Moneymoneymoneymoney … Money!
“GO RACING ON A BUDGET!” It’s the go-to headline of a thousand magazine covers. When you see that headline, you can be assured of several things: the cost of labor will never be mentioned; nobody’s time is worth anything; nothing ever breaks, fails, or requires early replacement; and certain costs, like transportation and storage, will simply disappear without comment from the final accounting.
Today, I’d like to change all that. I’d like to tell you what this past weekend cost me, and what I got for my money. I’m doing this because I think some of you are interested in going racing, and the rest of you are simply amused when I suffer, whether physically or fiscally.
There was a moment on Sunday afternoon when I was leading the race, the track wide-open ahead of me, the long-stroke minivan motor beneath my Neon’s hood growling at its maximum useful revs of about 5,900, maybe doing 105 miles per hour or so, the right rear wheel still in the air from contact with the curb in this long, fast, right-hand kink, the car undergoing a sort of sinuous and sympathetic vibration as I cranked the wheel hard alee to catch the slide. In that single moment, everything that has been weighing on me these past few years just vanished. The crash in 2014. The broken leg last October — and the long painful recovery from that. All the depression, the self-doubt, the broken relationships. All the despair. Just gone. I was in command of the car. In command of the race. For that moment, I was still the person that I would have recognized in 1987, or 1998, or 2013.
“And to think,” I congratulated myself, “that I even remembered to turn on the GoPro for this.”
I looked in my rearview mirror, to reassure myself that the GoPro was still there and blinking away. It was. But the case was fogged over. I was recording a blank white screen.
Well. You can’t have everything.
Without further ado, here are the real costs of my and my Neon’s return:
Friday, 6:30PM EST: Danger Girl and I are loading up the Fiesta to head to the NASA triple race weekend at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, IL. My race car, a 1994 Plymouth Neon ACR with a 2.4-liter engine from a 1997 Plymouth Voyager minivan, was a non-running basket case when I turned it over to Jon Shevel and Albany Autoworks last year. In the Neon’s first race weekend under his stewardship, last October at Mid-Ohio, we snagged fourth place and briefly led the race. Three days later, I snapped my tibia in half and ripped out all the ligaments. I didn’t feel I was ready for the demands of a proper NASA sprint race until recently.
Jon agreed to take the Neon to the race and crew for me, meaning I just had to drive myself. That meant he’d be putting 800 miles on his truck and giving me two days of his time. We have a multi-race deal but for this event I’ll assign $1,000 for wear and tear on both the truck and Jon, just to give you a realistic sense of the costs. Gasoline and tolls for the Fiesta were $50. Because the U.S. Womens’ Soccer team was playing nearby, all the hotels in the area were charging $250 or more. I stayed at the Kimpton Allegro in downtown Chicago, which was $523 for the weekend including parking. Because I gave them Bark’s name instead of mine, they gave me a suite. For the first night, Jon decided to sleep in his truck at the track.
Running total: $1,573
Saturday, 8:00PM CST: Did I mention I’d bought new tires for this weekend? I’d had my heart set on the Hoosier R7, but I settled for the Hankook Ventus in C51 Road Race compound. They were $763. A lot of racers will use one new set for qualifying and one new set for each race. I used one set for the weekend.
Breakfast for the crew was $38.
We qualified third of eight. In the race, I ran second for the first half before falling victim to the superior pace and discipline of Miata driver Stuart Killian. I’m just about unbeatable in the start of any race; I see things other people don’t and I don’t get scared. But the Neon isn’t quite fast enough to hold off the best driver/car combos in my class. Stuart’s best lap time was 1.4 seconds better than mine.
Running total: $2,374
Saturday, 7:00PM CST: Today’s third place was the best NASA finish I’ve had in my own car since 2009, where I took a Performance Touring overall win in the Neon before putting it in storage for five years. Time to celebrate. Dinner for the crew and a few guests was $553. I put John up in a five-star hotel off Hotwire for $157 despite his reassurances that he’d be fine sleeping in the truck. Before we left, however, we bought a clutch cable from AutoZone. My clutch cable had stretched beyond usability halfway through the race, meaning that I couldn’t even put the car in first gear at rest. That was $52.
Running total: $3,136
Sunday, 3PM CST: Brother Bark covered my lunch, but I got breakfast and lunch for everybody else at a cost of $57. We qualified second for the first race and were holding until the car started cutting out in right-handers. Amazingly, Jon diagnosed the problem in just an hour. In the third race, I bullied my way to the front and led the entire Performance Touring series for four laps until I was passed by Stuart’s Miata and a Scion FR-S. The latter car wasn’t in my class, so I wound up with second place. It was a genuine thrill to lead the race in my own car. All of the wins I’ve had in the past few years have been behind the wheel of someone else’s property. I know that the Neon isn’t really class-competitive anymore; Stuart’s best time was 2.1 seconds ahead of me. The only way I kept second was by opening up my bag of slightly unpleasant racing tricks to keep the multiple BMWs behind me at bay. But I’ll take it. Did I mention that my race entry fee was $429? I don’t think I did.
Running total: $3,622
Sunday, 11:40PM EST Back home to unpack and sleep like a dead man until work the next morning. Dinner and fuel on the road was a reasonable $52. But the fuel for the race car over the weekend was a less reasonable 21 gallons at $4.29 each, for a total of $90.
Final total: $3,764.
Could I have saved money? Absolutely. If we’d all slept in our cars at the track, that would have dropped us to just under $3,000. I could have used my old Hoosiers from 2008 — but I would have had trouble finishing anywhere but last. I could have towed the Neon myself on a rental dolly behind the Tahoe, saving maybe $700. But I wouldn’t have had the ability to troubleshoot a complex wiring problem. In my experience, very few racers do.
Also, keep in mind that nothing serious went wrong. There were multiple contact incidents during the weekend; I just didn’t happen to be part of any of them. I could have incurred up to maybe eight or nine grand in damage had I crashed the car or been hit. The motor stayed together, the wheel bearings held up, the fuel system didn’t die. I’ve spent over $1,000 in a weekend before just on random stuff from AutoZone like sensors and fuel pumps and ignition modules.
Last but not least, I’m not including the $1,272 I spent this morning on brake pads, rotors, fluid, and a fire-suppression system for next weekend’s race with a sanction that requires it.
The good news: I’m planning on spending a lot less for my October race at Mid-Ohio. I’ll re-use the tires. The cost of towing and mechanical help will be less. I won’t need a hotel room. I’ll have reasonably fresh brakes on the car. It’s possible that I’ll get the whole weekend done for under $1,000.
It’s also possible that I’ll be watching the bent and twisted shell of my Neon being extracted from the Armco by a tractor, from the comfort of a stretcher in the green-and-white LifeFlight helicopter that services Mid-Ohio. You never know. That’s what makes it interesting.
You can do a lot with the $5,000 I just spent to race a Plymouth Neon. You could lease a BMW M4 for half a year. Pick up a slightly used GSX-R750. Wear a new Panerai. Go to Vegas, stay in a rooftop penthouse, and have a three-way with two 9.5/10 professionals. Take your children to Disney World for a week, assuming you stay at the All-Star. I’m sure the financial wizards of TTAC could invest it and get $100,000 back in just five short years or something like that. Applied over the course of a year, it would have enabled me to buy a house that was worth another $75,000, if that’s meaningful to you.
This is what I got for my money.
It’s a cowbell that NASA used for a trophy this weekend, given to podium finishers in each class. There’s nothing terribly impressive about it. You could buy one for three bucks or less from Alibaba. Earning one will cost you a little more than that. Try it yourself. Don’t worry about the money. Nobody ever took a penny to the grave. See you out there, when the green flag waves and we all find out, once again, who we really are.
Oh, and one last thing: turns out that the GoPro Studio application, for which I had previously had nothing but well-earned and considerable contempt, can edit out a fogged-up lens to some extent. Who’d have thought? So, without further ado, I give you four minutes of fast and furious Performance Touring racing with yours truly from the start of the race to overtaking the first-place BMW E36: