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What’s it like to drive a race-winning, low-budget race car?

Many people dream of being a race car driver but are put off by what they think it’ll cost, but it’s not as expensive or difficult as you may think.

IT MAY SOUND like stating the obvious when we say a race car is different to a normal car. Aren’t race cars meant to be super-fast, super-expensive like Formula 1 cars? Well, no.

Wakefield Park, NSW, on a Pulsar race day. Photo credit: APRA Facebook page.

There’s two main differences between race cars and normal cars, neither of which involves speed. The first is safety. A race car has a full rollcage, the driver must wear safety gear such as a fireproof suit, a full helmet with a head restraint system is a must, and the seat is non-adjustable and wraps around the driver. A fire extinguisher system is also mandatory. It is interesting to note that with all the focus on road safety – lowering of speed limits and the like – the car occupant’s safety is ignored. If we really took safety seriously then we’d suit up like race drivers.

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The other difference is race-robustness. A race car is designed to pound around a race circuit lap after lap without failing. A road car can’t do that, not even the flash sports cars, with honourable exceptions to some Porsche and Lotus models. After a few laps almost all sportscars will destroy their brakes, possibly overheat transmissions or gearboxes or otherwise give up. This is why the top modification we recommend for prospective track day drivers – after driver training – is to upgrade the brakes.

So a race car is mostly about safety and robustness, and it can either be a car designed from the ground up to race like an open-wheeler, or a road car modified to race. Outright speed doesn’t matter if everyone is running the same car modified to the same extent, and such competitions are known as a ‘control’ series. And this Nissan Pulsar you see is exactly that, a 1995 Nissan Pulsar N14 modified to the Australian Pulsar Racing Association (APRA) Series rules, which are open to N14 and N15 Pulsars.

Owner Lee Nuttall first got into Pulsars when he was 18, and moved into sprints – competitive timed events, kind of like qualifying for a race but not actually racing. Sprints satisfied his need for speed, but he told us “that got boring after a while and I wanted to step up to something more, and this series seemed like a good fit for me.”

Lee says his Pulsar “started life as my Dad’s road car with a 1.6L engine in it, real bog stock, so we did everything to it. Did a 2.0L engine conversion while it was still a road car, pretty much put it up to top level spec. Once Dad was done with it we turned it into a race car to meet the series rules.” Now Lee has competed in the Victorian-level championship for four years, netting several race wins and finishing second overall in the series for 2016.

Lee invited me to drive his Pulsar at a private test day held at Winton Raceway, and as a matter of courtesy I handed over the keys to my own Toyota 86, itself no stranger to the turns at Winton. My 86 will lap Winton in about the same time as the Pulsar, but the differences are significant.

The Pulsar is, as befits a non-road-legal race car, stripped out to save weight. As with all good control series, there is a minimum weight of 1100kg with driver, and that’s light. My 86 weighs around 1350kg with me in it, a significant 250kg difference. That means the Pulsar’s lower power doesn’t need to shift as much weight as the 86, so it’s got good acceleration out of the tighter corners.

There were a few differences to a race setup. Lee hadn’t fitted the series-standard Toyo R888R race tyres, running on three-year-old, worn Hankook RS3s, there were two people in the car, and it’s the first time he’s run the car full of fuel. Usually it is filled just enough to finish the race.

Getting into the Pulsar wasn’t as easy as the 86, thanks to the full rollcage. And once in, the driving position is fixed, set for the main driver. Fortunately, I’m nearly the same height as Lee but it appears I prefer my steering wheel closer so I was a bit far away to be comfortable, but close enough to work nevertheless. The Pulsar runs an aftermarket Alcantara-clad steering wheel which is removable so you can get in and out with difficulty as opposed to needing to remove limbs. 

There’s a five-point harness too, whereas I run a four-pointer in my car. The harness is the usual fiddly effort to do up, always hampered by the fact you’re wearing a full-face helmet so can’t see downwards properly, and encased in a body-hugging suit. This is why it’s helpful to have people to do up your straps for you – lap, centre and then finally shoulder straps to pin you tight. Once that’s done, it’s time to start, and that’s different too. Race cars don’t have keys, just isolater switches and buttons. So switch on, press and the engine burbles into life, loudly due to the modified exhaust and lack of sound deadening. Not that I mind, my helmet is a pretty effective noise-cancelling device.

Out onto the track and the acceleration isn’t exactly mind-blowing, as you’d expect from a 105kW (at the flywheel) Pulsar. But the car is a good drive, far better than any 23-year-old hatchback should be. The gearshift is fairly long-throw for a sports car, but it’s precise and firm. The steering is direct and the handling is sharp too, aided by grippy tyres, wheel alignment settings designed for racing agility, not road use, and that all-important low weight. The Pulsar is a little bundle of fun, easy to drive but hard to master, a low-power car so it’s all about finesse not brutality. I try to be as smooth as possible, minimising the steering inputs and keeping momentum high. 

Corner after corner my confidence builds, and I try dropping down to second for tighter corners rather than cruising in third gear. I start to find the Pulsar’s limits, at least in my hands – the car starts to rotate under trail braking (turning while braking), which is as intended, a useful way to get the nose angled into corners.  In fact, you can get too carried away with that technique at the end of the day I have wound on more opposite lock in the Pulsar than I did in my rear-drive Toyota 86.

Lee has fitted a limited-slip differential to the front, and under power out of the slower corners it’s clear there is a technique to getting power down to the ground. I work to minimise steering inputs under power so as not to overwhelm the front end. Other Pulsars tend to run welded front differentials.

The rawness of the car appeals too. You can feel everything, hear everything. The suspension tells you exactly what’s happening on the track, you can almost feel the gears interlocking, the steering constantly feeds back as you apply power… it’s a pure, direct sensory experience. And there is no engine note playing through speakers here, not unless you count the amplification of each stroke of the engine or pulse of the exhaust through the body. 

Braking is different to a modern car, as I’m about to find out. I progressively reduce the braking points, braking later and later… then… too late and the car slides straight on, and we have a little off-track excursion. Then I remember there’s no ABS on this car, and it would have been a long time since I did threshold braking without electronic assistance. So when I lock the brakes and squeeze harder that only makes things worse. There are no electronics to save the day here, just the way it should be. Lee doesn’t say anything from the passenger seat, but enough is enough so I bring the car in.

So how fast is the Pulsar? The lap record is 1.42.2, compared to an MX-5 racecar at 1.35.9, and the Supercars at 1.23.3. After a few laps I finish up running a 1.45.2 compared to a 1.42.5 in my own car, and I have to say the Pulsar is at least as much fun as the 86, a renowned driver’s car. And as a journalist I get to drive lots of new sportscars on racetracks, all of which would smash the Pulsar for speed. Well, for at least three laps before something melted. 

But you know what? This budget race car is now more of a hot hatch than any new car you care to name. Driving is about involvement, enjoyment, mastery and immersion. Frankly, I’d rather hammer this Pulsar around Winton than a modern, electronically-aided sports car because it’s pure driving, direct reward of skill, total immersion and therefore real fun. So much so I’m looking up prices of N14 Pulsars, and Lee tells me that “car prices depend where you buy one from, there’s people running with $500 eBay specials, or you can spend couple of grand on a really well looked after clean example.”

Once you have your basic Pulsar it needs to be turned into a race car. Lee reckons that “costs can vary, depends on how extreme you want to build. For base items/control parts it is around $850 for tyres, $950 for Yellowspeed coilovers [suspension], $1600-$2000 on rollcage depending on spec (weld in/bolt in etc). Then you have the safety gear; seat, harness, window net, cut off switch, CAMS stickers (tow points, battery stickers etc.) that’s all up to the builder.”

That’s the vehicle, but this is motorsport so there’s always another dollar to spend. Lee says that, “there are a few extra costs involved in coming new to any series. Need at least a state level CAMS competition license, around $300. That involves at least an observed license test for another $350, and a medical – mine was $120, but depends on what your doctor charges. The car also has to be CAMS log booked, so another $110, plus $50 for someone to inspect it.”

Then there’s all the driver’s safety gear too. Lee estimates that “all the safety gear; suit, helmet, gloves, shoes, underwear, head restraint system, you’re looking at $2000+, it depends on the spec of equipment you buy.”

So what’s the total likely to be? “All up if you budget $8-10k that will get you a competitive car.” Compare that to the ‘budget’ Toyota 86 race series where the modifications are around $25,000 and even the stat writeoff 86s are way more than $2000.

But there’s more cost than just the vehicle. Lee points out that “once the car is built it is no longer roadworthy so it has to be trailered to events so there’s trailer hire or purchase, plus finding a suitable tow car and storage.”

Then there’s the race costs. You won’t get insurance, so any damage – your fault or otherwise – comes out of your own pocket. Race entry is around $280, and each meet the car uses petrol, brakes, and tyres. Lee estimates that “depending on how aggressive your wheel alignment is you can use a set of tyres in two race meetings or you can make a set last most of the year, depends how you use them. I tend to get around 3-4 rounds out of a set. It is pretty much the same with brakes depending on the type of pad you use, with limited testing you could easily run a season on a set of rotors and pads.”

 

So there you go. If you start with absolutely nothing you could set yourself up with a racecar on a trailer ready to tow to a race meet for comfortably under $15,000, less if you shop around or do work yourself. Then you too can experience how a humble mid ’90s hatchback can still deliver modern thrills in 2017.  

Lee would like to thank all his sponsors, particularly All Stairs and Hoops. We’d both like to thank Trik Trailers for the access to Winton Raceway.

Further reading

Want to try racing? Whichever way you cut it, racing cars is not cheap, but the Pulsar race series is about as cheap as it gets for full-sized cars. If you want a taster of speed on a track then you can use your own sportscar at any of hundreds of club-level or several commercial track day schools, or consider radio-control, computer simulator or karting.

Here’s a video introducing the race series:

And here’s what Lee’s race car looks like from behind!


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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!