Planning to build a race car from scratch is a lot like watching a sunrise in the desert—pretty to watch take shape, but you know the heat is coming soon. That is basically where we stand at Circle Track magazine; both our previous race car buildup projects have been retired, and it’s time to start fresh all over again. It’s pretty exciting—after all, buildup projects are a lot of fun to watch develop for both readers and the poor grunts spending too many nights away from home turning wrenches.

So you can imagine how our ears perked up while we were chewing the fat with longtime racer Rudy Zeck (who is also Speedway Motorsports director of research and development), and he mentioned he and his son, Ryan, were thinking of building a new car for the upcoming season.

A new car? What type, exactly? Ever thought about writing for a magazine? The poor man never knew what an innocent phrase like, “Sure, why not?” could get him into.

The Crew

You might say Rudy Zeck has a checkered past in motorsports—checkered flags that is. Rudy started racing ’50s-era Chevrolets in 1967 in California, and won track championships at Redwood Acres in ’68 and ’75. In addition to his 13 years as a driver, Rudy also spent several years as a crew chief for a Grand National team that raced at Ontario (California) and Riverside (California). Lately he’s put his effort toward advancing Ryan’s racing career. In ’94 Rudy, wife Pam and Ryan packed up and moved from their Eureka, California, home to new digs in Concord, North Carolina, where he signed on with Speedway Motorsports, the company that owns six tracks that host NASCAR Winston Cup races.

Twenty-four-year-old Ryan has been racing since he was nine and one way or another intends to make racing a career. When he’s not driving or working on his own cars, he works as a chassis engineer at Robert Yates Racing. Driving or working on a setup, it’s all the same as Ryan sees it.

“Racing fed my desire to further my education,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to design parts on a race car and advance the technology so it would go faster.”

Ryan has been racing Late Models since ’93, when he won three races and was the Rookie of the Year at Coos Bay International Speedway (Oregon) and Redwood Acres Speedway (California). In all, he’s won six Late Model races in limited starts. Ryan was the first recipient of the Alan Kulwicki Memorial Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and graduated in ‘99 with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering.

The Plan

It didn’t take long to talk Rudy and Ryan into letting Circle Track come on board and cover the process. Because Ryan’s dream is to race for a living in one of NASCAR’s top series, the two felt the best step was to compete in a touring series. To that end, the American Racing Association Late Model Stock series seemed like a perfect fit. The ARA’s top division visits several tracks but doesn’t require the competitors to travel across the country, it works to keep costs in check, the cars are almost identical to NASCAR Late Models and it even has television coverage.

“The biggest reason we want to race the ARA Late Model Stock series is we believe it will be good experience,” Rudy says. “You are not always racing at the same track, so you’ve got to learn how to set up the car and drive different tracks on different weeks.”

The ARA is also attractive to the Zecks because it isn’t a national series. The 20 races on the schedule are all in the Southeast: specifically Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. That means that everyone, including the volunteer crew they depend on, can get to the races without having to quit their jobs. Being basically a two-man effort, it was also vital that the races are short enough that green-flag pit stops won’t be necessary.

Rudy and Ryan will work with a five-person crew: themselves, two volunteers and, of course, Pam, who acts as lap timer, cook, part-time wrench and full-time den mother.

The Car

Familiar as your own bedroom. Comfortable as those ratty bedroom slippers you only wear when you’re sick. That’s the way Rudy must feel around race cars—specifically Late Models. The ARA Late Model Stock holds to the tried-and-true formula. Nothing too fancy here: steel body, stock cast-iron block and heads, 350 cubic inch (or thereabouts) engines and tubular steel frames are the hallmark. The average car can be built for $35,000, with most of that wrapped up in the engine. No extreme technology is allowed, so teams have to depend on their own prowess, both with nailing setups and driving. For a more complete breakdown, see the sidebar “Nuts and Bolts.”

The first step for Rudy and Ryan was to settle on a foundation—they needed a chassis. They had a mildly damaged NASCAR Late Model sitting in their small shop but decided to start fresh. So they sought out the services of Gene Leicht of Leicht Race Cars in Arden, North Carolina. Gene is a popular chassis builder in the Southeast and the first choice of the team to craft a platform. His shop is a very low-volume operation, and that actually helped sway both Rudy and Ryan.

“Gene doesn’t have a ton of cars going out of his shop every year, and that actually was important to us,” Rudy explains. “There is more attention to detail, plus he’s local. Gene goes to the racetracks, and if you are racing one of his chassis, you know he’s going to be there if you need him.”

American Racing Association
SC  29201
Leicht Race Cars
NC  28704