Playing with cars isn’t cheap. You have to pay to play. Some motorsports, like autocross and rallycross, are fairly affordable to get into. Others, like track days and time trials, cost a bit more to do, but provide more seat time. So what’s the best bang for your buck?

I decided to tackle a crude cost/benefit analysis. I looked up current prices for various events in my area, filled in how much seat time you get based on either the event info or my personal experience, mashed it all together, and came up with a price per minute of seat time. These numbers are educated estimates, not absolutes, but I think they’re a good general guideline.

Autocross

This is where many people begin, including me. I stumbled into one by accident while passing through, and the next thing I knew I was taking fun runs in my 1995 Mercury Tracer. I was slow, I was sliding all over the place, I was off course, I was absolutely terrible – and I loved every second of it. The low cost of entry plus no vehicle requirements except passing a simple tech inspection meant that I could jump right in, right now.

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The current entry fee to a New England Region SCCA autocross is $40 for SCCA members. These run at the old Devens airfield. The number of runs and length of the course varies from one event to another, but based on my experience running at Devens with various clubs, I figure six runs is a reasonable average. The longer courses are around a minute and a half long, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

6 runs X 1.5 minutes per run = 9 minutes of seat time.

$40 / 9 minutes = $4.44 per minute.

Prices are similar for most other clubs I’m familiar with.

Rallycross

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NER SCCA Rallycross events cost slightly more than autocross at $50 for SCCA members. The amount of seat time is much more variable due to different event sites, different course designs, changes to the course during the event… This makes it very difficult to come up with consistent figures. So for the purpose of this comparison, I’ll lump it into the same general category as autocross – a low entry fee for a similar amount of seat time. Just remember that for a few dollars more, you get play Colin McRae and slide all over someone else’s dirt field. To me, that’s worth something.

Boston Chapter BMW CCA Driving Schools

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After autocrossing with Boston BMW CCA for a couple of years, I got my first track experience at one of their driving schools. I’ve since done similar track events with other organizations, but found BMW CCA’s program to provide the most hand holding. They have excellent instructors, both in the classroom and on the track. They also insist on keeping an instructor in your car for several events until they’re quite sure you can handle venturing out on your own. Some may see this as a negative, but I think it’s a great approach for someone getting on the track for the first time. It keeps everyone safe until you know what you’re doing. These are NOT races, but an opportunity for you to drive on a track and improve your driving skills while you’re at it. It’s also worth mentioning that you do NOT have to own a BMW to join and participate in the club.

Most of their driving schools these days tend to be two day events. Their End of Summer HPDE event costs $475, way more than any autocross. But that’s a two day event, and each day gives you four 20 minute long track sessions.

8 sessions X 20 minutes = 160 minutes of seat time.

$475 / 160 minutes = $2.97 per minute.

That’s right. Despite costing more than 10 times as much as an SCCA autocross, you not only get much more seat time, but that seat time comes at a cheaper price per minute. It’s a bit of a financial leap to go from a $40 autocross to a $475 track weekend, but it’s a much more cost effective way to get seat time.

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I should point out that this savings is tempered a tad by a little extra car preparation you should do – namely, replacing your stock brake fluid with racing fluid that can handle the higher temperatures of track use. I also highly recommend upgrading your brake pads for the same reason. While your brakes may be perfectly fine for street driving, they’re not designed to handle repeated hard braking from speeds that would send you directly to jail on the street. Still, brake fluid isn’t that expensive, and a decent set of pads can last for several events. You can even get pads that you can also use on the street, and enjoy improved braking all the time.

Track Night In America

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The SCCA has started to run low key track events for the sake of getting out on a real race track, learning how to drive on one, and having a good time. These are also not competitive events – just driving on a track for fun and education. Track Night In America is a newcomer to this game, but it has a lot of potential. I’ll tell you more about it after I attend the first one in New England on May 6.

(Full Disclosure: I am a Track Night Champion. That means the SCCA is encouraging me with swag to spread the good word about their new Track Night events. But numbers don’t lie, and I’m presenting them objectively for all of the events I’m discussing here. Feel free to check my work.)

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Track Night is a shorter event, starting in the afternoon and running into the evening. You only get three 20 minute track sessions instead of four. But for an entry fee of $150, I’m not complaining. But from a cost per minute of seat time perspective, how does Track Night compare to a BMW CCA driving school?

3 sessions X 20 minutes = 60 minutes of track time.

$150 / 60 minutes = $2.50 per minute.

It isn’t just less expensive than the BMW CCA events – it’s an even better deal. You don’t get as much seat time, but that means you don’t wear out tires and brakes as fast. (I still recommend racing brake fluid and pads for any track event.) You also don’t need to devote a full day to it, which makes Track Night unique among the usual options that take a full day.

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COM Sports Car Club (Updated)

(Update: The pricing I used when I first wrote this, though it is was the pricing listed on Motorsportreg.com at the time I wrote it, is no longer accurate. I have recalculated using their current pricing as of 5/13/2015.)

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If you enjoy the competitive aspect of autocross, want to compete at higher speeds on a track, but aren’t ready to go wheel-to-wheel racing, COM is the answer in New England. They run several two day events each year. The first day is a school for novices, and a test-and-tune for experienced drivers. If your instructor judges your driving skills to be good enough, they’ll sign you off to solo, and you can compete in the second day’s time trial event. You’re on the track with other cars in your class, but it’s only your lap time that matters, not finishing position. But still, it is competition on a race track.

A two day event with COM costs $465 for events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and $495 for events at other tracks. You get four 20-30 minute sessions on the first day, two 20-30 minute sessions on the second day, then competition time trial sessions, followed by at least an hour of open track to polish off your fuel and tires.

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Let’s say you’re running at NHMS, average the sessions out to 25 minutes, and add an hour for both competition runs and open track, with the understanding that more track time is available, increasing the cost effectiveness if your car isn’t all used up by then.

6 sessions X 25 minutes = 150 minutes, + 60 minutes open track = 210 minutes of seat time.

$465 / 210 minutes = $2.21 per minute.

That’s even less expensive than Track Night or BMW CCA, plus there’s a competition aspect as well. Running both days is much more cost effective than only running the first day, which costs $245.

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4 sessions x 25 minutes = 100 minutes of seat time.

$245 / 100 minutes = $2.45 per minute.

COM also offers a $100 first timer discount off your first event. This applies to one day or two day registrations. Repeat drivers can get small discounts as well.

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24 Hours of LeMons

(Photo: Stef Schrader)

This is seriously cheap racing, right? Just get a $500 car and keep it limping around the track all day. Unfortunately it’s not quite that easy. But first, let’s do the math.

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Entry fees for a LeMons race are $600 for the car, plus $150 for each driver. Teams consist of 4-6 drivers. To keep the math simple, let’s assume your team has 6 drivers, and all contribute an equal share toward the car’s entry fee, for a total of $250 per driver.

LeMons races are endurance events, with usually around 14.5 hours of track time, according to their web site.

14.5 hours = 870 minutes / 6 drivers = 145 minutes of seat time per driver.

$250 / 145 minutes = $1.72 per minute.

By Grabthar’s Hammer, what a savings!

Well, yes, but it isn’t quite that simple. I didn’t count the cost of a helmet in any of these, since one is required for all of them. But it’s worth noting that LeMons requires a great deal more personal safety equipment – suit, gloves, shoes, socks, and underwear. They can hook you up with what you need for $415-$680, without the helmet. But that motorcycle helmet you’ve been using elsewhere won’t work either – you need a Snell SA certified helmet. Again, LeMons can hook you up for a few dollars more.

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You also need a specially prepared race car that you have to tow to the track. Plus, it’s a $500 beater – it WILL break, or at least need a bit of maintenance along the way. Extra parts means extra money.

I’m not trying to discourage you from trying LeMons. It’s just a whole next level beyond your average track day or time trial event. As it was intended, LeMons, as well as ChumpCar, are the cheapest, easiest ways to get wheel to wheel racing.

Or are they?

Indoor Go-Karting

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Over the past several years, indoor kart tracks have sprung up all over the place. I’m not talking about amusement park karts, where you’re foot to the floor to reach walking pace and you fall asleep of boredom between turns, sometimes in the turns, too. I’m talking about faster karts, a few horsepower, that will reach 25-35mph. That may not seem very fast, but when your butt is an inch off the ground and you’re reaching these speeds INSIDE, it’s a whole different story. And, like autocross, the course is so tight and twisty that you’re doing all you can just to achieve these relatively low speeds.

I’ve been to a few indoor kart tracks around New England. Rates vary, but last weekend my girlfriend and I went to Checkered Flag Indoor Karting, so I’ll use their rates. At most go-kart tracks, races last around eight minutes. At this particular track, non-members run for $15 per race.

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$15 / 8 minutes = $1.88 per minute.

That’s almost as low as LeMons, BUT, you need absolutely nothing to be able to do it. No safety gear, not even your own helmet since they have loaners. You don’t even need a car – you can ride your bicycle to the track and race. Plus there is absolutely no risk of damaging your car, since you don’t use it. We became members, got two free races, and now pay just $10 per race, and even less if we buy in bulk. This is on the low end of pricing of the tracks I’ve been to, but even the more expensive tracks I’ve been to are even better than the real thing when it comes to the cost of seat time.

This isn’t some watered down experience. I get the same thrill in a kart as I do in a real car in a real track. In some ways it’s better, because I am wheel-to-wheel racing, and though bumping is discouraged, I don’t have to worry about writing off my car if I can’t make that divebomb pass stick.

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Drag Racing

Jarod Rose pointed out on a comment that I didn’t include drag racing, which is another popular form of low buck motorsport. Indeed, the reason why Mighty Car Mods raced their MX5 and S2000 on a drag strip, instead of someplace with turns where these cars belong, was simply because the drag strip is cheaper, and these guys aren’t made of money. So let’s throw the drags into the fray.

I’m going to make some basic assumptions. First, we’re not talking about cross dressers trying to run down the 1/4 mile without tripping in high heels. Second, that we’re talking about someone bringing their daily driver or project car to an open street night type of event, not some monster beast with drag slicks the size of tractor tires and parachutes. As with the others mentioned here, we’re talking low cost of entry and minimal car prep.

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It’s not listed on their web site, but I found a forum post saying that the cost of New England Dragway’s popular Wednesday Open Street Night is $35. That’s for as many runs as you can get through the line to make. This depends on how early you get there, how busy it is that night, how many people dump oil all over the track and shut it down while they clean up, and many other factors. Let’s be generous and call it 10 runs down the 1320.

Let’s also say you have a car that can do a 15 second quarter mile. Many common cars are this fast off the showroom floor - my BRZ, for instance. Slower, cheaper cars can also go this fast with modifications - I’ve done a 15 second 1/4 mile in a modified Saturn. It also makes the math easy, which doesn’t hurt.

10 runs X 15 seconds = 150 seconds = 2.5 minutes of seat time.

$35 / 2.5 minutes = $14 per minute.

Calculated this way, it’s by far the least cost effective seat time investment on this list. And that doesn’t even account for having no turns.

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What if you have Dominic Toretto’s 10 second car? Or, failing that, a Fox body Mustang GT with some power mods plus nitrous? We’re not talking a ton of money to get serious speed here, if you know what you’re doing.

The thing is, all that power doesn’t make waiting in line for your run go any faster. So we’ll leave it at 10 runs.

10 runs X 10 seconds = 100 seconds = 1.67 minutes.

$35 / 1.67 minutes = $20.96 per minute.

Drag racing isn’t looking so good from this point of view. But, nothing short of a track event will let you reach the top speeds even a slow car can hit on a drag strip. Even my “underpowered” BRZ will touch 90mph as it crosses the finish line. For the cost of entry, there’s no better way to get top speed thrills, because street racing is wrong.

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TL;DR (Too Long; Don’t Read):

If you want to play with your own car but don’t have much to spend, try autocross. It’s the highest price for the limited seat time you get, but it has the lowest cost of entry, and no car modifications are required.

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If you want the best price for the seat time you get in your own car, or you don’t want to spend a whole day at an event, check out Track Nights In America.

If you want to compete without the expense of a dedicated track car, check out COM if you’re in New England, or seek out a similar club where you live.

If you want to go wheel-to-wheel racing on real tracks in real cars as cheaply as possible, check out LeMons/ChumpCar.

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If you want to go racing as cheaply as possible, don’t want to spend a whole day at an event, and don’t care if you drive a real car on a real track, indoor kart racing is for you.

If you’re interested in top speed thrills and seeing how fast your car can go, there’s no better place than the drag strip, despite the poor cost to seat time ratio.