The Good, Bad, Or Ugly: Tips And Tricks For Buying A Used Race Car

Buying a used race car can end with one of these results: “I got the perfect car,” or  “Well, it needs a little work,” or even “What the hell did I just buy?” What happens between the search and pulling the trigger on a second-hand drag car can be the deciding factor.

From fantastic deals to nightmares on wheels, the online opportunities to wheel and deal yourself into a new-to-you race car are at an all-time high. It’s easy to scroll online through countless used race cars to locate your next dream ride.

Let’s look at some suggested steps to successfully go from looking at an ad to bringing home your next race car.

Fundamentals

There are countless cars, chassis, suspension, engine, and component combinations within the overall sport of drag racing. Though a majority of this article focuses on inspecting a car before you buy, do your homework on the rulebook, chassis, and suspension options that best fit your desired future type of competition.

Our suggested inspection kit consists of: tape measure, flashlight, probe, mirror, camera, cheap calipers, advertisement printout, right angle square, and last but not least, an objective friend. Chassis builder Rick Jones adds that if a seller is not willing to raise the car and remove the tires for a thorough inspection, that is a big red flag.

We received some input from Curt Perry at Chassis Engineering and Rick Jones from RJ Race Cars/Quarter-Max Chassis Components to learn more about what you need to look for when you begin your search.

“If someone wants to compete at speeds that require a certified chassis, that should be at the top of their list,” Perry says. “If the chassis doesn’t have a current certification sticker, you should assume it will never certify until proven otherwise.”

The chassis tag isn’t where speed versus safety ends. Whether your desired car is intended for the 12- or 7-second e.t. zone, knowing your specific rules is very prudent. Just because the seller says they ran low nines at their local track, doesn’t mean the car is legal to run that fast.

My own search for a father, son, and grandson project had me shopping for a back-half chassis car with good bones. Though we did adhere to my fundamentals here, many lessons were also learned from this purchase.

“If the class you’re going to race, and the car you’re considering do not match, you may be spending more money than you expected,” Jones explains. “We have had many situations where a retired Pro Stocker was purchased to convert to Top Sportsman race car by a customer without a lot of research. Once they find out what it takes for a shop to convert the chassis just for an automatic, they’re going to be surprised.”

Ask A Thousand Questions

If you’re looking at a car based on a handful of small online images and a few paragraphs of description, the old adage “trust, but verify,” couldn’t have more meaning. As you begin searching advertisements, 99-percent of the images and descriptions do not even come close to fully offering the details you should know.

My Camaro purchase led me to chassis, wiring, and suspension revisions that were not expected. I knew I was purchasing an "old school" Camaro, but hidden details that I should have caught such as caulking instead of welds around the framerails may have influenced my purchase.

There are many honest sellers out there; hopefully, more often than not. So, following the steps of “first contact” can go a long way in having a seller work with you. My own experience with what I thought I was buying and what I ended up with motivated this topic.

Your initial calls to the seller are paramount to fill in blanks with the basic description. Be upfront that you just want to learn more about the car, and you will probably be asking many more detailed questions if your interest grows. A seller should appreciate that and happily be more forthcoming if you call again.

Don't laugh at the mirror at our inspection kit. Shown are the welds between the top side of a roll cage and roof of a certified chassis (note tag) that got by one buyer. This necessitated an entire cage re-fabrication in his "new" car.

Don’t Inspect And Buy On The Same Day

Even with travel expenses and time required, I never suggest beginning the purchase process with a trailer in tow. First thoughts may have you thinking it is wasteful, but using a small car with good mileage or even investing in a plane ticket to look over a car is prudent compared to an expensive mistake.

Things have changed a lot with rules in the past 20 years. If you’re buying an uncertified car, have an inspector certify the chassis before you buy it…it’s going to require certification anyway. – Curt Perry

In our case, this is where my own biggest mistake started with our Camaro. The car was a nine-hour drive away. A very long story short, we looked over the car, and despite a couple of small issues, we loaded it up. Had I listened to my own 20/20 hindsight and driven home the first time without the car in tow, the opportunity to reevaluate would have probably had me continue looking.

Many times over the years, I have heard of someone describe “meeting halfway” to buy a race car. And then, the story continues that the parking lot was dark, it was late, and the seller wanted to get on the road, etc., etc. “and I love the car I bought,” said no one ever.

Rick Jones advises analyzing what kind of modifications match the car to your drivetrain. Converting a car from a Lenco to an automatic requires a new transmission mount, driveshaft tunnel, change the pedals around, mid-plate, and new shifter mount. These updates can add up.

The inspection Process

As you’re pulling into the seller’s driveway, repeat to yourself, “don’t fall in love,” three times. You’re going to walk up and begin looking at the car of your current dreams so remain objective.

Go over the body and chassis from front to back. Then start back at the front again and look at the suspension, then the electrical system, the fuel system, and so on. Had we followed this advice, we would have caught a cobble of wiring that actually included solid copper house wiring in places. We never figured out what the doorbell button was used for under the dash!

Both Perry and Jones offer their shops to give a professional assessment of a car you’re thinking about buying. Both professionals cite a reasonable rate to spend a couple of hours for a thorough inspection of the car. Though it is not free, it may be a sound investment, especially when you are considering a big-ticket race car.

“A gentleman brought a car to us for inspection after purchasing it in a Walmart parking lot,” Perry told us. “It presented very well as a good-looking tube chassis car, but just a few minutes into eyeing it over, I noticed that various bars didn’t match from side-to-side. Once we started measuring, we showed the buyer that the car was built totally out of square. He was heartbroken.”

Details like hood scoop relocation, adapting transmissions, and simply compensating for a driver’s size can add up to expensive updates. One common mistake I have seen is buying a car with 40-spline axles, yet the center section you have at home has a 35-spline spool. Small stuff can cost big. – Rick Jones

Inspection of the body shell can identify cracks in metal or body seams which might result from chassis flex. At a minimum, it might indicate a weak chassis.

Chassis cracking, especially in chromoly tubing, is one of the most difficult problems to identify. Chassis paint or powder-coating can hide these problems. If you think our suggested magnifying glass is hokey, wait until cracks become severed tubes. If close inspection shows some possible cracks, ask to use a floor jack to lift the chassis from different points to see if the suspected cracks change or move.

Carefully going over suspension components from stock, to ladder bar, to 4-link can provide indicators ranging from proper maintenance to bad situations. "Look very closely at every rod end, shock/strut spherical rod end, and steering joint," Perry says. "It's not hard to locate signs of excessive wear if you look very closely and move them around with a strong grip."

One point that both Perry and Jones brought up is the rule of symmetry. If you find a worn rod end, brake pads, or any other component on the car that is not worn the same from side to side, it is worthwhile to find the underlying cause.

Among your recommended inspection tools, take a quality digital or cell phone camera with you. Take a wealth of images from various angles, especially if you question anything. It’s easy to ask friends or experts their opinions if you have images to review.

Ask for photos and video of the car launching/making passes. Pictures are worth a thousand words -- videos are even more valuable to see how the car works overall.

Pedigree

If your prospective car was constructed by a known race car shop that can eliminate some of the mystery. If the car contains a chassis tag with a serial number, most shops will be happy to tell you who originally ordered the car. That can help when researching the car’s history.

Paperwork can be everything. When you look over the car, have the original ad with you. Make sure the ad is consistent during conversations with the seller. If you want to be a good seller, a three-ring binder containing all instruction manuals, documentation, and logbooks lend tremendous credibility to a car.

Chassis builders typically build their cars with a reasonable amount of repeatability, so talking to racers who have raced a similar race car can help. The pedigree of various components used can also be an indicator of overall quality. Owners who tend to use quality components desire their cars to be first-class.

Every car I have personally built has a three-ring binder containing all instruction manuals, adjustable settings logged, and any other documentation. That archive adds significant value to the car when it goes up for sale.

Investing in a good chassis tuning book can be a big plus before you shop. Familiarize yourself with chassis settings and components that should match your prospective car. This will give you a sharper eye when looking over a car.

Discrepancies

From the first ad to final inspection, look for any discrepancies. Print out the sale ad, any e-mails, and take notes. One of the most obvious red flags is to identify points where the seller’s description may vary along the way.

Finishing Points

If the car is turn-key, that opens an entirely new effort when researching the engine, transmission, and associated systems. Needless to say, your inspection toolbox grows even more significantly and is the source for an additional article.

Professionally-built race cars can carry a higher used value. If you want to race in the faster classes and you're looking at a chassis with expired or no certification, stop. Horror stories related to "oh, it will pass," are common.

“Our shop has checked out cars that were exactly what the buyer expected and some that were a nightmare,” Perry finishes. “Nearly every car looked fine on the outside. Those who received the thumbs-up from us left happy with the peace of mind that their new car is sound.”

Whether it be a bracketeer or an extreme doorslammer, make sure the driver and the prospective car are a match. If there are going to be updates required, be positive that seats, pedals, and steering can be relocated without major (expensive) modifications.

Not everyone is out to sell a bad race car unscrupulously. I don’t think the seller of my own hot rod knew about any of the rough points in our new Camaro. Who knows which previous owner, many years ago, caulked the trunk floor weld points and applied copious amounts of trunk splatter paint.

Many cars are passed along from owner to owner, and a little fudging in workmanship or aged components can slowly add up. It’s up to you to know exactly what you’re looking at and make the decision if you want to make the car right before you hit the track.

Article Sources

About the author

Todd Silvey

Todd has been a hardcore drag racing journalist since 1987. He is constantly on both sides of the guardwall from racing photography and editorship to drag racing cars of every shape and class.
Read My Articles

Drag Racing in your Inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Dragzine, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Dragzine NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

We'll send you the most interesting Dragzine articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

Dragzine NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Hot Rods & Muscle Cars

Diesel Army

Engine Tech

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Hot Rods & Muscle Cars
  • Diesel Army
  • Engine Tech

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Dragzine - Drag Racing Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading