Trying to keep your race car looking good can become frustrating. You may want the best paint job available, but in the back of your mind you know that the paint will be ground up and spit out all season.

You also know that the value of a great looking paint job far outweighs the alternative. Potential sponsors and partners gauge quite a bit of their impressions on things like paint and appearance—and so does the competition. Paint is no doubt expensive, but you don’t have to spend upwards of $100 a gallon for the best custom, automotive paint.

Low-buck paint is about as far away as your local Home Depot or Lowe’s home improvement stores—and the savings are large. We canvassed both stores and found a number of alternatives to costly specialty automotive paint.

Paint Basics

Unless your sponsors are legally binding you to put candy apple red and pearl-white colors on your car, all you really need is a sharp, crisp paint job. Ask yourself, do I really need high-buck, flip-flop pearl paint on a car that is going to be in mortal combat week after week? And more importantly, how easy is it going to be to touch up that paint?

We know teams that assemble more than one body when they build their car for the coming year. That way, they already have spares that are painted and ready to slap on at a moment’s notice. So, now with two bodies, what has that done to the paint budget?

Costs can clearly show that keeping it basic in the paint department can help. Yet, you can maintain a level of distinctive, eye-catching looks, that can be done with basic colors and with a little bit of trim and contrast.

The first step in covering bare metal—be it steel or aluminum—is always primer. Once the primer is on, the paint that makes up the color coat is up to you. As long as it is capable of covering the primer, and staying on in gloss finish, isn’t that all you need? And staying with basic colors can save you a bunch of money.

Shop And Save

Low-cost basic colors are found at stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s and can be easily used on your car. First, you need to choose one of the gloss oil enamel paints in a number of product lines carried.

Examples at Home Depot include Rustoleum, with about 12 stock colors for about $23 a gallon. Glidden has a line of gloss house and trim enamel paint for about $27 a gallon, and that paint can be tinted to most of Glidden’s color spectrum.

Our visit to Home Depot included the store’s resident paint expert telling us about a product from the Flood company called Penetrol. It’s an additive that helps the paint both when you spray it on and when it flows wet on the car. It’s about $20 a can and is recommended, but double check whether it will work with the paint you’ve selected.

Over at Lowe’s, a brand called Professional’s Choice sells for about $23 a gallon. This brand is listed as an industrial maintenance paint; but, as gloss enamel, it can easily be used on cars and metal. Lowe’s also sells Enterprise paint and its oil-based, gloss-enamel house and trim line sells for about $21 a gallon. Lowe’s carries Krylon paint, but only in quarts for about $7 each. Krylon aerosols are good for trim painting, too. These colors can make a good contrast color for stripes or simple graphics.

Help From HVLP

And while we’re talking about getting the most out of your paint budget, have you considered looking at HVLP paint equipment? High volume, low-pressure systems may just be the wave of the future.

Their basic design is to apply more paint with less pressure, and, when you look closely at it, that can mean quite a bit. Less pressure means less over-spray and less cleanup, less paint in the air to breathe, a more controllable spray pattern, and less bounce-back to the operator.

Less over-spray also means better visibility, and that can reduce operator error, reduce spray booth (or spray area) maintenance and filter replacement and disposal costs. Another strong point is more paint can be applied per pass, equaling fewer passes. Overall, the units use less paint because it’s applied more effectively.

The equipment needed for HVLP is an ordinary compressor able to deliver 30 to 75 PSI and a HVLP gun. Like conventional spray guns, there are touch-up and full-spray units in HVLP. Most HVLP guns are gravity-fed and that’s part of why they use less air. Paint is kept in aluminum or plastic cups, usually mounted on top of the gun, for gravity feed downward into the nozzle. Capacities range from small touch-up cups to pints and larger.

Touch-up guns routinely spray patterns from about four inches to eight inches, while full-spray guns offer patterns that range from eight to 12 inches. HVLP guns can handle most everything from fine surface to heavy coatings. Nozzles are metrically measured and range from 0.8 mm to 2.0 mm. Flows can use 7.5 cfm and are noticeably more quiet than conventional guns.