By on May 21, 2012


Carleton writes:


I have two essentially unrelated questions but both seemingly require something that I greatly lack: money.  I’m a 22 year old engineering student in New Hampshire and have been around cars my whole life.  Over the past few years, I’ve purchased several older motorcycles on craigslist very inexpensively, sorted the mechanical issues, cleaned them up and sold each on for a solid profit ($500 to $1000 profit per bike).  While this has been fun, cars have always been my real passion.  Working on motorcycles has given me the confidence to tackle a project of a larger scale, so I am seeking advice to realize two long awaited desires.  I am currently working and making around $1000 per month and can play with about $200-$300 every month.  Furthermore, I have access to my grandfather’s a large garage with pretty much every tool needed to do any automotive work.

Since I got my license several years ago, I have wanted to purchase a winter beater.  As I mentioned, I can’t spend more than a few hundred dollars and am therefore not picky about the make, model, year, color, etc (however I will note that I am a Honda fanboy).  All that I want is a vehicle that will be capable even during the worst northeast blizzards to save my daily driver from the obscene amounts of salt and sand that the DOT uses to cover our roads.  I don’t mind something requiring some relatively basic maintenance but nothing major.  I would prefer a car that is either very economical OR able to carry a vast amount of large cargo (ie: mopeds and small motorcycles).  I think we’ve all seen the Top Gear Challenge where the blokes buy cars for less than £100 but I can’t seem to find anything in the Boston/Seacoast of NH that is remotely close to this kind of money in fully usable condition.  I’m constantly trolling craigslist, local newspapers and side roads.  Where is the best place to look for solid and very inexpensive beaters and what should I expect in terms of price and condition?  I am fully aware that rust will be an issue where I live.

My second question is perhaps more difficult to answer.  I’ve read most of Mr. Baruth’s Trackday Diaries pieces and would like to get into competitive racing/track time in the near future.  I am a great proponent of training and licensing but don’t currently have the funds to drop g’s on Skip Barber track days.  I am not a “fan” of racing so I don’t know what types of events clubs like SCCA offer or the cost of entrance.  My daily driver is an 2008 Civic Si Sedan with 46k and stock Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season rubber.  I am open to using this car for some track time but I want to do all that I can to prevent catastrophic failures from occurring and minimize my risk.  I know that this car may not be the best for such duties but I can’t see how it could be the worst.  I want to properly learn track etiquette and safety procedures but am not sure what modifications, training and equipment I would need to be successful.  Are the barriers of entry simply too high for a broke college kid or is participation in the racing scene actually possible?  Thanks for any help you may provide.

Sajeev Answers:

Very well written letter!  Sometimes I feel like an English teacher, so giddy when someone writes such a well thought out query! So let’s do this thing.

Your first question is easy to answer: you covered almost all of the bases.  The only thing left is to go on the offensive, via posting want ads. Start on Craigslist with a want ad for a cheap car.  Find any corkboard for community postings in college, grocery stores, churches, community centers, etc and post a similar message.   Beggars can’t be choosers, but they also can’t wait around for the right whip to show up.  Make it happen, and write it just as well as this letter to me.

Question two:  there are weekend driving courses around the country, but I couldn’t google something relevant for you.  Fear not, I’m just an ignorant Texan, I am sure you can find a place where nearby tracks are rented for weekend driving schools, SCCA club events, Import tuner clubs, etc.  The easiest way to get in the action is to join something like the aforementioned SCCA. You know, to get in the network and start autocrossing.

And this is where Jay Lamm, Nick Pon, Judge Phil, Judge Jonny and countless friends I’ve made in the 24 Hours of LeMons proceed to burn me at the stake!  Or put a stupid hat on me and strap me to a Fairmont station wagon. Which is kinda the same thing.

It’s true!!!  My favorite way to go amateur racing is with LeMons.  Eventually.  You start by joining a team, and cutting the requisite check for the (laughing) honor. (/laughing) Then you get access to the car during test and tune track days, general wrenching, and so forth. While I do not recommend door-to-door racing for a complete greenhorn, you’ll get there soon enough. Your team will help you make that decision. Most importantly, this form of racing is so much cheaper than anything else out there.

And you’ll make many friends along the way to help you. Too bad most of ’em are completely nuts.  But it’s all good so do yourself a solid, join the LeMons Forum and get rolling. Enjoy the insanity.


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11 Comments on “Piston Slap: Honda Fanboi, Beater Enthusiast, Wannabe Racer?...”

  • avatar

    Can you haul a go-cart in your Civic? Probably twice fun and much less maintenance than track a car.

    Personally I’d enter to go watch the next local SCCA solo event. Ask for rides as the drivers don’t hauling an extra person on the first drive of the day.

  • avatar

    I second the solo and karting suggestions, both for solo and track racing. In your area, the New England Region of the SCCA puts on great solo events

    Karting is perfect given your motorcycle background. A little utility trailer to haul the kart and a hitch should work well on your civic. You can get into a cheap project kart and use your experience to bring it up to race-able condition. Get some cheap kart seat time at the solo event, then look into dedicated karting here:

    Being and engineering student, I can imagine you could build a decent computer on the cheap as well. Some may disagree, but I’ve been very happy with how much has helped keep my real driving sharp and learn real-world applicable car control techniques.

  • avatar

    I like to play bingo in my head with the Civics I see on the road. Free space is obviously the 4″, made in china special, coffee can exhaust. The other spaces are: shocker sticker, grenade sticker, aftermarket wing, slammed suspension, made in china rims, giant neon tow hook, bright neon lower control arms, ‘speed holes’ in the rear bumper, altezza (or extra dark tinted) lights front or rear, and of course the bro-dude and his strangely cocked hat in the driver seat.

    My advice: stay away from Autozone, keep the Civic classy.

    • 0 avatar

      “made in china rims”

      What, like a Corvette?

      You’re an engineer with access to an auto shop, get a deal by exploiting your knowledge and resources.

      The best source for cheap beaters is to find something in non-running condition that you know you can fix on the cheap that the owner doesn’t have the time, money, or knowledge to fight with.

      I got a clean Crown Vic for almost free one time. It was a 10-year old car that was in good shape but wouldn’t run. The owner assumed it was a serious, expensive problem. I diagnosed the problem as a bad ignition coil I paid scrap value for the car, put a coil on for like $100, drove it for two years, and then gave it to my brother.

      As an engineer who was in the same situation ~5 years ago, I’d honestly recommend that the OP sit tight on the dedicated track car or other forms of very ambitions or expensive racing for now. Solo your Civic, join a Lemons team, and start making plans and socking away money for the car you’ll start building once you’ve graduated and have all that sweet sweet engineering income to do with as you please.

  • avatar

    Regarding question #2

    New England Region SCCA is hosting it’s novice autocross school on June 3 at Moore Airfield at Devens (which is in the Ayer, MA area) Entries are limited (I think there are about 19 slots open right now)

    With regards to the OP’s worries about failure on his Civic Si, after 115,000 miles, I just experienced the first failure that I can attribute to autocrossing my Mazda3 – a failed wheel bearing. Or maybe not autocross related, maybe just wear and tear.

    In other words, don’t worry about it. You have to really screw up badly to hurt your car in Solo.

  • avatar

    I graduated from engineering schol in MA in ’08, and have been car-obsessed since well before that. Revel in the fact that you will make significantly more money after you graduate, and follow your track-day plans at that time. I didn’t buy my project car for almost a year after I graduated, so I had enough capital to start building right away.

    NHMS is a fantastic track. Utilize your proximity. I’ve run with BMWCCA there, and it’s very well run, open to all marques, and reasonably priced for the Northeast. Look into these. For your first track day, you only need an SA2005+ helmet, good brake fluid & pads, and tires that you plan to destroy. You’ll learn everything else as you go along. I recommend doing several track days to learn the etiquette before jumping into LeMons, which also runs at NHMS.

    As far as your beater, remember that the best deals will be on the least cool vehicles. Mid-90s GM sedans will be the most frugal choice, especially with their cheap and super available parts. Have any grandparents at nursing homes? Post wanted ads on their bulletin boards. Also, Celicas are like the forgotten cousin of Civics: they’re surprisingly fun, and much cheaper.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Winter Beater? LeSabre or Impala. Cheap and plentiful. Look for a 3800 equipped Impala for greater power and lower maintenance all LeSabres came with the 3800.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Out here in Baruth Country, I found an entire lot of retired Panther Cop cars on the south side of 5th Ave., east of I-71. I will try to get you a better location tomorrow. Don’t all thank me at once.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert Schwartz

      Crown Auto Sales
      1421 East 5th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43219

      There are a dozen Panther Cop cars on the lot as of about 2 hours ago.

      [Elwood Blues & Jake Blues have a fight over the police car Elwood Blues got after he traded away the original bluesmobile for a microphone]
      Elwood: You don’t like it?
      Jake: No I don’t like it…
      [Elwood Blues floors the pedal and jumps over an open drawbridge]
      Jake: Car’s got a lot of pickup.
      Elwood: It’s got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters, so it’ll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?
      [a brief thinking pause while Jake attempts to light a cigarette]
      Jake: Fix the cigarette lighter.

  • avatar

    I just got out of Broke College Kid Hell, and I can attest to the affordability of both autocross *and* LeMons. I was even able to squeeze in a trackday right before graduation–that took a little bit of extra money, but it wasn’t too expensive ($180 for the day, plus lunch was included). (Caveat: that was also in TX–no clue about the NE.) Autocross is a fun way to start. You don’t need to throw a lot of money into the car to begin with for autocross (or trackdays, for that matter) as long as it all passes tech. TBH, the stock floaty boaty broken “Failtima” I started autocrossing with made everything they were saying about weight transfer and such a lot easier to feel. Good luck and have fun!

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