Street Legal Race Cars: The Basics

April 06, 2017

street legal race carsYou have drag-racing dreams… but a one-car budget. Maybe a street legal race car is in your future: a car you can drive to work all week and then take to the track.

But what does “street-legal” even mean? And how do you insure a street-legal racer? We’ll tell you all about it. Just remember that it’s not legal to race a street legal race car on the street. (Say that five times fast.) Instead, head to a track that lets drivers race their own cars, such as the Sonoma Raceway or Watkins Glen.

What makes a car street legal, anyway?

Race cars are built for competition. Regular cars are built to safely carry people from place to place. Street legal race cars exist in the intersection of these two groups: they’re super-fast cars that also have all the safety features required by local laws. The definition of a street legal car varies from state to state, but there are a few things they must have, wherever you are. According to legal site HG.com, street legal race cars need:

  • Seat belts
  • A regular, round steering wheel (not a butterfly-style steering wheel)
  • A functioning horn
  • A hood (and the height of the air intakes may be regulated)
  • Bumpers
  • License plates
  • A muffler
  • Functioning brakes and an emergency brake
  • All required lights (headlights, brake lights, taillights) and reflectors
  • A certain amount of ground clearance — not too little (like lowriders) or too much (like monster trucks)

OK, so tell me how to make a race car street legal.

First, the bad news. It’s not always possible to make a race car street legal, unless you have tons of money and lots of time. Let’s say your eccentric uncle leaves you a NASCAR-style stock car in his will. You want to impress all your coworkers by driving it to work. It’s an almost impossible task.  As one Quora expert explains, “a NASCAR stock car modified to drive on the street would need a speedometer, head, tail and turn lights, and (most difficult) doors that open, whole new exhaust system, rebalance the chassis, change the suspension geometry, change all the shock and spring rates, adjust brake bias…”

It’s just not designed to drive on the street — or even to make right turns.

Now, maybe you have a vehicle that has been modified for performance or looks. It may need just a little work to make it street-legal again. Examples include restoring the muffler/emissions controls, removing dark tints or replacing illegal lights with DOT-approved lights.

What are examples of street legal race cars?

how to make a race car street legalWhile definitions of street legal race cars vary, most fall into a few broad categories.

  • Classic muscle cars: Souped up ‘60s and ‘70s muscle cars not only look rad, but deliver top track performance. Torque and Tread rounded up a few of the fastest classic cars in the U.S., including a ’71 Monte Carlo, a ’70 Chevelle and a couple of ’69 Camaros.
  • Underestimated beater cars: If you really want to get into amateur racing without spending a lot, invest in a speedy beater like a Mazda Miata, Dodge Neon, or Acura Integra, suggests Road & Track.
  • High-performance luxury cars: BMW is the first name that comes to mind for street legal racing. The BMW E36 3-Series, made from 1990 to 2000, is a favorite, or for rich racers, the 2016 M4 DTM Champion Edition. Other popular names in racing: Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Porsche.
  • Super-expensive exotic sports cars: It goes without saying that the fastest street legal race cars are the exotics, like the Bugatti Veyron (top speed of around 258 mph) or the Koenigsegg One:1, which can hit 273 mph. Importing a car is another layer to consider if you want to go this route.
  • Specially made kit cars: You can order your own street legal race car from a California-based company called (what else?) Street Legal Race Car. The company offers a road-ready Formula One-style racer called the Ford FF200, which it claims is the “only true, bona fide production race car you can buy and can legally drive on the street.” Pretty sweet. Sold as a kit, the car costs around $85,000 with engine.

How do you get insurance for a street legal race car?

Finding the right car insurance for a race car can be tricky. For one thing, the actual worth of the car may exceed its face value, if you’ve made substantial modifications to it. Also, only specialty insurance companies actually want to insure cars that are used for racing, because of the high risk involved.

If you leave racing for realistic driving video games, and drive a speedy but otherwise ordinary car, such as a BMW or a tuned Honda, you may be able to get car insurance through a regular insurer. Run your info through Compare.com’s powerful comparison engine and get multiple quotes from insurers. If you drive a classic, collectible or show car, you’ll probably need special car insurance from a company that covers these vehicles. And if you’re lucky enough to have a Lamborghini in the garage, you’ll need to get exotic-car insurance.

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