The origins of the $2000 Challenge

By Tim Suddard
Aug 13, 2023 | $2000 Challenge, Column | Posted in Columns | From the Aug. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

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Like all good stories, this one began with friends, a campfire and a race track. 

Nearly 25 years ago, we were sitting around during an evening at Road Atlanta. The track had gone cold, and the conversation turned to all the excuses often heard about racing–like why it was seen as too expensive or complex to do. 

After a few beers, someone–sadly, that was me–proclaimed, “I bet you could build a car and put it on track for less than $2000.” As the cooler emptied, that statement turned into what we considered a fully fleshed-out plan: We would organize a race event and limit the budget to $1500. 

That cap would include both buying and building the car. Our competition venue would include autocross (pretty much standard in our world), drag racing (a good, universal benchmark) and a car show (to keep the field looking good). This would make a good cover story, we figured. 

Don’t think we didn’t consider adding road racing to the card, but we figured only an idiot would attempt that. (That idiot would be my friend Jay Lamm, who launched the 24 Hours of Lemons series a few years later.)

[Running the 24 Hours of Lemons with as little time and effort as possible]

Once cleaned up, we set a date for that first event: September 1999. Three of us on staff started building cars. We rented an autocross site; for the drag racing, we just ran with a local test-and-tune night. 

We figured that, at least for the first year, nobody would get the premise and join us. Still, we’d build some cars and show how easily it could be done. If anyone else showed up, we’d figure out a real plan. 

We shared our story and, surprisingly, got some calls. We’re pretty sure the first one came from Jonny Pruitt. He said he’d truck in from Texas for our event. We were stunned. 

Surprisingly, others also ventured to Florida for that first event–nearly two dozen teams, including now-regular entrants like Jeremy Randolph, Bill Cuttitta, Barry Miles and Cliff Sebring.

They were all greeted with terrible, hurricanelike conditions. I built a Mustang SVO and, as I found, the roof leaked. (We’d eventually move the event out of hurricane season.)

Our first event was won by a clown (and I mean literally a clown) named Guido. He stuffed a Cosworth Vega engine into an MG Midget and proved beyond a doubt that motorsports could be fun and affordable.

My somewhat scurvy Mustang set the top autocross time. An aquarium air valve didn’t increase boost as promised, though, and it ran a rather plebian 15.9-second quarter-mile time.

The biggest news was the chatter from the participants and wannabe participants. Those who called foul–no way a $1500 car could look and run that well, they cried–were quickly presented with tips and tricks so they could achieve the same. 

Our forum exploded. How do you engineer your own engine swap, find deals in the salvage yards, or build a low-buck turbo setup? Our community knew all and was willing to share. 

Word got out, and writers like Steven Cole Smith and David Freiburger checked out the event, getting our participants ink in big-time national magazines like Hot Rod and Autoweek.

Then serious builders like Andrew Nelson, Denny Crabill and Ed Malle started bringing cars that could break the 11-second barrier. The crew that created Gridlife got one of their first tastes of motorsports through our $2000 Challenge. The event has, essentially, continued to provide a gateway into our motorsports world.

[2 Grand 2 Furious | $2000 Challenge coverage]

Fast-forward to today, and we’re still hosting the $2000 Challenge, this time in the Spring: May 27-28, 2023 at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway. Come run, check out come cool cars, and meet some amazing people. No car? No problem. Someone will put those hands to work. 

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ddavidv UltimaDork
7/5/22 11:48 a.m.

I'm sure beer was involved.

It certainly was when we decided to turn two rusty carcasses of BMW into a single race car. I still blame Guido.

alfadriver MegaDork
7/5/22 12:08 p.m.

Back in the glory days of eBay when you could buy cheap dodge turbos. And find $800 projects on local eclassifieds. 

Patrick GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
7/5/22 12:12 p.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Inflation has definitely made it harder. I feel like my serious years were in the sweet spot of available cheap lsx truck motors and pre 2020 prices on everything going up.

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
7/5/22 12:21 p.m.
alfadriver said:

Back in the glory days of eBay when you could buy cheap dodge turbos. And find $800 projects on local eclassifieds. 

Idk, here's what I found in literally three minutes of searching. Wishbone Civic, Camaro, or Celica. Take your pick.


CrustyRedXpress GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
7/5/22 3:41 p.m.

Inflation has made it harder but technology and rule changes have made it easier. Chinese turbos, cheap and fully programmable ECUs, and tires no longer being in budget all add up. 

If you take the median score of the top 1/3rd of the drag race I bet the times have gone down, maybe significantly.


Appleseed MegaDork
7/5/22 5:00 p.m.

The best way to know where you're going, it to remember where you came from.

spkorb New Reader
7/5/22 5:36 p.m.

My first autocross was in that old V8 Monza in the $1500 Challenge and it was WET!  The workers just kept picking up cones and everyone had such a fantastic time.  The vibe was unmatched except at successive events.  I didn't even pass tech at the drag strip and a competitor Phil Kime was right on the case with a solution to fix the problem and we raced later that evening... against a turbo minivan with an enormous nitrous tank running low 14s!

spkorb New Reader
7/5/22 5:40 p.m.

In reply to spkorb :

I wish I had tried to buy that Mazda Cosmo that showed up.  It didn't compete but if I had had the cash I would have another project I hadn't gotten around to yet :)

AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
7/5/22 8:04 p.m.

A lot of good.....  well ideas start over beers.  It was a bar conversation in Hawaii that led to Ironman triathlon.  The guy winning the first one also lost....  because beer.

alfadriver MegaDork
7/6/22 11:36 a.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

Always better selections in Florida. It's been a while since i saw an $800 Alfa in Michigan. 

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