January 1, 2009
From gutted shell to its on track debut, we had our '95 GT ready for action in NASA's Camaro-Mustang Challenge racing series in just 99 days.

Depending on your perspective, the gist of this article may sound like a fortune or a bargain. Even half of 10 grand is a lot of money, especially if you spend it all at once, but in the world of competitive road racing, it's barely a weekend's tire and gas bill. Still, keeping costs at a bare minimum has always been the primary goal of the National Auto Sport Association's Camaro-Mustang Challenge series, which is the main reason why I began racing in it back in 2003.

Bit by the bug to go wheel-to-wheel racing, but with no previous experience other than having attended a couple of track schools and a few open track days, I looked around for a class I could get my feet wet in. When I began building an '84 Mustang GT for the class, my initial goal was to run in CMC for a year or two and then step up to the faster and more expensive American Iron (AI) class. But after my rookie season, I lost that desire. For one thing, in CMC I seemed to be having as much fun as the AI guys were having, but for a lot less money. I was also spending a lot less time both at home and at the track working on my car than they were. So, after three full seasons racing the old Fox, I knew CMC was where I wanted to stay.

The only problem was that the car was getting tired and was battle-scarred from its campaigns, so I decided a new car would be better, faster, safer and stronger than the old one.

I bought the gutted chassis with a fully-welded rollcage, but no suspension, rearend, or wheels, from a fellow racer for $2,500 in April during a NASA race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. With the help of spares, eBay, Craigslist, and parts robbed from my old CMC Mustang, I was able to get the new chassis on wheels in an afternoon. By the way, that's not purple-it's Sapphire Blue!

Over the next several issues of MM&FF, we'll outline the process of building and racing a new road racer, as we examine the chassis, suspension, and drivetrain modifications needed to turn a typical Mustang GT into a competitive road racing machine-albeit on a budget that any do-it-yourselfer can accomplish on nights and weekends, without taking out a second mortgage. This month we'll lay out the project and get started prepping the chassis for assembly.

Bare Bones Brawler
From the start, I had a few key goals. First, it would be a ground-up build rather than a gradual transformation of a street car, which meant starting with a stripped shell and building it up rather than replacing one part at a time. This can be a daunting task for a first-time builder, and it's a big reason why so many half-built project cars end up on eBay and Craigslist. Working in my favor, I had already built a car, so I knew what worked, what didn't, what was worth the time and money, and what was a waste of both. You learn from your mistakes, and the second car is always better than the first, takes less time to build, and in this case, actually cost less to build because I skipped the things I knew wouldn't make it go faster. With any luck, it would also be more reliable and easier to maintain.

The goal of simplicity manifested itself in several ways. First, I wanted to keep as many stock parts as possible. The CMC rules place a premium on stock parts because they are typically the cheapest and easiest to get. Also, the more stock the cars are, the easier it is to police the competition and maintain a level playing field. With my old car, I went out of my way looking for trick parts to replace that were within the rules. But the longer I raced in CMC, the more I learned that was counterproductive. The non-stock parts were always the ones that gave me the most trouble and rarely made the car faster. So for the new build, I focused on keeping stock parts for ease of replacement, reliability, and low cost.

With the insulation removed, the next step was spraying the floorpan with light gray Rustoleum.

A second aspect of simplicity is stripping the car to its bare mechanical and electrical essentials. This has the dual effect of making the car cleaner and easier to troubleshoot and repair, as well as lighter. Another old racing adage says, "Watch the ounces and the pounds take care of themselves." Once the initial gutting of the interior and readily unbolted parts is done, the pounds don't come as easily, but little things add up, like removing the 11-pound ABS control module hanging from the core support and plumbing new brake lines, or scraping all the sound deadener from the passenger compartment.

To further simplify the project, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I'd get a head start by buying a car that had already been raced. Generally, I avoid used race cars, for the reason that so many of them are poorly built in the first place, not well maintained, or have too many things that need to be changed to make it worth the cost and effort. But this time, I found the perfect candidate: a mildly modified SN-95 Mustang that had been raced in the AI series and parted out. It already had a solid, legal rollcage and a NASA logbook (more on that later). The chassis was in excellent condition, still sporting its original paint and body panel VIN tags, so it had never been in a wreck, either on the street or the track. In answer to the question Buy or Build (see sidebar), it was the best of both worlds-I got a caged chassis for a bargain price but I'm still able to build it my way from the ground up.

When previously raced, the car had a fabricated aluminum dash in place of the stock dash, which CMC rules require be retained. I found a stock dash with blown airbags on Craigslist for $25 and gutted the frame hoping to get it fitted to the car without too much interference from the dash bar in the rollcage.

So here we go, starting this month and continuing through our entry into the 2009 NASA National Championships, we'll show what it takes to build a budget road racer from scratch. Next month we'll look at preparing the suspension and brakes, followed by the engine and drivetrain, testing and suspension setup, and finally, taking it to the National Championship race at Mid-Ohio.

Buy or Build?
It's an age-old question asked by anyone new to the sport of drag or road racing-should I buy or build my first race car? There's no right answer, but there is a strong case for both sides of the argument. In favor of buying are the ease of entry and cost savings. Buying a turnkey car can get you behind the wheel in a fraction of the time it takes to build a car and usually for a fraction of the cost. Used race cars often sell for pennies on the dollar compared to their initial build cost, so let the other guy take the depreciation hit. The downside of buying a used race car is the fear, which often becomes reality, of the unknown. No one wants someone else's cobbled together nightmare. How well was it built in the first place and equally important, how well was it maintained? How many hours or runs are on the engine, trans, and rear, and how was it treated? Is it even the engine that is "supposed" to be in the car? Another drawback to buying a used car, especially one that may not have been raced for a few years or is coming in from a different series, is bringing it into compliance with your current rules. It's not uncommon to hear horror stories of the "great deal" that turned sour once the new buyer started to take a closer look beneath the skin. The best advice you can follow, whether you buy or build, is to become intimately familiar with the rulebook for the series you intend to compete in and do some research before you buy. Knowing what is and isn't legal can save you a lot of money and headaches in the long run.

What is the Camaro-Mustang Challenge?One of the National Auto Sport Association's oldest classes, the Camaro-Mustang Challenge, began in Northern California in the mid-1990s as a stock-based series designed as an economical way to go road racing with mildly prepared street cars-just add a rollcage and harness, and go racing. The series originally featured Fox and SN95 Mustangs and Third Generation Camaros and Firebirds, hence its descriptive name. In the years since, the class has evolved to allow newer cars, including the LT-1-powered Fourth-Gen F-bodies, and more recently with the introduction of the CMC-2 class, Three- and Four-Valve Mustangs, and LS-1-powered F-bodies. Although the rules have evolved, the series remains committed to its philosophy of keeping costs low and the fun high. With limited suspension and performance modifications and rear-wheel power limits of 230 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, CMC puts a premium on driver skill, not wallet size or engineering prowess. The spec Toyo Proxes RA-1 racing tires combine with a generous contingency program from Toyo to also keep costs low and the field level. For more information on CMC or NASA racing in a region near you, check out www.camaromustangchallenge.com and www.nasaproracing.com.