Hot Rodding Is A Pyramid: Start With The Foundation
Glasses fill from the bottom up, puppies are born with proportionally huge paws and young human feet grow to adult size before most other body parts. This is nature's way of telling us that foundations count in all things. For those of us who have built, or tried to build our own hot rods or personal automotive performance creations starting with an older car and regardless of nationality, we quickly learn this foundational lesson. Fill the car up from the bottom first, or you'll have an unbalanced, teetering, vexing machine of ill temper and even worse handling. It begins with deciding on a primary use. Cars dedicated for drag strip fun work best using the opposite in concept to a car bound for illicit 5:00am twisty Andretti impersonations, or for a proper road course. This is your first decision and really the hardest, now that outfits such as the Goodguys have serious racing machines competing in autocross competition at so many events. For muscle cars, it's not just drag racing anymore. RELATED: See images of the Dodge Roadster Pickup Hot Rod
If you're truly into a dual-mode drag and road course life for your car, skew the chassis for the twisty stuff and forego the drag-dedicated four-link rear suspensions and tubbed chassis you see at the local drags. They simply won't allow for acceptable performance on a circuit whereas a car built and set up for road course use can be made to work fairly well on the strip, especially if it has about 500 hp or less.
So, the first bit of work has to be the chassis' structure, likely including a roll cage of some sort. If you've chosen to dive into a convertible project, no track worth its salt will allow you on track without a rollover bar, at a minimum. Ask any Boxster or Miata or Z3/Z4 enthusiast.
This is a crucial investment not just in safety, but when you decide to give up stuffing that Hellcat crate motor in your BMW 2002, a well-executed chassis strengthening exercise will reap rewards even with 500 fewer horsepower. And by chassis, I mean the whole chassis, which includes suspension work and - most vitally - brakes. Brakes are the single most important component or system in any car, regardless of intended use. Even if your creation will only see the drag strip, it also must be able to stop before you run out of return roads and plow into Mrs. Oldfield's cows. I've seen (and driven!) a few ill-prepared drag cars that barely slowed even with both feet plunging the brake pedal to, and past the floor. I've refused to drive others.
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For a hot rod that will see road courses or autocrosses, getting spring rates, damping, anti-roll bars and the wheel alignment correct, or at least in a proper zone is a book or three unto itself. It's also unique to each car, the type of course and allowable modifications. Yet, there's creative interpretation. Indeed, the SCCA's old Showroom Stock series gave us the phrase "it takes a whole lot of work to make a car really stock."
One concept I've always admired by some chassis experts is what I call "softest possible." If you think about a suspension's core duty, it is to keep the wheels in contact with the road surface as much as possible. That means the suspension must conform to the road's topography, however bumpy, as you're bombing around sideways with your hair on fire. In the theoretical world, you achieve that with a very soft suspension and unlimited travel. But theory is never reality. That's why semi-pro and pro teams always carry a slew of springs, anti-roll bars and dampers to suit whatever course they're visiting. As a hobbyist not racing full-time, you have to compromise, so many manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers with solid experience have sets of these components to provide a good basis. You could spend extraneous thousands on various suspension bits and then be tangled up in decisions and parts while taking away from the fun. Don't go overboard and get your shorts in a knot about dialing things in like Roger Penske.
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In the midst of all this is you. None of us are willing to admit that we can be the weak link in the performance chain. But we often are. Chances are slim that you're the next Dale Earnhardt or Ayrton Senna or Don Garlits, so fix yourself up and spend some money on a real driving school. There are more seconds and tenths of seconds to be gained by improving your own driving skill than by a supercharger, a nitrous kit or cheater slicks. By the way, driving schools are not limited to those that focus on road courses like Bob Bondurant or Skip Barber. Doug Foley and Roy Hill run schools for drag racing and Frank Hawley's school has even cross-trained racers from outside drag racing including, years ago, some F1 drivers to help them with standing starts. Tuning up your own reaction times, developing your peripheral vision, and honing your smoothness in changing direction and applying brakes and throttle will net you far more performance and you'll feel better at the wheel.
Finally, you can then consider the engine. Never jump right to the limit of your wallet or the rules (if you're actually going to compete where there are such things). Leave buffer and room for improvement over time and with experience. For example, do not jump immediately into a supercharger package, especially if you haven't gone through, and reliably run the car's cooling system first.
Steps. Take logical steps in the hot rodding process, not enormous leaps.
There's another old phrase in racing and it works frighteningly well regarding engines: "Speed costs money; how fast do you want to go?"
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