David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
12/29/09 10:40 a.m.

For years we have all been told that getting on track costs money—lots of it. But does that have to be true? Sure, the top race teams burn through cash with reckless abandon, but what about just getting out there and clicking off some laps?

Welcome to the world of track events and lapping days, where having a fun, reliable car takes precedence over wins and all-out speed. While we have taken lots of past project cars on track, we approached this one a little differently: What would make an honest, solid, low-buck project car? Maximum bang for the buck was the order this time.

Our track car had to meet a few goals. For one, it had to be easy on the budget—and that meant easy on tires and brakes. Those two consumables can quickly inflate the cost of a weekend at the track, so we wanted to keep the cap on those expenses as low as possible. We also wanted to run a smaller tire size, as bigger ones simply cost more.

The car itself also had to be capable of hauling those tires to the track, since we didn’t want to deal with a tow rig and trailer. We also decided that a tire trailer, while popular, would also add to the complexity, budget and hassle.

Speaking of the budget, we set aside $3500 for the initial purchase. And for that price, it had to be a solid, reliable car that didn’t need much work. The whole idea of this project was to keep it quick and easy, and in our minds engine swaps and massive bodywork usually don’t fall into those categories.

To make sure we were heading in the right direction, we sought a second opinion from John Lindsey, NASA’s Chief Divisional Director. He agreed with our plan of attack and without hesitation recommended a Honda Civic or Acura Integra. Both make excellent budget-friendly track cars, he said, since they’re reliable, fun and easy on tires and brakes.

He also recommended the Nissan 240SX, although he noted that the “drift tax” has driven up prices in recent years. The E30- and E36-chassis BMW 3 Series were also worthy of a look, he said, although tires for the later model can get a little expensive.

We initially searched for a 1990-2001, base-model, five-speed Acura Integra. We figured demand would be low, so prices would follow. Turns out that we couldn’t find a decent example in our price range. Everything that we saw was either beat, overpriced, fitted with an automatic transmission or sunroof-equipped. (While a sunroof can be nice on a street car, on the Integra they do rob quite a bit of headroom.)

So we decided to expand our search to other Honda offerings. It had been a while since we shopped for a CRX, and we were surprised by what we found: very reasonable prices. And even though production had ended about 17 years ago, we saw lots of good candidates for sale.

In fact, we only needed a few days to locate a serious contender. We found a 1988 Honda CRX HF on AutoTrader.com that looked promising. The car was about an hour away and was already fitted with a 160-horsepower, Japanese-spec B16A engine. The asking price was $3400, and at the time the local classifieds contained several similar deals. We found the car’s doppelgänger advertised in Los Angeles for similar money, so we don’t think it was a regional fluke.

This one had 201,000 miles on the chassis—barely broken in as far as Hondas go—plus Tokico shock absorbers, a DC exhaust header and an RS-R cat-back exhaust. The engine supposedly had 55,000 miles on it, and the car’s condition was listed as awesome.

We checked out the CRX, and the seller was correct. The car was really solid. The paint was mostly original and in very good shape, plus the engine compartment was clean. We couldn’t spot any rust or issues, either. Obviously it had been owned by someone who cared. And since it was an HF model, it didn’t have a sunroof. The car wasn’t 100-percent perfect, as the tires were junk and the suspension had a clunk up front. The brakes worked, but the seller was pretty sure that the car still had the small HF front discs. We figured that none of those issues were deal killers, and for $3200 the CRX was ours.

Aside from a few small repairs—the battery cables were chewed up, so we ordered genuine Honda replacements—we drove the car in as-purchased condition for a few weeks. It never left us stranded, and we started to fall in love.

There’s nothing like a looming deadline to kick a project into high gear, and ours was a NASA High Performance Driving Event at Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway. We kind of waited until the last minute to register for the event, meaning that we had one week to prepare the car. Fortunately we had done our homework ahead of time, as starting with a good car also made the project relatively stress-free. For years we have all been told that getting on track costs money—lots of it. But does that have to be true? Sure, the top race teams burn through cash with reckless abandon, but what about just getting out there and clicking off some laps?

Welcome to the world of track events and lapping days, where having a fun, reliable car takes precedence over wins and all-out speed. While we have taken lots of past project cars on track, we approached this one a little differently: What would make an honest, solid, low-buck project car? Maximum bang for the buck was the order this time.

Our track car had to meet a few goals. For one, it had to be easy on the budget—and that meant easy on tires and brakes. Those two consumables can quickly inflate the cost of a weekend at the track, so we wanted to keep the cap on those expenses as low as possible. We also wanted to run a smaller tire size, as bigger ones simply cost more.

The car itself also had to be capable of hauling those tires to the track, since we didn’t want to deal with a tow rig and trailer. We also decided that a tire trailer, while popular, would also add to the complexity, budget and hassle.

Speaking of the budget, we set aside $3500 for the initial purchase. And for that price, it had to be a solid, reliable car that didn’t need much work. The whole idea of this project was to keep it quick and easy, and in our minds engine swaps and massive bodywork usually don’t fall into those categories.

To make sure we were heading in the right direction, we sought a second opinion from John Lindsey, NASA’s Chief Divisional Director. He agreed with our plan of attack and without hesitation recommended a Honda Civic or Acura Integra. Both make excellent budget-friendly track cars, he said, since they’re reliable, fun and easy on tires and brakes.

He also recommended the Nissan 240SX, although he noted that the “drift tax” has driven up prices in recent years. The E30- and E36-chassis BMW 3 Series were also worthy of a look, he said, although tires for the later model can get a little expensive.

We initially searched for a 1990-2001, base-model, five-speed Acura Integra. We figured demand would be low, so prices would follow. Turns out that we couldn’t find a decent example in our price range. Everything that we saw was either beat, overpriced, fitted with an automatic transmission or sunroof-equipped. (While a sunroof can be nice on a street car, on the Integra they do rob quite a bit of headroom.)

So we decided to expand our search to other Honda offerings. It had been a while since we shopped for a CRX, and we were surprised by what we found: very reasonable prices. And even though production had ended about 17 years ago, we saw lots of good candidates for sale.

In fact, we only needed a few days to locate a serious contender. We found a 1988 Honda CRX HF on AutoTrader.com that looked promising. The car was about an hour away and was already fitted with a 160-horsepower, Japanese-spec B16A engine. The asking price was $3400, and at the time the local classifieds contained several similar deals. We found the car’s doppelgänger advertised in Los Angeles for similar money, so we don’t think it was a regional fluke.

This one had 201,000 miles on the chassis—barely broken in as far as Hondas go—plus Tokico shock absorbers, a DC exhaust header and an RS-R cat-back exhaust. The engine supposedly had 55,000 miles on it, and the car’s condition was listed as awesome.

We checked out the CRX, and the seller was correct. The car was really solid. The paint was mostly original and in very good shape, plus the engine compartment was clean. We couldn’t spot any rust or issues, either. Obviously it had been owned by someone who cared. And since it was an HF model, it didn’t have a sunroof. The car wasn’t 100-percent perfect, as the tires were junk and the suspension had a clunk up front. The brakes worked, but the seller was pretty sure that the car still had the small HF front discs. We figured that none of those issues were deal killers, and for $3200 the CRX was ours.

Aside from a few small repairs—the battery cables were chewed up, so we ordered genuine Honda replacements—we drove the car in as-purchased condition for a few weeks. It never left us stranded, and we started to fall in love.

There’s nothing like a looming deadline to kick a project into high gear, and ours was a NASA High Performance Driving Event at Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway. We kind of waited until the last minute to register for the event, meaning that we had one week to prepare the car. Fortunately we had done our homework ahead of time, as starting with a good car also made the project relatively stress-free.

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