Recapturing the glory: A guide to buying and racing a classic NASCAR ride

Jeff Gordon #24 DuPont Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Would it surprise you to know that vintage racing is actually one of the most affordable ways to get involved in door-to-door competition? (Once you've factored out the high-dollar, Le Mans-winning prototypes and early Ferraris that cross the auction block for roughly the GDP of Samoa, of course.)

Owning a classic race car isn't all wire wheels and leather helmets, and although the sports car crowd often gets much of the spotlight when it comes to antique metal turning in hot laps, there also exists a thriving subculture of readily available, easy-to-maintain, and very affordable track rides. I'm talking, of course, about old-school NASCAR stock cars, your under-the-radar ticket to sneaking a little Coors onto the concours lawn.

Why go classic?

Why would you want an old stock car? Let me try to convince you.

2012 Dodge Charger driven by Brad Keselowski
2006 Chevrolet Impala

First of all, until very, very recently, NASCAR has kept its rulebook very simple in terms of describing the mechanical dos and don'ts of building a car for competition. To wit: you're looking at a tube frame with a full roll cage topped with a fiberglass body, a basic four-speed manual gearbox, and a 5.7-liter-or-so pushrod V-8 fed by a carburetor sitting between the front fenders

Now throw in the fact that mixing and matching bodies with chassis is relatively easy to do, and that aero and suspension adjustments on these cars are simple enough that you won't require a degree in, well, anything to run a safe and effective setup, and the plug-and-play appeal of these unfinicky beasts becomes clear.

Of course, there are a few details you'll want to work out before handing over a deposit on a historically-significant rolling billboard.

Pick an era, (almost) any era

There are several different eras of NASCAR stock cars out there on the market, each with its own pros, cons, and quirks. Technically, you could go back to the early ’50s and search for any of the wide range of Hudsons, Pontiacs, Fords, and Chevrolets that hit the sands at Daytona, but in addition to being rare these vehicles are almost always near stock in terms of power and performance, and as such are better suited to static display or on-road cruising than actual modern racing. The same can be said for ’60s and, to a certain degree, ’70s cars, although the latter are easier to update to modern safety and handling standards.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2006 Monte Carlo
Barrett-Jackson
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2006 Monte Carlo

There are two sweet spots for vintage NASCAR ownership. Stock cars that were built in the 1980s and ’90s walk the line between classic looks and ease-of-maintenance, as their sturdy construction and ability to receive a variety of drivetrains make them Swiss Army knives when it comes to putting together a track package that you can afford to campaign. The 1981–91 cars have a shorter 110-inch wheelbase compared to their predecessors and, in terms of styling and aero, offer everything from the brick-like Chevrolets, Buicks, and Pontiacs to the bullet-shaped Ford Thunderbirds. The 1991-and-newer cars are more aero-sensitive at higher speeds and offer additional freedom in terms of body shape.

The leading edge of this particular window is becoming narrower by the year, however, as supplies of early ’80s NASCAR “steel bumper” survivors dry up and prices climb accordingly. More easily attainable are Cup cars that ran past the year 2000, which can be divided into traditional and Car of Tomorrow-type designs. These cast-offs from pro teams are plentiful on the ground, and are not difficult to find in race-ready shape.

If you find yourself on a tight budget or live in an area where grassroots stock car racing is a going concern, then you may want to wade out into the pool of the lesser series that run NASCAR-style specs. ARCA, Busch (and its many sponsorship name changes), NASCAR West, Late Model, NASCAR Elite, and a host of other championships throw off race cars on a regular basis as teams fold, drivers retire, or teams whittle down their inventory to a single ride.

2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
2010 Toyota Camry

Roller or runner?

You'll also have to decide whether you're interested in purchasing a runner or a roller. The former is a car that features a fully intact drivetrain, usually in competition trim, although not necessarily the same engine that was used during its racing heyday. The latter is a rolling shell that will require you to install your own engine and transmission.

The advantages of a runner is that it gets you behind the wheel of a relatively turn-key racer, and providing that you get full details of the car's running gear and engine build (and that you can afford to maintain whatever beast-like tune it's running), this is a solid choice, particularly for post-2000 cars. You can pick up an early-2000s runner for as little as $30,000 with its original drivetrain on a site like Race-Cars.com or CarsOnline, two of the most popular clearing-houses for old school fiberglass. But be warned: the more spares, and the better the pedigree the car has, the higher the price tag. If you're a big spender, you can even approach a current NASCAR team about buying a recently-retired racer, but be prepared to fork over six figures for something that fresh.

A rolling shell is more appealing if you've got a race-ready engine sitting in your garage and simply want to wrap the NASCAR shell around your reliable setup. Prices are all over the map for rollers, but they can start as low as $10,000 for a mid-pack chassis featuring a more obscure livery or not-so-famous driver history.

What are they like to drive?

As simple as NASCAR stock cars are, it would be a mistake to think that their basic V-8 designs aren't capable of putting out substantial power. Over the last 35 years, Cup cars have put out between 600 and 800 ponies, and, in fact, it's so easy to skirt the rulebook with an engine that looks entirely legal that one high profile classic NASCAR racing series actually shut down a decade or so ago after it could no longer police what the teams were bringing to the track (a situation that lead to a glut of rollers hitting the market as privateer teams moved on).

1981 Pontiac
Barrett-Jackson
1981 Pontiac

All this to say that with that much power in a car weight in the neighborhood of 3400 pounds, you'll have to pay attention behind the wheel. These cars aren’t difficult to drive, but they don't have the finesse of a modern sports car and can see high cabin temperatures after a full throttle session bleeds heat through the firewall. You'll also need to know whether the car you are buying was set up for go fast / turn left oval racing, or the more even balance required for a road course. Oval cars feature a chassis and suspension that is dramatically different than a road course car, and while there are plenty of excellent resources out there to help you get your classic dialed in, make sure you're starting from the right foundation.

Regardless of what you buy, you'll have to make sure safety is up to date. Just because your car comes with a full roll cage that may have been state of the art the year it was installed, doesn’t mean you should assume that it passes modern muster—or that whatever club you choose to run with won't require additional, and specific, safety equipment. Always make sure you read the rules of any organization you intend to join before showing up at the track to avoid a disappointing day in the pits.

Who to run with?

Now that you've got the stock car of your dreams sitting in your garage, you're probably wondering where you can uncork it and “drive it like you stole it”—or whatever other marketing catchphrase you'd prefer to use as a descriptor for your track day antics.

2011 Toyota Camry
RM Sotheby's
2011 Toyota Camry – Kyle Busch #18 NASCAR Race Car

The good news is that classic Cup cars and their ilk are welcome at almost any high performance driving event you're likely to come across. Unlike other race cars, their bulk makes them easy to see in a mixed field of drivers, and provided they've been updated, their sturdy construction gives them a good reputation for safety. Vintage races across the country also have a place for most old school NASCAR rides, with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association and Historic Sportscar Racing each offering a good starting point to find dates and events near you that are friendly to vintage Cup.

You can also put their aerodynamics to the test with some land speed racing. There’s no class for NASCAR cars in the SCTA, so while you can run at Bonneville and El Mirage, it would be for time only and you wouldn’t be eligible for setting any records. However, if you’d like to stay off the salt and silt, the ECTA does have a class ready-made for these retired race cars at their standing mile events and you can vie for a spot in the 200mph Club.

Only one question remains: What are you waiting for? It's time to grab that fire suit, thank your sponsor, and invest in a tractor trailer full of foot-wide slicks for a summer season full of NASCAR fun.