Buying a classic with racing history: What you need to know

Photography Credit: Kristina Cilia

Maybe there’s a little Walter Mitty in all of us. Each time we see a race car, we think that perhaps we should actually own one: big tires, loud pipes, maybe some meatballs on the sides.

But buying a race car is tricky–probably trickier than buying the average classic. Looking to take that leap? Let’s go shopping and see if it’s time to live out those fantasies. 

But first, what are you going to do with your car? Are you actually going to race it? Do you want to take it to car shows? Maybe even drive it on the street from time to time? Or just look at it in your garage or shop? 

And why do you want to do these things with a race car instead of a restored or restomodded classic?

Depending on your answers, you may well have a different path to the finish line. 

If You’re Going to Race It

If racing is your plan, it’s better to buy a winner or a project car than a valuable, historic car that you may harm. Even though a winning car should be race-ready, don’t expect it to be, and plan for some sorting and remediation–and, likely, a full disassembly, inspection and refurbishment.

Another big question: Who do you plan to race with? Vintage racing is composed of many different communities–typically regional ones–and there’s a directory at the end of this piece.

How many cars do they put on track together? And will those cars be well matched to yours? Some groups send out relatively small packs, so you may end up racing against your best lap time instead of against other drivers. 

Other groups, like Formula Vee, can often see large packs, so you’ll generally have someone to race with whether you’re running up front, mid-pack or even near the back. 

Check the rules of the sanctioning body, too. What work will be needed to make your car legal, safe and competitive? 

Some groups are more forgiving than others regarding upgrades and appearances, and almost all have stricter safety rules today than those that existed years ago. Budget the time and money it will take to prep the car, and factor that into the price you’re willing to pay.

Don’t forget about the logistics of racing. Do you plan to prep, tow and maintain your car at the track? If so, you’ll find you’re as much a truck driver and a camper as you are a racer. 

If not, make sure to talk with as many shops as you can to find one that can prep, deliver and support your car at the track. See if they know how to properly support you and your dream car, make sure they’re insured properly, and check references.

Now, finally, you can think about buying a car. Take your time. The race car market can be fairly limited, with cars often taking months or longer to sell. 

Photography Credit: Dan Mainzer

If you’re looking for a race-ready car, start visiting some events. Not only can you check out the communities, the run groups and the cars, but you’ll find quite a few machines listed for sale. You might make a new friend who can help, too. 

Then there are the other sources with a car for sale. Plan to travel, and don’t expect a lengthy test drive unless it’s a pretty mild car that can run on the street. Inspect the car thoroughly and try to get as much history as possible. Ask about spares and try to get all of them. Race cars break at the track, after all, so those spares will be very handy. 

How is the safety equipment? Is it expired or heading that way? And can you have a trusted shop do a deeper inspection? Always check against the rule book you brought along.

Fell in love and brought home that new car? Now it’s time to disassemble, inspect and refurbish. You can do this yourself or farm it out. 

First, trust nothing. Find the weak points, get things crack checked, and inspect all the wear items. Plan on dyno testing the shocks and maybe even rebuilding or simply replacing them. Budget for a full setup with corner weighing, four-wheel alignment, and maybe even a trip to the chassis dyno to touch up the tune.

Remember the wiring, too. Do you want a 75-cent butt connector to park your car on the side of the track after you’ve paid $600 to enter an event, towed across a few states, and rented a room? 

Once the car is ready, set up your trailer, tow rig and spares for easy race weekends. Organize your spare parts in well-labeled containers, have your tools conveniently and logically stored in their toolbox, and bring some chairs, maybe a tent, and the type of food that keeps you hydrated and healthy.

[10 Tips To Prepare for a Great Vintage Race Season]

Of course, we’re assuming you’ve raced before, too. If not, plan on attending the appropriate school to satisfy any licensing requirements. Consider additional driving instruction to keep you safe and fast on track.

Whew! That’s a lot more work than taking a car to a car show. Not sure you’re up for that? Keep reading. 

If You’re Not Going to Race It

If you’re not planning to race your car, there’s less work to do. But we still advise following many of the same steps, as that will help a future owner put the car back on track, preserving your investment. 

[How to prepare a car for its first concours]

Then there are some other steps to consider. If your car is just going to be a static display, drain and stabilize the appropriate fluids, disconnect or even remove the battery, and generally treat it like any other car going into longterm storage.

If you’re going to occasionally drive it, you might want to detune a few things–the clutch, for example. A race clutch can be rather uncomfortable on the street and might not last too long. Race tires and brakes also belong on the track, not the street. 

Want to own an old race car but don’t actually want to race it? You can just show it, too, and be the hero in a slightly less intense arena. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Will the engine be happy around town, or is the cam better suited for north of 6000 rpm? Consider swapping cams or just fitting a milder engine for now. 

Of course, you have to make your car street-legal, meaning registration and insurance. For a mild MGB vintage racer, that’s pretty easy. For a 1990s tube-frame Trans-Am car, good luck.

Do You Make It Your Own?

Most of our discussion has centered around buying a complete car and generally leaving it as is. You may want to do more–maybe change the livery, make the car more aggressive, or even transform a back-runner into a winner. That’s all up to you, but don’t expect to get any of your money back.

[Project Car: 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback]

And if racing’s in the car’s future, keep checking those rules as you make changes.

Vintage Racing Groups

Vintage racing doesn’t fall under one blanket organization for the entire country. Some groups sanction events from coast to coast, while others are more regional in nature. And with each turf comes a unique vibe, mission statement and rule book–and one group’s regulations can allow cars prohibited by another’s. 

Classic Sports Racing Group
Region: Northern California 
Cars: Older formula cars plus production-based cars usually through 1990.

Corinthian Vintage Auto Racing
Region: Texas, Oklahoma
Cars: Most classes cut off at 1973. CVAR also hosts a Spec Sprite class for 1962-’74 Spridgets.

Heartland Vintage Racing
Region: Kansas, the Ozarks
Cars: Generally speaking, production cars through 1974 and formula cars up to 1980.

Historic Sportscar Racing
Region: Mostly East Coast marquee tracks–think Daytona, Sebring, Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen–but now also the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
Cars: From the ’50s up through modern times.

Midwestern Council of Sports Car Clubs
Region: Midwest
Cars: Pre-1974 race cars.

Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix Association
Region: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cars: Generally through the mid-’70s, although some cars can be only 20 years old. 

Put-in-Bay Road Race Heritage Society
Region: Put-in-Bay, Ohio
Cars: Small-bore and formula cars built through 1972 plus Japanese cars through 1990.

Rocky Mountain Vintage Racing
Region: Colorado
Cars: Depending on class, the cutoff dates are generally 1972 and 1981.

Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts
Region: Pacific Northwest
Cars: Generally at least 25 years old.

Southwest Motorsport
Region: Sandia Speedway in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Cars: Vintage and modern.

Sports Car Club of America
Region: Coast to coast.
Cars: Older cars still have a home in the Production and Improved Touring ranks. 

Sportscar Vintage Racing Association
Regions: The entire U.S., including famed tracks like Sebring, Road America, Lime Rock Park, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. 
Cars: From the ’50s up through those raced five years ago.

Vintage Auto Racing Association
Region: Mostly California plus the new track in Casa Grande, Arizona
Cars: Usually those built through the ’70s.

Vintage Automobile Racing Association of Canada
Region: Eastern Canada
Cars: In some cases, all the way through 1997.

Vintage Drivers Club of America
Region: Southeastern U.S.
Cars: Mostly through 1972 plus some SCCA cars through 1997.

Vintage Racer Group
Region: East Coast, Mid-Atlantic
Cars: Production cars through 1989 or, in some cases, through 1993.

Vintage Racing Club of BC
Region: Mission Raceway Park in British Columbia
Cars: Through 1997 for some cars. 

Vintage Sports Car Drivers Association
Region: Great Lakes
Cars: Eligibility has been expanded through 1997.

Vintage Sports Car Club of America
Region: Races and hillclimbs across the Northeast 
Cars: Depending on the make and model, the cutoff is likely to be 1959 or 1965.

Vintage Sports Car Racing
Region: Upper Midwest, with races usually in Brainerd, Minnesota 
Cars: Through the end of 1989 plus continuation models that are essentially unchanged. 

Meet the VMC

The Vintage Motorsports Council acts as a coordinating body for the various North American clubs. The VMC also issues a license that most clubs will honor.

Formula Car Rules

When it comes to single-seat cars, many clubs simply follow the rules and regulations penned by Monoposto Racing. This group works to preserve the formula cars of yesteryear and has rules written for practically all single-seaters, from pre-1966 Formula 1 cars to ’70s-era club racing machines.

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More like this
mcloud New Reader
5/2/23 11:23 a.m.

ALSO:  HRG, the Historic Racing Group,

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
5/2/23 11:45 a.m.

In reply to mcloud :

Thank you for the addition!

sir_mike Reader
10/6/23 9:26 a.m.

Would love to have a period  ''B'' sedan race car.

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