Answering an age-old question: Slow car fast or fast car slow?

By Tim Suddard
Oct 25, 2023 | Column, Discussion, Fast Car Slow, Slow Car Fast | Posted in Columns | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

As with so many of us, in my earlier years it was all about power: How much engine could I stuff into how little of a chassis? It was all in a quest to see how fast I could go.

At one time, a flyweight Triumph Spitfire with a 240-horsepower rotary that would hit 60 in about 4 seconds sounded perfectly reasonable. It could spin the tires at whatever speed. 

A series of V8-powered Tigers and TVR Griffiths also sounded like good decisions. The latter of those two, with that Ford engine nestled inside a flyweight fiberglass body, sounds like a hotrodders delight, doesn’t it? I can tell you that it’s not. Stinking fast, yes. Refined? Not entirely. 

Not fast enough? I have been lucky to run Brian Johnson’s Lola T70 Can-Am car at Sebring, the Group 44 Inc. Trans Am Jaguar at VIR, and Curt Vogt’s wicked-fast Boss 302 vintage race Mustang at Road Atlanta.

While I still own and like fast cars, I’m learning that subtlety has some appeal as well. A well set-up E30-chassis BMW 318is with 150 horsepower is as much fun on the Tail of the Dragon as almost any car with double that.

And an Alfa Spider with about 135 horsepower is just as lovely for a weekend drive as a Tiger with three times the power. The Tiger might bark louder, but the Alfa just sings. 

I’ve also happily raced my Triumph TR3 for decades and have enjoyed many a Miata on track. My old Formula Vee was all about momentum and smoothness, as its 1200cc engine only provided so much grunt. I paid for mistakes, too, as I couldn’t cover them up with any spare horsepower. 

I’m just finishing up what could be best called a hybrid–and no, not that kind of hybrid. We’re building what should prove to be a very fast race car for a class full of theoretically slower cars: a not-so-radical 1965 Mustang that will run against highly strung 2-liter Porsches and the like.

So, this raises the age-old question: Is it better to race a fast car in a slower group or a slow car in a fast group? For me, pricing helped me make this decision. To build an early Mustang for a faster class is a six-figure proposition–and that’s before you factor in the expenses of campaigning that faster car. More speed usually equals more tires, more brakes and more breaking things. Personally, even if I had that kind of money, I would rather race a cheaper, slower car in a slower group.

What about you? Whether heading to the street or the track, are you all about having the fastest car that you can buy or build, or do you like giant-killers or cars with a bit more finesse? Let’s go back to the ’60s: Are you picking the Mini Cooper or the big-block Ford sedan? 

I’ve played on both sides of the fence and, in my later years, now tend to favor the more conservative choice. I’d love to hear which camp you prefer. 

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JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
10/25/23 12:38 p.m.

False dichotomy.

Fast car fast :)

Woody (Forum Supportum)
Woody (Forum Supportum) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/25/23 12:40 p.m.

Slow car fast. 

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
10/25/23 1:21 p.m.
benclear said:

I don't understand how racing a slow car fast could possibly be beneficial, but I am new to racing. 

I'm not sure if this is what Tim was intending, but one way to interpret the question has to do with the structure of most club racing groups.  SCCA, NASA, etc, we usually have way more classes than we do groups, so each race group is made up of multiple classes.  The org tries to be smart about how they do the grouping and put similar cars together, but sometimes (especially in endurance racing) there can be some pretty big speed disparities between classes.

So if you were racing the NASA 25 hours of Thunderhill, would you rather be driving a Spec Miata or one of the sports racer/prototypes?  Getting passed 5-10 times per lap, or passing other cars a similar amount?  Is it better to be in the Miata that's leading the E3 class, or a prototype that's further down the field in its class but much higher in overall position than the Miata?


msterbee Reader
10/25/23 1:27 p.m.


Tom1200 PowerDork
10/25/23 1:55 p.m.
JG Pasterjak said:

False dichotomy.

Fast car fast :)

I whole heartedly disagree see the long winded post that follows this one.

bmw88rider GRM+ Memberand UberDork
10/25/23 2:21 p.m.

Well, My track car is a 2100LB 150HP car in the V8 dominated track day scene of the Midwest so you know where my vote is. 

PappaTom GRM+ Member
10/25/23 2:23 p.m.

I drive a slow car slow lol. I autocross a MK4 GTI in STH...I give away a lot of HP to the others in my class...and my car is chubby. But I'm grinning at the end of each run. I say drive whatever you have, as fast as you can and laugh the entire way!

RonnieFnD New Reader
10/25/23 2:24 p.m.

I been on both sides of this one.  Time trials back in the day I had the right car in FSP with a ACR neon.  I had a blast driving that car and it was much faster than anything in the class at the time.  I am currently running all the autox I can in a Chevy Sonic so I am in what is by far the slowest car (probably in any class).  I ran all this season in HS against Fiesta Sts, Fiat 500s, and Honda Civic sports.  So the Fiestas I've heard are rated at 197hp against my 138.  The Fiat is 160hp and the Civics are at like 160 from what I hear.  I had a absolute blast mixing it up with those guys but have now moved on to STH and will probably end up in SMF.  Again in these classes I'm way way down on everything compared to the other cars but it's fun still running the same times they do in a slow car so I vote slow car fast.

Tom1200 PowerDork
10/25/23 2:26 p.m.

While I'm best known for slow car fast I have driven a fast cars fast.

It's been 20 years since I campaigned it but our D-Sports Racer (now SCCA P2) was a very fast car. The class lap record I set with it was  only a second off Mike Lewis' ex Roush Trans-Am car and roughly the same off the Formula Mazda record set by one of the Pro Mazda series front runners.

The car was exhilarating to drive but here's the rub; I know that I am a better than average club racer and the car was fast, so anything less than a lap record would be underperforming. If you finish down the order (regardless of the reason) it's a disappointment.  Driving the car on the limit was effortless and lapping slower cars was child's play.

Now juxtapose that against my 80 wheel horsepower Datsun; you have to drive every inch of every lap like a fiend and constantly adjust to milk ever RPM out of it. You have to plan 1/2 a lap ahead. In the Datsun once you turn into the corner, if you aren't a passenger all the way to the exit you're simply not trying hard enough. You have to borderline overdrive the car to be fast.

Dragging the Datsun up the overall finishing order is hugely satisfying. Having competitors come up to you and say "you get every once out of that car" adds to that satisfaction.

In slow car if you do get it the slightest bit wrong it's immediately obvious.  When you're only getting 90% out of a slow car is painfully obvious whereas in a fast car 90% of it's potential may well be fast enough to win.

If you're in a fast car and go fast it's expected...............I like the thrill of surpassing expectations with a slow car.




codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
10/25/23 6:22 p.m.
Tom1200 said:

If you're in a fast car and go fast it's expected...............I like the thrill of surpassing expectations with a slow car.

All the things you say about the Datsun are also true about the DSR if you're racing other people who are also in DSRs.

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