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When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A blue 2015 BMW 3-Series is shown driving on a road.

Ranking NASA’s Best Spec Series Classes

If you love cars, there’s a good chance you like racing, too—whether it’s showcasing the best performance technology or just a thrilling display of competitive driving. Naturally, like any sport, there are many ways everyday folks can get involved that don’t include, A) becoming the main character of your own movie by getting dropped in an F1 seat, or B) simply watching from the stands. The National Auto Sport Association (better known as NASA—but not the NASA with the spaceships) has been facilitating events for advanced and amateur racers alike for over 30 years, so anyone with a bit of extra cash and the inclination to do so can experience genuine competitive racing for themselves!

Spec series racing seems like one of the best ways to get into this scene. A spec series places strict limits on the vehicles that can be entered; the rigidity of these limits ranges from forgiving, allowing similar models from several years or for a limited amount of performance modifications, or they can be so tight as to allow virtually no modifications at all. Often this is done in the spirit of parity and frugality; by limiting mods, the cars can stay inexpensive, and the results depend more on the driver’s performance than any other factor!

To the Moon and Back! (Or, Rather, to the Track!)

NASA (again, not that NASA) is far from the only organization to manage spec series racing, but their selection offers a great snapshot of what types of programs are out there for curious drivers. Whether the emphasis is on keeping costs low, maximizing speed, or just providing a venue for wringing out slide-happy legends, they’re all characterized by an emphasis on mechanical parity (if not outright homogeneity).

NASA operates in 15 regions across the United States. Unsurprisingly, the popularity of each spec varies with location; however, the rules for many of them are structured for cross-compatibility. Even if your spec isn’t popular in your region, you can still enjoy meaningful competition without driving across the country. The whole idea is to make auto racing as accessible as possible to those who are willing to put in the time.

Whether this is all news to you or you’re already familiar with NASA’s spec series classes, I thought it’d be fun to review them all from a high level in a ranked list. I ranked the ten classes by vehicle price, running cost, power, weight, relative speed, and popularity, and then I added up the ranks and sorted them. Ties go to the series with better cost and popularity numbers. (Just like in spec series racing, my rules are strict and focused on accessibility.)

10. Spec Z – 32 / 70

Don’t get me wrong, the competition was as tight as a spec series, with total scores ranging from 32 to 46 out of a maximum possible 70. But somebody’s gotta come in last, and that’s the relatively new Spec Z. Owners of 2003-2008 Nissan 350Z models are offered a relatively frugal path to high-speed racing—the permissible engine power of up to 275 hp ranks right near the top of all ten classes—but with a high vehicle weight (over 3,100 lbs), there’s a high cost to replace brakes and tires (as much as $1,500 per weekend); and vehicles built with competitive mods aren’t exactly cheap, running up to $30,000 by the time it’s all said and done.

It doesn’t seem like this spec is buttoned down too tightly, with a number of modifications needed to be competitive, and with popularity limited to a couple of regions it’s tough to get a competitive crowd. Then again, the cars fit NASA’s Super Touring 4 class, and that series actually gets factory support from Nissan, so even with the “worst” spec series class, you can’t go wrong!

9. Spec E46 – 33 / 70

E46 denotes the BMW 3 series generation of 1998-2005, which produced one of the most highly-regarded M3s in the history of this legendary model. Unsurprisingly, Spec E46 is a series focused on making the absolute most of the platform. The returns are impressive; NASA claims this series is among the top half of all NASA fields by lap time while in the bottom half by cost. Still, it ranks near the bottom among spec series due to the extent of modifications needed to build a competitive vehicle and the estimated running costs per racing weekend.

Especially when factored in with a relatively heavy car and a diverse lineup of eligible mods and vehicles, this ranking system puts Spec E46 near the bottom. Unlike Spec Z, however, it’s massively popular, and the series is highly competitive. The easy-to-drive, near-livable vehicles provide great value to drivers fulfilling their need for speed!

An orange 2018 Ford Mustang GT is shown parked from the rear.

8. Spec Iron – 35 / 70

Spec Iron is the answer to a lot of problems. Here, a late-model Mustang gets its time to shine without being thrust into the maelstrom of the wide-open American Iron series. Spec Iron combines the joy of wringing out the ‘Stang with the reliability of a younger engine than you’ll find in the Camaro-Mustang Challenge. The 2005-2010 Mustangs, with their 300 hp 4.6 L V8s, provide the most powerful (and heaviest) spec class for moderate pricing (similar to the Z). The Ford has more durable consumables, reducing weekend expenses, and this spec is popular across the eastern US. It ranks right around the middle in most categories but gets held back by what I perceive to be relatively loose modification constraints and ultimately lands here on my list.

7. Camaro-Mustang Challenge – 35 / 70

Unsurprisingly, the CMC series is tied with Spec Iron but gets the tiebreaker for having a lower cost of entry—which is only natural since many of the cars are at least a decade older! CMC features the most welcoming eligibility criteria of any NASA spec series, allowing Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, and even some Mercury Capris from the 1979 through 2004 model years. The cars are heavy, powerful, cheap to build, and expensive to run. Finding a good one is tough, and restricting its power to fit the spec requirements is tougher, but the competition is friendly and spare parts are plentiful!

The large, unwieldy cars present an atypical track experience, however, and thus there are very strict no-contact rules in place. The CMC creates a safe, accessible place for drivers to experiment with race car setup, to focus on clean passing, and to enjoy a very exciting, drift-happy platform to the fullest!

6. Spec 3 – 35 / 70

Though it appears to be one of the less popular series overall, I can’t really fathom why because Spec 3 is one of the cheapest classes to race in, it provides a balanced eligibility list, and it’s a series for racing BMWs. (BMWs, for crying out loud!) Rational arguments aside, the reported popularity and low speed of this class knock it down to #6 in these rankings. With well-built vehicles costing around $15,000 and weekend costs under $1,000, it’s probably the most economical way to race a BMW in North America. Landing on Car and Driver’s 10 Best List for each year of its 1990-2000 run, the E36 BMW 3-series on which Spec 3 is based (allowing ’93-’95 drivetrains only) is an excellent entry point to racing, especially for someone more focused on their own driving experience than how they compare to others.

5. NASA Prototype – 40 / 70

My top five spec series classes all earn more than half the maximum points in my evaluation, and this grouping begins with the NASA Prototype class. It seems strange to think that NASA administers an amateur racing category of genuine, purpose-built race cars, but they do! The SEBECO NP01-EVO NASA Prototype is an $80,000, 1,400 lb, do-one-thing-and-do-it-well track weapon!

The cost and naturally low popularity (NASA only operates these series on the coasts and, according to their website, only fields 42 cars nationwide) knock it down, but the lightweight and speedy cars, along with ironclad specifications, boost it into the top five. There are perks, too: these cars fit the Super Touring category for more competition, and winning drivers get to take their Mazda-powered race cars to the semi-finals of the MX-5 Cup Shootout!

4. Spec E30 – 41 / 70

Spec E30 ekes out a minutely superior score to the Prototype class thanks to it being almost exactly the opposite in every way. With competitive cars available for around $15,000 and large, friendly fields in many regions of the country to boost its score and low-performance ratings bringing it down, the difference maker is that Spec E30 is not the opposite in terms of spec rigidity, landing in the top half of rankings for that criteria. The field of 1984-1991 E30 3-series chassis cars has some room for diversity, but strict modification and powertrain requirements tighten things up to keep the spec safe, reliable, and affordable. Having the chance to race the car that birthed the very first M3—at prices this accessible—is itself near-priceless.

3. Thunder Roadster – 44 / 70

Speaking of accessible racing, my bronze medal goes to Thunder Roadster. Like the Prototype, this is another spec for purpose-built race cars which weigh under 1,700 lbs, but the difference is in the cost. Pricing in the mid-to-high $30,000s undercuts the Prototype class by a factor of two, supporting increased popularity and lower running cost without sacrificing anything significant in terms of performance or mechanical equality. These cars, built by US Legend Cars International with Suzuki Hayabusa engines, are tightly spec’d to support a totally driver-centric racing environment; thanks to a build that emphasizes safety and price, this spec becomes approachable for those who want to race a “real” race car, earning it the third-best spot on the list.

A red 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata is shown driving on a highway.

2. Spec Miata – 44 / 70

The most-raced car in North America has earned its status through excellence; not melt-your-face-off power or bruise-your-ribcage handling excellence, mind you—just a perfect balance of enthusiasm, compliance, and technical flexibility. The Miata’s diminutive stature allows otherwise-pedestrian speeds to become thrilling for drivers. Its well-balanced layout is notoriously forgiving to novices, responding in ways that teach without punishing; yet at the limits of its performance, it responds to the most minute error, demanding the utmost perfection from front-running drivers.

Everybody runs in Spec Miata. A technically level playing field on this platform means there’ll be anyone from total newbies to actual NASCAR drivers out there on any given race day! Spec Miata is widely considered a stepping stone to professional racing leagues, and there’s a relative ton of factory support for this series from Mazda. The only thing working against it (the only reason it isn’t #1) is that competitive vehicles aren’t cheaply acquired or built. You’ll spend well over $20,000 for a front runner—but if you’re just looking to get a foot in the door, there is no better way than to settle for a mediocre NA/NB example and get involved to learn and have fun racing in Spec Miata.

1. 944 Spec – 46 / 70

My ranking of the ten NASA Spec Series reaches its summit with the 944 Spec, scoring in the top three of all accessibility categories thanks to a phenomenal price point and correspondingly high popularity. With strict rules designed to take engine build and automotive innovation factors out of the competition, it comes across as the strictest “road car” spec. The low weight requirements make up for low power to provide a class faster than Miata or the older BMWs. Sure, participating requires a person to find a reputable engine builder to keep the car running, but we’re talking about a pathway to racing a Porsche here!

Far from a six-figure GT3, the 944 Spec front runners typically cost less than $12,000 to build—and, as the most popular Porsche model (until the Boxster and 997 came along), they’re not exactly rare. This spec allows 1983-1988 944 models and the 924 S from ’87-’88, and each model year has subtle advantages and disadvantages so insignificant that NASA’s advice is basically, “Drive the one you can get.” This closeness of competition between cars is what puts 944 Spec over the top in my rankings of NASA Spec Series racing classes.

You Don’t Need a Million Dollars

The biggest surprise when investigating spec series racing is how inexpensive it is. I mean, okay, it is not cheap to drop $20,000 on a toy that costs you $1,000 every time you play with it, but if this is a form of play that you love—or one that you’re seriously invested in trying out—we’re talking “put off the kitchen reno another two years” money here. It’s far from the exclusive domain of millionaires, and you could find yourself out on the track with all sorts of other devotees in a genuine competition of skill as drivers.

Whatever their ranking was here, all of NASA’s spec series provide an awesome gateway through which lies bona fide racing. The track you’ll drive on is up to you.

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