Legendary Race Cars May Look Goofy But Are Lots Of Fun
Excerpt from the October 2022 issue of Car and driver.
Ignore the clumsy body. The Legend car looks the way it does – like a nitromethane Shriner fever dream – because it’s the basic shape of a human sitting upright behind a motorcycle engine. So the body takes the form of a 5/8 scale 1930s Ford or Chevy coupe, reminiscent of the pre-war bootlegger hotrods that spawned NASCAR. What else could it really look like? No one wants to run in a Converse All-Star.
But this composite body, joyful and caricatural, is draped over a real racing car. A 12,000 rpm Yamaha FZ09 – three-cylinder, 847cc, fuel-injected, water-cooled – drives the rear wheels via a six-speed sequential transmission mated to a locked rear end. The Yamaha produces 125 horsepower in a car that weighs around 1100 pounds (the rules state that cars must weigh at least 1230 pounds with the driver after a race). It’s an excellent power-to-weight ratio to squeeze into a 74-inch wheelbase. Models built before 2018 used larger air-cooled four-cylinder engines with carburettors, 1200cc or 1250cc, and these still race alongside the FZ09 cars. The big motors produce a lot more torque, 100 lb-ft at the wheels compared to the FZ09’s 75 lb-ft, but that doesn’t really confer an advantage when running 13-inch-diameter bias-ply tires. Traction, not horsepower, is always the limiting factor.
If all of this sounds like a recipe for good times, I agree. So I ventured to Charlotte Motor Speedway to try a Legend car on the 13-turn kart track, which was designed to FIA specifications to host world championship events and not to be confused with the setup Jimbo’s Go-Karts and Putt-Putt Emporium at the seedy end of your local beach. In Charlotte, I met Graham Smith, general manager of US Legend Cars International; GE Chapman, the company’s chief executive; and Darren Amidon of Darren Amidon Racing. All three deepen their knowledge and enthusiasm for these small racing cars.
“Legends race in 39 states and 28 countries,” Smith tells me as we approach the test car, which sports a plain white body with no frills, Ricky Bobby without sponsors. “They are big in Finland. And there are series for dirt, asphalt oval and road. You can configure them for anything.” I suggest ice racing, and it turns out it’s been done – just try to stop the Swedes from throwing studded tires at a rear-drive car.
Amidon and Anderson help me into the car, which requires some adjustments as the previous driver was a child. It’s one of the few racing machines to accommodate a 12-year-old (Young Lions division, 12-15) and then an adult racing on the same night. The Masters division, where I would land, is for 40+ and often sees the fiercest competition. A tachometer is the only instrument, and the quick-release steering wheel is flanked by a slim shifter to the right. The clutch pedal is far to the left and its cushion seems the size of a quarter, holding out of the way because you only need it to move. The brake pedal is shaped like a wide U with the steering column sticking out in the middle so you can brake with your left or right foot. And that’s about it. Smith warns that the bias-ply Hoosiers will take a few rounds to warm up, and I’m sent to find out the rest for myself.
About 10 minutes later, I mostly realized that I needed a Legend car in my life. My eldest son is 12 and the driver just isn’t going to teach him what he needs to know about 10,000 rpm shifts in turn 7. And for me, spending time figuring out the limits of four contact areas is a bit like earning continuing education credit, isn’t it? Or maybe you don’t really need any justification, beyond the quest for a race car experience that doesn’t require a Formula 1 budget or an engine building degree from Fenway University. Roush.
And a Legend car certainly delivers full sensory immersion, an engine screaming through its chunky exhaust as you fight it around the corners, sinister slides that cost time but pay off in fun. On the brakes, you get angry noises from the exhaust accompanied by slight deceleration – the front rotors are 10-inch Wilwoods, but the rear uses Toyota drums. Trail braking seems to be the move, prompting that locked rear end to give up its grip on the pavement a bit and launch into the corners. Once it takes a set, the Legend feels like it has plenty of grip, but any movement to upset it, whether via throttle or brake or a sigh of steering lock, may cause a slip. Gentleness is rewarded, clumsiness punished. Which is true for any car, really, but the feedback here is real-time, immediate, and visceral news you can use. Get slightly greedy with the throttle in a slow corner and you won’t just feel the understeer – you can see it, the front tires right in front of your ankles, writing the message that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
It’s all wonderful. But the real appeal here is that the Legend formula removes bottomless money and mechanical aptitude as necessary precursors to participation. The cars cost $17,500 new and you can’t spend your way to competitiveness. Motors are sealed, specs are tight, and parts are cheap. The biggest difference between two cars is who is in the driver’s seat. You can find used ones with the old ready-to-run air-cooled motors for around $5000.
Starch gestures to one of the front Bilstein shocks and says, “These shocks were $100 when these cars first came out in 1992. They’re still $100.” And it’s not just an exceptionally cheap part—a fender, for example, costs $85. “Say you’d put it in the wall and rip off the front corner,” Chapman says. “Fixing it would cost, oh, a few hundred dollars.” Engines can last multiple seasons, and when they need a rebuild, it’s $2400. Contrast that with karts, where in some classes competitive engine life is measured in races, not seasons, and a new engine can run $10,000 on its own. Even the tires last forever, in race car terms. “The tires on this car probably have 600 rpm, and they would be race legal right now,” Smith said. “A new set of tires can give you a one-round advantage, but after that it balances out.”
Legend alumni include many NASCAR greats, such as Bubba Wallace and Joey Logano. The series can be a stepping stone to greater racing ambitions. Or you can just have fun, weekend racing for bragging rights and adrenaline, not going anywhere fast.
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