How Towing Race Cars Works


This is race car driver Juan Montoya's trailer. Yours probably won't be as flashy.
This is race car driver Juan Montoya's trailer. Yours probably won't be as flashy.
Marcos Townsend/AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who owns a race car knows that one of the hardest parts of racing is getting the car to the track. Unless you live around the corner from the venue where you'll be racing, you probably don't want to put wear and tear on your expensive race car by driving to a race. You can't simply get inside the car, step on the accelerator and head to the track. You need some other means of transporting it. There are plenty of alternative methods of automotive transportation -- trains, boats, even airplanes -- but most are prohibitively expensive, especially for the race car driver on a budget. The cheapest and easiest way to move a race car without driving it is to put it in a trailer and tow it. But this raises a number of questions. What sort of trailer do you need? What kind of tow vehicle do you need? And how do you use these things once you have them?

We can't tell you what the best vehicle is for towing your race car or what the best trailer is to haul it in, because this depends on precisely what your needs are. There are forums on the Internet where you can ask specific questions from people with lots of towing experience (we'll point you to one of these in the Lots More Information page at the end of this article), but for the most part we can suggest only some rules of thumb. And we'll discuss your options for making the trip to the race track as easy, painless and safe as possible.

Now let's look at some rules you can use to decide what kind of trailer you'll need for your race car.

Choosing a Race Car Trailer

Covered NASCAR race cars sit on their trailers during a rain delay at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 2005.
Covered NASCAR race cars sit on their trailers during a rain delay at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 2005.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

There are two kinds of trailers that can be used to tow race cars (or any other kind of car, for that matter): open trailers and closed trailers.

If keeping costs low is important, an open trailer is your best bet. Open trailers are relatively cheap. Just as importantly, they're also light, which means you won't need as powerful a tow vehicle. A closed trailer, on the other hand, is a major investment, but it can serve as a home away from home. It gives you a place to store your tools and equipment, and can even have a small residence inside. A closed trailer also protects your car against the elements, and protects both your car and your equipment from theft.

An important consideration in choosing a trailer is what it's made out of. Aluminum trailers are expensive, but they're prized by owners for several reasons: They're lightweight, have a high resale value and don't rust, even when left outside in the weather. If low initial cost is important, however, a steel trailer is cheaper.

A race car trailer should have its own brakes. Trailer brakes come in two varieties: electric and hydraulic surge. The former are activated by a brake controller in the tow vehicle (which we'll talk about at greater length in the section on tow vehicles), while the latter are activated by the inertia of the trailer as the tow vehicle slows down. Electric brakes are generally preferable because they're easier to maintain, but they do require installing a brake controller in the tow vehicle. Fortunately, such controllers are inexpensive and easy to obtain.

For a cheap alternative to a trailer, consider a tow dolly. A tow dolly slides under the front of the race car and supports only the car's front half, leaving the rear tires to ride on the road. The disadvantage is that the rear tires will need to be changed frequently, but the reduced cost of the dolly relative to a trailer can more than make up for this. Tow dollies are available with both electric and surge brakes.

Once you own a trailer, how do you get the race car in and out of it? We'll discuss that in the next section.

Loading and Unloading a Race Car

Loading a race car onto a trailer used to be a bit more difficult than it is now.
Loading a race car onto a trailer used to be a bit more difficult than it is now.
Sherman/Three Lions/Getty Images

Getting your race car in and out of a trailer will require a ramp. Most trailers have some sort of built-in ramp. In some cases, the ramp may be stored under the trailer bed, fixed in place with pins that can be removed so that the ramp can slide out for use. Other ramps may stand upright at the back of the trailer until needed, at which point they can be dropped into position. Some trailers, commonly used by towing companies, have hydraulic tilting beds, where the entire bed can lower into position to form a ramp, then return to a level position for transport. These types of trailers are extremely useful, but they're also quite expensive.

Many open trailers come with a "beavertail," a downwardly curved portion at the rear of the bed that effectively provides a ramp for your car. (This can be used in conjunction with some of the ramp types listed above.) Some closed trailers even have a beavertail rear door, which converts into a ramp when opened. In some cases it may be necessary to raise the front of the trailer with a hydraulic lift in order to lower the beavertail to the point where the car can be driven on to it.

Once the ramp is in place, the car can be driven on board or it can be hauled on board with a winch. The winch, which can be attached to a secure portion of the car, is usually operated by a motor. And once the car has been raised onto the trailer bed, it must be carefully positioned. Placing the car too far forward or too far to the rear can affect the trailer's stability. And, if the trailer is an open one, care must be taken that the tires are solidly on the bed and not hanging over one side.

Now that you have a trailer and your car is securely on board, there's only one more thing to worry about: finding an appropriate vehicle to tow it with.

Equipping a Race Car Tow Vehicle

A state-of-the-art race car like this needs a state-of-the-art trailer.
A state-of-the-art race car like this needs a state-of-the-art trailer.
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Your first consideration in choosing a tow vehicle is to find one that has sufficient power to handle the trailer, the race car, and any additional equipment inside the trailer. If you've decided to build or purchase a relatively light, open trailer you'll need less power than if you purchase an enclosed trailer that contains not only your car but your tools, clothes and a personal residence. But even with an open trailer, you'll need at least a V6 engine and quite possibly a V8. However, you won't necessarily need a truck to do the job. An SUV will often be sufficient for towing purposes, and even a high-powered car may have enough pulling power to get you to the racetrack. (If price is a problem, consider buying a used vehicle instead of a new one.) The tow vehicle's suspension must also be strong enough to support the trailer's weight. And, though this may not be immediately obvious, the tow vehicle should weigh more than the fully loaded trailer. As a rule, the weight being towed shouldn't be greater than 75 percent of the weight of the tow vehicle. Although your final choice will depend on just how heavy a load you're towing, here are some vehicles that race cars owners have successfully used:

  • Trucks: Honda Ridgeline, Ford F350
  • SUVs: Chevrolet Suburban, Dodge Durango, GMC Yukon
  • Cars: Dodge Magnum R/T, Ford Crown Victoria

Keep in mind that your towing plans may change in the future. For now you may have an open trailer that carries a single race car, but in the future you might want to upgrade to a closed trailer that carries two race cars. When that time comes, of course, you can choose to upgrade the tow vehicle as well, but you can save money by choosing a vehicle now that will handle your needs a couple of years from now. Choosing an overpowered tow vehicle is rarely a problem, but having an underpowered vehicle when you upgrade your trailer would be a problem indeed. So think ahead.

Once you've chosen a tow vehicle, you might consider adding some accessories to improve your towing experience. If your trailer has electric brakes, an essential add-on for the tow vehicle is a trailer brake controller. This device activates the trailer's brakes at the same time as the brakes on the tow vehicle. Trailer brake controllers come in two varieties: proportional controllers and time-delayed controllers. The first type activates the trailer's brakes in proportion with the brakes in the tow vehicle, while the second type activates the trailer's brakes at a preset rate. Generally speaking, proportional controllers are preferable, but the time-delayed controllers are less expensive, so the decision depends on how much money you have to invest. Remember, though, that the goal is to protect your investment in your race car, so consider getting the proportional kind.

Also consider getting a weight-distributing hitch. A normal hitch will put the trailer's entire tongue weight (the downward force on the hitch ball) on the tow vehicle's rear axle. This will lower the rear of the tow vehicle and lift its front end, reducing performance. A weight-distributing hitch, on the other hand, spreads the tongue weight across all of the tow vehicle's axles, keeping it level. If your trailer weighs more than half of what your tow vehicle weighs, this is a smart investment.

See the next page for more information about towing race cars.

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Sources

  • " Bad economy a yellow flag for smaller race car venues" - http://www.projo.com/business/content/BZ_STOCKCARS_GAS_06-16-08_KKAE49R_v32.41fcffd.html
  • "Case History: Race car Trailer" - http://gatorhyde.com/introduction_race car.html