Getting Started in PRO Rally - The Real Cost, Part I (vehicle costs)

Written by Ken Beard, the 1999 Safety Steward of the Northeast Division of the SCCA, sometime around 1999

This series on "The Cost of PRO Rally" started with a couple postings to the Rally Mail List. The first questioned how cheaply a rally car could be built - and that was the genesis for this response - Part I. The second posting commented on the "high" entry fees for events. That caused me to generate my second response - Part II.

The getting started cost for this sport depends a lot on where your expectations may be. Personally, I think stage rally has been oversold as a "poor man's sport." It is, but relatively speaking. All motorsports are expensive and stage rally is no exception.

Your fixed startup costs are your own safety equipment - a good uniform and helmet. Both will last for years with reasonable care so the cost can be amortized over a good number of events.

The car is another story. There are a couple ways to get one. You can buy a good used rally car with the expectation that it may last for another few events or even for a season depending on how well it was built in the first place and how well it was maintained. Even with a well prepared used car, metal fatigue is a fact of life and has to be checked and repaired after every event - eventually, the metal will fatigue faster than you can fix it and you'll need another shell. That should be your expectation with a used rally car. If you expect more, you will be disappointed.

You can build your own rally car. Unfortunately, the way the sport has been sold as a poor mans sport, many think you can buy a good used car off the lot, throw in a mailorder cage, a couple fire extinguishers and you are good to go.

Well, you are - but your expectation should be that after a few events, even if you stay on the road, you are going to spend all that money you should've spent up front, and more, on keeping the car together for the next event. If you expect more, you will be disappointed.

In building your own rally car, you'll spend your money one of two ways. You can spend it all up front in proper preparation, or you can spend it later keeping the car from falling apart.

What's proper preparation? Hard to say since no one puts out a manual on rally preparation. Perhaps the newly formed PRO Rally "Constructors committee" will provide and publish such guidance for the beginning rallyist.

The basics would go something like this -

  • A solid, custom built six point cage.
  • Tie in the cage to the structure of the car around the windshield and at the B pillar and at the roofline over the door openings.
  • Tie in the cage to ALL suspension points front and rear - through the dash and firewall to the top of the front struts and pick up the sub-frame mounting points as well. Pick up the rear axle mounting points too while you are at it. If your purpose built suspension (your next big purchase) does not have a solid platform to work from, you will be needing your roll cage sooner than you think.
  • After you've gotten over that, put in a proper suspension designed for rally. You can't control the car and keep it on the road if the suspension can't keep the tires on the ground. What's a proper rally suspension? That's a difficult question. In general, you would start with twice the spring rate of OE and twice the damping of OE. Drive it and if it doesn't feel right - change it. Should you replace the OE rubber bushings with polyurethane? Hmmmm. Maybe. But I wouldn't unless I have one that fails too frequently. A polyurethane bushing will transmit all the shock and vibration from the road (and that's extreme in a stage rally) directly to the structure of the car supporting the suspension - leading to accelerated metal fatigue. It's a trade-off whether the suspension flexes at the bushings or eventually at points further up into the structure of the car. You choose. Should you seam weld and plate the control arms and subframes? The subframes, yes if possible. The control arms, probably not. You've got to sacrifice something when you hit that stump at speed, and it might as well be something that is easy to replace. Generally, subframes and the structures supporting them are not.
  • Speaking of tires - these are your biggest recurring expense - get good rally tires and count on replacing them every event, or if you really want to be competitive, replace them at every service. If your budget only allows used rally tires, drive accordingly and remember that if your tires don't have sharp edges on the blocks - you may be needing that roll cage again. Instead of tires, the body shop will become your biggest recurring expense.
  • Brakes - Get the best pads/shoes you can afford. Just beginning, you will find you use your brakes a lot - especially if you've a turbo. Expect to change them at least once every 50 stage miles if you get cheap ones. If your class rules allow, upgrade your drums to discs and upgrade your discs to larger ones if available for your car.
  • Fuel and brake lines - route them all inside the car to prevent damage. Aeroquip or steel for the fuel and steel for the brakes. Tie them down solid end-to-end to prevent vibration failure and chaffing. Use the OE rubber or Aeroquip on the brake lines between the solid steel and the calipers or cylinders. Leave enough slack so they don't bind on full suspension travel. Tie and protect where appropriate to protect them from chaffing and flying stones.
  • Electrical wiring - route all wires inside the car too. Tie the harnesses down solid the same as the fuel and brake lines. Tie-wrap or tape all connectors to make sure they stay connected. Keep the wires away from anything that generates heat - turbos, exhaust, etc.
  • Other fluid lines - Tie them down and make sure they are away from anything that generates heat (like turbos and exhaust manifolds). Ensure all lines going to a turbo are not subjected to the intense heat generated by that puppy. If in doubt, replace them with steel or Aeroquip and remember that some may have to flex because of engine movement. Keep all OE heat shields on a turbo. Check ALL the rubber lines after every event and replace them as necessary. Check ALL the hose clamps too. Replace as necessary.
  • Skid plates, stone shields - a good solid skid plate under the engine. The virtues of aluminum, steel and UHMW Polyethylene can be argued endlessly. I prefer aluminum - 3/8" of 6061 T6, and double up the front lip or where it is necessary to bend it. Make the attachment holes oversize. You WILL bend it and if the holes are normal tolerance, you won't get it back on the car. Install a stone shield over the OE gas tank if you keep it (required). This can just be a piece of Low Density Polyethylene. It would be a shame to DNF because all your gas leaked out when a $20 fix would have prevented the problem. An even bigger shame would be burning down your car and the forest around it. That would be the end of that venue for rally and you would be very unpopular. Install stone shields over the fuel pump, the fuel filter and any lines that remain under the car. Install shields to deflect flying stones away from exposed brake lines, etc., etc. You may want to protect the rear control arms too. You'd be amazed at how fast the flying stones will eat away the metal ! - weakening the arms.
  • Seats - do not use any two piece seat. They are dangerous and will not hold you in position. Especially never use an OE seat. How can you possibly drive well if you can't keep your feet on the pedals and you are fighting to stay in place? Need I mention the roll cage again? Stay away from the Aluminum seats. Some people swear by them but I do not. They are uncomfortable. Remember, you will be in that seat for 12 hours or more. Get something with a webbed support on the bottom to absorb all the shock and vibration. You need high bolsters at your shoulders and your thighs to keep you in place. In general, a seat with an internal steel frame is more comfortable than a shell seat and can absorb more of the shock and vibration. The more comfortable you are when you rally, the less fatigued you will become and you'll be able to drive faster, longer. You'll stay alert and will be able to put more effort into the last couple stages where most rallys are won.
  • Harnesses - Six-point, 3" wide webbing, SFI 16.1, no more than 5 years old. UV radiation weakens the webbing. Direct exposure for 6 months can reduce the tensile strength 50 percent, 24 months - 80 percent. A new harness will stretch up to 6 inches in a 60mph frontal with a tree. Imagine what a 5 year old harness will do! Make sure the harnesses are fastened to the structure of the car properly. Plate the attachment points if you have to. Your shoulder harness attachment points should be as close as possible to the back of your seat - less stretch in an impact. You be the judge as to when to replace your belts - me? Every two years. You can get a new 6-point SFI harness for $150-200. Oh yea, wear them tight. If you wear them even a little loose, you'll pay the price in very sore muscles or a cracked sternum or collar bones in the event of a frontal.
  • Accessories - These are not essential to the structure of the car but they essential nonetheless. You'll need a couple good portable fire extinguishers and a set of three DOT approved triangles. You'll need a couple good driving lights unless you only intend to race during the day, a good rally computer for accurate mileage and a good clock or watch for accurate time.

After you've done all this, you've a reliable car that will stay together for more than just a few events and you have the bottom-line accessories. But you still have to maintain the car and check EVERYTHING after every event.

  • Before you clean the car, remove the stone shields and skid plates then check for fluid leaks. They will show up better on the dirt.
  • Now clean the car as well as you can while you are inspecting it top-to-bottom.
  • If you find stress cracks, fix them and reinforce that area to prevent more in the future.
  • Welds coming loose? Grind them and plate that area.
  • Check the tightness of all critical fasteners.
  • Check the condition of all the rubber and clamps.
  • Change your oil and all filters - oil, air and fuel. Check the old oil for metal particles.
  • Check for wear and looseness on the suspension components and check for excessive play in the
    drivetrain.
  • Look for wear and rub marks anywhere there may be an abrasion problem.
  • Check and change your brake pads/shoes if necessary. Check the seals on your calipers and master/slave cylinders for leakage.
  • While doing that, flush the brake system and install new fluid. You just did that before the event? Do it again - at least to flush the brown fluid out - you will be amazed at how fast brake fluid deteriorates under rally conditions. I try to bleed the brakes at every service.
  • Change the transmission/transaxle/differential fluids. Check the old fluids for metal particles. You may not think this necessary after every event, but a few quarts of fluid is a whole lot cheaper than a transmission.
  • Clean your harnesses according to the manufacturers directions. I usually find a shop vacuum is the most effective. Harnesses are real dust collectors and the dust abrades the fibers.
  • Send your uniform out to the cleaners or if the cleaning directions allow, throw it in the washer.

I haven't mentioned the engine yet have I? Leave it alone. One of the mistakes a beginner makes is to go for the horsepower - big mistake. That's the least of your problems as a beginner. In fact, your best bet is an underpowered car for a starter - it will force you to learn how to drive. You can't learn to drive properly if you are fighting big horsepower at the same time. You will end up needing that roll cage yet again! Trust me - I know this. Once you are running stages end-to-end without lifting - then go for the horsepower.

Finally - there are two approaches to learn how to win at rally - you can start by driving very fast, and eventually learn to go slow; or you can start by driving moderately and eventually learn to go fast. Pick the one that suits your checkbook.

That was just the cost of the car - now you need a service vehicle, spare parts, a trailer, $$ to enter an event (See Part II), $$ to get there, $$ for lodging and food for yourself and your crew, etc., etc.

Rally a poor man's sport? You be the judge.