Build or Buy your first race car ?
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Originally posted in 2015 - updated in 2020
I suspect that the past and present look something like this...
A friend talked you into a "track day", or autocross event, perhaps you went to a BMW, Audi, Mazda sponsored event at your local track and suddenly you say, ooooo I like this....
You start looking at high performance driving education (HPDE), or attend more track days and get more of a bug.. Perhaps this is followed by some small upgrades to the street car to improve handling and squeeze out a few more horsepower.
You drool over upgrades at Bimmerworld, VAC & Turner Motorsport, you build spreadsheets to calculate costs, you negotiate with the significant other for garage space, wander through Sears looking at the mechanics tools.
Before you know it you have volunteered to be on a 24 hours of Lemons, or Chump Car team and have some actual side by side racing experience...
Suddenly you decide "I want to do this racing thing, I can do this racing thing", and utter the immortal words,
"How hard could it possibly be?"
As a guy that attended his first HPDE in 2005, 24hrs of Lemons in the summer of 2010, started building his SPEC E36 car in the fall of 2010, completed his first club race in 2011 and ran his first full season in 2012 I have a reasonably fresh perspective on this decision.
I opted to build - why ?
Honestly - didn't really know that buying was an option - had no experience or, at that time, friends that could direct me in the right direction.
I had enjoyed working on the Lemons Car and wanted to undertake a "slightly bigger project".
Since I had no plan to go into debt over this project, I needed to pace the expenses out over time.
How was it ?
First - a little about my history.
I've been nuts about cars since I was a teenager watching Formula 1 and British Touring Cars
I have a history of biting off bigger and bigger projects, before cars it was houses, started out with installing a programmable thermostat, and 6 years later ended up with a completely renovated house including finished and renovated basement as well as a new kitchen.
Older kids and a very supportive wife (love you honey) meant that time became available.
Build to a class.
Pick the class you want to race in before starting on the build.
Read the class rules
Read them again...
Spend some time looking at Turner & Bimmerworld with the Rule Book in hand...this should prevent you buying something that makes your car illegal in your class.
Building to a class will prevent wasted money on upgrades and parts that will render your car illegal or uncompetitive.
A word about the Donor
It can be very tempting to buy a car where someone has already spent a ton of money on parts, and labor and you get the benefit of all the savings. After all, you loose 50% of the value of an upgrade the moment you put it on the car right ?.
If you can find someone that has started to build to the class you want to race in, has receipts for the work and has used a reputable shop then this can be a good way to short circuit the process.
Expect to find issues, even with a decent donor.
AVOID cars that have been overbuilt / random parts / no consistency in who's done the work - cars are a complex system and buying someone's project of cool bits is going to bite you.
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Find a RACE SHOP that you can trust.
My opinion - there are things about a race car that you shouldn't do on the cheap - the safety gear and specifically the cage is not an area to figure out on the fly. Outsource the safety gear and cage build - I used Piper Motorsport. Robbie and Mitch were hugely helpful and do really great work.
There will be tasks that you cannot complete. At some point you will run out of tools or talent or time and having a reputable shop that you can work with will save your sanity. Road Race Tech are my go-to shop for all things BMW. I use them for my daily driver, and my wife's car in addition to the Spec E36. Mike & Wayne are really trustworthy and the shop does great work.
If you don't live in the DC area, you can either ask around or start with the list of shops authorized to perform Annual Inspections. BTW These guys will often also do pre-purchase inspections - WELL WORTH THE $$$
Build is NOT the cheap way to race
If you assume that a part looses 50% of it's value as soon as you put in on the car, you will not be disappointed.
If you want to spread the cost out as I did - you may have to build.
Whatever your budget, add at least 50% for the things that broke that you didn't even know were things that COULD break.
You will develop some real mechanical abilities.
Quite frankly for me, working on the car was cathartic and the learning process was half the fun.
You will have no choice but to figure out how to work on your car if you build it.
You have the option to take your time, and make mistakes in your garage that you will not then make in the 15 minutes before a race !!
You will assemble the tools you need to work on the car at the track.
You will learn the vocabulary necessary to explain to other folks what's wrong or what you need if you have a problem.
Building is not the fastest way to race
The build took me ~10 months from the time I purchased the donor to the time I was able to show up at a BMW Club event.
The first year (6 race weekends) were spent tuning / dialing in / replacing other parts
At the time of writing, I have over 2 years into the car and she is now "sorted"
In summary - I really enjoyed the build process and if you have the time, $$ and inclination I would recommend it as a way to really understand racing.