Motorsports for the Common Man

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My autocross student was driving a VW Beetle. Not the new one; a 1966 model in shades of rust and yellow, to which he had fitted a 2-liter motor and no safety equipment whatsoever. The phrase “deathtrap” seemed to emanate from every chipped, greasy panel gap. After a mental check of my life insurance policy and tetanus booster, I reluctantly climbed aboard, and off we went.

Pleasantly, the student turned out to be an excellent driver; he kept his inputs controlled, was attentive, and erred slightly to the side of caution. Soon he was shaving multiple seconds per lap, and at the end of the day he had surpassed other novices in late-model 911s.

This incongruous juxtaposition of People’s Car and Porsche-felling motorsports glory led me to ponder, eventually at length,  which cars are history’s greatest track rats.

They would have to be affordable; cars like the F40, Zonda R, and BAC Mono are remarkable achievements, but the average weekend racer will never see one, much less ride in or drive it. Reliability is important as well- ideally, it should be possible to drive to the track, put in some laps, and drive home, all without involving AAA. Parts, both OEM and aftermarket, should be readily available and inexpensive.

At least a modicum of giant-slaying ability is a must- it may be fun to drive a slow car fast, but some slow cars are really quick cars in disguise. Some of those cars also walk a knife edge in handling and/or power delivery, which puts them firmly out of contention- it’s hard to improve your driving when you spend every third lap going backward in a cloud of tire smoke.

So in no particular order, here’s my top six:

-Mazda Miata: Early 1.6L cars can be purchased on Craigslist for less than two grand, it regularly embarrasses Corvettes on trackdays, and the non-interference motor is almost impossible to kill. It’s been the undisputed budget racing king since 1989.

-Lotus/Caterham 7: Although difficult to obtain in the US, this car has been blurring the line between street car and purpose-built racecar since 1957. Porsche may claim they’ve kept the 911 formula pure for half a century, but Caterham truly has kept to basics. Their top models have a better power-to-weight ratio than a Veyron, but remain driveable without stability control, or even power brakes.

-Datsun 240z: This is the car that brought tuned-import racing to America. In various hands, 240zs won the SCCA C Production title for ten consecutive years. The next time you look through the vast array of performance parts available for your S2000, remember it’s all possible because of the 240z.

-GM F-Body: Despite having the suspension kinematics of an elephant falling down stairs, the F-Body cars (Camaro and Trans Am) campaigned very successfully in Showroom Stock and Trans-Am racing between 1983 and 1993, proving once and for all that there’s no replacement for displacement. Nowadays you can pick one up for the price of a steak dinner.

-Acura Integra: Once the dominant force in the SCCA World Challenge, today it’s a common entry point into motorsports for people on a budget. Its exemplary suspension design and robust motor are only let down by dubious rustproofing and vulnerability to theft.

-Honda S2000: No autocross or trackday is complete without one. Also, I’d get fired if I didn’t include it.

With that, I’ll open this up for discussion. What are your top choices?  As always, please keep it respectful.

Photo Credit: Cosmo Houck

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