiment with the Miata didn’t work out, I returned to the racing classifieds that I’d been looking at prior to the Miata to discover that the “roller” (no engine or driveline) M3 I’d liked the looks of several months earlier was still available AND elsewhere I found a generation-appropriate, low-mileage S52 engine to put in it for about half what I’d expected. Eventually, the car went through a repaint from red to yellow and then an engine swap to an S54 from the next generation M3 to become what I called an “M3-R.”
Fantastic car, the most “racecar” one I’ve owned, and I had a lot of fun with it, but also expensive, a lot of work between and during races, and I ultimately sold it to pay a chunk toward my kids’ college.
Car #4: 1997 Honda Civic
–2016: An attempt to return to a simple-to-own, simple-to-run car that was also an experiment in the “low weight/low horsepower vs high weight/high horsepower” debate that would crop up when discussing the 10-horsepower-per-pound rule that formed the core of the ST class. It was also a bit of a “Frankencar” in that it was Civic Si coupe from the A-pillar forward, Civic DX sedan from there back, and Acura RSX in the engine/gearbox.
Great car, well built, and a former two-time national champion in NASA’s Honda Challenge class, but ultimately something of a “Integra redux” in that I always had people to race against, but not in my class. (For ST, it looks like around 300 HP and 3000 pounds is the sweet spot.)
Car #5: 2006 Ford Mustang GT
–current: This car is sort of a double-attempt to recapture the “get in and go race”-style of the Integra while also getting closer to what seems to be the ideal ST horsepower and weight numbers. Unfortunately, and it’s maybe a little early to draw this conclusion, it’s looking like most of the ST cars have either become SST cars (8.5:1 for a horsepower-to-weight ratio instead of 10:1) or have just disappeared from the track completely.