How To Find the Right Vintage Race Prep Shop for You, Your Car and Your Wallet

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

By and large, racing is a team sport. Sure, you can roll up with an open trailer and a bag of tools, but at some point you’re likely to need some professional help—whether that’s with an engine rebuild, chassis setup or full arrive-and-drive treatment.

When the time comes to find a shop that will support you and your racing habit, there are a lot of factors to consider. Not only do you have to balance your needs, budget and schedule with theirs, but you must also find a shop with a mindset, skill set and location that works for you and your car. 

This isn’t like choosing a plumber—it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to flip open the Yellow Pages and find your ideal vintage prep shop. Knowing how to match the the right shop to your needs is half the battle.

Show Me the Love

Your ideal race shop is one that knows and loves your particular car. Passion is a big part of racing, so it’s best to find a shop that has the enthusiasm and marque-specific knowledge needed to push your machine to its limits. 

Even the most technically competent shop out there won’t be much help if they’re indifferent toward your car. A shop that loves American V8-powered monsters may not have much respect for your rear-engined, small-bore formula car. Conversely, the shop that loves the sophistication of a formula car may not appreciate the live axle and buggy springs on your vintage Trans-Am Mustang. If you see a twinkle in the eye of the person who’s going to support your car, you have found your soul mate.

Location, Location, Location

Just as in real estate, your shop’s location matters in racing. While it’s possible to get your support from a faraway shop and meet them at the track, this arrangement is going to have its downsides. 

Communication and a hands-on approach are critical to a successful shop-owner relationship. Being able to stop by the shop from time to time to discuss and inspect your car really helps in that area. Choosing a nearby shop also means that you’ll be able to handle logistics and storage in more flexible ways. 

Also, consider this: If you’re working with a shop that’s located hundreds of miles away, you’ll likely have to pay them occasionally to store and transport your car. If not, you’ll at least spend a fair amount of time and money transporting it yourself. That time and money could be spent racing. In short, closer is better.

Full-service shops like SascoSports (lead photo) at Virginia International Raceway and Metro Racing Systems (above) of Stuart, Florida, provide everything from restoration and storage to trackside support. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Understand Budget Implications

Restorations usually mean spending big bucks up front and then relatively little as you drive and enjoy your car. Racing, on the other hand, requires that you keep shelling out money pretty regularly. 

After all, you’ll be quickly going through consumables, including tires and brakes—and quite possibly engines, gearboxes and many more components. You’ll also need to make upgrades and repairs, and don’t forget your travel, lodging and race entry costs. 

Your goal is to find the balance that gets you the right amount of track time. Unless you have an unlimited budget, the more support you get from your shop or the more you travel, the less money you’ll be able to put into parts and actual racing. There are myriad answers to this equation, but what matters is that you understand your budget priorities and thresholds. Ideally, your shop will understand this, too, and help you keep the whole program in check.

Understand the Shop’s Financial Position

This sounds simple, but it’s not: Determine whether a shop can afford to support you and stay in business. Perform due diligence to make sure that your shop has sound financial footing. 

Many, many years ago, Grassroots Motorsports ran a cover with a man holding a “Will race for food” sign. Some shops lead this type of hand-to-mouth existence, and you’ll find trouble fast if you get tangled up with one. 

Also, look carefully at the shop’s customer base. Some shops have a sugar daddy that keeps the rest of the program running. If that’s the case, you have at least two risks to consider: First, that person may get the best attention and service since he or she is subsidizing everything else. Second, if that person pulls out, the shop could collapse and leave you in the lurch. Don’t feel you have to automatically shy away from a shop like this, but just make sure they have the checks and balances in place to keep things fair and sustainable.

Look for a shop with a good business model and a diversified customer mix—that’s a shop with a smart plan that will stay in business and keep you on the track.

Shops that can transport cars to the race track and maintain them during the weekend help their customers focus on the thrills of racing; if you’d prefer to do some wrenching on your own, most can cater to your specific needs. Gene Felton Restorations specializes in historic NASCAR stock cars. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Klub Sport Racing is an expert on Porsche production-based racers. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Prather Racing has a long history of winning in MGs. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha

Pick the Services You Need

Some shops specialize in engines. Some concentrate on chassis setup. Some provide trackside technical advice and limited assistance for a very reasonable fee. Others are full-service shops, even offering transporter rigs and full arrive-and-drive as well as concierge services at the track. 

You’ll want to pick the shop that specializes in the right services for you and your budget. You may also pick more than one shop; perhaps one can build your engine while the other gives your car trackside support and a once-a-year full checkup. 

It’s important to remember that money spent off the track will inevitably affect the amount of time you get on the track. Finding the right balance will keep things fun and affordable.

Like many shops, Predator Performance keeps a big rig on hand for the secure transportation of customer race cars. Photography Credit: photosbyjuha.com

Visit the Shop

It sounds obvious, but if you do end up with a long-distance relationship, you may never see the shop. Make sure you do visit at least once before you start spending your hard-earned cash. 

Some shops are impressive—surgically clean with epoxy floors and stainless steel as far as the eye can see. Others are little more than storage facilities—much of their equipment is on the trackside support vehicle. 

Either way, what you’re looking for is organization. Make sure they have a system that will keep your car reliably on track. 

Before signing on with a shop, perform some due diligence. Is it organized and well run? Does it have the right equipment to meet your needs? Abacus Automotive Services has engine machining equipment on site. Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Canepa Design has an entire restoration center in their facility. Photography Credit: Gary Horstkorta

Cobra Automotive is a Ford and Shelby specialist, servicing everything from Mustangs to purebreds like this GT40. Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Look for Data

There’s a lot of snake oil mixed in among the quality race parts on the market. A good shop will help you make sense of your options and have data that backs up their advice. 

Listen carefully to a shop’s recommendations for you and your car. If they can give you dyno results, lap time improvements, or other measurable elements that prove success, you’re dealing with a good shop. If they’re just pushing things at you so you can be their guinea pig—or if they’re simply guessing—you may want somebody else.

SascoSports has quick access to a dynamometer to measure engine performance. Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Don’t Forget About the Driver

Powerful engines and high-tech chassis setups don’t do any good without driving skills. If you can find a shop that offers driving advice, you’re really on to something. If you can’t, make sure to set some budget aside to get driving advice somewhere else. Clearly one of the best—and cheapest—ways to improve lap times is through coaching. Make sure it’s part of your plan and ensure your shop understands that.

It’s wise to pick a shop that’s near your home and that specializes in your type of car. Hudson Historics has plenty of experience with the special technical needs of ultra-high-performance prototype-style cars.

The 901 Shop handles Porsche production cars from 914s to 911s. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Check References

When you’re looking at large cash outlays and issues of track safety, you can’t proceed without asking others about their experiences. Make sure you talk in depth with people who have worked with the shop in question. 

The great thing about racing is that it’s usually easier to track down racers than street car owners. You may be able to talk with three or four customers at one track event. You’ll be able to inspect their cars, see them in action, and watch the shop provide support live and in person. Figure out if the shop offers the safety and technical expertise that you need at a price that you can afford. Don’t just take the shop owner’s word for it—get your facts from customers and their cars.

Large companies like Vintage Racing Services have the resources to handle many varieties of cars at once, from street antiques to modern racers. They even rent race cars. Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

A special thanks to Kent Prather of Prather Racing for helping with this story.

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