40 low-buck speed secrets from $2000 Challenge competitors

By Staff Writer
Mar 24, 2023 | $2000 Challenge, Speed Secrets | Posted in Features | From the June 2010 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Scott R. Lear, Sarah Young and David S. Wallens

Only suckers pay full-pop retail, and competitors at our $2000 Challenges prove this year after year. They’re capable of creating agile autocrossers, neck-breaking drag racers and polished concours cars for about two grand—the exact budget for each event is the year with a dollar sign in front of it. 

Of course, it takes some ingenuity to keep things low-buck and fast. The crop of Challengers at our 2009 event got inventive, fabricating parts from shower curtain rods, rigging custom boost setups, and much more. Here are some of their secrets.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Why reinvent the wheel? Jay Besch had access to a nice Honda Civic that already sported a high-quality Password JDM trunk brace. However, that part wouldn’t fit into the $2009 budget. Solution: He simply copied the part’s basic shape and measurements onto some scrap steel. Like a KISS tribute band, the copy offers similar thrills for a much lower ticket price.

Repurposed Injection Connection

Jay Besch’s turbocharged Honda Civic also did some drinking at the $2009 Challenge—methanol, that is, as part of a used water injection system. Jay rigged the system to inject methanol just before the throttle body. Methanol injection is an inexpensive way to dramatically cool the intake charge, and on turbo cars it can be worth horsepower gains well into the double digits.

Money-Saving Tips From the Great Apes

The Team Voodoo Chili Ford Mustang was a rolling exhibit of low-buck tips. Their original window trim hadn’t aged well, so they simply covered it with Gorilla Tape and painted it black. The tape concealed any rot and imperfections—not a permanent fix, necessarily, but a thrifty one.

Reading Is Fundamental

Go figure: Black numbers on a black background can be really hard to read—especially those little numbers used for setting ignition timing. Team OMGWTFBBQ had an easy fix for this problem on their Toyota Supra: They simply applied some white paint to the raised numbers found near the crank pulley. Now they can easily time their car, as the timing light strobe simply makes the numbers pop.

I Said No Wire Hangers! Well, Except Here

Used part shoppers can’t always be choosers. Mike Guido found some used hood pin assemblies for his Mitsubishi Starion, but they were missing the somewhat critical pin component. He sacrificed a wire clothes hanger for use as a stand-in.

Shockingly Inboard

Shaun, Stan and Eugene Hinds built their Locost from the ground up, so they weren’t so constrained by the parts they used. Motorcycle components tend to be lighter and less expensive than their automotive counterparts, so for the front suspension the team mounted a set of Yamaha R1 coil-overs near the centerline of the car. The result is tidy packaging and reduced mass at the corners.

Hello Nitrous

The Team Family Guy Honda Civic is more than just a Challenge car—it’s also a daily driver. Team patriarch Spinout Lasota was a bit worried that law enforcement officials would frown upon a nitrous bottle stashed in the trunk, so he fabricated some camouflage. Hot pink would not have been our first choice for concealment purposes, but it’s actually pretty effective: Those braided stainless lines just about disappear when not illuminated by a camera flash. The pink backpack simply grabs all of the attention.

Nice Dam Idea

Mike Guido insists that this simple air dam—lifted from a previous Challenge build—promotes better flow through the intercooler.

Peekaboo Tubes

It’s easy to assume that a car’s engine has coolant in it, but how can you know for sure? Georgia Tech’s Wreck Racing team used transparent hoses on their Lexus V8-powered Miata so there’s never any doubt.

Effective Is Beautiful

Team Voodoo Chili went all-out with the redesign of the Ford Mustang’s suspension, and that included homemade camber/caster plates. The design is fairly simple, and it doesn’t have to be beautiful to do the trick.

Confirm Your Stick

Make sure you’re using the right adhesive for your application. “Apparently two-part epoxy doesn’t hold up on the interstate,” explains Volkswagen GTI builder Jonathan Dixon, who lost his sunroof panel somewhere between his Alabama home and our Florida event. While fine for minor welding, two-part epoxy isn’t suited for tacking down a substantial part of your car.

Oven-Fresh Clean

To power through caked-on gunk, team Tech Central coated gross parts with oven cleaner and let them sit overnight. A pressure washer finished the job.

Speed Button

Adam Moore and Mason Scholl used a spare solenoid to give their turbocharged Dodge Aries K an added burst of speed on demand. An illuminated red button activated the extra punch. With the solenoid closed, the engine would only boost to a peak of 7 psi; when the solenoid was opened, their turbo Dodge could make up to 15 psi. The boost-on-demand setup helped preserve the engine until straight-line speed was worth the risk. And as KITT taught us, every car is cooler when it sports a big red turbo boost button on the dash.

It’s a “Tap”-tronic

We’ve seen low-budget shift knobs of all shapes and varieties at the Challenge, but Al Johnson’s solution for his Fiat 500 is one of the most amusing. Hey Al, what kind of power does that thing have on tap?

Sock It to Your Engine

No budget for a proper breather? Have a sock that should be thrown away? You see where we’re heading, right?

Noteworthy Addition

Ever built a car that features a mishmash of parts from different makes and models? To ease later repairs, why not leave yourself a few well-placed notes? A permanent marker is your friend here.

A Foil for Your Coils

There’s more than one way to increase the spring rate on a car. Rather than splurge for an entirely new set of expensive springs for his Starion, Mike Guido simply zip-tied some hard rubber inserts between the coils of his stock springs. They can only compress a small amount before they hit the rubber and the rate goes way up. Plus, the inserts can be removed quickly should the need for a softer spring arise.

Sit on It

Byron McGarvey is taller than the average human, and he had trouble fitting inside his Honda CRX while wearing a helmet. Without the budget needed to swap out the seats entirely, he re-profiled the stock mounting points down a few inches. Just remember, we don’t recommend changes like this unless you trust your life to your welding and fabrication skills.

In Rod We Trust

Bryce Nash needed some extra cooling for the electric motor he installed in the nose of his car—he basically built a twin-engined, gas-electric hybrid Fiero. A nearby home improvement store was going out of business, and they had a wicked sale on shower curtain rods. Presto bendo chango, and Bryce’s electric motor had inexpensive, large-diameter cooling tubing.

Solutions Are Everywhere

Never limit yourself when looking for materials. The inner door panels on the Team Voodoo Chili Ford Mustang were formed from sheet metal lifted from an Airstream trailer. 

Let the Sun In

If you’re mixing paint for your car at home, consider leaving out the UV retardant. Dennis Gundersdorff forgot this step before decking out his Toyota MR2 in a blend of blue and silver paint, and the result is a unique and dynamic color that constantly changes with sun exposure.

Beat the Heat

Sometimes you have to improvise. Heat melted the shift cable sheath on the turbo Dodge Aries of Adam Moore and Mason Scholl, so they made a replacement heat shield from an exhaust band clamp. 

Who Needs Factory?

The Honda Civic never came with a factory-mounted hood scoop, but so what? Jay Besch removed a scoop from a Mustang, turned it around, and affixed it to his Honda’s freshly cut hood. As a result, hot air from his turbocharged engine had a new, easier escape route.

A Dashing Detail

Team Voodoo Chili removed their Mustang’s dashboard and replaced it with a much simpler and lighter structure, preserving only the auxiliary gauges. Then they applied flat black paint to everything in the driver’s line of sight—including the dashboard and the A-pillars—to minimize glare and distraction.

Flip-Top Overflow

You can make an overflow tank out of just about anything. Mike Guido used this simple sip-ready water bottle; the little flip-up nozzle provides a vent should the bottle have to take on any fluid.

Take a Seat

Aftermarket racing seat brackets sometimes require redrilling or modification. Jeff Hutton and David Seavey simply fabricated their own steel brackets for their BMW 325is. Again, this is an area where safety is important, so make sure you can trust your life to your welding skills and also use sufficiently strong steel.

The Eyes Have It

Patrick Culkin had more than one set of NOS and fuel jets for his Dodge Shadow. “With a higher budget, you’d have gauges,” he explained, but for the $2009 Challenge he had to tune by feel. How’d he choose between so many different nozzle sizes? Good old-fashioned eyesight: Hold ’em up to the sky and look through the hole. Remember, never look directly at the sun.

Love Notes to Yourself

If there’s an aspect of regular maintenance that sometimes slips your mind, why not leave yourself a reminder? Team Gutty incorporated this handy tip into their winning Honda CRX’s graphics. Remember, it’s righty tighty.

Third Time’s the Charm

After their RX-7 caught fire on two separate occasions, Jerry Wilcox and Alan Gross caught on and mounted a fire extinguisher within easy reach of the driver. 

Don’t Cut the Red One

If you’re not too picky about color, wires can come from any source. Matt Lee works for a company that deals with electrical wire en masse, and they pitch any scrap that’s less than 6 feet long. Since plenty of connections on a car fall under that length, Matt had a good, inexpensive wire source for his Plymouth Laser.

Pinned Down

Two-tone cars can really stand out from the pack, but how do you ensure a nice transition between the hues? Team Mini Me covered up their Neon’s jagged transition from silver to Nitro Yellow Green with some black pinstripe tape. Super-close examination revealed the uneven layers beneath, but at only a few inches away the seam looked razor sharp.

Man of (Scrap) Steel

Steel tubing offers nearly unlimited fabrication possibilities. Patrick Culkin created new suspension pieces for his turbo Dodge Shadow using an old hand dolly and a ladder rack found at a yard sale. His advice: “If you can find steel tubing, grab it.”

Flame On

Patrick Culkin also came up with a way to color in perfect hotrod flames. After drawing, trimming and applying his flame stencil pattern, he applied short, light passes of white, yellow, orange and red spray paint until he achieved the look he wanted. 

I Meant to Do That

Scott Douglas created a cool visual effect when he added a BFH Racing logo to his Miata’s exterior: For three separate passes, he lightly misted spray paint over his stencil. At first he thought he messed up the job, but the soft edges and snowy fill turned out to be a signature design statement.

You Better Shop Around

What you purchase is just as important as where you shop. Jerry Wilcox is a fan of face-to-face transactions: “You can’t trust anything until you see it.” His V8-powered RX-7 benefitted from several craigslist finds, including the B&M Quicksilver shifter. He paid $80 for the piece, a savings of a hundred dollars. He also scored a complete exhaust system—including a pair of Flowmasters plus an H-pipe—for only $50.

Then Shop Around Some More

An ongoing horsepower war between the manufacturers of sportbike engines means that used engines are surprisingly inexpensive. If you're willing to settle for a few ponies less, you'll save big. Brett Van Sprewenburg shopped smart, as his 2-liter, 16-valve VW sports a quartet of throttle bodies originally installed on a Suzuki GSX-R 750. (And yes, the home-fabbed intake plenum came from The Home Depot.)

No Negotiation Necessary

Price seem a little high? Call anyway. This Mitsubishi Starion was originally advertised for $800. When Mike Guido called on it, the seller immediately dropped the price to $600—no prodding necessary. After a brief pause, the price again fell, this time landing at $400. Sold.

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View comments on the GRM forums
maschinenbau GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/21/22 1:24 p.m.

It would be cool to see this article again but covering the most recent 10 years of Challenge cars. 

CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
6/15/22 9:30 a.m.

In reply to maschinenbau :

Yeah, that would be pretty cool. Chinese turbochargers and cheaper tuning options seem to have really come into their own in the past decade. Maybe the next 10 years has more computer analysis and 3d fabrication on the way?

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