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Racing a Slow Car Is a Real Thrill. Seriously.

Motorsport has existed for more than 100 years. Like anything old, the pastime has developed a handful of truisms. Some are great. Some are terrible. Some have made their way into cliché and could be recited by your grandmother.

One of them stands above the rest. Speed costs money, it goes. How fast do you want to go? 

Nissan Micra Cupís debut race, the Spring Classic weekend at Ciruit Mont-Tremblant; May 22-24

Nissan Micra Cupís debut race, the Spring Classic weekend at Ciruit Mont-Tremblant; May 22-24

This is the problem with truisms: Even the good ones sound like they were swiped from cheap greeting cards, or maybe pro wrestling. (Seriously, prance around the room and yell those words in the voice of the Ultimate Warrior: It works.) But that doesn’t negate the truth: Racing is expensive. And the faster you go—the more horsepower or cornering grip you crank into the equation—the more it costs.

I’ve raced cars on and off, as an amateur driver, owner, and wrench, for 12 years. Two lessons stand proud from that time period: First, with enough time, something always goes wrong. And second, even if you were born on a megayacht in a basket lined with trust fund paperwork, there is no shame in driving a slow car.

Take the Nissan Micra Cup, a one-make, six-race series that runs in Canada. It launched this year and features—you have probably already guessed this—the Nissan Micra, a four-door subcompact with a base price around $8,000.

Like most economy-car or single-make (meaning everyone has the same kind of car) series, the Cup is meant to be a fun, relatively affordable way into top-level motorsport. This is partly because the Micra, which isn’t sold in the US, is cheap: A racing version legal for the series costs around $17,000. It’s also because the 109-hp, 2,200-pound Nissan is slower than uphill mud.

The Thrill of Affordability

As with boating or owning a horse, racing requires you to buy or rent something expensive (in this case, a car) in order to play. There’s the inevitable paraphernalia like safety gear and tow equipment. Most race cars break or consume parts constantly. People hit you, or you hit them, and you must repair the damage. Destroying a car isn’t common, but it’s not unheard of, either. And even if nothing actually goes wrong, you’re still on the hook for stuff like fuel, tires, and brakes.

At the top rung of amateur road racing, the SCCA Runoffs, front-runners have been known to spend six figures for a week of competition, chasing a national championship. At the Pirelli World Challenge, teams can charge you more than a new Porsche to drive a Honda Civic for a single race. At the extreme sits Formula 1, where one of history’s greatest constructors, McLaren, is spending a reported $222 million per season to achieve … not much.

More perspective: I once shared a first-generation Mazda Miata with a friend, in the SCCA’s Spec Miata class. The car used a set of brake pads once a season and almost never broke. A set of competitive tires was $600, and if you were serious, they lasted two race weekends at most. (We weren’t quite that serious.)

The front runners were spending $30,000 a year on engines, but we weren’t. Setting aside that bit of insanity, everything else seemed like a fire-sale bargain. We were, after all, running in what is widely agreed to be one of the most affordable and popular forms of road racing. Given the similarities between a Miata and a Micra, you have to assume the Micra Cup is equally “cheap.”

From the outside, a pack of racing Micras looks like a herd of kittens on the warpath. From the inside, it’s a damn riot.

There are cheaper ways to race, but there’s a draw here beyond taking a flag for low cost. If you’re trying to climb the ladder or build a career as a driver, the Cup is a good introduction to the pressures of a pro racing. There’s a small amount of prize money, so something’s at stake. The cars are roughly equal, so competition is close. There’s manufacturer involvement, which always makes things feel weighty. And because the series runs a support race for the Canadian Grand Prix, you get to dip a toe in the big leagues, running a top-shelf circuit in front of an international crowd.

And chiefly, you get to drive the absolute hell out of a small, slow car in a field of other small, slow cars. It’s like a drug.

The Lessons of Going Slow

In a car like the Micra, if you’re lucky enough to run at a fast track, you max out around 100 mph. It takes forever to get there. The speedometer moves like a glacier eating a continent. You have too much time to think. You find yourself doing stupid caveman things like beating the wheel with your fists or yelling at the car inside your helmet, begging it to accelerate faster. And no matter how much you flog and beat and curse, the car just keeps. Being. Slow.

From the outside, a pack of racing Micras looks like a herd of kittens on the warpath. From the inside, experience tells me it’s probably a damn riot. With race tires and stiffened suspension, everyone has gobs of grip in corners, so the gas pedal becomes a binary switch. (Off: You’re braking. On: You’re not.) There’s bumping and drafting and struggles for position at mind-bending speeds, like 45 mph.

When I can’t sleep, I think of the slow ones. The groaners. The binary throttles, the 30-mph slides, the joy of the struggle.

You drone down straights in a tight, buzzsaw pack, hoping that the tiny change you made in the last corner—inches of position!—or maybe someone else’s missed shift, will gain you a foot or two in the next mile. Microscopic mistakes drop you three or four cars back. The whole mess makes you a better driver, more focused on minutiae, because in a series where all the cars are the same, the minutiae are everything.

Like I said, I spent 12 years club racing. Time constraints and a growing family mean I haven’t spent that much time on the track over the past few years, but I’ve been lucky enough to sample, and race, a wide range of cars: fast, slow, good, terrible.

Like any other addiction gone dry, not racing occasionally hurts. But at night, in bed, when I can’t sleep, I think of the slow ones. The groaners. The binary throttles, the 30-mph slides, the joy of the struggle. Because the other secret of racing a slow car is that the car somehow manages to disappear. It’s just you, a handful of other people, and the joy of a good fight.

via Wired

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