James' 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer
James’ 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer; ain’t she a beaut? Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by James Bergeron

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1995 Dodge Stratus

Five Hundred: once a large number when talking about dollars, but not much in the grand scheme of the world, even with today’s recent economy downturn. What can you purchase for $500 these days? For your house, perhaps a new vacuum cleaner, a TV for the bedroom, or one of those affordable new computers. What about for your car? Five hundred dollars gets you five to ten tanks of fuel, depending on your vehicle, or maybe some new winter tires if yours uses smaller 14-inch or 15-inch tires. Even a simple tune-up with some brake maintenance could cost you $500.

What am I going to do with $500? Well with a $500 budget, I set my sights on some major winter motoring fun.

Some history to begin with: I participate regularly in Solo II, a motor sport where cars, one at a time, drive a road course outlined by pylons in a parking lot. Each vehicle is timed to the thousandth of a second. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to get some safe thrills during the short Ottawa summer. But when the Solo II season ends, I have some decisions to make – the winter months usually means no more sports car driving, as I put my car away for half the year.

James' 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer
James’ 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer. Click image to enlarge

In Ottawa we are lucky enough to have the Motorsports Club of Ottawa (MCO), a club that gives just about anyone the opportunity to have fun with their cars. During the winter months, they put on a Snow-X series, a sport very similar to Solo II but held in a field flooded and frozen to create an ice base and plowed for a snowy surface with fluffy barriers. I have participated in these events before; some do the events in daily drivers and some drive “beaters,” cars towed to the track with no care in the world about their demise.

I have entered the Snow-X series with both types of cars in the past few years and honestly, driving in this environment with the potential to dent or crack your new car is no fun at all – the “beater” route is the only way to go. So I decided I would start my quest to find a “beater” to take to Snow-X. My budget was small – I didn’t really set a firm limit but wanted to spend as little as possible – no more than $300.

While still searching and thinking about this adventure, the MCO announced a new series called Rally-X. Again, one car at a time races around pylons but this is done on gravel and sand in a field similar to that used for Snow-X, but without the ice and snow. “Heck, why not do that too?” I thought to myself. Then another exciting prospect was announced: actual door-to-door ice racing. Now, this really excited me (more details to follow in a future article).

James' 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer
James’ 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer. Click image to enlarge

So I resumed my search for a beater that I could buy for peanuts. Near my home sits a 1992 VW Jetta parked on someone’s front yard with a for sale sign in the window. I took a stroll over to the house and inquired; they were asking $250. The car was in pretty rough shape, and it was hard to believe some people drive vehicles like this on the road. At Thanksgiving dinner, on a whim, I casually asked my aunt if she knew of anyone selling a car. To my surprise, she did know someone that was selling a 1995 Dodge Stratus. I inspected the car quickly in the dark and decided it was a gem (well a gem for $300). Though it had 237,000 km on it, it had a new exhaust, new head gasket and brake lines; the car looked to be in great shape, so I pulled out the cash and took it.

Fortunately for me, I own a truck and car-hauling trailer so I picked up the car and towed it home to further inspect it and take it for a drive in a deserted parking lot – just to ensure it wasn’t about to break in half.

So far, it seemed like I was set. Three hundred is extremely reasonable for six months of motorsport. I wouldn’t have to worry about scuffing a bumper or banging a door in. But upon inspection of the tires, it was quite obvious they would need replacing: the rear tires were standard all-season tires while the fronts were fairly new all-season mud and snow rated tires with aggressive tread. The rear tires were also cracked considerably. The second rule of being competitive in motorsport is “tires, tires, tires,” with the first being “driver,” of course.

James' 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer
James’ 1995 Dodge Stratus winter racer. Click image to enlarge

I started my search for used tires on web sites such as usedottawa.com and kijiji.ca. I was looking for any 14-inch winter tire for my racing machine as size wasn’t a huge issue for me. A few options came up, including a set of four tires on rims for $80! But closer inspection of the photos provided by the seller showed these were quite worn.

Here’s a little hint about winter tires – just because there is a lot of tread block and depth does not mean they are still good. Winter tires come with a deep block to begin with and pass their useful life span well before the rubber wears down. The key to inspecting winter tires is looking for even wear along the tread, watching for even wear on the sipes (the small lines cut in the tires) as they are one of the most significant indicators for wear and potential ice grip as they wick away water from the surface for better traction. Also make sure to note the year of manufacture of the tires, as winter tires are very soft and do harden over time, which becomes more of a problem, as the temperature drops and you demand the performance from them.

I did end up finding a few sets of tires that would fit my car from these used web sites, some of them were in pretty good shape. I ended up investigating two such sets that were only a year old. According to the sellers these were only used for one season and they had lots of life left in them – each wanted $100 for their sets. So $100 for a set of tires, $300 for a car – so far I’m doing pretty well for a “race car” on a budget I would say.

So far so good: I am under budget and ready to roll to my first event, a Rally-X event in North Augusta (near Brockville, Ontario). This will be the perfect event for me to work out any bugs with the car that I could repair before the winter season at home in my garage – it is best to find any weak points now than mid season and have to fix the car with the wind howling and the temperatures well below zero.

In my next article, I’ll be reporting on my exciting first race.

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