In this election year it somehow seems appropriate to talk about a movement that reaches the common citizen…the working man…the small-business person. Political rhetoric aside, it has the potential to gain traction in the industry and showcase what’s great about America grassroots road racing.
There are no multi-million dollar sponsorships (multi-million dollar wallets not included). No frills, just thrills. This is the middle class of the racing world. And if you make a living from building racing engines, you’ll have to learn to find your way in the grassroots racing crowd because they represent the backbone of the industry.
On the professional level, road racing has been regaining its foothold in the U.S. with the success of the American LeMans Series and Grand Am Series. These series focus on high-dollar exotic sportscars with manufacturer support (i.e., cash) from such companies as Acura, Mazda, Audi, Porsche and GM, to name a few. There are prestigious events and sponsors to match as well.
But grassroots, club-level road racing is experiencing a bit of a resurgence itself lately, with more road racers turning away from high dollar open-wheel and purpose-built tube-frame racers that cost thousands dollars to run each weekend. Many racers are turning to stock production classes that helped bring road racing so much acclaim in classes such as the Trans Am series of the ’60s and ’70s. These classes used stock block engines in production-based cars, and they were not short on bone-jarring power either.
If you’ve been looking for a road racing class to sink your engine building teeth into, look no further than your own backyard. There are local tracks and car clubs that run track days all over the country and many are in need of engine experts. While it is true that some of the classes are very limited in the engine modification area, these racers will pay top dollar for any small gain they can get. There are also some newer classes that have been added recently that offer great potential opportunities to engine builders willing to mine this field.
The Other NASA
The National Auto Sport Association (NASA) was formed in 1991 to deliver high-quality motorsports events to enthusiasts at major racing venues across the nation. NASA offers enthusiasts unique opportunities to become involved in nearly all forms of racing with an emphasis on welcoming new participants to the sport and creating programs that focus on the current trends in the automotive aftermarket industry.
NASA has programs to accommodate everyone from complete beginners to seasoned professionals. NASA claims it has 12,000 members with about 2,500 racers who compete in over 200 events across the country, 120 of which are road course events.
NASA has created programs that allow owners of both race cars and high-performance street-driven vehicles to enjoy the full performance capabilities of their cars in a safe and controlled environment. NASA offers many different programs for members to enjoy motorsports on a number of different levels, including its High Performance Driving Events (HPDE), Rally Sport, Time Trial, NASA-X and Competition Racing programs.
This year the NASA Championships were held at the Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course in Lexington, Ohio. Mid-Ohio has long been known as a favorite track for road racers because of it’s challenging layout. There were over 400 cars for the event.
American Iron and American Iron Extreme
NASA’s American Iron Series was developed to provide a battleground for domestic “ponycars,” and to carry on the Ford vs. Chevy debate a little longer. The Series began with three cars competing on the West Coast and has now grown to include five regions with over 150 cars competing in the American Iron (AI), American Iron Extreme (AIX), and Camaro Mustang Challenge (CMC) classes.
CMC features 1979-present Mustangs and 1982-2002 Camaros and Firebirds with stock engines along with “spec” springs, shocks, tires and brakes in two classes based on the year of the vehicle. The AI class is a step up from CMC with many more modifications allowed, but is still cost controlled with power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratios, a tire limitation, and other restrictions placed on the cars.
For racers who wish to race in a less restricted format, AIX is a “sky’s the limit” class, where nearly anything short of a tube frame is legal. The series offers racers a fair and friendly environment to race their musclecars. All three classes meet each September to compete for a national crown at the NASA National Championships.
The American Iron class has a limit of 9.5:1 pounds per wheel horsepower and other restrictions to control costs. American Iron Extreme allows nearly unlimited modifications and is the playground for the big horsepower monsters. AI rules state that non-OEM aluminum blocks are not allowed but can be run in AIX class. Also, dry sumps are prohibited in AI, and all AI cars are required to get dyno certified in order to verify the power to weight rule. Any time you make a modification to the engine, you must re-certify the car.
American Iron’s basic concept is to allow aftermarket manufacturers a place to show off their products. Engine builders may find this class one of the most appealing because it allows a lot of creativity and a chance, as well, to show off your skills.
Honda Challenge (HC)
There are five classes within NASA’s Honda Challenge series (HC1, HC2, HC3, HC4 and HC5) that cover a wide range of models and a broad range of modifications. Since there is such a wide variety of modification permitted in the different classes, the rulebook is the best source to determine where a particular car/engine fits.
In this class, minimum weight varies depending on the model and modifications. Nitrous, forced induction and dry sumps are prohibited. The only engine modifications allowed by the rules are blueprinting, balancing, port matching and boring over to .040?. Head porting is only allowed in the HC1 class.
The Spec Miata (SM) class is wildly popular in both SCCA and NASA mainly because it is inexpensive to run and the cars are great fun to drive. The class requires a stock engine and spec suspension components, thus keeping the cost to build a competitive car low as well.
Miatas from 1990-1999 are eligible for the class, although the 1.8L cars have to run a restrictor plate plate at the throttle body as well as weigh more in order to level the playing field. The cars with 1.6L engines can be a little lighter at 2,300 lbs., while the 1.8L car must weigh 2,400 lbs. Balancing and lightening of engine parts is not allowed. The stock downpipe must be used, however the rest of the exhaust is open.
You cannot mention grassroots-level road racing without talking about the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), because it boasts the largest group of amateur racers in the U.S. SCCA is a non-profit organization made up of over 50,000 members and while only a small percentage of members may actually race, they make up for it in enthusiasm and in the amount of money spent on racing year after year.
The SCCA has honed the idea of the country club racer, providing an outlet for the doctor, lawyer or other professional who makes a lot of money but still likes cars and driving fast. Instead of playing golf, these guys drive race cars. The good news for engine builders is that many of these drivers have neither the time nor the know-how to build their own engines or even prep their own car.
SCCA is divided among several divisions (Club Racing, Pro Racing, Rally and Solo Autocross) and regions. However, the heart of the SCCA is its amateur Club Racing program, which hosts 235 local events and 65 National events each year.
Amateur road racing offers many opportunities for race/performance oriented engine builders. Today, few racers perform their own engine rebuilds because they don’t have the time, equipment or expertise to do so. It can be a huge asset for a racer to become involved with a knowledgeable engine builder who will provide the type of expertise and service needed to help guide them through a grueling race season.
One of the keys to success, say engine builders who are involved in this market, is to be involved in the sport yourself. Your chances of building a competitive engine and finding customers who want them will depend on how visible your success is to other racers. You can build these engines and have some success without going to the events, but to really build a reputation you’ll need to have a presence at the track. That doesn’t mean you have to dust off your driving shoes, just being there for your customers on race weekends will make a difference to the bottom line.
SCCA competition offers something for everyone whether you want to build engines for formula cars, production classes or the high-horsepower GT classes. Engine builders already familiar with rebuilding late model production engines may find the production classes are the most comfortable transition into road racing. The production classes are the most similar to how you’d buy the cars from a dealer with the exception of some safety and performance modifications.
The only engine modifications allowed are balancing and blueprinting the otherwise stock engine. You’re also allowed to remove the muffler and catalytic converter, but the intake and exhaust manifolds typically remain stock.
In some production-based classes, such as Spec Miata, modifications such as cylinder head porting and even timing changes are strictly forbidden. If it’s a stock class then there’s not a lot that’s legal. Everything has to be stock, but you can balance and blueprint the engines to optimize performance as long as you don’t take off excessive amounts of material.
Most race engine builders admit that to make it in this market you’ll live and die on your reputation. Club road racing, whether it’s in NASA or SCCA or some other club, is for the most part a tight-knit group of racers. Your reputation will travel whether it’s good or bad so you must put your best foot forward at all times so you can keep the dyno running along with the cash register.
Effects of Economy
Good engine builders are always going to be in demand. How successful you become depends on how much racers want to spend, which is indirectly tied to the economy. Some are getting out while others are getting into the sport so there’s always some fluctuation. The biggest challenge is the money racers are willing to spend to go racing.
Amateur road racing is far from the professional level where teams spend millions of dollars a season. Club racers don’t have big sponsorships, although some have big wallets. Club racers are also more affected by dips in the economy, but racers are a dedicated bunch and will often give up on other things before cutting back on their racing programs. Typically in a tight economy the upper level, big dollar classes will suffer but the budget racing classes may actually increase.
To succeed in the grassroots road racing market, you must have a passion for the sport first. You also need to be fully committed to helping your customers during the season, which should include traveling to races to support them at the track. Road racing can be a good niche for engine builders, and these growing classes prove your expertise can be put to good use.