Rally Tech: Buy it or build it?

Stage Notes RadioThe following is included in Episode 4 of the Stage Notes Radio podcast. Please download and enjoy the entire show! I have posted a script of the segment for search and informational purposes.

On this segment of Rally Tech, I tackle the age old question that every aspiring rally driver has to decide:
Buy it or build it?

The easiest and fastest way to get into this sport is to buy a used rally car. It’s pretty much always a buyers market. Deals pop up on specialstage.com, ebay, and even craigslist from time to time. You can find yourself a tried and true rally gem, or if you’re not careful – someone’s else’s DNF.

Let’s talk about the pro’s and con’s – and what to watch out for.
The price: If you have the cash you can get yourself a two wheel drive rally car and a garage full of spares and tires for $5 – $8,000 dollars. It’s usually worth it. Even a car that needs a few mechanical and safety upgrades is going to be cheaper then one you build yourself. A good rule of thumb for building a car is a budget of around $8,000. So that’s the price of the car + $8K = Your rally car and all your gear. (helmets, suits, etc) This formula works for most of the classes except for open. The sky is the limit for an open class car and I don’t recommend starting at the top. Watch out for cars that break that formula. For example a heavily used SRT-4 might run you $11,000 – so in rally trim expect to pay $19,000 – $20,000 for a car like that. Ask a lot of questions about exactly what spares you are getting should the list price be over $20,000.

Tested and ready: Used rally cars are sometimes lost projects, cars that were used a couple of times, or cars that have been beaten over pretty good. If the car has never passed tech and rallied, there may be a whole long list of small items that need to be installed. These can add up quick. Even if it just needs a rally computer, triangles, fire suppression, first aid, and an intercom – that’s $600 worth of extras and a few hours of labor to install them correctly. Are you positive the cage will pass tech? Cage work is $100 an hour typically. You may consider looking at a car that has done stages before, but not too many stages. A car with more then 10 rallies on it may be in for a tear down. Rally is unrelenting abuse to the chassis and cracks and broken welds are hard to spot when the engine is in and the skid-plates are on.

Meet your new friend – the seller: Some people realize how much of a project this is, and some don’t. It’s like a complicated train set. A seller should not just drop a box of train parts at your feet and say “There ‘ya go!” You are going to want to be able to contact him after the sale. The sale will be final – but figuring out why the fuse to the wipers was re-routed to an un-used switch under the dashboard is going to be critical. I once sold a lightly modified WRX and was surprised that I forgot I installed an OEM looking switch to enable and dis-able the ABS. This is a perfectly normal modification for the ice racer & rallycrossers out there. The new owner called and was confused when his ABS light came on when he toggled this unlabeled switch. “Ohh – Yeah…” I thought and then explained it’s function – apologizing for not mentioning it. So, Make sure the seller knows that you’ll want to contact him for information after the sale.

Non-mechanical people: You may want a ready to run rally car for the sheer fact that you are not a mechanic. This is perfectly acceptable. Keep in mind that this car is going to need more then an oil change and a new set of tires after the race. Do you have a friend / mechanic that will help you take this on? Are you ready to dole out $100 an hour on rebuilding suspension and mangled bits?

So how about the other side of the fence? The long way. Build it.
That cost thing: As I mentioned, the $8,000 rule – you can now set your budget. What’s nice about building a car is that you can spread out the payments. Instead of getting a loan, liquidating your 401K, or putting off that engagement – you can plan to spend $500 a month for the next 16 months. When I was building my car I found that just about every month I could spend $500. Rally computer, intercom, seats, helmets, lights, etc, etc. In the beginning I got away with keeping the car in the driveway, but eventually you will long for a heated garage to replace the tranny, or fix a broken axle. Whether you buy it or build it – you’ll always need a place to store it.

Need it but can’t find it: People often ask me this question: “Kris – Would [name of car] be a good rally car?” As I’ve seen everything from a Ford Festiva rally car to a 1960’s Corvette Stingray rally car, my answer is this: You can turn ANY car into a rally car. Is it a good idea? Who knows? Talk to people that run cars like the one you want to buy or build. Are the parts cheap? What breaks ALL the time? Did you just happen to open a portal to the 1960’s in your garage? Car guys are usually pretty straight about this stuff. The rear shock towers of Golf, the wheel bearings on a Neon – you’ll get a clear picture of what parts you’ll be ordering or scouring the junk-yards for. There is a lot of times where you’ll want to buy a particular type of car that just isn’t on the used market. You can wait it out, you can be less picky, or you can build it yourself.

Learning it all: Mikko Hirvonen is known for his WRC performance driving for Subaru and Ford. Did you also know that he’s a capable mechanic? This ability has served him well on the stages – keeping his complicated rally car moving while other drivers simply gave up. It’s often rather handy to know just how something goes together when it all falls apart at a rally. Sure, this takes more time and there are lots of things to learn but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Know where your limits are too. I won’t port heads or balance crankshafts myself and I fear when opening up transmissions that the ‘magic’ will fall out. Leave the cage building to the cage builders and get lots of advice on the stuff you think you can handle.

I hope that gives you a better perspective in the choice between buying or building. Whatever you decide – I wish you good luck in obtaining your rally car.
This has been Rally Tech – I’m Kris Marciniak for Stage Notes Radio

2 thoughts on “Rally Tech: Buy it or build it?

  1. Dude. Right there with you on the “magic” falling out of the transmissions. I’m sure it’s not much more complex than an engine rebuild, but still. What *are* all those toothy things and how do you make sure they all spin the right direction when you’re done? Magic.

  2. The question of what cars can become rally cars is one that I’ve discussed several times with different people. Although I won’t slide sideways with a Ford Econoline, I absolutely love the Dodge Neon. I have a 2002 Neon and am using several of yours tips in the build. Who knows, maybe I will modify a Focus next. THANKS for the site!

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