For race fans who wonder what it would be like to follow in the footsteps of top stock car drivers, a little hard work and a couple thousand dollars can afford them the opportunity to buy a car and learn how to trade paint at a local short track.

Just like buying a used street car, you’ll want to do your homework while you look for quality at a fair price. You’ll be tickled to know you won’t have to obey speed limits.

“The first thing I would do if I was going to buy a used race car would be to figure out where I wanted to race, whether it be a little short track like Hickory (North Carolina) or any other place across the country,” says Andy Petree, team owner for Winston Cup drivers Joe Nemechek and Bobby Hamilton.

“I would go to that track and really pay attention to the cars that were running good and see what kind of cars they are, like maybe a four-cylinder division, and see which particular cars are the best and running up front consistently. Then I would attempt to buy a competitive car.

“It’s really as simple as when you go to the go-kart tracks getting ready to ride with some of your friends. You want to try and pick out the best kart for your ride. I would simply try and buy one of the cars that looked like it was competitive. If I couldn’t find a car that suited me at that track, I’d ask around the garage area to find out another track where they run the type of car I’m wanting. Then you go to that track and start asking around there. There are always a lot of guys in racing looking to move up a step, so there are always good quality cars for sale.”

Chad Call, a competitor at Hickory Motor Speedway in the ARA Series Pro Cup division, also recommends looking around and asking questions.

“One of the best things a racer like myself can do is just go around to some of the other race shops, ask around and let them know I’m looking for a car,” Call says. “Another thing to do if you’re looking for a good used car is simply looking around at the track to see what’s for sale. One of the first questions I ask is who built the chassis. I also want to know who drove it last and how the car performed the last few races with that driver.

“You just have to ask questions to find out how competitive the car is going to be, and how that last driver did with it is very important. If he ran in the Top 5 a lot, that more than likely means the chassis and body are going to be in pretty good shape. Asking the right questions can mean a lot.”

David Pennell, a competitor in the Mini Stock ranks at Concord (North Carolina) Motorsport Park, says he is living testament that a race fan can buy a car, go out to their local short track and be competitive sooner rather than later.

“I got a check from the IRS one year with a note telling me I’d overpaid my taxes. So, instead of putting it in the bank, I came up with the idea to buy an old race car so I could start racing a little,” Pennell says. “So, I bought a used Mini Stock car from Tom Pistone with the intention of just having a little bit of fun, but my first year of racing I won the championship so I was hooked from then on.”

Close Inspection

Finding a used race car for sale is one thing, but finding one that’s in good shape with several years of racing left in it is another situation entirely. According to some of the top names in NASCAR competition, inspecting the car to make sure it’s up to specifications is a major key.

“People just need to give the car they’re thinking about buying a really good general look over,” says Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup champion. “You need to look and make sure it doesn’t have cracked welds and is all wore out, twisted and bent. I believe most people who are in the position to buy an old race car are smart enough to know what to look for. If the car is all beat up and it’s still winning races, you’d probably still want a car like that because you know all you have to do is take it back home and fix it up a little. Then again, if you were looking at a car that just never handled right, I wouldn’t buy it.

“I’m the type of guy who likes to buy a car that’s still winning because based on experience, it’s a lot easier to rebuild them than it is to buy a lemon that just won’t run right. If the car never has been good to start with, there’s probably not a lot of hope for it.”

Petree says you will be wasting your time, effort and money if you don’t take precautions and perform a good inspection.

“The very first, and I do mean the first, thing you want to do is to look at the safety aspect of the car,” Petree says. “You want to make sure the car has a good seat and seatbelt, plus you want to take a good long look at the rollbars. Also from a safety standpoint, you want to make sure you have good spindles, axles, wheels—everything that has to do with safety has to be your number one priority. A lot of the racers come along and they get into this thing of wanting to run fast. They have to run fast, but if they ignore the safety side of it then it can really come back to bite them. If I had to give anybody advice, that would be what I would tell them.

“From that point, you can start working on whether you’re turning the right amount of gear and the motor’s running just the way you want it to. After the safety side of the equation is taken care of, then you can start working on all the smaller types of things like the handling or spring and shocks.”

Warning Signs

As far as the inspection process goes, Petree says a lot of what to look for boils down to common sense.

“Most of your checkpoints with buying a used race car are pretty obvious, like bent floorpans or dash panels, plus you can also look to see if the interior sheetmetal in the trunk area has been crushed,” Petree says. “If all that stuff has been bent, you can pretty much see it because it’s had to have been hammered back out to make it straight. Most of those types of things are pretty easy to find. You can tell if a car had been crashed a bunch.”

According to Call and Pennell, the advice of both Wallace and Petree is about as good as an entry level racer can ask for.

“If you’re going to buy a used race car from someone, I’d suggest you buy it in the first years of its life,” Pennell says. “The more you race a car, the more fatigued the frame on it will get. For the most part, you can get a good car that is built just perfect and get five years of racing out of it. A person would want to look at the welds of the car to see if the frame is in good shape.

“My thoughts would be, if you know the person and you know the car hasn’t been wrecked so many times that a lot of front or rear clips have been put on it, then that should be a pretty good car. If you know the car has been wrecked bad enough to have been put on a frame machine, that’s what I’d look to avoid.”

“I always look at the clips and make sure they’re not bent or damaged,” Call says. “When I look at it, I want to make sure the right- and left-front framerails are lined up. If a guy who is out there running good wants to sell his car, then that would be a good car to buy. I wouldn’t want to buy a car that runs in the back of the field and take it over from there because, chances are, if that team couldn’t do something with it then I probably can’t do much better. That’s the way I look at it, because with a car like that it’s hard to turn it back into a winning product.”

But Petree says he believes that’s not always the case.

“You can find a pretty good car, but maybe the guy who’s driving it doesn’t have any experience or isn’t driving the car right,” he says. “So you can find a good race car that’s not running good and make the car into one that can win. It’s the same thing with buying a car that’s winning races, maybe you see something that can be done to make the car even better before you buy it.”

Know The Seller

Another critical area to pay attention to when it comes to buying a used race car centers on the drivers and teams who are doing the selling.

“It’s very important to talk to credible people,” says Kenneth Pardue, another Pro Cup competitor at Hickory. “If you’re going to buy a used race car from somebody, you have to do your homework on those people and not just the car. You could be sitting there looking at a car and you think it would be great because it looks so good, but you could be in a situation where somebody’s trying to unload a car they know has been hurt.”

Petree says credibility checks can be the difference between winning races or being mired with a car that’s not worth keeping.

“You want to be able to deal with people who you feel are telling you the truth,” Petree says. “You can tell when you’re buying a used street car from somebody whether you trust them or not, and there’s no difference when it comes to buying a used race car.”