Pace Notes: Don't Build Your First Racecar

Written by Jen Horsey. Photos by Tom Hayston on .

Ignition Hayston Pines
Jen Horsey in her first national event in the race car she bought built.

The best racing advice I ever got was to buy built. It sounds counterintuitive – especially to the mechanically inclined who imagine weekends in the shop with friends when they daydream about starting a team. But if you survey a driver’s meeting in just about any discipline, you’ll find experienced racers generally agree on this point: for your first race car, don’t build it. Buy built.

My very first race car was a 1993 Mazda 323 rally car (pictured) originally built and maintained by the capable team at Four Star Motorsports in Georgetown, Ontario. It was a straightforward build with a few aftermarket parts, reinforcement where it needed it, and safety gear to the rules of the day. It came with a log book guaranteeing it was race legal in its class, and a well-developed spares package.

I loved that car: it was well-sorted and dead reliable. Somebody else had done the development work on it, so any DNFs on my early career record were due to operator error, rather than of the mechanical variety.

So in my first season, I got to learn a lot, including what I wanted in a race car. When I bought the Mazda, I would have told you that what it needed was a ton more power, a racier gearbox and a new paint job. When I sold it, I knew I wanted my next ride to have a modified pedal set-up that was more conducive to left-foot braking, different seats installed a little lower and on a better angle for weight balance as well as my comfort and visibility, a better handbrake set-up, and a suspension upgrade. Nowhere on the list were the power or gearbox upgrades I thought it needed because once I started racing, my priorities completely changed. (I repainted the car when I crashed it badly enough to need to replace some panels – the first time).

After that, I built. And I discovered first-hand that it is usually not a fun experience to fight through a season with a new car. I experienced no shortage of what we in the biz like call “teething troubles.” Think it won’t happen to you? They’re almost inevitable. Look up your favourite team’s first season results and you’ll see the telltale pattern of new-car woes: DNFs, inconsistent lap times, and flashes of brilliance marred by gutting disappointment. Better still: Google “teething trouble” and “motorsport.” Formula One’s McLaren-Honda’s 2015 season to forget is only the first result to come up in a long, long list.

The best way to learn and grow as a driver when you’re new to motorsport is to maximize your time racing and minimize your time in the garage. A sorted-out build is critical to your success. But that’s not the only reason to buy built.

A driver I used to work with was fond of saying that you had to hate your car a little bit to put it through the abuse it sees in competition. And if you fall in love with every rivet while you’re building it, you might discover that driving it becomes a little less fun. The last thing you want to be thinking about as you’re throttle down and working on a last-corner pass for the lead is how much work it’s going to be to fix the crash damage.

But once you decide to buy built, how do you avoid a lemon? There are no CarProof vehicle history reports for race cars, of course, but you’ll find the paddock grapevine is just as accurate – if not more so. There are few off-the-books wrecks in racing. Ask around and people will be happy to tell you what they know.

A vehicle’s build history is important – that will tell you how sturdy its fundamentals are – but when you’re buying built you also need to know a car’s racing record and service history. The longer it’s been since the builders had it, the more important the service reference. Officials, competitors and team mechanics will all have an opinion on a given car, and if you’re hearing a mostly positive slate of reviews, then you’re in business.

And for the mechanically inclined among you, never fear: if there is one guarantee for a grassroots racer, it’s that you will spend plenty of time working on your car.

It’s been seven or so years since I sold my dear old Mazda, but each time it has come up for sale, somebody has tagged me on Facebook or sent me the listing. It was blue the last time I saw it in person. It’s yellow now. And it’s been crashed and fixed and modified enough times since I’ve owned it that I’ve lost track of its condition and wouldn’t be able to give a reference on it anymore. But the people who know it from recent track days and races sure can. And that’s true for just about every race car on the market. Once you let it be known that you could be a buyer, you’ll have no trouble finding your next weekend warrior.

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