Anyone who has ever tried to build a race or rally car has experienced the ups and downs that go along with building even an entry level car. Building a competitive car on a privateer’s budget can be an even bigger challenge. 2010 Ontario Performance Rally Champion, Nicola Narini joins Driven Wheels to explain why building your own car might not be the right choice for you.
Why you shouldn’t build your own rally car
Yes, that’s right. This is a story about why you should NOT build your own rally car. With DIY’s and “built not bought” being all the rage these days, I wanted to take the time to say something different about this car building adventure. Bear with me though, it’s not a negative story and there is a happy ending.
First, a little about me. I have built 3 of my own rally cars from “scratch”. They were built to varying degrees and went through a few changes through their life span, but they all started from basically a stock street car and went on to become dirt slaying, jumping machines. I now build all kinds of cars for all kinds of customers. I’m not here to brag, so I won’t quote results. But know that my personal rally cars were proper rally cars, not a jacked up WRX with truck tires on it. I’m not saying I built these “gravel machine guns” on my own. No, I’ve been very lucky over the years to have the support of a very talented bunch of friends and family that have encouraged my madness. Having said that, I am able to do everything there is to build a car on my own. I can design, paint, wrap, mold, weld, bend, wire, machine, drill, tune, and adjust basically every component on a modern race car. Oh, and I’m fairly certain I’m an ok driver too.
I learned these things through some trial and error, but mostly from knowing what I don’t know and asking as many people, as many questions as they will tolerate, then going back the next day and asking even more questions. I jumped on every opportunity to talk to someone with more experience. I have driven through the night, eaten terrible gas station meals, worked in other people’s shops for free, and done ridiculous favors just to get a glimpse of part of a car I didn’t understand or to spend 30 sec with an ex-Colin McRae Impreza and a real Group B Audi. I’ve probably lost weeks of sleep if you add it all up, but I got to see some really cool shit along the way.
I always go in to every encounter pretending I know nothing. There is always something the other person can teach you. Even if it is how NOT to do something. It is amazing what you can learn just from letting someone ramble on about cars and life. It wasn’t easy getting to this mindset. I started my first rally car when I was 17 and at that age, you “know everything”. I read stuff on the internet and a couple books, then all of a sudden I was an expert. Then I made some mistakes and parts broke. It was much easier once I started learning from other people’s mistakes. I will say, it is easier being younger than most of the people I want to learn from. I think there is sort of a parental instinct to teach the younger generation. Whatever it is, I still take full advantage of it.
Before the most recent rally car build, my team and I came up with a phrase to help guide us in that build and future builds. “Doing things cheaper just costs more.” Basically, that means sometimes trying to find a cheaper way to do something just causes frustration and wasted time. When you’re on a tight budget, time is money so you can’t afford to lose any of that as well as actual cash. Never mind the fact that when the “jimmy rig” or “backyard mechanic” mod fails, you have to go buy the expensive one anyways.
I’m not saying, “Don’t modify your car”. Absolutely the contrary. I love modified cars of all kinds. I consider myself a true car guy. I can appreciate any car that has had thought, time, and effort put in to it. A well done car is an expression of the owner/builder and there are some truly talented people out there building cars. I love a slammed Honda on properly fitted Enkei rims with a Spoon spoiler and a Type R swap just as much as I like a massively blown Hemi stuffed into a Charger with gigantic slicks on the back. I can also appreciate things that are a little far out there. The current trend of ridiculous camber and stretched wheels is not my thing, but I admire the effort to build the car and the dedication to drive it more than 10 feet. I completely understand trying to do things on a budget too. But there are some things that just shouldn’t be done “cheaper”.
I will pick on myself for an example. When we were building our most recent rally car. We wanted to build the absolute best car we could. I feel we achieved that and beyond, but that’s beside the point. We had a very strict budget to adhere to but we knew where the problem areas would be on a rally car so we focused on those first. The shell was straightforward. All it takes is time to prepare one of the best shells in North America. Trust me, I’ve seen THE best. Ours is pretty darn close. But, one area we knew we had to spend money on was wiring. We have seen way too many issues with cut up stock wiring or cheaply built custom harnesses. However, when we did our budget, there just wasn’t enough room to build a proper race car harness from scratch as we had to spend some of our precious funds on go-fast bits.
Here’s where the “doing things cheaper” comes in. We could have chopped up the stock, dirty, corroded harness that came with our donor car. But that would have led to no end of mysterious gremlins. So, we learned all we could about wiring from one of the best rally car builders in North America and figured out what would work from a stock harness and where the weak links were. We sourced a “brand new” stock harness for the basis and for the factory connectors. Then we found the highest quality wire and connector pins we could and convinced the supplier to give us wholesale pricing even though we had a small order. This way, we were able to add what was needed with factory pins and good quality wire instead of soldering some cheap speaker wire to the stock wiring. This made for a much simpler system to find any issues with. With careful planning and a lot of patience, we built a harness that looks and functions like an expensive harness for a fraction of the cost. Now we know that when there is an issue with the car, it probably isn’t a problem with the wires or the connections.
The point of the wiring harness story, is that doing things cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean spending less money, it’s about spending it wisely. I am all for doing things on a budget. But there are just some things that can’t be done without spending some cash. It is how and where you spend the cash. It is easy to get caught up in having 500hp+ and then not worrying about the brakes because all the cash went in to the massive turbo. Or, trying to put a no-name knock off turbo on a built engine and then having to buy the real turbo anyways because the fake one destroyed itself after the first dyno run. In that case, you should have just bought a real turbo in the first place. It would have saved you the entire cost of the knock off. The big one that gets me is suspension on rally cars. People buy cheap coil overs all the time and they break. Then they buy another set of cheap stuff and those break too. Then they get fed up and buy the “proper” ones. So, they should have just bought the proper ones in the first place and saved the value of two sets of “cheap” coil overs.
Back to why you really shouldn’t build your own rally car. Especially if you want to drive it yourself. Rally is a tough sport. Some say one of the toughest in the world. Some of the top drivers seem to not even really enjoy the driving, they do it for the challenge. There are events that last days or even weeks where you and the crew will only get a few hours’ sleep, if any. People die all the time too. That’s ok, the stress of driving the car you built and having about 10 people waiting at the service park for you to make it back in one piece (and with the fastest time) probably will take years off your life anyways. Never mind knowing that what few fans you do have will be utterly disappointed if they don’t see you during the next stage and you best be going flat out so they get good pictures. Then when something breaks, you’re in the middle of the woods and all you have is a small tool kit to fix it. You’re usually cold or dripping with sweat or strangely both, covered in mud or snow, and there’s the aspect that you have to make it within a certain time or all your efforts will be for nothing. There is not much worse than busting your backside in a ditch to get the car running again only to have to drive back to service and park because you were too late to a stage.
Then there is the money and time aspect. Rally will take up the majority of your time, any free cash that you’re not keeping an eye on, and it will stress your relationships to the max. You will lose friends and your family will continually ask “You’re working on the car AGAIN?” No, not again, STILL. It’s perpetual work, thanks for the support.
“Finishing a stage slightly out of breath with bits of sapling hanging from your mirrors is amazingly satisfying.”
Now, having said all of that, here’s the plot twist. I love rally. There is nothing else like it. Nailing the perfect stage. Making everything come together on a lonely piece of gravel or snow or beat up tarmac. Getting perfectly in sync with the car and your co-driver. Flying through the air and landing perfectly set up slightly sideways for the next turn. Clipping trees and hooking ditches. Finishing a stage slightly out of breath with bits of sapling hanging from your mirrors is amazingly satisfying. The best stages of my life, are the best moments of my life. I vividly remember awesome runs through tough sections of stages. There were times when I would be finishing a stage and being on the brink of tears or almost dying with laughter because it was so awesome. When the co-driver feels it too and he’s laughing or going “wow that was awesome”, it is even better. When you get only one or two shots at a road and you nail it. That is just the best thing ever. Then, rolling in to the service park, knowing you made some time on the guy in front of you or pulled away from the guy behind and the crew knows it too and you can feel the
excitement. No one really talks because there is work to be done, the car has to get ready to go out and do it again, but the energy is in the air. There’s not much that I have experienced that comes close. There is an immense sense of achievement after all the hard work. Also, jumping a car at the top of 6th gear on gravel is wicked fun!!
I called this story why not to build a rally car, because there are so many people out there saying “you can do it yourself” that it makes things seem easy. Oh ya, just bolt on some suspension and weld in a cage to your wrx and you can compete with Subaru USA. Well, no, not really. But, if you’re careful and you plan and budget properly and set realistic goals, you can go out and have the time of your life. You will visit places and meet people that will change how you view the world. You will experience things that only a handful of people get to experience. Rally has its ups and downs of course. So does anything worth doing. But, you CAN build your own car and you CAN go and compete with people that have spent more money than you. But it takes a massive amount of dedication and hard work as well as a bunch of luck mixed in with some natural talent. There are tons and tons of reasons not to build your own car.
One of which is that I would love to have you pay me and my shop to build it for you. But if your passion is motorsport and you want a challenge like no other AND you have some support from your family (“I don’t have friends, I have family” applies really well to anyone that still talks to you after you get them to help you service at the first rally) then get out there and build it. Build the best damn car you can and then go kick the ever living shit out of it. Rally cars are built to take a beating and that is the best part about them. You don’t have to be afraid to scratch the paint or dent the rims. You get to slap it sideways and jump over that blind crest without a care in the world. If you want to have a car that is always clean and you get upset by paint chips. You actually shouldn’t build a rally car. But go build something else equally as awesome. I’ll admire it while wiping the mud off my car.