We talked with sports car racing champion Gene Felton of Gene Felton Restorations about using former NASCAR race cars for track days.
Gene Felton Restorations
by Michael Allen
You know those Corvette guys running 500 horsepower ZO6s? You’ve been busting your butt trying to pass one of them and you are sick of them filling up your mirrors. Why not just show up at your next track day event in a slightly used 800 horsepower NASCAR road course racer and blow everyone away? You can pick up one for about the cost of a new Subaru Impreza WRX Sti or a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X GSR.
NASCAR has oval course cars but they also have road course cars. And we all know how many of the races are on oval tracks and how many are on road courses. So maybe the cars get used two times or even four times. Then they are sold off. Because these particular cars are used by NASCAR to be driven on road courses, they are set up for road course racing. They have great brakes and suspension components. Most importantly, they have all the safety gear you can imagine. They come with full roll cages, state of the art racing seats, window nets, crumple zones and are true tube frame race cars. How is that for instilling confidence?
We talked with Gene Felton of Gene Felton Restorations about using former NASCAR race cars for track days. In 1990 Felton started his restoration business. Felton got started in 1990 buying, fixing and selling NASCAR race cars. “We were able to convince the sports car guys that stock cars might be a good option and so little by little they accepted us,” says Felton. He goes on to say that, “Going back to 1990, I took a car to Roebling Road and did quite well with it against the Porsches and Jaguars. By the time it was over, three wives brought their husbands over to look at the car and informed the husbands that they need to get out of their open wheel toys and get their butt into a stock car. The stock car is a good insurance policy. We were off and running.” If your spouse or partner questions why you would ever need a NASCAR race car, you can always invoke the safety argument.
Felton's Racing History
Gene Felton has a long, well-admired racing history and is one of the most successful race car drivers in American road racing history. He fits neatly between Al Holbert and Peter Gregg with fifty wins in American professional road course racing. Felton drove and won in the IMSA Camel GT Series, the Champion Spark Plug Series, the Trans Am Series, NASCAR Grand National, the NASCAR Modified Series and the International Motorsports American Challenge Series where he captured 25 victories and series championships for four consecutive years. He made racing history by qualifying on the pole and winning every event during the nine race season in 1980. He won manufacturer’s championships for both Buick and Chevrolet. Felton has won his class in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Twelve Hours of Sebring driving with Terry LaBonte and car owner Billy Hagan in a highly modified Camaro. Felton also came in second in class in the 24 hour endurance race at Le Mans co-driving with Billy Hagan in the same Camaro. In another Sebring event, Felton and Vince Gimondo finished ninth overall and first in class in a full-bodied Buick. Felton has 42 SCCA wins. He formed a historic racing series for former Winston Cup race cars and continues to race and win into his late seventies. He was nominated to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2003. Does Felton know a thing or two about race cars and road course driving? I would say so!
This writer was at a PCA track day at Sebring back in 2005 and there was a yellow and brown liveried NASCAR Cup cars at the event. I forget the sponsorship but they do leave the decals on the cars. Pretty cool looking. The driver/owner must have been either a novice or an intermediate because one of my instructor buddies was assigned to him. We laughed like crazy watching our fellow instructor tying to climb in the passenger window. Coordination was apparently not his strong suit. After their run, our buddy told us that he had to scream at his student and he was not sure the student heard a single word. An in-car communicator is probably in order for instructing purposes. I shared this story with Felton who acknowledged that he has had quite the history at Sebring. I would say so, what with a class win there in the world famous endurance race. Felton told us that his historic racing series has been going there for fifteen years. Regarding decibel levels we asked Felton whether there have been issues with running his cars at certain tracks like Lime Rock Park where there are noise limits. “Lime Rock, yes you don’t want to be un-muffled, except on open track days. These cars can run SCCA. As far as the decibels, normally we have not had a problem. There are systems being designed now that put limits on decibels from going over 100. We haven’t needed it yet, but we are ready for it.”
Oval Versus Road Course Cars
Felton says that there are large differences between the oval track and road course cars and, in fact, they are “night and day.” Felton explains that, “The oval track cars have a very different body shape. From the front fenders to the back of the car, they are sleek. The nose looks like an aircraft nose. Road course cars have fat fenders for down force. The chassis are different. The suspensions are different. The steering is different. The brakes are different. Just about every component in the suspension from front to rear is different from road course cars to oval track.” Funny because they always looked the same to me. Felton only deals in the road course variants. The oval track cars are built for top speed with wind cheating aerodynamics as opposed to road course cars, which are built for down force. We track day drivers running on road courses need down force. Oval track cars only turn left and road course cars turn every which way. Well they turn right and left. Fortunately for us, Felton only sells the ones that turn right and left.
You may be wondering what work is done to the cars to prepare them for customer use. If they need any work, Felton determines what is needed and takes care of it at his shop or by using NASCAR body and engine shops for big jobs. He basically goes over everything and tests the cars before they move on to their next destinations. When Felton was a driver, he drove and built his own cars as well as driving for other teams. He knows a thing or two about building and maintaining a race car and often beat factory efforts with his own grassroots, Camaro big block number 96. Felton determines what steps need to be taken on the new retired race cars he gets according to the shape they are in. He explains, “I don’t buy wrecks. I’m just a small shop. I don’t fix wrecks. I don’t tear down motors. I’m like a kid with a new toy. I get them in and take them apart. Clean everything. Restore the cars. Put new parts in when necessary. If a body needs work, I use a NASCAR body shop. I get my engines from various NASCAR shops and then I put it back together. Take it out and test it. And a lot of these cars I have kept for several months as my personal car and sell it and buy another one and then drive it and sell it and so forth.”
Getting back to safety, we asked Felton to talk about the safety of the cars he sells to vintage racers and track day drivers. By the way, there is an entire section on Felton’s website about using the cars for lapping days. He definitely sees his product as highly suitable for the purposes we have in mind for them. So, no they are not really only meant to be used for racing. We benefit by having the chance to drive an over-engineered race car in high performance driving events. And we benefit by not beating up on our street cars. When asked if he felt these cars are safer than the average car used at a track day event, Felton said “no doubt about it. I’ve watched the car hit a wall at 200 mph and the driver jumps out and walks away. I don’t think there has been an injury in 7 or 8 years of historic racing of any degree. So every year they get a little bit safer. Right now the seats we’re using, the HANS device, which anybody can use in any car, is the main thing. Also, the chassis is as important as the seat for safety. These things are built like a tank. They are designed to crush in the right areas and dissipate force, dissipate energy; I don’t think there is any sports car that comes close to this. We had one of our guys go off in the straightaway at Sebring and go across the highway and into the woods, tore down a batch of trees and he jumped out and walked back to the road where he was picked up by an ambulance and had no injuries. So yes they are safe.”
So these cars are safe, but are they hard to drive? Do they require special skills? We asked Felton how the Winston Cup cars compare in the driving experience to such traditional track day cars as Corvettes, Porsches and BMW’s. “They tell me that these cars are easier to drive. Every time I notice, a driver jumps into one of these cars and he takes off like he has been driving one his whole life.” One issue related to the driving experience is the use of the transmission. Is the clutch pedal heavy? Do you have to double clutch? What about heel and toe downshifts? Felton reveals that these cars have only four speeds in the traditional H pattern. “You use the clutch to put it in first gear and from there second, third, fourth, up and down, no clutch. The gears are straight cut, and you can shift by matching the revs without using the clutch.”
Another issue of concern about using a racing car is reliability. Do the engines need to be rebuilt constantly? Are there limited number of hours of track time before major servicing is required? The price of admission may be similar to some mid-level track day cars, but you wouldn’t want to be killed by maintenance costs. Here again Felton has some reassuring information for us. “The thing about it is the parts are readily available just like suspension parts. The NASCAR people run the part for one race and they sell it. The engines are designed to turn 96, 9700 rpms. If you do that, it’s going to last for 500 miles, maybe two NASCAR weekends. If you keep the revs down around 6700 to 7500, you are making within 30 HP of 9600. So there is no need for rebuilding as long as you are not turning these crazy rpms. I’ve seen these engines go for two, three years and that is in our historic racing series. We can tune one of these motors in one of these cars and they can last forever.” So you can run easy revs and still beat the Corvettes. Remember, Felton is talking about cars that have up to 860 horsepower. If you run them easy, there is still nothing out there that comes close. Not the ZR1 nor the Viper with their 600 HP engines.
With regard to brakes system parts and pads, these cars use all of the familiar brands including Brembo, Alcon, AP, Wildwood and Performance Friction/Raybestos. Replacement parts and brake pads are readily available.
We have already covered the cost of admission and that is for “A perfect car with an average history,” says Felton. “For a perfect car with big time history or a big name driver, the price goes up. And the price is dependent on the components that we put in the car.” Felton’s shop will customize a car at a customer’s request.
Historic Race Series
Felton has sold more than 200 of these retired race cars to drivers all over the world. To give them a series to race in, Felton helped to start a vintage racing group. “In the early 1990s, a group of us vintage racers who were racing early Camaros, Corvettes, Mustangs, etc. got the idea that it would be neat to restore some older NASCAR Winston Cup and Grand National cars for vintage road racing. We formed the Historic Stock Car Racing Group (HSCRG) and began racing with vintage race groups such as Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR).
We have grown steadily since 1992 to the point that we have 25-30 cars entered at each race event. We are one group among possibly 300-400 other cars at an amateur vintage race weekend event.”
Not all of us want to go racing. We are content to stick with HPDE and these cars may still be for us. Felton explains that “for the last three or four years we’ve gotten a lot of interest from track day drivers and we have a lot of cars doing track day events. The guys who do track days are not interested in racing and they are not interested in damaging their street cars. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone being hurt at an event. You have the safety and the endurance of these cars and you have the speed, handling and superior stopping ability. I’ve been told that it is much cheaper to maintain these cars than a European car, specifically a Porsche or BMW. The cost of rebuilding a Porsche engine would be the cost of one of my cars. If my cars have any name recognition, they appreciate. More and more of the cars are doing track days,” says Felton.
If you are set up to trailer your car to events, these NASCAR racers offer an interesting option for your next track day car. As Felton points out, they are safe, reliable and fast. You can save your sports car for the street and not beat it up. Felton’s cars are also cheaper to maintain. Felton sells spare parts and he will help you find places to run, store and maintain the car. You will have to get used to climbing in through the window though.
Read more about Felton and his business at http://www.genefeltonrestorations.com/index.html