Your First Race Car: What's the Best for a Beginner?

This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Classic Motorsports. Some prices and information may have changed. 

Looking to make the jump from spectator to vintage racer? Who better to offer some car shopping advice than one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject? Meet E. Paul Dickinson, professional racer turned longtime driver coach.

By E. Paul Dickinson • Photography by Chuck Andersen

Initially I thought answering this question would be a rather easy task. It was not. While I often respond to “What’s the best vintage race car for me?” by counseling, “Choose the car that lit the fire of desire when you were younger, and still does,” this exercise came with an additional challenge: Name five fun and affordable vintage race cars that also efficiently promote learning driving skills.

So for this challenge I combed several decades of history and only considered cars:

• that maximize time on track as the primary goal–not time at the track, in the paddock, with wrench in hand. Maximize the on-track experience in a given timeframe, and the more and faster you can learn.

• that are reliable.

• that are better than you.

• that you can grow into.

• that compete in a class with a large base of competitors with costs that will not break a well-thought-out racing budget.

Porsche 911

The 1966-’73 Porsche 911 allows a driver to hone racing skills like no other car. My preference would be the early, short-wheelbase cars. They are increasing in price and can be expensive to maintain, but they don’t have to be.

COST OF ENTRY

Jack Refenning has seen race-ready cars start as low as $35,000, but notes that a real race engine can cost $45,000. A race-ready, fully developed car for $85,000 may be the better value in the long run. Final advice: Prices for these Porsches have been climbing rapidly lately. Buy sooner rather than later.

“To me, the fabrication is the most important thing–if the fabrication isn’t nice, the rest of it isn’t nice. The rest of the stuff is rebuildable.” 

–Jack Refenning, 901 Shop

Road Atlanta Lap Time: 1:37

Datsun 510

This the Energizer Bunny of vintage racing. It has the favored front-engine, rear-drive layout and is more forgiving than a 911. It’s quite competitive, too. A driver can have a blast with this car for not a lot of money. Preferably you’d get a car with four-wheel disc brakes, too. 

COST OF ENTRY

Les Cannaday says you can find 510 race cars for as low as $8000, but they’re most likely retired SCCA Improved Touring cars. To go vintage racing, you’re likely looking at swapping the original 1600cc engine for a 2000cc as well as upgrading the transmission and rear end gears. Les figures $30,000 to $60,000 buys a good, real 510 vintage racer, but one with Trans-Am race history can easily fetch double that. 

I’ve always been a guy who likes cars with history. If this is an investment, get a car with history.” 

–Les Cannaday, Classic Datsun Motorsports

Road Atlanta Lap Time: 1:51

Sports 2000

These cars follow a competitive, tightly constrained class structure. The result: fields of mostly identical cars running durable engines based on the Ford Pinto block. The layout makes them forgiving, and the class is affordable.

COST OF ENTRY

Peter Krause says to budget $28,000 to $35,000 for a good car sporting an engine from a proven builder. Projects can be found in the low teens, while national championship podium cars top $50,000.

“Make sure you fit comfortably. The Royale, March, Tiga and Lola up to 1987 are roomy. You can't go fast if you're not comfortable.”

–Peter Krause, Krause & Associates, LLC

Road Atlanta Lap Time: 1:33

Formula Ford

Despite their exotic looks, pre-1973 Formula Fords are easy to work on and have very good parts availability–meaning they’re affordable to run. Given the rear-engine layout, though, they demand the driving skills needed for the Porsche 911

COST OF ENTRY

“None of them were really terrible,” Kent McBain says, meaning that your search should include all of the major players in this market: Titan, Lotus, Van Dieman, Eldon, Caldwell and the like. Assuming the bulkheads are savable, you’re looking at $25,000 to $35,000 to go through a Formula Ford and bring it up to speed. Meanwhile, about $35,000 is the starting price for a good, sorted car sporting a safe, solid frame. “Car free, pay for restoration,” Kent says is commonly heard.  

“This is a race appliance, and you want a car with good integrity. You want a car that has been reframed.”

–Kent McBain, Vintage Racing Services

Road Atlanta Lap Time: 1:44

Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite

I’m happiest learning to drive a car that magnifies the driver’s mistakes. That is what gets this one on the list. This is the kind of car that vintage racing is all about. The Bugeye is a simple, great-looking machine that’s inexpensive to own and operate. Parts are readily available, too. 

COST OF ENTRY

Dave Giorgi has seen solid, race-ready Bugeyes starting as low as $7000. He notes that a recently retired SCCA Production-class car could also go vintage racing. Depending on the vintage race group, however, the SCCA-legal flares may need to be removed or replaced with smaller ones. A later, square-body car can cost less than a Bugeye, but Dave recommends avoiding the 1500cc engines.

“Try to find one that’s been raced before. Most people run a 1275cc, even though the Bugeye never came with that. But when starting out, any of the three [Spridget] motors would work.”

–Dave Giorgi, The Winner’s Circle

Road Atlanta Lap Time: 1:56

 

Honorable Mentions:

Looking to cast a wider net? E. Paul Dickinson and Publisher Tim Suddard have a few more cars worthy of a look.

1966-’72 BMW coupes

Their layout makes them forgiving driver’s cars and more affordable to buy and maintain than both the early Porsche 911 and the Alfa Romeo 1750 GT Veloce.

Mini Cooper

Similar to the Bugeye in that the owner must understand the power limitations that magnify driver mistakes. Great for front-wheel-drive enthusiasts. 

1964½-’70 Ford Mustang

Chevy may be more popular among the masses, but thanks to race prep shops like Cobra Automotive, the early Mustang has made a huge mark in vintage racing.

1967-’71 Alfa Romeo 1750 GT Veloce (or any Alfa coupe from that time period)

More forgiving than a 911 and quite competitive—good-looking and affordable as well.

 

Datsun 240Z

There are a lot of SCCA Improved Touring Datsuns out there that can make perfect vintage racers. Like the 510, the 240Z has plenty of race history, too.

 

Triumph Spitfire

They handle well, look great and drive nicely. Bonus: Lots of knowledge, speed parts, donor cars and ready-to-race machines are available.

MG MGB

It’s the most popular little British sports car for a good reason: It enjoys huge aftermarket support from its many fans.

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Comments
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ebwolf
ebwolf New Reader
9/10/19 4:42 p.m.

Now that SVRA allows the first generation (and there is NASA SSM in some regions), the answer is always Miata. Because 1.6l early first generation Miatas are not very competitive in "real" Spec Miata, their prices have been dropping like a rock. You can find a reasonable car for $8000 and a great car for $10K-$12K. Parts availability? Try AutoZone and Pep Boys (as well as dozens of mail order specialty vendors like Miata Cage and Good-Win-Racing). Sure, it has disc brakes and EFI but those are now "vintage" technologies, just as much as drums and carbs.

Another budget extreme, which I've recently switched to, is Formula Vee. A "needs work" car can be had for $6K with a really well-done car coming in around $10K. Parts are harder to find than they used to be but there is a great community. Vintage Series get reasonbly good turnouts and SCCA still has an FV class (that now allows disc brakes!).

sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
9/10/19 6:17 p.m.

I started my SCCA Production-category road racing career (such as it was) in an E Prod MGB. I had a tight network of Britcar-loving friends, including one who went through SCCA driver's school with me in his Bugeye Sprite.

I never finished last in a race, and I occasionally had a good dice in the MGB, but when I ran out of money and put the project on hold for a while, I kept the buzz going with SCCA Solo II in a friend's then-brand-new 1990 Mazda Miata.

My first time on course in the Miata, I took second in class by about half a second to the guy who went on to win the national CS (if memory serves...) championship in Salina.

My second time on course, I was stunned to see my times were about three seconds below anybody else in my class.

Naturally, it took me 17 years to buy my own Miata.

In the past few years, I've been jonesing seriously to buy a clean Spec Miata with logbook and two sets of tires, etc., and set it up for Vintage. 

Why? I'm okay with mechanical work but not so hot with bodywork, and there's a much lower chance of having to bang out a fender in Vintage. Plus the scenery is gorgeous.

I'd paint it red, put on a white roof with a flip-up vent, run it on daisy wheels, and make it look like a BMC competition car of the SIxties -- maybe even have a British vanity plate made reading GRX 307 D just for the sake of solidarity with the Sacred Octagon of yore. 

But seriously, in any class in which there's a sliding window for vintage eligibility that makes them legal, Miata is always the... you know.

RMVR53
RMVR53 New Reader
9/10/19 7:55 p.m.

Guys, 

you've missed the MOST cost effective entry into the sport...Formula Vee. 

frenchyd
frenchyd UberDork
9/10/19 7:59 p.m.

In reply to The Staff of Motorsport Marketing :

Don’t start with a really fast car.  You’ll spend too much time getting up to speed.  Likely never really learn the art and beauty of racing.  

A slow car that you shove to the front of the pack through your skill will teach you so much more than just hanging on and stepping on the loud pedal.  

Swallow a little pride and learn.  The lessons  you learn back in the slow group will allow you to beat those with really fast cars.  That will repay your ego many times.  Along the way the really fast guys will guide you help you teach you things you will never know how to do if you show up with a big fast thing and drive it as poorly as a newbie always does.  

The  fellowship   you get when you dice with someone of similar performance and skill just isn’t there at the front end of the field when you’re all alone.  

The car is fast, gee  

Compared  to the backslapping and whooping it up  after a race long dice for one more position. Your face will be sore from smiling and laughing.  Real friendship occurs  when you’re both on the ragged edge and still almost in control.  

The respect you earn is reward enough but it’s also something you can pass down.  

 

 

Billbagley
Billbagley
9/10/19 8:10 p.m.

A thought, I raced sail boats, when  u start finishing regular, say 3-5 then u need new  sails,  boat,  etc. 

CARS, buy in at your price point,  relax, consentrate on small things, car or driver, both, have a consistent finish.  For a period.  Time to move up??

 

 

 

 

 

frenchyd
frenchyd UberDork
9/10/19 8:40 p.m.

In reply to Billbagley :

 My best times were with friends in the MG. T   class. Racing at 50-60 mph where energy  is guarded like gold because that’s all you’ve got.  That little edge earned over many laps from you friend. Shave a bit here and a bit there give up a little bit but recover. 

I sailed a bit with Hobbie catamarans but once ahead that was it.  I might see him loading the trailer or pulling down the sails. A polite nod was all that was shared, if that. 

Tom1200
Tom1200 Dork
9/10/19 8:43 p.m.

If you want a bargain single seat car Formula Vee for sure is a great class. Plus many vintage Vees use the cooling fan so the motors last a long time.

As for a Miata it has been a while since I did the math but I estimated I could put together a legal Spec Miata for $4500, this includes the car. Naturally this is with me doing all the work. The motor would be probably down 10hp on a properly prepped motor. So yes they are a great pick as well. Additionally you could drive the car to the track if you wanted.

There are lots of ways to go vintage racing cheaply. Get a reliable car with a motor that isn't tuned to the enth degree, you won't need race fuel and it won't need freshening up after 5 races. Additionally running used tires will cut the tire bill by 2/3rds.

wilkmanracing
wilkmanracing New Reader
9/11/19 1:06 a.m.

Too many of the cars suggested in this article are simply too bloomin' expensive for the average bloke just starting out.  That said, there are cheap options to explore.  There is nothing cheaper, nor more fun to race than a Formula Vee.  For about 5-6 grand, you can get a decent car,  No other race car will offer up a pure racing experience for so little money.  Once you've mastered FV, you will be ready for too many of the cars covered in this article.  The attached "Anatomy of a Formula Vee" photo shows just how simple, yet genius these cars are. An FV consists of a 1200 cc VW engine with limited modifications allowed, a stock VW transmission, a largely stock VW front beam , and VW steel wheels,  All of this is tied together with a tube chassis and enclosed in a fiberglass body..

frenchyd
frenchyd UberDork
9/11/19 6:35 a.m.

In reply to wilkmanracing :

Formula V is a great low cost way to go racing, IF. !! IF there are other active formula V cars running.  If not you might get stuck with all sorts of other open wheel cars.  Much, much, faster cars.  Even old Front engine Formula Junior  cars will be faster and if not sufficiently different in driving technique that there will be few lessons transferred.  

Formula Ford is another low cost way to race, again if and only if. There are other formula Fords of about the same era.  Later Formula Ford’s have a significantly faster potential. 

The good thing about Formula Fords is more than a few got retired simply because the owner gained too much weight over the winter.  Some can be very small in the cockpit.  

Formula 5000 may be another affordable class.  ( if de-tuned) , the small block Chevy if de-tuned to run on pump fuel will last decades. One racer I know buys a new crate engine for about $1500 every decade or so. Again used tires are your budgets friend.  Brake pads will need to be bulk bought otherwise can become a serious budget issue.  

One issue with any formula car is the open wheels. They add a serious risk that needs to be considered.  

frenchyd
frenchyd UberDork
9/11/19 6:45 a.m.
RMVR53 said:

Guys, 

you've missed the MOST cost effective entry into the sport...Formula Vee. 

You can race virtually any car on a modest budget  or the same car can quickly become a money pit.  

I bought a used Corvette race car for $300!  Yes $300 and it wasn’t a particular bargain. ( use your imagination, you are probably right).  But I had it on the race track and took 2nd place in class for a little over $1000 and a winters worth of scrounging and work, hard dirty work. 

The chief advantage of Corvettes is most Corvette drivers discard stuff long before its completely used up if there is new faster stuff available.  OK so 6 pistons came from one engine and 2 from another.  Yes, I mixed used lifters on a used camshaft. Etc etc. 

alfadriver
alfadriver MegaDork
9/11/19 6:57 a.m.

Two things for a beginner:

KISS- whatever car you get, it should be as reliable as possible, and simple to maintain- so that you spend more time racing than you do fixing (unless the car work is what really interests you vs the racing- some people are like that).

Make sure you love it- if you don't like the car much, you are not going to spend a lot of time with it- either keeping up with it or even wanting to drive it.  Unless you are trying to go for the top spot of every single race you are going to, getting the fastest of the fastest cars is not the priority.  You should LOVE the car.  If you don't have that, it does not really matter that it's the cheapest thing of all time to race, because you will not be enjoying yourself.

This is a hobby of fun and competition.  Because of the lack of fun, I stopped racing 7 years ago.

frenchyd
frenchyd UberDork
9/11/19 7:57 a.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Definitely, it’s about fun. It will also tell you about yourself.  

First, it’s not easy. A lot of hoops to jump through. Some are for your own good,  while some just exist.

Second, pushing a car to it’s full potential should be restricted.  And thus there are rules to follow to make it safe for everyone.  

Third, Money; “Speed costs, how fast do you want to go”.If you want to be at the front and stay there,  it will cost all you have and more.  It really doesn’t matter how fast the car is, winning is expensive!!! 

Just participating  isn’t cheap. A typical Vintage race won’t leave much if any change from a grand.  That doesn’t count the cost of the car, it’s preparation,personal costs, or any repairs to the car following the event. While there are ways to cut costs, participation has its cost.  You can participate as a racer or as a track worker. ( tech, corner, flagging, timing&scoring, registration, medical, etc) 

 

 

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