The Best Parts of Amateur Racing Are the People, Not the Cars –

First off, it’s the world’s funkiest BMW Bavaria. And it’s not really a Bavaria, it’s a 2500. Same shell as the Bavaria, but not a Bavaria. Smaller engine, less interior fancy, lower value. People who own Bavarias sneer at people who own 2500s. (Or maybe they just sneer at me, because my car’s interior smells like old toes and looks like it was lived in by a herd of elephants.)

Sam Smith

God, I hate car pedants.

Then you are almost certainly on the wrong website.

So you and your friends, eh? Are they also huge nerds?

They are all cooler than me. This is not saying much. I write for a car magazine and (as we’ve established), am not even the commercial before the trailer that comes before anything important. The chief nutball in the running of the 2002 is my friend Ben Thongsai, a fabricator and BMW technician out of Chicago. He works with my friend Carl Nelson, who runs a shop in San Diego and is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on vintage BMWs. We also lean heavily on Carl’s son, Owen, an engineering and geology student at U.C. Berkeley. And a few other important characters to whom I should probably give shout-outs. (Hi, Andy! David! Dennis! Jonathan!) I’d tell you more about them, but that’d take space we don’t have.

Oh, yes, because that’s what these Week With a Car Q&A things are about. Efficient use of space.

Har har har. You’re funny. Go fall in a hole. You know what I mean.

Carl and Ben like to find problems and engineer clever solutions. Owen likes to turn wrenches. I test the car, race it, don’t hurt it, and give feedback. Plus, I’ve been drinking beer with some of these guys for years, and we’re all friends. The only thing they ask of me is that I not touch anything important. (Despite the fact that I once worked as a professional mechanic, I am the world’s slowest wrench. I build relatively nice things and don’t make mistakes, but empires rise and fall in the time it takes me to adjust a set of valves.)

Wait. You didn’t answer that question about how San Diego Dude loaned you the car. Don’t you live in Seattle? And why the hell would a guy just loan you a race car? Is this ransom? Do you have compromising pictures of him or something?

I should ask Mark. Mark is an agricultural engineer who makes his living designing equipment for aquatic research. (Industrial-strength fish tanks! This is way cooler than it sounds.) He’s also the world’s most good-natured human. If I had compromising pictures of him, they would probably just feature Zebrafish husbandry and maybe also a carp that got drunk on scotch. Mark just loves fish and race cars and scotch. I don’t think he’s ever done anything ransom-worthy in his life.

Sam Smith

So he’s just being a nice guy.

Impossibly so. Mark purchased the 2002 several years ago, ran it in VARA for a few seasons, and then decided to focus on rebuilding his 1960s Elva Mark 7 sports racer. The Mark 7 is a small, fiberglass-bodied, tube-frame snot-rocket. It looks a lot like a Lotus 23, which means it looks a lot like a roofing shingle with a mid-mounted engine and blood in its teeth. The Elva wears skinny, treaded Dunlop race tires and is generally a billion leagues quicker than a 2002.

Predictably, once Mark focused on the Elva, the 2002 started to sit. You can’t drive two cars at once, and Mark is a self-backed amateur. He preps his own cars, then tows them to the track and supports them there. A lot of people do this in club racing, especially in vintage. The advantage is in getting to know your own machinery; in Mark’s case, the only downside was that he couldn’t effectively drive two cars and be responsible for their prep in a single race weekend.

So he loaned the 2002 to Ben, Carl, and me. All he asked was that we try to make it faster.

Why? It’s vintage racing.

As a thank-you? Also, he knew we’d do it anyway. Ben is the kind of guy who could go on vacation in some tropical paradise and still spend every waking moment thinking about camber curves and roll centers. Carl has two science doctorates. Owen is roughly three hundred times smarter than I am and about twice as agreeable as everyone else. Plus, a decade and a half writing about and testing new cars has given me a fine distaste for ill-handling anything. So they ask me what I want, what works and what doesn’t, and then they make parts to chase it.

There has been a lot of chasing it. The last nine months have been a flurry of test days, fabrication, and more test days. We’ve stuck to the rules religiously and also focused on suspension development, because that’s where we figured the car had the most to gain. (The engine was a known commodity; the M10 four-cylinder in the 2002 is more than five decades old in basic design. It makes just over 200 hp and spins to 8000 rpm.)

The process has been fun but also an interesting education—a long examination of subjects like handling balance, bump steer, roll center, and tire qualities in a car that has nothing like perfect suspension geometry or a particularly rigid tub. And while the car’s development is only about half done, it’s starting to pay results: In late March, at Willow Springs, we finished second overall in a field of 28 similar cars—Datsun 510s, Alfa Romeo GTVs, and other 2002s. A month before that, in Pahrump, Nevada, I won two races in one weekend.

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Sam Smith

You’ve done this before?

I’ve been road racing, as an amateur, in one form or another since 2003. Most of that was club racing, with sanctioning bodies like NASA, the SCCA, and AER. A tiny percentage of it has been in vintage, where the cars move around more and make artsy noise. Vintage is generally a bit more laid-back than regular club racing, but it also has the cachet of virtually nonexistent stakes. There is no national championship, there are no sponsor dollars, and everyone’s just there to have fun.

Sounds neat.

It is! Come out and watch, see if you like it. (Watching is usually free, or a nominal entrance fee. At Willow, I think it was ten bucks per person.) If you see a car you like, ask the owner about it. People like talking about their cars. VARA’s a friendly bunch.

You know, you’ve talked a lot about the people and very little about the car.

Ding ding ding! This is why I do it. As the editor of this website often says, cars are neat (He’s right, I say this frequently – TO). But unless you’re chasing the ladder and an F1 seat (and good luck with that), the people are the real reason to go amateur racing.

The racing is fun, of course. But I’ve raced a lot of cars and had a lot of fun in a lot of race cars. Fun can be had almost anywhere you take a flag. The people are the real commodity, and vintage is just one way to find them. Friends that you pick up while working toward a common goal end up being friends that you hang onto. Which means Mark, Ben, Carl, and Owen, but also Jack and Charley Baruth, with whom I share an MX-5 Cup car, in American Endurance Racing. Or my buddy Drew Doukas, out of Louisville, who is both a cheery malcontent and a weapon in a Spec Miata. Or or or. The list is long.

Maybe I should go amateur racing. Or into vintage, specifically.

Maybe you should! It’s not cheap—you could get more seat time and flag time per dollar in Spec Miata, late-model oval racing, or a few other series. But the cars and people can’t be beat. And there’s never been a better time to do it. American vintage racing dates to the late 1970s, and a lot of the drivers who started in that period are aging out of competition. Which means there are a lot of old race cars available for cheaper than it would cost to build them from scratch.

Sam Smith

Reminds me: What’s that 2002 like to drive?

You’re in luck! I once wrote a whole story about a similar machine! Oh, the coincidence! Who knew Sam had ever done anything with a BMW 2002, you guys?

You know, if this weren’t so interesting, I’d almost call you annoying. But it’s interesting. Is this 2002 any different from that one?

Little more grip, little more motor, a lot less history, but the same slidey-goofy fun. The car doesn’t have a speedometer, but quick math says it tops out at Willow Springs—generally the fastest track on the VARA schedule—at around 130 mph. This with a relatively short differential and a 1:1 (i.e., direct, no overdrive) fifth gear.

Behind the wheel, you spend most of your time trying to make an old car that wants to go all-the-time sideways . . . not go sideways. Because sideways is slow, albeit less slow in old cars (which are often a bundle of engineering compromises) than new ones (which are usually not).

And, you know, you still go sideways a lot. Because it’s an old car. Old cars live and breathe to go sideways.

For the record: Old cars are pretty great.

sam smith

That reminds me: Why did you write about this, this week? There wasn’t a new test car available, or something?

Well, I just got back from the Willow Springs race. That was fun, and it was on my mind. But I mostly just wanted to proselytize a bit about both vintage racing and VARA B-sedan. And the notion that the cars aren’t exactly the main reason for going racing.

Everyone thinks it’s about neat cars, driving, and competition. That’s great. It is, to a large part. But I’ve done a lot of great racing with people I don’t necessarily love. Or even just people I don’t like. That wick always burns down, and you get tired, and you move on to something else—another race series, another hobby, whatever. If you chase the people, the wick gets longer, and you end up having a hell of a lot more fun.

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