Magazine project cars follow a certain protocol. An enthusiastic editor or contributor thinks of a car they've always lusted after, one that if it were in perfect shape would be well beyond their means. You've probably had the same daydream. The difference is that once project car fever has struck, said editor relentlessly cajoles everyone at the magazine into believing what a great project this newfound obsession will be. An often dilapidated example of the vehicle in question is then found and dragged home. Over the ensuing months it undergoes a metamorphosis into a gleaming show car worthy of the pages of an august magazine such as this one.
We are about to turn the entire process upside down with Project Race-ready Golf.
Turning Over a New Leaf
I have been racing vintage cars for more than 20 years. Some of them were quick, but most were desperately slow. When I started, vintage racing was all about car people getting together to have a good time with old sports cars. Nobody cared much about who went fast and who didn't. The point was to show off something unusual, or even something plain, and have fun. We could race our old cars safely, because their limited technology meant they weren't all that fast. Today, the sport has evolved and speeds have increased dramatically, forcing out many of the period-correct but uncompetitive old racers. The grids are filled with fully race-prepared and ultra-competitive machines that just happen to look like old race cars. One day it occurred to me that if vintage events had become real racing, wouldn't it be easier and safer to race a modern car?
What to Race?
Having decided that I wanted to go racing, what would I race? Although open-wheel racers have a certain sexy appeal, they also have a hefty pricetag to go with the glamorous image. Clearly, I wouldn't be looking for a seat in a formula car. Next I looked at production-based racing. Competing in any of the professional racing series in the U.S. would also be far too costly for me to contemplate. I wouldn't be turning pro. I wanted to do this as a hobby and on a limited budget, not as a full-time career. Instead of looking from the top down, I needed to look from the bottom up. The most cost-effective way to go road racing in this country is Improved Touring. The class is comprised of sedans, coupes and sports cars of the '70s, '80s and '90s, prepared with modern safety equipment and suspension upgrades but allowing few engine modifications. Improved touring cars are as loud as real racing cars, handle well, are popular and can be built and campaigned without robbing a bank. Best of all, some of the most popular cars in Improved Touring are models from Europe that are near and dear to the hearts of the readers of our magazine.
The Search is On
At first, the plan seemed simple. I would buy an old, tired BMW, Saab, Volvo or VW for next to nothing, spend a little money and time building an Improved Touring race car, and campaign it while writing about it to the edification of you, the reader. Back-of-the-envelope calculations (see "Building an Improved Touring Race" on pg 84) gave me a rough estimated budget of $8,000 to build a car. A quick check of Improved Touring race cars for sale on the Internet showed that a fully built and competitive car could be had for under $5,000. This was intriguing. I could buy a ready-built and proven racer for less than I could build one. Much less.
It seemed to fly in the face of project-car philosophy, but I decided to pursue the idea further. The Internet now became my best friend. Every day I scoured the classified ads, concentrating on those from racing clubs and organizations all over the country. I wanted to find a well-prepared and proven car, preferably one that already had all of the special go-faster parts in the package. And I wanted to spend less than $5,000. I was astounded by how many cars I had to choose from:
• 1976 BMW 2002, fully race prepared from North Carolina with an extensive racing history in Florida: $4,200
• 1992 VW Corrado VR6 complete with bolt-in roll cage and extra sets of wheels: $5,000
• 1984 VW Rabbit GTI with several pole positions: $3,500
• 1984 Porsche 944 with rollcage and suspension work: $5,000
• 1986 championship-winning VW Golf GTI, with spare parts: $4,600
• 1980 championship-winning VW Rabbit for $4,200
• 1974 Saab 99 EMS race car: $1,500
• Several well-prepared and proven VW GTI models from the 1980s, all in the $4,000 range.
Clearly, finding a race car wasn't going to be a problem. The Corrado was high on my list, with its powerful VR6 engine and excellent handling. But Editor Bidrawn had already staked his claim on a Corrado project, and having two such obscure VWs as magazine project cars at the same time made no editorial sense. Scratch the Corrado. The same was true for the Porsche, as we already had a 944 Turbo project in house.
Suddenly, this was getting more difficult. I liked the idea of a BMW, either the early 2002, or perhaps a later 3 Series. It would also have the advantage of being eligible to run in BMW car club events, giving me more opportunities to race. The BMW would be fun, and its rear-wheel-drive chassis made an excellent basis for a race car. But its Achilles' heel as a budget race car would be the price of BMW parts. In the rough and tumble world of Improved Touring racing, cars occasionally bump one another. Buying a junkyard fender for a 3 Series BMW, for example, would easily set me back several hundred dollars. Yet I could buy a whole second-gen (A2) Golf for that much and get the extra spare parts as a bonus. The more I looked at it, the VW Golf became the obvious choice and one that would also please a legion of A2-owning readers.
The Race Car of My Dreams
It came down to three cars. One was in my neighborhood, one was 3 hours away, and one was about 8 hours from my home. I took the easy way out and bought Craig Markusic's 1985 VW GTI, less than 20 minutes from my house. Number 94 had been built by Markusic in 1993 and raced almost continuously since then. Markusic had set the fastest Improved Touring B race lap at Mid-Ohio with the car, but he'd also rolled it in a race the previous season.
He had just finished putting it back together, grafting on a new roof, rebuilding the cylinder head and transmission, upgrading the suspension to Koni shocks and Carrera and Eibach springs, and adding NASCAR-style side-impact protection on the driver's side. The car had all of the good bits, including a deep oil pan with windage tray, oil cooler, header and race exhaust, four-puck racing clutch and limited-slip differential with a 4.3:1 final drive ratio. Its seatbelts and window net were new; and it came with three spare sets of wheels, including one mounted with new Toyo rain tires. In short, it was ready to go racing. We haggled a bit on price, but as Markusic was already planning to build a Honda as his next race car, he was a motivated seller--and I got the car well within my budget.
How is This a Project Car?
By now you must be asking, if the car is ready to go racing, how is it a project? Anybody who has ever built a race car will tell you that the process is neverending. There is always something that can be modified, changed or upgraded in the search for faster lap times and better reliability. Think of Project Race-Ready Golf as a starting point, one that together we can use to explore and compare things like tire choices, alternate suspension systems and other high-performance bits and pieces that fit onto an A2 Golf.
I want to make another set of comparisons. For most enthusiasts, amateur racing in the U.S. falls under the control of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). But this isn't the only game in town, and clubs like the Midwest Council of Sports Car Clubs (MC) and the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) exist to provide alternatives to the SCCA way. My plan is to run races with each of these organizing bodies and report back to you what they're like. Project Race-ready Golf is a different kind of magazine project car. In many ways, it will be less about nuts and bolts and more about the process of going racing. If the project is successful, some of you will be bitten by the racing bug, finding a way to join me on the track. I don't expect everything to go smoothly, but together we can learn from my experiences, both good and bad.
|Building an Improved Touring Racer|
(Based upon prices for A2 Golf Parts)
|Tired old donor car||$500|
|Seatbelts and window net||$150|
|Paint and bodywork||$800|
|Rebuild engine bottom end||$600|
|IT cylinder head||$450|
|Shift linkage rebuild||$50|
|Oil pan (deeper and windage tray)||$200|
|Four-puck racing clutch disc||$175|
|Wheels (two sets @ $50/wheel)||$400|
|New brakes and wheel bearings||$400|
|Wheel studs ($25/wheel)||$100|
|Race shock absorbers and springs||$1,200|
|Rear anti-roll bar||$200|
|(Not including driver's gear, nuts and bolts, duct tape, cable ties, oil, brake fluid, odds and ends.)|