Being in the midst of building a street car that can go to the track and pass tech inspection, I am struck by the contrast of what this process was like when I last did it 20+ years ago, and what it was like 20 years before that. First a few obvious contrasts, so that you know this is not just another luddite diatribe about how much better things were back then…
Racing is safer today. Despite having fewer tracks today, there are probably many more track miles driven per year, and with far fewer injuries and deaths per mile driven. Cars are better today. Even in the arena of vintage racing where my interest lies, we are running better tires, better brakes, and better lubricants than the original cars ever did. Tracks are better today. I ran the new Watkins Glen, and the new Lime Rock Park in recent years, and the historic sharp edges of those tracks have been removed. It is very hard to run into a stand of trees these days, or hit Armco barriers that have no energy absorption. The new tracks such as Thunderbolt in NJ are designed so that Indy cars are safe, much less your 1969 BMW 1600. That is not to say that vintage racing is completely sanitized. There are accidents every season, and there was an unfortunate fatality at Lime Rock in the last 2 years. Things are better on all fronts, but this remains a sport with risks.
In order to participate in this safer arena for a few weekends per year, the current project car has to have some significant modifications. It must have a roll cage of specified thickness, which rises above head height, and which has an inspection port so that the thickness can be validated at tech inspection. It must have a cutoff switch and a fire extinguisher. It must have no leaks of any kind, a multi-point safety harness, and must have catchment bottles, etc, etc. In order to be competitive at the sharp end of the field, the car would have to be made virtually unusable as a street car.
There was a time, in the heyday of sports car racing, when you could drive your street car to the track, and race it after doing little more than placing a taped “X” over the headlights. Certainly a low barrier to entry, and the sport grew tremendously. The SCCA general competition rule (GCR) book for 2017 is 986 pages, up from 963 pages in 2016, and it is updated monthly! In 1985 it was 786 pages. Thankfully, vintage is only 542 pages today, up from 533 in 2012, but this covers machines which were last produced 40 years ago! Time marches on, and the SCCA is just one of many organizations that are in a constant battle to close loopholes, and improve safety, while not killing the racing. Not an enviable balance to strike at all.
The perception that even the most basic form of amateur racing is expensive and complicated may not be entirely true, but a 1000 page rule book, and a paddock full of trailers doesn’t help dispel that perception. In a litigious society, it is probably a pipe dream to expect cheap, easy, and legal competition, but it sure would be nice to have an option of driving to the track with just a roll of electrical tape, a helmet, and a 1 page disclaimer….