Budget Bug: Grassroots racing reborn with the Fun Cup

Click above for a high-res gallery of us having fun in the Fun Cup

Our normal definition of "fun" doesn't involve making a last-minute trek across the soul-sucking expanse of I-5 in California... twice... in less than 12 hours... through a monsoon. But in our illusive pursuit of fun, that's exactly what we did to get some seat time in a Fun Cup car: a tube-framed, mid-engine, FRP-bodied track car that could be the next big thing in amateur racing.

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The Fun Cup began in Belgium back in 1997 as a way for aspiring racers to get their wheel-to-wheel kicks without mortgaging their souls for track time. Since then, the series has spread across Europe with almost a dozen different countries hosting five events each. The culmination of last year's Cup involved 175 identical Fun Cup cars competing in a 25-hour event at the Spa circuit in Belgium. With 30,000 fans cheering on the teams in person and countless others watching the event in bars and homes across the continent, the Fun Cup has turned into a series to rival some of the mainstays of motorsports in Europe.

With such a rampant fan base and a decade of successful campaigning under its belt, the Fun Cup crew is looking to expand its reach across the pond. Greg Clough, the president of Fun Cup, Inc. and our host for the day, has begun to organize the 2008 season in the U.S. and is intent that the series will put "the fun back into racing."

After making the trip down from Northern California to Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, CA, we arrived at Horse Thief Mile, an 11-turn track nestled into the hills jutting up from the desert floor. While exchanging pleasantries with our hosts, we watched as one of the invited journos flogged the lightweight cup car through a series of tight, second- and third-gear corners over a track with virtually no flat stretches of tarmac.

The Cup car rolled into the makeshift pit producing a decidedly un-Beetle noise. With a 140-hp, water-cooled, 2.0-liter four sourced from a VW Golf mounted behind the driver, this isn't an aging flower-power mobile that struggles up the hills of Berkeley. As a matter of fact, the only thing you'll find on the Cup car that's pulled from a Bug is the windshield and wipers; everything else is either bespoke bits produced just for the series or pieces culled from the Volkswagen parts bin, both of which keep costs down and make replacement parts easy to find.

The cars campaigned abroad are practically the same ones we'll get here in the States, complete with a tubular frame, fuel cell and the aforementioned four-cylinder, which, along with the five-speed manual transmission, is sealed to prevent any modifications. At 1,700 pounds, the racers have a modest power-to-weight ratio, but with series-mandated BFGoodrich g-Force sport rubber (sized 195/50R15 up front and 205/50R15 in the rear), standard disc brakes and pads, and a suspension that only allows ride-height adjustment, everyone runs the same. The mantra of the Fun Cup is simple; keep it relatively inexpensive and put an emphasis on driver skill rather dropping dollars on high-priced components.

After suiting up and getting settled into the central-mounted seat, we got the rundown on the controls. The unboosted steering wheel frames a digital readout to keep tabs on engine vitals, while a handful of switches are spread across the dash controlling everything from the ignition to the 60's-era windshield wipers. Along with the five-point racing belts, the heavily bolstered seat kept this featherweight hack from shifting much in the corners and the beefy cog swapper to the right clicks into its gates with a reassuring thud.

With a quick twist of the large, red ignition switch to the right, the four-pot out back barks to life. It's loud, but wouldn't be grating during the 90-minute stretches each of three drivers run during a normal race. The accelerator is a bit on the stiff side, acting more like an on/off switch at first until you can get a feel for exactly how much pressure will elicit the right response. Pedal placement is flawless, with a quick pivot of your ankle for seemless heel-and-toe action to match revs.

Horse Thief Mile is mainly comprised of tight bends and moderate-speed sweepers with decreasing radii. While short, what it lacks in length it makes up for in technical sections that take a few laps to get acclimated. However, once you've got the feel, the Fun Cup car is an eager dance partner. Unlike your run-of-the-mill racers, the suspension isn't stiffly sprung. It's taut and Grandma certainly wouldn't enjoy a trip to her local bridge game sitting on the tub, but there's a notable amount of body roll through the corners. While this gives the Fun Cup car a tendency towards understeer on initial turn-in -- something that's easily cured with a slight flick of the wheel and some judicious throttle application – it's incredibly composed at the limit and remains predictable for the amateur behind the wheel.

The uphill straight that flanks the western side of the track was a perfect stretch of tarmac to test the Cup's straight-line speed. Climbing the moderate incline up to the first hard right hand bend, we find that motivation is nicely matched to the racer's minimal weight. A couple of downshifts into second gear, a quick turn to the right and some throttle gets the Cup car to rotate with ease and then you're rocketing back down the hill, keeping right in anticipation of the high-speed sweeper to the left. Understeer rears its ugly head on corner exit, and again, a forceful jab of the accelerator coupled with a slight flick and we're tracking out on line. While the lack of power assist on the steering wheel was never a real issue, it was obvious that the little Bug is better suited to long expanses of track – like Spa and the planned 25-hour event at Thunderhill – than the tight confines of The Mile.

After a few more laps, we were able to up the pace and our confidence grew with it. We began braking later, laying into the throttle sooner and experiencing a few "hero" moments when the back stepped out and we were able to drift the racer with minimal drama. It remained completely composed throughout and even on the damp tarmac, rarely did we have any sphincter-clutching moments. We can't wait to sample this thing in the dry.

From a strictly financial point of view, you're not hard pressed to make a plausible case for renting, or even buying, a Fun Cup car. For just under $35,000 you can pick up a turn-key racer. The cost of entry for a few local races during the 2008 season wouldn't put your credit history, or your marriage, in jeopardy. It's certainly not chump-change, but it's not entirely prohibitive either, especially if you've got a few friends to spread out the cost. Engine rebuilds are normally done once a season, you can make it through several races on a single clutch and a couple of sets of tires should do you and your team well through a race or two.

Just to illustrate the Fun Cup car's ease of use, when we arrived back in the parking lot, we hopped out to find our photographer getting suited up for a run around the track. "Seriously, anyone can drive this thing," Clough said as our camera-wielding companion slid into the driver's seat. And he did just that. Easy to drive and cheap? We're in. We just have to convince both our creditors and better halves that the moderate expenditure is in everyone's best interests.

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Photos Copyright © 2008 Damon Lavrinc, Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.

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