Historic racing on a budget
How you can & why you should
Club motor-racing is the future of automotive enjoyment and you need look no further than the nearest great road to have been blighted with speed cameras to know it. And while there's joy to be killed, revenue to be raised and a nanny state to be built it will only get worse. Besides, there has been, for some time now, a nagging doubt in the office that we were, to some extent at least, failing to practise what we have preached in the magazine since early last year. We all loved historic motor racing but were we getting stuck in ourselves?
The answer, at last, is yes thanks to the rather engaging beast you see on these pages. It is a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro and, for the rest of the season at least, will be seen rumbling around competing in the Historic Sports Car Club's Historic Road Sports Championship, the hands either of your editor or his brother (who paid for half the car) wrapped grimly around its wheel.
The plan is as follows: We want to prove that, for an entirely affordable sum of money, it is possible to buy, race and maintain a decent historic racing car. Moreover, we are seeking to show that a modest budget need not force you into buying an uncompetitive car and that recreational racing remains the most enjoyable way to pass a weekend you can discuss in a family magazine like this.
But before all of this, and if you are truly to enjoy historic racing to the full, you have to order your priorities. The first thing to accept is that historic racing is not one of the accepted routes to the top of the sport, soil you are hoping to get spotted and think yours is a talent to earn you a living, then you're looking in the wrong place.
The second truth which needs to be taken on board holds true for any motor racing series of any description anywhere in the world: if all other things are equal, then the bloke with the most money will win the race. Happily, however, driving talent, careful preparation and, above all, finding the right car to enter into the right championship can go some considerable distance and quite often even overcome this broad rule of thumb.
The next decision, to be taken even before deciding which car your budget will stretch to, is which series to race it in. Unless you really don't mind at all running around at the back of the field, there is no mileage at all in falling for a car without knowing where or how to go racing with it.
It was a small but significant detail which sold the Historic Road Sports Championship to me: if you drive the car to the circuit for every round of the championship, you are awarded three extra points per race. To us, sharing a car and joining only half-way through the season, such points are meaningless but to encourage historic racing cars to be used as they once would have been is an admirable initiative. In addition to this, those involved with the series are friendly, helpful and refuse stoically to take themselves too seriously, all of which are vital qualifications in my book.
To qualify for the series, your car needs to have been produced between 1947-1970 and be of a type that had ceased production by 1974. Modifications are allowed but within tight guidelines. Your bodywork, block, heads, gearbox and brakes, for instance, must all be to original production specification.
And so to the car. Having decided on the series, we laid down a few critical criteria and set about finding a car to match them. Whatever it was, it would have to cost myself and my brother no more than £8000 each to buy. It would have to be cheap to maintain, sufficiently strong to look after our interests in an accident and sufficiently simple to repair to do likewise for the bank manager thereafter. Once these tedious but essential hard points were covered, there were just two more requirements: rear-wheel drive and as much horsepower as our budgets would allow.
I'd like to say we took weeks poring over the options but, in truth, it probably didn't even add up to a significant amount of minutes. A Camaro was far and away the most likely candidate. Though a few Motor Sport readers may baulk at the sight of such brute on these pages, the racing history of the Camaro is noble: In the US, Camaros like this one dominated TransAm racing in the late '60s, none more so than the cars entered by Roger Penske for Mark Donohue to race.
Finding one took time, simply because there are few race-prepared examples in the country at the best of times and fewer still going begging in the height of the season. To help with the search I put a call in to Rare Performance Motors. RPM is an Aldershot-based garage that deals exclusively with classic American muscle cars. Over the years they have lent many tons of classic Detroit iron to the motoring magazines in our stable and know what is worth knowing about the breed.
Although better known for their work on road cars, RPM has built and maintained racers for many moons and, weeks after I made the initial call, one of the cars they had looked after for years became available. It was, to the last rivet, what we had been looking for. Most importantly, it was a racing car, not a road car in need of conversion. If money and time are not significant issues and winning races is, the best thing to do is buy a road car, strip it down to its components and rebuild it, part by part, into the ultimate racing car. For us and many others though, this was a prohibitively expensive and time consuming approach.
We wanted quite the reverse, a proven, reliable race veteran with all the right bits already resident in the car and that is precisely what this car contains. It has been a racing car for at least a decade and has lined up on the grid on hundreds of occasions. The great thing about Camaros is that once they're right, they tend to stay right. The small block, 350 cu in engine, for instance, has a minimum of 20 races under its sump and still runs cool, with perfect oil pressure and almost zero oil consumption. There is one small block racing out there which has seen six seasons come and go without needing a rebuild. So long as you don't over-rev them and they're built properly to start with, they'll hang together for ever. RPM says ours will develop maximum power at 5800-6000rpm, will run happily at 6400rpm and probably tolerate a brief excursion to 7000rpm. Beyond that, it will break.
No-one has put this engine on a dynamometer but enough are in existence in similar tune to know it puts out around 420bhp. More is possible but, with the wet sump and iron heads the regulations require, every extra bhp compromises reliability further. In any case, the car proved competitive in the hands of its previous owner so if more speed is required it will be more profitably achieved by looking at its drivers before its mechanicals.
All that remained was to drive the car. American automobiles, even those that race, feel different to any other breed you can name and not everyone takes to them. Having only ever raced a Caterham in the past, I too wondered how the Camaro would fed. Before finally taking the plunge, I drove it on the short circuit at a Brands Hatch test day.
Though I was loathe tell the owner, I was pretty much sold on the car when I saw its condition and heard its engine. It's not immaculate but it's as good as you'd want a car that's going to be raced to be. The small block, even running through lashed-on silencers, sounds wonderfitlly potent and, on the track backs this up by shoving the Camaro between the corners with unlikely conviction.
I'd worried about the 1967 brakes but, with rock hard pads, they worked sufficiently well not to cause alarm while the handling, once the car has been persuaded to turn in, is not at all bad. Yokohama rubber (its recently introduced 032R, road-legal but decidedly sticky) provides unlikely grip in comers while the Positraction limited slip differential means the power can be applied early and cleanly. The steering needs acclimatisation but once its slightly vague ways are learned, it performs adequately.
So we did the deal and bought a car inside our budget with enough spares to rebuild the engine when it finally gives up on us. We will see where we go from here. There is still some development work to be done. A rear-exit exhaust is needed but we will wait for the winter before seeing what else, if anything, we should do before next season. Meanwhile I have raced on the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, on the same bill as the Motor Sport-sponsored Thoroughbred Grand Prix series and, not before time, my career as a racer of historic motor cars has begun. AF
In at the deep end
If racing a beast like the Camaro on a circuit upon which I had never laid eyes until practice was not enough, such was the demand to race on the Grand Prix track the organisers were forced to amalgamate three different race series on the same grid. So I sat on the grid with 37 cars around me, 27 of which were in front of me. Most of these, had nothing to do with the HRS series in theory but we would all still be fighting for the same slice of track.
I gained a few places at the start simply thanks to the Camaro's massive power advantage over the Elans and Marcoses that surrounded me and then lost, them all again when I had throw the car off the track to avoid a Corvette that had rotated on the way out of Paddock Hill Bend. At Clearways on the next lap I witnessed a Mustang clout a Marcos so hard the latter split in two, each half flying off the track in different directions. Its driver was unharmed. Minutes later, at Dingle Dell. I managed to launch the Camaro into the gravel trap and, thanks to its huge momentum, simply drive straight out the other side.
I took things rather more seriously after that and managed to make up a few places, knock a couple of seconds off my qualifying time eventually finishing in nineteenth place overall with only one other HRS car ahead of me, albeit some 23sec down the road.
My next race is at Castle Combe on August 8th where the HRS should have a race to itself. It's a circuit I have at least driven around and it should, all other things being equal, suit the Camaro's talents. After that I should have an altogether clearer idea of the prospects of both it and its driver.
The essential guide to finding and racing an historic
1 Decide how much you can afford to spend on and run a car and stick to the resulting budget. This, more than anything, will determine what you race.
2 Decide which series you want to contest before choosing the car. Your budget will push you towards certain series and away from others and there's little point discovering your car is uncompetitive in one championship and ineligible for others. Do your research and talk to the organising clubs and people who know and have raced in the series.
3 Once you have decided the series, look at the list of eligible cars and choose. Bear in mind that certain cars can be raced in more than one championship and if you don't mind not running at the front such a car will mean more time and fun behind the wheel as well as showing where you might want to race next.
4 If you are looking at a production car series, buy a thoroughly sorted racing car. Don't even think about converting a road car unless you know exactly what you're doing and have the time and money to do it
5 If you're not a demon mechanic, find the right people to do major work on your car and stay with them. A decent engineer who knows your car and the series in which it competes will make you quicker and, ultimately, save you time and money. That said, learn how to do routine maintenance yourself.
6 Enjoy yourself. Ron and Frank do riot, as a rule, go to historic races so you're unlikely to be asked to show Mika and Jacques how to drive properly. The less winning matters, the more you'll enjoy those times when a waved chequered remains a distant dream. Don't take yourself or your car too seriously.
7 That said, once the lights turn green, drive as fast as you possibly can. Some drivers can get a buzz from merely circulating but not many. For all the laughs, great company and camaraderie in historic motor racing, you're still driving a racing car and if you're not flat-out from the start, you're not enjoying yourself as much as you could.