The time to make a decision about buying a new race car may be out of your hands. Repairs
It has to happen if you stay in racing long. Your first race car may have been someone's hand-me-down or a swap-meet bargain. It helped you through the formative stages, but now your racing program has moved to the next level. It's time to get your first brand-new race car.
Sounds daunting, doesn't it? It doesn't have to be if you are an informed buyer. That's the type of customer the chassis companies love to work with. Everyone is usually quite satisfied with the results when this process is put into place.
Most of today's chassis manufacturers have decades of experience. They've kept a steady eye on the pulse of the racing world, in some cases seeing trends go and then return. They listen to the customers' raves and rants, always thinking of the elusive ways to build a better race car.
When you pick up the phone to make the call, you're buying more than a series of pipes welded into a structural form. You're buying that experience, and, in many cases, the service that goes with it. It's not a decision to take lightly. It has to fit with your objectives on track and your situation in the shop.
"They need to decide where they're going to be racing," says Harley Boeve of Port City Race Cars. "Sometimes that may require two cars. You want to make the car good for where it is going to be raced. You want to maximize the car's ability at the track."
"The rules are important to know," adds Chas Howe of Howe Racing. "They should have the track rules before they call. A lot of times, if they tell you the track, you may be able to get the rules online."
A bare chassis is a beauty to behold. It's a precise work that requires time and patience.
"Knowing what they want is the first thing," says Steve Baker of Rocket Chassis. "We get a lot of calls from people wanting stock clip cars, which we don't do. It helps to know what the company makes before you call. We'll get some who'll call and be very vague and then want to know a specific price. We can't give them that unless they know exactly what they want."
The situation with rules is especially tough on the guys who are thinking about racing at a couple of tracks. For some reason, promoters seldom link together. There are always slight differences. "Travelers have it better," says Boeve. "Promoters have quirks in their rules, but it's not so much the chassis as it is the engine in most cases."
"It's a lot easier for dirt cars," says Howe. "It seems like dirt cars can go just about anywhere. With asphalt, it's a little different."
The transfer of parts is an important consideration. "If they're taking a car apart from last season," says Baker, "they need to look at what they have and let us know that. We have a parts inventory that we can use to supplement the parts they have."
"You have to be careful when you're looking at building a roller for a customer who's transferring his parts," adds Boeve. "There are so many variations you have to consider."
A trend from the past is beginning to make a reappearance in the 21st century. "For the last two years, we've seen more customers buying kits and putting the cars together themselves," says Howe. "It was like that years ago, but then people were working overtime and making the money and not having the time to do it. Now they aren't working as much, so they have some time and want to save a few dollars. We're prepared to help them with that with a kit and a complete manual."
The successful chassis company will open up customer options. Rocket Chassis offers "everything from the bare chassis to a complete roller and everything in between," says Baker.
Crowded pit areas are becoming a common sight. As the late season specials run their cours
The amount of variation is the main reason a customer should be well informed before making a decision. "There are so many variations possible," says Boeve. "Take your basic offset chassis. It can race at five different tracks, but you'd have to have five different combinations because of the rules. Things were different six to eight years ago. For example, we raced in Colorado, Toledo (Ohio), Concord (North Carolina), Lanier (Georgia), and Jennerstown (Pennsylvania) with the same car. We did change engines once, but we used the same car."
There are two basic chassis styles for asphalt racers, and the rule books will often have a say in what type hits the track. The offset chassis (also known as "straight rail") can move the weight far left. The perimeter chassis has framerails that follow the outer perimeter of the body. Different front and rear suspension designs can be added to complete the package.
"We can build variations of the same car," Boeve says. "Ten years ago, the offset car was the most popular, which I feel is a safer car. Now, the perimeter car-or variations of it-is becoming popular."
Chassis manufacturers realize the competition is driving them to produce the best possible product. Every year, automakers in Detroit and Tokyo present the everyday driver with new options and new styles. It's really no different for the racer, except we don't park them on a lot.
"We're designing constantly," says Baker. "We're always evolving. We find something we think might work better and we put it to the test."
Constructing a chassis is a precise and time-consuming process. Measurements are taken oft
"You have to redesign constantly," adds Howe. "There are some things that stay the same for years. Cars don't go obsolete. They become obsolete because of rule changes."
"Redesign of the cars depends on a lot of factors," says Boeve. "You have to ask what's driving the market. If you have something that's working really well, you want to tweak it a little more and make it a little better. Then you can feed that directly to the customer."
"We do our research and development on the race track," continues Baker. "We get ideas from racers, customers, parts suppliers-just about anywhere. We even get some of them ourselves. We decide what we're going to try out and we see if it works. It could be a change in the existing cars or it could be a whole new car. Everybody wants the latest and the greatest, so you have to put it to the test."
The idea of winning on Sunday (or, in some cases, Friday and Saturday nights) really does translate into sales on Monday. The phones are generally busiest on a Monday at a chassis shop, especially while the company is celebrating a high-profile win.
"There's only one way to sell, and that's to win," says Howe. "You know you have good people in your cars who are out there racing to win. You realize that the trends work with you and they can work against you. It seems like you're always hot somewhere. There are some groups where the racers seem to prefer certain brands of race cars."
Backing winners is "the nature of the business," says Boeve. "Everybody is looking for the magic, and they're hoping this is it. It can be at times. One race doesn't make or break you. You can have a fast car, but it drops out of the competition. Having a fast car doesn't drive home the point like winning does. That's the frosting on the cake."
"It's tremendous," says Baker on the effect of winning. "It puts your name in everyone's mind. It gets seen by people all across the country, not just in the area where the guy races. When you don't win, you can't really talk about the accomplishment. You may have the most cars in the field, but if one of them didn't come home the winner, the other guy gets the attention."
Chassis builders don't generally solicit feedback from their customers. From the start of the season to the final checkered flag, most builders can be found at a racetrack on a weekly basis. They are also faced with phone calls.
"You have to listen to what [the customers] have to say," says Boeve. "What works in one part of the country may not work somewhere else-but it may. All the variables have to be worked in. Tracks can be night-and-day different."
"Hearing from customers is an important part of our business," says Howe. "I have two guys on the phone all the time. When you buy a car, the service should go with it. We can give you baseline setup ideas. You'll have to adjust them to fit your style. Communication with the customer is vital."
Most major chassis builders will also sell quality components to complete the race car. Some provide additional opportunities. Rocket Chassis hosts a chassis seminar each January to provide educational opportunity. The '04 session will be held January 16-18.
That communication needs to begin early if you're placing an order. The chassis companies stay busy with repairs during the season, but when the year winds down, orders for new cars start to take precedent.
"The early bird gets the worm," sums up Boeve. "When you have the rules and know what you want, that's the time to order. We used to have cars in inventory. Now we don't dare have more than six sitting around. You have to have lead time. If you're planning to start racing in February, then you need to order in August or September. You have to get your car and get it ready."
"The earlier the better works because it allows us to project what we can produce," says Baker. "If you want it for February, it has to be ordered before October. You could easily be looking at a wait of 8-10 weeks.
"We usually put our crews on a production schedule later in the year. This year, we had to do it in October. We have to produce 10 frames a week or four complete cars to keep up with the demand."
Typically, the calls coming to the builders can be new customers, repeat customers, or "transfers," drivers from within the division looking to change chassis builders. All are treated equally.
Says Howe, "My dad (legendary racer Ed Howe, who founded the company in 1971) said, 'When you have everyone running your car, be prepared to lose them all.' We've had customers come and go and we've weathered those times. You can't hold it against a guy if he wants to try something different. You need to treat everyone the same. We've had them go and come back. We've welcomed them."
If you're planning to have a new car at the start of the new season, you're probably too late (unless your track doesn't open until Mother's Day). If you're thinking about changing midseason, now is the time to complete the research and put your program in order. Allow a little time for shakedown because you're going to need a period of acclimation to the new surroundings. Soon you'll be hitting your stride in a quality ride, and you'll have the chassis maker backing you all the way to Victory Lane and beyond.