A race car
is nothing more than an automobile prepared specifically for racing competition. Of course that simple statement explains more and less than it promises. A twenty foot long, streamlined fire-breathing Top Fuel Dragster
is a racing car. So to is a Dodge Neon ACR
with a roll cage
bolted-in , with a window-net
and a five-point harness
. So too is the Terrible Herbst
simulated pickup truck prepared for the Baja 1000
or a huge truck prepared for the Paris-Dakar Rally
. Race car as a term incorporated all sorts of vehicles prepared for competition. Race cars can be production automobiles with little or no modifications, purpose built cars with little or no relationship to any street car, or replicate actual street cars with no streetable parts. The engines range from a near stock motor from a volkswagon beetle
Race cars are broken down by the type of racing and the level of preparation. A camaro prepared for drag racing may be completely different from one prepared for road racing.
There are nine basic types of racing
1. Drag racing-- a one way acceleration test. Traction and sheer power are primary considerations. Weight will be biased to put maximum traction on the driving wheels.
2. Top speed competition—generally run at Bonneville with the purpose of attaining the maximum measured speed. Power, aerodynamics and driving wheel traction are the main concern with minimization of drag being the biggest goal. Braking and handling are lesser concerns.
3. Road racing takes place on paved surfaces that simulate country roads, with turns in both directions, elevation changes and surfaces that are usually smooth, but can assume any camber relative to the course. Handling and braking may be more important than sheer power.
4. Oval racing is closed course racing on a smooth paved surface where all turns are in one direction--- (left). Oval tracks are generally banked, but the amount of banking will vary and is designed to increase the maximum speed at which a turn may be successfully negotiated. . Handling is very important but only to the left. Braking is a major factor on short courses (1 mile or 1.3 km and less) but can be a non-factor on longer circuits with high banking. Suspensions tend to be very stiff and weight bias is such so that more weight falls on the left side of the car in order to maximize traction in turns. The tires may have stagger , so that the tires on the right (outside) side of the car are slightly larger in diameter than those on the inside, which again helps the car turn left at the expense of right turns.
5. Dirt Track Racing also turns left exclusively, the biggest difference being the surface. Dirt is an unpredictable surface, and thrown rocks form a major problem. Suspensions are set up like that on asphalt, only softer, and the tires are different. The looser surface makes contact between cars more likely. Successful cars have provisions for routine ‘rubbin’. Tires have different tread patters and brakes may be set up only to operate on the left front to help the car turn.
6. Time/Speed/Distance Rally-- Time speed and distance cars are designed to maximize safety and reliability. Because precision is the ultimate goal the cars are prepared to measure as accurately as possible speed, direction and distance. A purpose-built rally computer with calibrated wheel pickups installed in an ‘equipped’ rally car. An unequipped car may have all gauges removed or covered, including the speedometer.
7. Professional rally. These cars are prepared to go one way down a back road. Surfaces encountered may range from asphalt to dirt, to gravel or even glare ice, with multiple surfaces encountered , sometimes within the same rally stage. A tremendous premium is placed on handling and braking, and suspension travel. The cars must be extremely reliable as they take a beating, but pure speed is also important.
8. Off road rallies like the Paris-Dakar Rally are endurance tests over all. Road surfaces may include rocks, sand dunes and minefields. Suspension travel and reliability matter more than anything, plus long endurance. Safety is also an issue. Competitors in the 2001 Paris-Dakar rally once found themselves driving off a 40 foot tall sand dune at 100 MPH which led to a landing even their suspension systems could not absorb.
9. Autocrossing is a fairly inexpensive form of road racing where one competes alone on a track, often on a temporary circuit laid out on a parking lot with cones. All types of cars compete, with light weight, handling and braking taking precedence.
Once the decision has been made on the type of racing the would-be racer must decide on a budget. That will often determine the level of car preparation desired.
A racer on the cheap might wish to run Time/Distance rallies, autocross or drag racing. Any car, truck or minivan may be successfully raced without any modificationgs whatsoever in the drag racing category known as bracket racing. The same for an autocross or time/distance rally though for rallying you may wish to install additional lighting for night driving in rural areas. The reason you can do this is that in a time distance rally going too fast hurts you. In an autocross, winning competitors may need to purchase special performance tires even though the car may be left stock. Both stress consistent, precise driving.
Next you may wish to race a stock automobile. The Sports Car Club of America created the class categories Showroom Stock and Touring categories in order to allow people to compete in what are essentially stock automobiles. Preparation is simple and relatively inexpensive. First purchase a listed car, say a Mazda Miata (SSB), Dodge Neon ACR (SSC) or Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (Touring 1). Bolt in an approved roll cage. Brace the driver’s seat and install a proper racing harness, and mountings for a window net. Congratulations, you now have an SCCA legal racing car.
You will probably finish last if you stop right there. Racing is a competitive business and the best prepared car greatly improves the odds of victory. You will need to purchase competition brake pads or experience brake fade in the worst sense of the word. You should also install DOT approved racing tires on the car. DOT tires are approved for street use, but don’t. The high temperatures and stresses produced in racing will lead to tread failures called ‘chunking’ unless the tread is shaved to about 3/16 (4 mm) of depth. Replace the muffler with a high performance design.
If you are really serious you go even farther. Align the car to improve its handling so far as is possible with the stock suspension. Shim (or de-shim) the front suspension to achieve as much negative camber as possible for the front wheels. Do everything you can that is legal. To adjust the suspension, but be aware that the car may become darty under highway conditions, eat tires and in other ways not serve so well as a street car. The car may be stock, but it is now significantly compromised as a street car.
A top car will also have a lot of engine work. Here you must read the rule book very carefully, and the rule book will determine what you can and cannot do for every type of racing. Rule books are usually written to maximize safety and minimize costs so much as possible. But speed is a product of cubic dollars. Only in spec classes are the rules truly effective in partially limiting the efficacy of money. The more limitations placed upon the level of modifications the more emphasis is placed upon very tiny details.
To build a Runoffs contending showroom stock engine you will do a lot to get around the rules. Engine internals must be stock, and unmodified. But that won’t stop top people from say ordering 50 pistons and installing the four lightest when building their race engines. At the end of the day it is possible to build an extremely expensive, dead stock motor that has a lot more power than the average Accura Integra or Mazda 3 coming off the production line.
Once you have gotten past the basically stock automobile the issue becomes how far will the rules (and your wallet) permit you to go in modifying your baby. There are several levels.
Tub cars use the stock tub with more or less modifications, and stock suspension mounting points. SCCA Production, Improved Touring, American Sedan classes all require tub cars. So do some entry level circle track classes, such as street stock at my local circle track. They cost much less to build but are expensive and sometimes impossible to repair after a severe crash. They also flex a great deal (a good roll cage helps stiffen any body) compared to other designs. But they are easy to do, use a great deal of stock components , and the car can be modified in stages as money arrives. The best racer will take the rules as far as they can. For example the top cars in the aforementioned ‘street stock’ category are tubed out as far as possible, to the point where parts of the basic shell (shock towers) are missing. In such cars the line between a tub and a tube car has been blurred, though pure tube cars retain the advantage. British Touring cars and World Rallye Championship cars definitely blur this line.
Tube frame cars are the next step up. They are stiffer and lighter than tub cars, and they maintain a suspension set-up much longer. They flex more predictably and are relatively easy to repair after an accident as new parts can simply be welded in. They maintain their tensile strength for years. But their stiffness adds risks to the driver during a hard impact, as such designs are difficult to make shock absorbent. Stock parts need not apply, so your days of shopping at Autozone are over. These cars have no relation at all to the stock animal, with the bodies being little more then shells hung on a frame. Details like where to put the engine are bounded only by the rule book.
Tube frames are used on amateur formula cars Formula Vee, Formula Ford all SCCA GT class cars, NASCAR stockers. sprint cars, Grand Am and Trans Am professional cars are all of a tube design. Top Fuel dragsters, Funny cars, altereds and Pro stock cars are all tube drag cars, though Pro Stock in the seventies and before were tub cars.
The most exotic race cars are made of monocoque construction. Here a tub is made of titanium, aluminum or carbon fiber with the suspension, engine and transmission etc being hung off the tub, with limited subframes provided at the extremities. The American Cornelian is the first known monocoque car but modern cars trace their history from the Lotus 35 race car. The Ford Cosworth DFV engine, that powered Formula 1 cars from the late sixties through the eighties introduced using the engine as a stressed member, with the rear suspension, wing and transaxle being supported by the engine. This saved weight and space, and marked the DFV as one of the greatest racing engines of all time.
Monocoque cars are the ultimate in stiffness and light weight. Racing at the very top level (Formula 1, Champ Cars, Formula 3, Formula Atlantic, LeMans prototypes) are prepared to this standard. They are the fastest cars on earth that are asked to turn a corner. They offer exceptional driver protection with energy absorbent design. But the tubs have a finite life, and if the tub is badly damaged, it is often not repairable. This makes monocoque cars an expensive proposition for amateurs who usually race the same car year after year.
Other preparation rules determine how far you can go. SCCA Improved Touring cars an be modified in significant but very limited ways. A full preparation Production car can go a lot farther, with all engine internals replaceable, any port job that uses the stock valve size, manifolds may be modified, and the interesting little gem that while the cases to the transmission and differential must be stock internals are free. This means that anything you can stuff inside the stock case of your Austin Healey Sprite is legal for H production. Which makes a top flight tranny a very pricey and temperamental item.
This means that a 90HP Sprite (up more than double from stock) can cost a lot of money to prepare. Economies are sometimes false. In the class American Sedan engine internals must remain stock parts, except for the camshaft which is limited to a specified lift, with advance and duration unlimited. This means that an A Sedan engine of 450 HP is much less reliable than a GT-1 engine of 700+ HP. This is because a top A Sedan is revved to the same level as the GT-1 car which enjoys almost unrestricted engines. The stock crankshaft fails on the A Sedan where a pure racing piece would not. A Late Model run at my local circle track has only two forward gears, start and race. The other gears are removed from the transmission to reduce parasitic power loss.
Still, overall the stock or nearly stock engines are less expensive overall because they require less maintenance. The farther you go the more money the engine costs to build, and the more likely it is to fail catastrophically. A Top Fuel engine produces 6,000 HP but has a life expectancy that can be measured in seconds. A Mazda 13B rotary prepared to Improved touring standards can last years. Pro Stock and Nextel cup cars use low-tech but purpose built racing engines that never saw the street, a long way from their hot rodded forbears. A Formula 1 engine costs six figures and might explode at any time.
At the end of the day a race car can look like almost anything. Wedge shapes, flat bottoms, torpedoes, they have all be tried over time. But the humblest race car is a thoroughbred, temperamental and touchy. They live only for the moment when they do battle on track.
Common types of race cars
Stock cars are not stock. But in the early days they used to be but the phenomenon known as rules creep over the years has evolved from basically stock automobiles to tube frame cars that may bear little or no resemblance to a production automobile. Stock car has become a generic term applied to oval track race cars mostly campaigned in NASCAR or ARCA events. Stock cars can run on dirt or asphalt. The wheels are enclosed, with the possible exception of an E Mod where the front wheels are open.
Sprint cars are another type of car used in oval racing. They descend from the indy roadsters that raced from the twenties through the 1960s at the Indianapolis 500 but also at dirt tracks all forms of short track racing. Sprint cars are of tube frame construction, have a very short wheelbase, and often no transmission. They are push-started and weigh very little. Engine size varies from 250cc for very short tracks to 1,000 HP V-8s. They often sport very large wings They are difficult to drive as the technique is unnatural, and the short wheelbase makes them 'twitchy'. But the combination of very light weight and explosive power make them quite entertaining and very fast, particularly on short tracks.
Dragsters are cars purpose built for drag racing. They are characterized by a very long tube frame with bicycle front wheels with the driver and engine far to the back. In the old slingshot style dragsters the driver literally sat on top of the rear differential.
Dragsters vary mostly in engine size and fuel, with classes for alcohol and Nitromethane breathing machines. Junior Dragsters are designed for children and use snowmobile engines. For drag racing, nothing can touch them. A Top Fuel Dragster is a nitromethane-burning behemoth capable of reaching speeds of over 320 MPH in under five seconds.
Funny cars began in the 1960's when racers like "Dyno Don" Nicholson started dropping stock-appearing bodies on altered chassis. Essentially, they are dragsters, only with a much shorter wheelbase and more conventional boxed frame. The shorter wheelbase makes them a handful to drive. They turn elapsed times slightly slower than dragsters of similar power but superior aerodynamics often led them to higher top speeds.
Formula cars come from the old name of 'racing formula', or a set of specifications for racing. With the FIAs Formula 1 series leading the way, the name stuck as a generic term for open wheel, single passenger road racing or oval racing cars with the engine located behind the driver in a mid-engined layout. They are the fastest road racing cars in the world, although for a brief period in the late 1960's the big block Can Am series prototypes were faster. They combine extremely light weight, low frontal area, adjustability, and sophistication to lead the way on smooth road racing courses. they are either of tube frame or semi-monocoque construction.
Sports Prototypes are purpose built race cars for road racing. The big difference is prototypes might be made to fit a single passenger, and the wheels are enclosed. These cars race at LeMans, Daytona and Sebring. They often have lights and are built for endurance racing with 24 and 12 hour races being the norm.
Sports prototypes can be extremely fast, usually only a tick slower than their open-wheeled professional counterparts. The Audi R8, Ford GT40 and Porsche 917 are famous examples of the sports prototype. Some exotic street cars -Saleen S7 and Ferrari F40--- are essentially sports prototypes built to quilify for street use. Barely.
Touring Cars are highly modified versions of street cars, often so modified that very little of the stock chassis remains. Not so quick as the pure race cars, touring cars are plenty fast and feature large fields with close competition. The level of preparation may very greatly from 'close to stock' to almost anything goes depending upon the series.
Streamliners are designed for maximum speed competition. They are purpose built race cars that resemble torpedoes. Low frontal drag with just enough downforce to keep the car steerable are the main concerns along with engine power. They may be powered by rocket, jet or conventional engines with the wheels being powered. These are the cars that contend for the Land Speed record. Early streamliners were built using surplus World War II drop tanks and grew more sophisticated from there.
Rally cars are somewhat like touring cars except they always carry a co-driver to navigate, and are designed to go fast down almost every kind of road, uncluding unimproved back roads. A WRC produces 300 HP and weighs around a thousand kilos, with all-wheel drive. These are extremely fast, specialized machines.
Off-road racers may or may not resemble a production vehicle. They can't climb cliffs, but they are designed to race across unimproved surfaces in places where there are no roads-- like the Sahara Desert, part of which you must cross to complete the Paris-Dakar Rally. The cars must be extremely reliable, and stress very long suspension travel. Multiple springs and shocks can be found at every wheel. Most carry extensive sets of tools and spare parts. Very long races over difficult terrain makes breakdowns a fact of life.
This is a short look at the many families of race cars out there. That guy with the Mustang or Suzuki Swift down the street may be driving his own race cars, though streetability is the first thing a true race car gives away. These beasts were not built for comfort. But they were built for fun.
Racing is life. Everything else is just waiting.
Steve McQueen from the film LeMans.