Working on your own car is a great way to save a little money. Racing your own car is a great way to spend a LOT of money. We’ve all seen stories about people who’ve spent crazy amounts of money to get the right look or shave precious tenths off their times. Here’s a story about a guy who’s doing what many of us thought was impossible. He’s racing on a shoestring budget.
The man behind the Light Speed Rally Team out of Marysville, Tennessee, USA. He’s a self-employed mechanic running “The Auto Shop,” a small automotive business built on word-of-mouth marketing in the local community. I spent some time on the phone with Gage and it was clear to me that his is exactly the kind of story we want to share with you.
What does it really take to go racing? Built engines, giant turbos, and stand-alone engine management? Or tenacity, commitment, and busted knuckles? It’s been said, “The best way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a large fortune.” How fast can you afford to go? Probably a lot faster than you thought.
FATE AND BUG BITES
Like most gearheads who attend a stage rally, Gage returned home from the 100 Acre Wood (100AW) Rally in Salem, Missouri, with a burning desire to rally. What sets him apart from the vast majority of us is he immediately got to work. A long term DSMer, he sourced a 1996 Eagle Talon TSi (front-wheel drive, turbocharged sister to the Mitsubishi Eclipse GST of the same vintage).
The “buy vs. build debate” in the rally community is simple: buying your first rally car generally gets you racing faster for less money, but it means you might not be racing the car you dreamed about racing. Building a rally car from scratch is incredibly expensive – few forms of grassroots motorsport have more stringent safety requirements. This means a great deal of money is spent just on getting the car legal – nevermind making it fast.
Back to Gage’s 96 TSi. He decided, as so many of us do, if he’s going racing, he’s going racing in the car he dreamed about. The Talon he picked up was a beaten-down shell, literally destined for the scrap heap. Engine in the trunk, transmission in the passenger seat, the bulk of the front end stripped away by mechanical vultures – Gage picked up this tired heap of sloth and regret for US$500 and had it delivered 120 miles (190km) from Kingsport, Tennessee, within a month of attending 100AW. He had the bug pretty bad and, in a novel bit of irony, he later learned this Talon had actually come from a small town less than a mile from where 100AW takes place. Can you say “Meant to be?”
The Talon started life as an automatic, but Gage swapped in a 5-speed manual gearbox. His original intention was to run Rally America events, but since they do not allow rookies to drive turbocharged vehicles, he left out the forced induction bits and replaced all the wiring with a harness from a 2.4L Eclipse Spyder (which was naturally aspirated). Shortly thereafter, Mark Bowers, a National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Rally Sport (NRS) technical scrutineer – one of the guys who inspects cars to ensure they comply with the rules, basically – opened Gage’s eyes. NRS allows novice drivers to run turbocharged cars. He never looked back.
Gage snagged a naturally aspirated 4G63 out of a ’94 Eclipse GS automatic at the local salvage yard. It had bent valves and the bottom end was locked up from rain getting into the combustion chambers, but Gage went through it from top to bottom, giving it a complete – stock – non-turbo rebuild. All in all, he’s got about US$600 into the engine, including the $100 he spent for the engine in the first place.
What’s more, just about everything else on the car is stuff Gage has picked up at the salvage yards. He does run upgraded suspension – KYB AGX – and he’s bought various new electronics, but even the HRC 20G turbo shoveling boost down the NA motor’s throat these days was purchased used and rebuilt with a little help from Gage’s friends at Turbo Lab. As Gage puts it, “It’s hodge-podge, but a very well put together hodge-podge, and extremely reliable. We beat the shit out of it at Rally West Virginia and it just kept taking it.”
OPPORTUNITY COMES KNOCKIN’
Recently, Gage came across a smokin’ deal on a PGT car – a 1994 Dodge Shadow. What makes this car special is that it’s a factory PGT car, meaning it has zero road miles on it. It rolled off the assembly line, went straight to the not-yet-SRT group, where it was immediately prepared for rally racing by Dodge factory engineers; probably some of the same guys who would later give us the firecracker “Skittles” also known as SRT-4s, which Dodge would end up rallying too.
Although the Shadow might seem almost forgotten (this author actually got his driver’s license in one back in 1995), it was available with a fairly robust Mitsubishi powertrain under it, which is one of the main reasons why Gage laughingly says he would ever consider racing it. It had belonged to another NASA Rally Sport guy – John Shirley – who coordinates the entire NRS Championship these days, and had been sitting in a warehouse since 2003. Needless to say, the Shadow needs some love and updating to be stage-ready, but already has 10 years of rally racing under its belts and proven itself many times over.
“I really had to think about this one,” says Gage. “I remember back in late 2010, watching Rally America videos on YouTube. At the time, I had a 1990 Galant GSX that we’d put through its paces for fun on our ‘secret testing grounds’ here in the Great Smokey Mountains, so I knew I could drive on gravel. I remember thinking, ‘Damn. Rally just looks awesome!’ So we rented a car and took off to Salem, Missouri, in 2011 to spectate at the 100 Acre Wood Rally.”
“Just watching the cars come through wasn’t enough for me. As son as we got back to Tennessee, I was on the hunt for a shell to start building into my own rally car, and the rest is history. There is nothing in this world I would rather do. It’s just a feeling you can’t explain; when you build something from scratch for a whole year and are able to take it to some of the guys with $50-$60,000 race cars and your car that you’ve put so much love into stays together and finished 160 grueling stage miles flat out as hard as you can push it. That’s ‘why rally.’ It’s the most intense thing I have ever experienced. It’s addicting.”
LONGEVITY, ABUSE, PERFORMANCE, & SAVING MONEY
One of the most critical things to consider in building a rally car is longevity; it’s got to be tough and hold up to extreme abuse. There seems to be a trend to invest in expensive aftermarket equipment, yet Gage prefers used and junkyard parts. I asked him how he approaches vehicle prep and what he thinks a grassroots rally car should cost (including the cost of the car).
“I build everything with used parts – but not garbage – and I make sure I double up on all parts that could fail. I carry two of everything when I go to rallies. You have to have an eye for good ball joints and such. And never scrimp on drive train and suspension components. It doesn’t have to be DMS gravel dampners; just good, new, high performance struts and a spring rate that suits the car.”
“The engine dosent have to be a 500hp beast, either. The most power you can realistically use in FWD rally is about 250hp to the wheels. A grassroots car – counting buying the car – should cost no more than US$7-10,000. That’s turn-key with spares. It took me almost two years to build my car – mostly because I’m on an extreme budget – but if you had the cash laying around, you could probably build one in six months. It just depends on your cashflow.”
COMPARED TO OTHER BUILDS
How long did it take Gage to get the Talon from scrap heap reject to stage mile racer and how does he think that timeline compares to those of other builds? I wanted to know if he thought his build was faster or slower than most and why. “As far as build time goes, I have at least 1500 labor hours building the car; not counting numerous junk yard trips, etc.. My build was 100% my doing, so it took a little longer than, say, Vermont Sports Car that can probably build a car in a week.”
“I missed Sandblast 2011, 100AW 2011, Rally WV 2011, and BRS 2011, but I spectated and/or volunteered for all of them (save BRS). All those events, I was tryin’ to get to and race, and it got to a point where I really considered giving up. I never thought I would actually be on stage competing. It’s a tough racket man, but if you press on and follow through, it pays off in a way you just can’t explain. It’s truly worth eating bologna sandwiches for a year straight.”
EXPLAIN IT ANYWAY
I think we all know what Gage means, here, but at the risk of getting all emotional, I pressed him to tell us a little bit more. “What does that feel like, and how does it impact your overall motorsport progress?” Gage delivers. “It pays off as in the rush you get when you’re doing 90+ mph (145+ kph), white nuckle, just zoned in on driving the car. No music. No other drivers. No BS. Just you, your rig, and how much balls you have to stick it to the landscape. You kind of forget your outside world problems the whole weekend. It’s nice.”
IN THE END, THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE
When we spoke on the phone, Gage mentioned a dilemma he’s facing: sell the Talon and race the Duster (aka: Shadow), or fix up and sell the it to race the Talon. Gage got a smokin’ deal on the Shadow – US$500. All it needs is some cage updates he can do himself, seats, belts, and it’s ready to decimate all – no overnight parts from Japan necessary.
With a Mitsubishi 6G72 under the hood (same engine found in the 3000GT VR4 and Dodge Stealth R/T), this little car is no slouch and it’s proven itself in almost 30 rallies with the previous owner, so he knows it’s tried and true, but how hard is it to sell the Talon, a car which only exists today because Gage poured his heart and soul into it? “It’s like your first-born child, or first car. It’s just hard. On the other hand, I think can go faster in the El Cheapo Shadow because I’m not worried about wrapping it around a tree. And I estimate I can have it stage ready for less than a grand (US$1000).”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LIGHT SPEED RALLY TEAM?
Gage pulls no punches. He’s engaged in an all-out charge for the points championship in 2012, with Steve Kurey as his co-driver. As you read this, they’re gearing up to run the Chase the Dragon Hill Climb the weekend of September 29-30, 2012, but they are also ready to launch an attack on Open 2WD Heavy (their class) in 2013 in the Shadow – or bend it trying.
You can keep up with Gage by liking the Light Speed Rally Team page on Facebook , Specialstage.com and rallyanarchy.com. Gage would like to thank John VanLandingham (JVAB), Mark Bowers (NASA), John Shirley (NASA), Anders Green (NASA), and his dad for helping along the way, and would like to tell everybody that’s told him this is all a stupid waste of time and money to fuck right off.
- Just how much money should we be spending to build race cars these days?
- What percentage of parts on your car are junkyard/used?