Want to know what it’s like to drive a race car? Well, hop off that stadium cushion and head to a short track near you. Strap yourself in to one of the many low-cost, entry-level divisions available, mash the gas, and go. Sound simple? It really is, with some race cars available for $1,000 or less, and some others even available for rent. Before you get started, however, here are some points to keep in mind:

• While acquiring a race car is easy, driving one isn’t as simple as it looks.

• You’ll likely be running for just trophies or, at best, pocket change.

• It pays to seek the advice of others on the local circuit.

• You’ll have more fun if you view this as a hobby.

Getting Started

So where do you start? The best place is to contact the track where you want to race. Ask for a rule book to see the different divisions available and how much tweaking is allowed on the race cars. If your technological know-how is limited, you may want to try the most bare-bones, entry-level division.

“Every racetrack in the country has some kind of entry-level division and they try to make it as economical as possible where basically all you have to do is put in the safety features and go racing,” says Chris Boals, director of NASCAR’s Weekly Racing Series, which sanctions about 80 short tracks nationwide.

The tracks can also help put you in touch with someone who may have race cars for sale, or someone who can help you prepare the car.

If you’re unsure about the specific division you’d like to enter, spend a few race nights at the track in the pits watching teams at work, says Tom Pistone, who operates Performancenter Racing Warehouse, a company in Statesville, North Carolina, that specializes in new and used race cars and racing components.

Pistone says a Legends car may be a good place to start. He says because of the car’s small size, you would need as little as one person to help you at the track each week. Also, the car’s technology translates well to full-size race cars, so you can easily become familiar with the key performance parts.

Pistone says you should volunteer to help a team for at least five races in the division you’re considering. He says the majority of teams would welcome the help and in return you would receive a good idea of the amount of work, money, and time that is needed to maintain the race car.

Buying A Race Car

For the most budget-minded racers, classes such as Mini Stocks (typically four-cylinders) can allow you to go racing for the lowest cost. To keep such basic, entry-level divisions affordable, some tracks have “claimer” rules in effect that discourage teams from investing too much in their race cars. Under such rules, a competitor must be willing to sell his winning car to another competitor at a predetermined price.

Racetracks use a ladder approach that gives racers the opportunity to climb a few levels based on how seriously they want to take their driving. Most culminate with something like a Late Model, which can easily require an initial investment of $25,000 for a race-ready machine. “When you start moving up the ladder, you starting needing more people to help you, and in return you start adding cost,” Pistone says.

Some tracks have even started offering rental programs for race cars. They’ll provide the car for you to race and handle the maintenance between race dates.

Regardless of the initial investment, it pays to carefully check out a car before making a purchase. As Pistone says, “There’s no lemon law in racing. Once you buy the car, it’s your car. You want to make sure you do your homework.”

It makes sense to hire an expert to check out a used race car, but if you want to do this yourself Pistone offers these tips:

• Try to see the car in action.

• Put the car on jackstands so you can look under it. It’s easy to overlook something.

• View everything from a safety standpoint. Look at everything from rollbar padding to the way the seat is mounted.

• Don’t be fooled by an attractive race car. Defects are easily hid.

• Find out who built the motor, and then verify the information.

• If you know the car has been in a crash, make sure it was professionally repaired. A phantom bent part can have you endlessly chasing handling problems.

• Have the engine tested on a dyno. It may cost you up to $500, but at least you’ll know whether the engine works properly.

Pistone says he has seen many examples of people who buy a race car only to be stuck with many costly repairs to get it race ready, sometimes to the point that the person has to park the car. “One of the biggest surprises people have is buying the $4,000 race car and it ends up costing them $12,000,” he says.

Racing Expenses

Of course the race car is only part of the investment. You should research maintenance costs and the various competition fees you will face. For example, you’ll need gasoline for the truck that will haul your car to the track, gasoline for the actual race car, food for you and any volunteer crewmen, and pit passes (usually about $20 per person). Also, if the track is sanctioned, you may need a license from that sanctioning body. The International Motor Contest Association, for example, requires a $75 license for competitors at its sanctioned tracks.

Then there is routine maintenance and tools. You must factor in the cost of any crash damage and spare equipment, such as extra tires. Pistone says a good set of tools is a must, including an air pressure gauge, air tank, jackstands, electric impact wrench, toe plates, and a caster/camber gauge.

“You have to go into it with a business plan,” Pistone says. “Do you want to do this as a hobby, or do you want to be a weekly racing star?”

Tracks often take steps to lower competition costs. For example, one North Carolina track acquires used racing tires from the Hooters ProCup Series and then sells them for $100 a set for its Limited Late Model teams. Other tracks may do something as simple as give free pit passes to teams that show up to race week after week.

For most, this will just be a hobby. Winners of entry-level, 15 to 25-lap features usually take home only a trophy or anywhere from $50 to $100. “You’re not going to make any money,” Boals says. “You have to consider this just like a bass fisherman who goes out on the weekend to go fishing. It’s just a hobby.”

“Most racers these days who look at this as a hobby are just trying to break even on a week-to-week basis,” says Brett Root, director of operations for the IMCA. Root says that drivers in the IMCA’s entry-level Hobby Stock division can have a weekly expense of as little as $75 if they stay out of trouble and don’t experience major mechanical problems.

Learning Curve

Being prepared once you arrive at the track goes beyond having the right equipment. How well you do and how well you’re accepted will depend heavily on how much effort you put into learning the proper skills.

“It’s definitely not as easy as it looks,” Root says. “I’ve raced myself and that’s a personal experience that I’ve had.

“All you have to do is go down there in the pits one night and borrow a racer’s gloves and helmet and sit in the car. It’s not like sitting in the grandstands. Your peripheral vision is limited. You strap yourself into the seat with a five-point safety harness and you can’t move as much. Then there’s adjusting to the track lighting and dealing with mud and dust.”

Boals says rookie drivers in NASCAR are often told to go out and follow a veteran at the track for about 10 laps or so to see the best lines to take. A track veteran may also be willing to drive your car for a few laps and offer handling tips. “Find the guy who’s good and the guy who’s competing well and learn from him,” Boals says. “You wouldn’t try to fly an airplane without an instructor, so use an instructor to learn how to get around the track.”

He says the main goal should be to have a good time. “Remember that you’re out there to have fun, not to win the Daytona 500.”