This past season, Mazda Motorsports has been honored to work with three-time SCCA SOLO National champion Ron Bauer. Our honor will continue into 2017.
Ron Bauer is an elite racer; but more than this, he is an expert developing race cars (and candidly, a pleasure to work with and from). For the last 12 months, Ron has been Mazda Motorsports’ development driver for the ND 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata for CS and STR. While this development moves forward, Ron is also working on an exciting new project – taking a wrecked car and building it into a competitive Street Prepared and then Prepared car. He will be writing an ongoing series of articles of this build; so keep reading for part 1 in this series.
“From Wrecks to Racers,” by Ron Bauer
Everyone has heard the phrase, “From rags to riches.” Well, what if you took a car that had issues and built it into a competitive racer? In my case, rather than going the normal route of taking an older car that may be tired and using that as a starting point, I’ve decided to start with an effectively new car. Here’s the wrinkle (pun intended), how do you do that in a cost-effective manner? Follow along while I explain how to search for, procure, repair, and build a car that was totaled into a top level competition car. I present, “From Wrecks to Racers.” (But hopefully not back to wrecks again!)
Let’s start with some back story first. This isn’t the first time I’ve started with a newer wrecked car. I previously built a 2006 MX-5 into an SCCA Solo National Championship winning car in DP. In that case, I hadn’t intentionally been looking for a car to build, but in my daily Craigslist search for Miatas (a wonderful sickness, much to my wife’s chagrin!) I came across an ad for someone parting out a car. After contacting the seller to see if the whole car was available, I found that it was. We’ll get back to this, but first, let’s start at the beginning.
Let me add that my specific build and expertise is with SCCA autocross, but the information in these articles should help anyone wanting to explore this option. Later articles will focus on the build itself.
With any build, you need to ask yourself a number of questions:
• What class am I planning to build a car for?
• What kind of car, or specific car do I want to start with?
• Do I want to follow the path of others, or do I want to do something no one has done yet?
• What is my time frame to find a car?
• What is my time frame to build a car?
• What is my total budget?
• How much technical/mechanical expertise do I have?
• What is parts availability for the car I want to build?
• How much are parts?
• Am I better off just buying an already built car?
In addition, when looking for a wrecked car, there are additional questions to ask:
• How much damage am I willing to fix?
• What are the rules for the class?
• Can I get away with non-stock parts to repair?
• Do I have the ability to fix the damage, or will I need to farm that work out?
• As above, how much are stock repair parts?
• Will it actually end up cheaper than just buying a non-damaged car?
Let’s examine each of these questions a little further for the remainder of this first article.
The first question you always need to ask yourself is what class do I want to build a car for? Building a car for the “Stock” classes is way different than building a car for Prepared, Production, IT, or Modified classes. Having a clear answer to this question is paramount, as the rules are different not only for classes, but categories of competition. Building a car to the rules for SCCA autocross may be different than the rules for building a car for NASA road racing. Once you figure out which class you want to run in, the absolute next step is to read the rule set for that class multiple times so that you are clear on what you can and can’t do.
So which car? A lot of us garner a loyalty either to a specific car or manufacturer. With that sometimes comes a large amount of knowledge about that car. This can be highly beneficial when it comes to building a car, as you have a head start on the learning process. Have you always been a fan of RX-7s? Odds are you know the model and option package differences between the different years and which one is best for the class you want to build for. Ultimately, making a firm decision on what car you want to build allows your search to be much more focused.Lead or follow? It is always going to be easiest to not reinvent the wheel. Let’s say you’ve decided you want to build a car for CSP. The easy answer is to take a look at what is currently winning, and copy those builds. The harder and potentially riskier option is to start with something different than anyone else is currently running. Currently the first generation Miatas are winning the class, but that doesn’t mean that something else that hasn’t been attempted yet can’t win. While there certainly is more risk here, the payoff can be gratifying.
Time frames? How soon do you want to find a car and have it competing? I’m kind of an instant gratification kind of guy. That said, if you are looking for a specific car, patience can go a long way towards getting that specific car and getting it for a good price. Same goes for the build. A longer time frame allows you to potentially find parts at a cheaper price (used for example,) and pay as you go rather than needing a large chunk of money up front. Keep in mind of course that classes can and do change over time, so setting a time frame of five years may mean that by the time you find and build your car, it has been deemed non-competitive.
Budget? This can be one of the toughest factors in any build. Most of us don’t have a large chunk of money available to quickly buy and build a car for a Regional level, let alone a National level. You absolutely must be realistic here. If you’re budget is $5000 to buy and build a car, this severely limits not only your options for car and class, but also the level of build you can do. That said, if your starting budget to buy a car is $5000 and you plan to build as you have money to do so, that changes things entirely. Again, be realistic on what you can do. If you want to run at a National level, your budget needs to mirror that.
Can I do this myself? Let me just start with this, paying someone else to build a car for you is WAY more expensive than doing it yourself. So again, be honest with yourself. Do you have the ability to build a car? If you don’t, are you willing to take the time to learn how? If you’ve been working on cars for years, you probably can figure out how to do just about anything. If you have no mechanical ability, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it will obviously be a much bigger challenge.
Parts availability and cost? If the car you want to build already has a large aftermarket support, that will make your build not only easier, but also likely much cheaper. On the other hand, if you are at the forefront or an early adopter in a car, much more trial and error may occur. This can also obviously add to the cost if you need things custom built.
Buy built or build yourself? In most cases, buying an already built car can be done for much less than doing it yourself. Of course if you are a tinkerer, you may want to make changes to the car in an effort to make it better. It’s also quite possible that you might need to fix things that were done incorrectly. This is a personal preference, and probably highly dependent on how much satisfaction you get out of doing it yourself.
Let’s move on to the second set of questions, specifically pertaining to starting with a damaged car.
How much are you willing to fix? Some cars may be as simple as a blown engine. Others could just have damaged body panels, and yet others may include frame damage. In most cases, if a car has been totaled, the damage is likely fairly extensive. Keep in mind that vehicle mileage and age can play a big part in determining whether a car is totaled. Ultimately you need to determine what you’re willing to fix. Body work is sometimes best left to a body shop, and this along with paint or a wrap can get expensive quick.
Class rules? This one is huge. If you want to build a wrecked car for a stock class, you are going to be extremely limited in what parts you can use, as well as the need to use factory authorized repair methods. On the other hand, if you are planning to run in Prepared, using aftermarket fenders, quarter panels, and doors that are made of different materials than stock can be done. The methods of attachment are also much more open. You need to factor in things like windows and windshields, as these items can get expensive quickly.
Non-stock parts? Again, as noted above, the class rules really play in here. Read the rule book, read the rule book, read the rule book. Do this before you buy a car.
Fix it yourself or farm it out? While it’s easy to bolt on a new fender or bumper, it’s not so easy to replace a quarter panel that is part of the uni-body. Additional skills often come into play here, such as welding. If you are the patient type and are willing to learn, oftentimes you can do it yourself. However, keep in mind that things don’t always turn out as good as if they are done professionally.
Cost of stock repair parts? If you buy a damaged car, it’s a good idea to determine ahead of time what the repair parts are going to cost. Of course it’s not always easy to know everything you’ll need, but the big obvious parts should be determined. Mazda Motorsports parts program may be useful here depending on what you’re building the car for. Consult them ahead of time to determine whether you qualify for purchasing repair parts from them.
Will it be cheaper to start with a damaged car? The $10,000 question! This is where you need to do your research and be realistic. If you’re buying a car for $5,000 with extensive damage, but could buy the same car with no damage for $10,000, you may not come out much ahead, especially if you can’t do the work yourself. However, if your plan is to buy a newer car, paying $5,000 for a $25,000 car obviously should put you well ahead.
Obviously there are a lot of questions you need to ask yourself. Take the time to really think through and research your options.
Our next article: will focus on where to look for damaged cars and what you need to know about the different options. I look forward to sharing that with you and getting started on the actual build process that has already begun.