Sep 1, 2014

#71 Low Cost Racing and other Oxymorons

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

I spent a few of the idle hours a while back reading a friend's book, Kent Larson's Motorcycle Track Day Handbook. It's a good book. You should check it out. It will give you something to think about while the bike is stuffed into the back of your garage through the winter.

However, Kent and his co-writers generated a few magnificent errors in their assumptions about racing. Being a pain-in-the-ass, I have to point out a couple of such mistakes. In the early pages Kent wrote "most likely you are already pretty certain you want to get to the racetrack or you wouldn't have picked up this book." Kent gave me my copy, so maybe he's right if he was talking to a book buyer. As a comp'd reader, I have absolutely no intention of getting myself to a racetrack. I have done that, suffered defeat and injury at a relatively late point in life (by motorcycle racer standards), and I can still easily identify the bones I fractured anytime the barometer moves. Thanks, but I just read motorcycle racing literature purely for entertainment, education, and a little harmless gonzo titillation.

The second (by my standards), questionable statement was located beneath a photo of a Honda XR650R that had been modified for racing, "supermotard has been making a comeback and can be a cheap and fun way to get into the racing scene." When you start with a $6,000+ motorcycle, trick it out with another several thousand dollars in suspension, tires, brake, and frame parts, and take it racing where all of that investment could vanish in a single low speed corner miscalculation, we're not talking about any kind of "cheap" with which I am familiar.

Racing isn't cheap, unless "cheap" means "less than millions" to you. Kent lives on the side of the economy that would describe me as "dirt poor" or something less complimentary. His bike trailer has more accommodations than my house. He appears to spend as much on motorcycles and accessories as I spend on my whole lifestyle. You could describe me as "jealous." You could describe me as "miserly." I describe myself as "practical." Few would describe me as "rich."

I carefully ration out my income and savings with the constant balance between necessity, fun, and work. Necessity takes care of itself. You gotta do what you gotta do. However, the "need" word only gets applied to things I need. Food, weatherproof shelter, second-hand clothes, basic transportation, and beer all fall into the "I need this" bracket. Fun gets balanced against the time required to support the fun. I prefer at least a 1:1 ROI (return on investment) "fun-to-work ratio." At the minimum, I want an hour's fun in exchange for no more than an hour's work required to pay for the fun. Anytime the ROI drops below 1:1, I begin to make excuses about why I can't be bothered to do that thing and I find another way to spend my time. When the ROI is 2:1 or better, it's usually a no-brainer and I go have fun. I'm easily entertained, though, and I can always find something fun to do that doesn't cost any money at all. Sleep, for example.

Racing motorcycles is one of those things that has a grossly negative ROI, usually about a 1:2,000 (fun to work) time allotment. The reason for that is that racing, in all forms, is expensive if you even want to pretend you are going to be competitive. With entry level motorcycle racing, Kent says "the travel, tires, and track fees could run you $500 per outing." That's assuming you are racing a used small bike (500-650cc) and not including the cost of buying the bike, crashing the bike, fixing the bike, upgrading the bike, or (especially) the expense you'll suffer hanging out with medical practitioners. Kent seems to like doctors to a degree that makes me uncomfortable. In fact, if he admitted "I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I love to press wild flowers,"

I wouldn't be a lot less comfortable. I wouldn't trust a doctor with your body. I don't want a medic looking at, rearranging, or cutting into my body parts, unless I'm making a special appearance on CSI Minneapolis.

About a decade ago, I discovered remote-control, off-road electric buggy racing. I thought, "how expensive could toy car racing be?" I found a good used car chassis with a collection of accessory parts for a hundred bucks, bought a mid-line radio control rig for two hundred dollars, duct-taped together a car body out of busted pieces I found in the track's dumpster, and went racing. Starting as a Novice, I raced for a couple of weeks until I was moved up to Intermediate. A month later, I was racing Expert and competing for prizes; mostly race car parts and tire sets. Being the son of an accounting teacher, I habitually keep track of my expenses. After my first race, I created an account for RC racing and started watching the nickels flow outward. I didn't bother with mileage to-and-from races or to practice, but I entered every nickel directly spent on racing for about six months. At the six month mark, I did a ROI analysis on my RC racing habit. At the time, I was earning about $28/hour droning away at a god-awful cube-job, so the fun-to-work/misery ROI analysis was perfectly straight-forward. Racing was the fun time, work was not. I had spent about $400 a month on the RC habit and raced (practice track time included) about ten hours a month. I'd set up a small practice track in my backyard, which probably lowered my property value by several thousand dollars, but we won't argue that point. Without including the unaccounted-for places where RC racing cut into my income, provided minor expenses, and took time from higher ROI activities, racing at this minimal level produced a fractional return on my investment. Worse, I got bored with the illusion; going fast without putting life and limb at risk.

For the last ten years, my race car has been relegated to toy status, something my grandson plays with it in the driveway on warm Sunday afternoons. He's burned all of my prize-money knobbies into slicks and ground the graphite chassis into a pile of busted bits held together by Gorilla Glue and duct tape. My over-priced high-capacity batteries have all turned to empty promises from exposure to cold winters in the garage, age, and irregular use.

The point is "racing" is not "cheap." In fact, any sentence using the words "racing" and "cheap" is an irrational statement unless there is a logical negation adjective or adverb coupling the two ("never" or "not", for example). Motorcycle racing, at the local club level, is cheaper than auto racing, but it's still expensive and really expensive once you throw in medical expenses. Racing toy cars is cheaper than racing motorcycles, but, if you purely count the time racing against the time and money spent getting ready to race, $400 for a dozen five-minute motos is pretty damn expensive.

May 2008


  1. Two questions that have been around forever from engine builders, equipment suppliers and other speed merchants:
    "Speed costs, how fast do you want to go?"
    "Fast, reliable, cheap - pick two."

  2. Yep, it's all true. Must be the poor kid in me because my natural response is "reliable and cheap," in that order. I have always been more afraid of being the old guy greeting customers in the front of a Walmart store than worried about not being in front of the pack. At least two of the guys I used to race with have recently told me, "I'll be working till I die." Not because they love their jobs, either.


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