7 chassis primed for budget endurance racing greatness

Staff
By Staff Writer
Dec 31, 2021 | 24 Hours of Lemons, GRM+, Budget Racing | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Feb. 2014 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Nick Pon

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the February 2014 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Low-dollar endurance racing has proliferated in the American motorsports world, and newcomers will encounter no shortage of stories about teams’ geneses and the twists their crapcan careers have taken.

You’ve perused some of them perhaps, and discovered that your first step in preparing a car is deciding to what end you’re building. Do you just want to have fun? Do you want to get people’s attention? Are you out to win at all costs?

Positive answers to those questions do not demonstrate mutual exclusivity, but for a team looking to win, the biggest factor is likely to be quality of drivers. If your squad isn’t chock full of racing grit already, fret not. Very few teams are competitive in their first handful of races. Instead, they learn endurance racing’s ropes, have a chance to develop the car, and train drivers with oodles of cheap seat time.

Before you get there, however, you need to decide which car to build. With enough development, just about any model can win, but a solid cluster of winning car types has emerged over several 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar World Series seasons. (While the series differ in some regards, the same general car types have demonstrated success.)

We’ll cover what to expect from each car type later, but first we’ll reveal some common threads for all crapcans that emerged during our research.

  1. Most teams spend between $3000 and $5000 to get a competitive car to the green flag for its first race. That number was as low as $100 for teams with a lot of parts sitting around to as high as $6000, but the median number is closer to $4000.

    For cars that are supposed to cost $500, that number may sound high, but mandatory safety equipment and race fees add up quickly (and should be considered money well spent). The general advice regarding safety equipment is to build the car as safe as your money can make it.

    Most of those figures do not include towing costs, so distance to the nearest crapcan track should factor into your budget plans. Costs for subsequent races vary wildly, but if towing costs and entry fees are excluded, teams budget from $400 to $2000 for consumables and repairs.

    Expect all these dollar figures to scare away at least half of your interested parties–that is not an exaggeration.
      
  2. Nearly every team reports similar fuel burn: between 4 and 6 gallons per hour. That number moves a little depending on the track (more wide-open throttle equals more fuel), driving style, and weather conditions (wet track means lower speeds and less fuel used). Turbocharged and eight-cylinder engines will burn a little more, but Near-Orbital Space Monkeys claim fuel burn only slightly higher than 7 to 8 gallons per hour in their V8 Ford Mustang.

    Tire and brake wear varies far more than costs and fuel. Two teams using identical cars at the same track may report different amounts of tire and brake consumption, so new teams will have to find what works for its collective driving style over a race weekend or two. If you can afford it, bring a full set of spare tires already mounted and balanced. You may not need all of them, but punctures are a fact of life in any racing.

With those common threads in mind, let’s take a look at what sets seven of the most competitive car types apart from one another and what to expect from each one.

1. BMW 3 Series

Teams who campaign BMW’s 3 Series–in particular, the E30- and E36-chassis cars–stand atop crapcan podiums far more often than those running any other car type. With a well-balanced chassis, plentiful go-fast parts and a couple of strong powerplant choices, the 3 Series represents the easiest path to first place in the hands of a capable team. These Bavarian machines generally pack enough punch to hang with anyone on long straights while remaining nimble enough to scoot through corners.

Photography Credit: Nick Pon

The Good: 

  • Strong engine choices with a good reliability record. Good balance and handling in stock guise. Some inexpensive aftermarket modifications.

The Bad: 

  • Dwindling availability as club racers scoop up E30s. Occasional scorn from other racers for being “Bimmer Guys.” Troublesome electronics can take a weekend or two to chase.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare wheel bearing or two. 
  • Have several spare ECUs. Grab a teammate and play musical ECUs when the engine starts acting funny.

Despair If:

  • It starts overheating. On E36s, the culprit may be some of the plastic bits on the radiator, which helps you little if the head gasket is already cooked. 

2. Mazda Miata

Mazda’s first-generation roadsters remain a popular choice for low-buck racers who can count on an abundance of aftermarket parts and a tough, if underpowered, engine. The lightweight chassis and small-displacement B-series engine mean the Miata is pretty easy on consumables like brakes, fuel and tires. 

While horsepower circuits present significant challenges to the stock Miata, the flingable Mazda comes alive on twisty, technical tracks. Braver teams may try some “light” forced induction with stock engine internals to give a bit more power, but too much boost is usually a bad recipe for any low-buck endurance race car.

Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

The Good: 

  • A lightweight, great-handling platform with one of the most durable powerplants in endurance racing. 
  • Very easy on consumables.

The Bad: 

  • Lack of power in stock form.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare clutch and clutch slave cylinder.
  • Have several spare suspension components. While car-on-car contact is verboten in both series, it occasionally happens, and control arms may bear the brunt of a kerfuffle.

Despair If:

  • The race is at a horsepower track. 

3. Honda Civic and CRX, Acura Integra

Honda’s compact–especially the three-door hatchback–and its sportier Acura cousin presents the front-wheel-drive enthusiast with nimble, lightweight hooptie options. 

The Integra will have a bit more power from its stock B18 engine, but the lighter Civic may be able to throw down similar lap times. Cheap engine swaps remain an option, though most Honda engines seem to possess the same foibles under endurance racing’s duress.

Photography Credit: Ken Neher

The Good: 

  • Light and economical with inexpensive engine upgrades. 
  • Front-wheel drive can be a bit more forgiving for newcomers. 
  • Widely available, cheap parts in junkyards and parts stores.

The Bad: 

  • D- and B-series engines have a reputation for nuking head gaskets and tossing connecting rods.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare head gasket and a big temperature gauge.
  • Have several spare hub assemblies and ball joints. They can be troublesome but shouldn’t be a race-ending problem.

Despair If:

  • You have four cylinders and only three connecting rods.

4. Dodge Neon

Chrysler’s long-running compact car brings surprising capability to the crapcan table. A bit of test-and-tune can supply cornering ability, and front-wheel drive can render it a wet-weather warrior. 

The base model’s single-cam engine is fairly bulletproof while providing mediocre power. Upgrading to the twin-cam engine improves the package to an E30-esque power-to-weight ratio, but it typically knocks down the reliability a notch. 

Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

The Good: 

  • Lightweight chassis that carries momentum well. 
  • Abundance of cars and parts, including the occasional ex-SCCA racer chassis from the 1990s.

The Bad: 

  • Somewhat limiting engine options: underpowered-but-reliable SOHC or grunting-but-explosive DOHC.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare shock mount and bolts. 
  • Have several spare hubs and wheel bearings. It wouldn’t hurt to keep a set of CV axles in the spares kit, too.

Despair If:

  • You have an electrical gremlin. Cam and crank position sensors are the first things to check, but the wiring can be a bit flaky.

5. Datsun/Nissan Z-cars

Until the GT-R was legally imported to the U.S., the Z-cars were the company’s premier sports car here. Dating back to the sleek 240Z in the early 1970s, the Datsun and Nissan Z-cars give crapcan teams the luxury of good power from inline-sixes (Datsuns) and V6s (Nissans). They also provide a general sense of nostalgia for the days when Datsun dominated the club racing scene. The engines may not be as durable and eager for abuse as a BMW six, but they can last if treated with kid gloves.

Photography Credit: Chuck Anderson

The Good: 

  • A superb-looking race car, even after a lashing. 
  • Enough power to hang with the BMWs and a sporty package that can handle a bit.

The Bad: 

  • Driveline issues plague many a Z owner. 
  • Older models may be substantially rotted in crucial places.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare right-front hub assembly.
  • Have several spare engines if your co-driver(s) like to rev the fragile engine(s) to the factory redline before shifting.

Despair If:

  • The chassis has oxidized and you haven’t reinforced it.

6. Mazda RX-7

In the early days of the 24 Hours of LeMons, the rotary-engined RX-7 managed several wins before the first E30 took a checkered flag. That winning way hasn’t sustained, and a typical RX-7’s success correlates directly to a team’s experience with the high-revving, lightweight Wankel engines. 

When naturally aspirated, both the 12A and the later 13B engines burn similar amounts of fuel to piston engines. Add turbocharging or port the engine to watch the fuel evaporate quicker. Add both to create a berserk racing machine that empties a stock tank in 45 minutes. It won’t win, but it’ll be fun as hell to drive.

Photography Credit: Ken Neher

The Good:

  • A light chassis with great handling. 
  • No connecting rods to spit out.

The Bad: 

  • Strange engines for the uninitiated that can drink fuel and consume apex seals.
  • Inhumane levels of ear-splitting shrieking if the engine is unmuffled.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare exhaust system. Or at least a daisy chain of glasspacks.
  • Have several spare transmissions because the innards like to come unglued. Alternatively, upgrade to the more robust turbo transmission.

Despair If:

  • The engine overheats. If the temp gauge pegs, roll out the engine hoist.

Ford Mustang

The Mustang is perhaps the best piece of American muscle to grace low-dollar endurance racing. Eight-cylinder versions can throw down blistering lap times on horsepower tracks, though the rudimentary suspension can make technical circuits more of a challenge. 

Its Fox-platform cousins, like the Cougar and Thunderbird, have found some success, too, since they share many components. The V6-toting Mustang is a decent alternative that sees slightly improved fuel mileage under race conditions. The most reliable Mustangs, however, are normally aspirated four-cylinders, but don’t expect its Pinto engine to produce enough pace to win outright.

Photography Credit: Ken Neher

The Good: 

  • Great V8 power that can obliterate most fields on a horsepower track. 
  • An immense variety of engines to meet your team’s ability and goals. 
  • Cheap and plentiful parts in much of the country.

The Bad: 

  • Heavier chassis goes through consumables faster than other competitive types. 
  • Suspension tuning can be a challenge.

The Necessities:

  • Have a spare brake setup with pads, calipers, rotors, and a hub or four.
  • Have several spare radiators. Cooling systems will be the engine’s undoing.

Despair If:

  • You end up chasing fuel system issues. A fuel cell investment may be in your future.
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Comments
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Noddaz
Noddaz GRM+ Memberand UberDork
12/31/21 9:50 a.m.

Racing?  That looks like a normal day on my way to and from work...  surprise

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
12/31/21 9:59 a.m.

And now we play the game of "which cars on the list are still available for the budget mentioned" .

P3PPY
P3PPY GRM+ Memberand Dork
12/31/21 10:46 p.m.

In reply to BoxheadTim :

Thanks for pointing that out. 2014 wasn't so long ago, but I was surprised at what was on the list. I'm sure someone will post some great examples currently for sale, but I don't recall the last time any of these have appeared in cursory Marketplace/Craigslist searches besides the BMWs and Hondas.

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