“Free” in this case is indeed relative to time and place, however I propose that being a automotive enthusiast is as inexpensive as $.55. That is roughly how much some car magazines charge per issue if you subscribe — it’s probably less these days. It may also be $.98 or whatever the going rate of a Hot Wheels car is in 2016. The point is that you don’t have to own cars to be an enthusiast and if you do, they don’t have to be expensive.
Many of you likely started life like I did, with a trashcan full of Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars. I read the bottom of every single one of them and memorized the make and model; still remains one of the foundation moments of my car enthusiast life that resulted in me writing this article on my laptop this morning. If you’re young, start small, buy scale models of the cars you want to own in real life. Subscribe to a great magazine like Car & Driver or Motor Trend and feel the excitement of seeing them show up in the mail.
This is all how I started, but I suppose I should mention the other tool at your disposal. You’re on it now. Yeah, the internet. It’s an incredible tool, full of, sadly, incredible tools. The upside is an amazing amount of information—petabytes of text, video, and images about your favorite car—produced by people like us who just want to let you know what’s good, what sucks, and what great stories you should read. The downside is incorrect information, sites that just repost the same news you read elsewhere, and the aforementioned tools. Swap an R for an O (and add an L) and you also get trolls, which you are probably also familiar with. Ideally you aren’t one. I doubt any of our readers are. They will tell you why the thing you like sucks, even though they’ve never seen or touched it, and have no real subject matter expertise.
I’m almost 40, so telling you about the internet is probably useless. If you’re here, you already know.
Before you ever own a car, you can attend events. When I grew up, there was no such thing as Cars & Coffee. I had to find a full-fledged car show somewhere to go drool over a Lamborghini Countach. Now, they are thick as tractors in a parking lot near you, every weekend. That didn’t make sense, but you get the idea, sorry Ferruccio. Find your local event, attend, meet people, it’s fun. Weekend track events are a blast to watch as well. I recall my first “Hyperfest“, now billed as the Automotive Amusement Park, at Summit Point somewhere around 2001. I parked my electron blue Honda Prelude next to a lineup of other Preludes and entered the fan area. It was a blast, I went on ride-alongs, I watched drifting competitions, it actually was like an amusement park, and I didn’t even take my own car out on track that day since I had my arm in a sling. Red Bull has the market cornered on showmanship when it comes to racing, as you hopefully saw by our incredibly up-close coverage of the DC Global RallyCross event. I’m still picking tire bits out of my hair.
Keep an eye on RFD, maybe we’ll even host an event like that in the future. /teaser
Enthusiast land does have an entrance fee, but it’s not much. Again, that’s relative, but our man Mike Thompson brings you sub $5000 cars you can buy today that will give you instant enthusiast cred. My own enthusiast story started in the late 1990s. I began driving somewhere around 1990 with a oddly desirable 1988 Nissan Pulsar NX. With it’s t-tops, high revving engine, and quirky taillights, it was a great first car. I went through a few cars before I really went off the enthusiast deep end. You can hear about it on the Untitled Car Show, as I spilled the beans (after a few too many bourbons) about my second car, a 1993 Mustang LX. Five-point-Oh, you’re saying! No. But that’s the point, drive what you can and enjoy it. Love the car you’re with, as Justin wrote.
Once you get a bit more entrenched in the enthusiast trenches, start to dabble in random used cars that you’re comfortable with. Not everyone will be comfortable buying a V12 Mercedes instead of a Miata, but it’s an option, or so I hear. How about a bugeye WRX wagon in world rally blue? It’s cheap, reliable, and even practical. Plus its fun to drive and very easy to modify. Check out a 1999+ Mustang GT (skip the 1996-1998 2V cars) for some V8 RWD fun. Point being, there are lot of fun, inexpensive, cars out there to try. As you can tell by my WheelWell garage, I’ve tried quite a few of them in order to find out what I like best. Your journey, and results, will likely very.
Many auto journalists have a dirty little secret. They don’t own a car. For many, it’s because journalism pays just enough to stay above the poverty line. For others, it’s because their boss thought it made sense to base them all in New York City, where it’s expensive to own a car to say the least (and see above about the compensation). I’m not here to throw stones, or “out” anyone, they are doing something they love and that’s what matters. And so can you! Just send $20.00 in a self-addressed, stamped envelope to RFD Staff, PO Box….just kidding.
Start writing. Start a YouTube channel. You may very well suck at it the first time you try it. Much like motorsports, which I’ll get to in a moment. You have the ability to do the same damn thing I’m doing right now, grab a pen, a laptop, whatever, and just start telling interesting stories. It may be about your own experiences, it may be something cool you found out interviewing someone else about their experiences. But just write and produce content. If you can’t get in with a larger blog, periodical, etc. start your own site. Sign up for a free blog, customize it, fill it with content in your spare time. Eventually hit up a web hosting site and start building something bigger and better. That’s what Josh did (which is why his author URL on here is “admin”) when he started this plucky little motoring blog, and we’re doing well I must say.
Regardless of where you write, write. Build your resume with car-related things, volunteer to help with local events like an autocross, cars & coffee, a car show, anything that gets you closer to cars. I’m starting to describe the path to auto journalism, and if that’s not your thing, continue to the next section. If it is, keep reading. As I said above, your initial offerings may be crap, and that’s fine. Find a mentor, or better yet, an editor. Someone who has written something in anger for a living that can help you refine your skills. My first editor was a real asshole and I hated him. I saw him not too long ago and thanked him. That whole page of MS Word track changes, red as a sea of blood, was a startling revelation that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. But paying close attention to why he changed what he did, and talking to him about it, I started to understand how to make logical arguments and tell stories based in fact and backed up by sources. If you think you’re far enough along to contribute to something like RFD, hit me up on Twitter.
This is where the concept of “free” is quickly lost. Racing is expensive, but there are levels.
Do you ever wonder where most professional drivers start? Go-karts. Karting has become a great, and relatively inexpensive way to learn “car” control, in a very controlled environment. It’s pretty straightforward—go find a karting establishment. They can be indoors or outside. They will loan you the gear you need. Strap in and go as fast as you can. A kart will over-emphasize, and exaggerate, the physics of a real car, giving you ample opportunity to learn about oversteer, among other things.
Personally, my gateway drug for racing was autocross, and I spent most of the early 2000s autocrossing. If you haven’t tried it, or at least been a spectator, autocross takes place in a parking lot in which you will hit highway speeds while trying to dodge cones. It’s incredibly technical, you’ll turn the wheel more in 30-50 seconds than you will in almost any other type of racing. It’s also incredibly cheap, events usually run between $20-$40 for what amounts to a full day of fun. You will only get 3-6 runs total, but you can’t find a cheaper venue to learn car control legally. It’s also not that hard on your car, with your brake pads taking the heaviest losses. There are (typically) no immovable objects to hit, so it’s a great outing for your daily driver. You likely have events happening near you, go find them. SCCA hosts events, as do independent clubs like the BMW CCA, Porsche Club of America, etc. It’s intimidating at first. These guys/girls do this every weekend, likely have a more well-sorted car than you do, and know what they are doing. But they would rather you ask questions than go blindly into an event. I wrote up an Autocross 101 guide — feel free to use it.
From here it can get expensive. The next level is open track, and High Performance Driver Education events are the best way to get started. Take a look at our 2016 event guide to find a track event near you. We have written extensively about the HPDE experience, because we spend a good amount of time at them as we continually improve our skills behind the wheel. These events are extremely well run with safety first and foremost. It’s a race track though, so your daily driver will wear more than just brake pads, and tire walls and other barriers exist just beyond the runoff area.
Moving on, you can get into all manner of rally racing. This certainly brings with it a level of complexity and skill required to navigate non-paved roads and jumps. Warning, trees can hurt your resale value.
A great free way to get involved with rally is by volunteering. You can often spectate for free, but by signing up as a stage marshal, you serve an important safety function for the event by blocking a cross road or corralling spectators. Best of all, you get a front row view of the action than any official spectator area will give you. Our man Justin can regale you with stories about how Ken Block and Travis Pastrana have blown past him at triple digit speeds on dirt roads. He even got pelted in the shoulder by a rock that David Higgins tossed as he sped by. Higgins even apologized on Twitter, not that he had to, he’s just a cool guy. As you gain experience, sometimes you can land some sweet work assignments. Sweep or course opening, for instance. You may, or may not get Ford to loan you an EcoBoost Mustang for the event.
With the advent of rallycross and similar events, it’s become easier to get into rally racing. Think of rallycross as autocross on a non-paved surface. Times from each run are cumulative, like a stage rally, rather than a single hero run in autocross. In other words, when you hit a cone, you will never drop that 2 second penalty. There is a little more risk of damaging your car than described above, but you can also pick up a cheap rallycross car, run snow tires year round (even if you’re in Texas), throw on a skid plate, and go slide around in the dirt. It’s a blast.
This is all to say, being an enthusiast can be free, but it’s a slippery slope. Some of the motorsports described above can suck many thousands of dollars from your bank account. And that’s just as an amateur. At my highest point, I was swapping out suspension components in my (Street Touring X winning) 2003 Mustang GT on a monthly basis, not to even get into tires or brake components. You’ll always find a new part or mod that you want, and if you don’t have the means, time, or ability, to swap them yourself, it can get incredibly expensive. I had maybe one of those three at any given moment in my 20s, so I found a good shop I trusted to do it for me.
Warnings aside, being an enthusiast is badge of honor and you don’t need money to be in the “club”. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Anyone can be “into” cars regardless of age, gender, location, or demographic. There has never been a better time to be an enthusiast, and we hope that, if you’re reading this, you are already “in.” It’s your job to recruit others now. Go forward and expand our universe, and someone else’s.