Driving a $17,500 Legend Car Proves Affordable Racing Is Alive and Well

Lightweight, powerful, and a lot of fun, it’s hard to see any downsides to this 5/8ths-scale racing oddity.

byChris RosalesJul 1, 2022 11:00 AM
Driving a $17,500 Legend Car Proves Affordable Racing Is Alive and Well
Chris Rosales
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I took a deep breath and felt my lungs constrict against tightly wound polyester and Nomex. My heart soared—I was in a race car. More specifically, an oval-prepped Legend Car based on a 1934 Ford Coupe body; a three-cylinder eardrum-bursting projectile that I was kindly invited to drive at Southern California’s Irwindale Speedway.

Driving and owning a race car is an opportunity afforded to few people, as it’s all down to steep costs. Normally, you’re out tens of thousands of dollars to purchase the car itself, thousands more in parts and transportation, and thousands in entry fees. I hadn’t heard of U.S. Legend or its cars before I found myself strapped into this miniature hand grenade, but what did entice me was the apparent affordability of the company’s cars. I think that this machine may provide a spectacular solution to the difficult-to-answer question of affordable racing. 

The Legend car parked beneath the grandstands at Irwindale Speedway | Chris Rosales

Also, I found out that turnin’ left is incredibly underrated.

1934 Ford Coupe Legend Car Replica Review Specs

  • Base price: $17,500
  • Powertrain: Yamaha 847cc liquid-cooled inline-three | 6-speed sequential | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 125 @ 10,000 rpm
  • Torque: 60 lb-ft @ 8,000 rpm
  • Curb weight: 1,250 pounds (with driver)
  • Seating Capacity: 1
  • Top speed: 120 mph
  • Quick take: An amazing way to get into racing with an exciting car that is also affordable.
  • Score: 8/10

Motorcycle Heart

The Legend car itself is a concoction from the early ‘90s, designed to be an affordable way to go spec racing. Born from a 5/8ths scale “dwarf” version of ‘30s and ‘40s American coupes like a 1934 Ford Coupe or a 1937 Chevy Coupe, it’s built on a tube frame with a fiberglass body and meant solely for racing. Before 2018, the cars came specced with a Yamaha 1,200cc four-cylinder but are now blessed with an effervescent and powerful 847cc Yamaha FZ-09 individual throttle-bodied triple and its six-speed pseudo sequential gearbox.

Suspension-wise, the car is about as simple as it gets: a live rear-axle derived from a ‘70s Toyota Corolla customized to fit with the offset driveshaft required by the motorcycle gearbox. Inside of the axle is something called a spool, which locks the rear wheels together permanently with no limited-slip or any sort of differential. By nature, this means the car will understeer on turn-in and oversteer on power. Pray for me.

Legend car front-end | Chris Rosales

The front axle is a simple dual-wishbone suspension with Bilstein coilovers. Encasing both ends of the car are those iconic black Aero wheels and Hoosier slicks. If you look at it head-on, it looks like it was created in a wind tunnel, but sideways thanks to its asymmetric setup cooked up for oval racing.

Just Look at It

The scale of the car makes for an initial shock because it is genuinely tiny. Two could fit end-to-end within a normal enclosed car trailer. It has a wheelbase of 73 inches (shorter than a typical side-by-side like a two-seater Polaris RZR), yet it is 60 inches wide, which makes it nearly square. It looks funky and somewhat gothic with its exaggerated track width, bulging tires from the fenders, and its upright shape. 

Sitting in it was the part that got me a little nervous. Once I donned my helmet and HANS, getting in was a faff. It was comfortable to be in despite the fact that there was no seat padding, but the view out of the window felt like I was peering out of a jail cell, and I had never been more alarmed by the vague sight of the mountains beyond the hood of the car. It felt like I couldn’t see anything, let alone a distant apex. 

The view from the Legend car driver's seat | Chris Rosales

Rubbing against my right leg was a particularly thin slice of black sheet metal that shielded me from the rapidly spinning driveshaft. A thin gear stick protruded from this chamber while the steering wheel came right out to meet my hands. As far as instrumentation, there was a water temperature gauge and a gear position readout. Nothing else mattered. 

Still, all of that was nothing compared to the racket the three-cylinder makes. Even around the pits, my earplugs throbbed and threatened to fly out. I was in for a ride. Combine all of that with 1,250 pounds of overall weight, 125 horsepower, and one intimidated car journalist, I think we had a party.

‘Keep It in Third’

Since there is technically no flywheel on the motorcycle engine, getting it started and out of the pits was something of a challenge. It was responsive, revvy, and vibrated at an incredibly intrusive frequency. I also stalled it about three times while getting to grips with the cable clutch before I lined up behind other oval track race cars to practice on the storied pavement of Irwindale Speedway.

I’ve known this track most of my life but not as a driver. Thanks to drifting—Formula Drift has held an event here every year since its inception in 2004—I spent the better part of my youth fantasizing about sliding the steep banks of the half-mile speedway. Today, I would be doing laps around the smaller, third-of-a-mile oval that the INEX Series, the sanctioning body that hosts the races, competes on. Once my turn arrived, I engaged first gear with a resounding clunk, slipped the clutch, and clambered my way towards the infield track.

Oval racing is a discipline I had never experienced before. I have some experience mobbing shitboxes around road courses but I’ve never gone out with the explicit intention to drive banked ovals. The theory is similar: find the ideal line and build a rhythm. Legend cars are designed for folks like me: beginners who have some experience track driving. All of that is to say that this car is supposed to be approachable. I had just one morsel of advice from my chaperone, team owner, racer, and owner of this particular car, Donny St. Ours, that rang through my mind before I offered some throttle to the car: “Keep it in third.” 

Going full-throttle in that car was one of the single loudest things I’ve ever experienced. I thought the racket was going to burst my eardrums, even with earplugs. With my eyeballs nearly falling out from the engine’s vibration, I focused on the banked corners. Seeing the track rise up in front of you like that is an unnerving thing, but I trusted the Legend car. I had to. And when we met the bank a heartbeat later, I knew I had nothing to be afraid of. It was connected but not brutal, loose but not drifty. It was balanced and easy to drive. 

After learning about the suspension, its spool differential, and the power-to-weight ratio, I expected something of an unruly monster. Instead, the car was easy to trace through each stage of Irwindale’s four turns (each bank is split into two, entry and exit) and the limit of grip was instinctual. Right before the limit, the car would gently oversteer but hold its line while the tight-ratio steering lightened and nudged in the opposite way to alert you.

With nothing in the way of assistance or complexity, the experience was simple and repeatable. Because of the spool differential, the car was nicely two-dimensional and easy to understand. On throttle, it would rotate and widen its line, off throttle, it would tuck in and settle into a neutral cornering state. It handled mid-corner bumps well and never got upset by the dusty, cracked track or my poor driving. It did have more than enough power to cause some trouble, however; I tried some zealous digs at the throttle on more than a few occasions and found myself correcting some slides after finding the limits of the rear tires. It would slide, but not kindly. It much preferred to be put down gently rather than hung out at the outer edges of rear grip.

There were a couple of downsides, of course. It is a race car, so a lot of things can be excused, but it was concerningly loud. Even with earplugs and my helmet, I would return to the pits with strange sound artifacts still ringing in my ears from the sheer volume of the car. Better earplugs may fix this but I wouldn’t want to risk my ear health in the long term, and some minor exhaust modifications would go a long way. It was also incredibly cramped for my average-sized frame, though there seem to be different chassis and seat options for bigger folks. The visibility was also quite poor, with a tiny windshield that felt like only watching the subtitles on a large TV screen. Navigating the track on my own was fine but going wheel-to-wheel would take racing instincts that would be tough to learn without being able to see anything. Finally, the technology of the car is on the simpler side, with its very basic rear suspension being a limiting factor, though that is the entire point of the car.

But the entire experience of flinging myself at a concrete wall and hoping this absurd contraption would stick was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. It was fun, instantly familiar, and rewarding. I was hooked. It took me a dozen laps to realize my neck was about to snap in half from the G forces and that my ears might be permanently damaged, but I didn’t care. It felt dangerous but had the right sensations coming through the steering wheel and seat to tell me what I was doing wrong while still being a thrill. The Legend car was so much more boisterous than a normal spec racecar like a Miata or a Boxster; it had a genuine lightness and prodigious power. And I’ve driven a Spec Miata. While it’s fun, it’s also much slower, much less connected, and is not a dedicated racecar. It’s a street car made into a race car. The Legend car is purpose-built and is similar in price—if not cheaper.

Gatekeeping Ends Here

I didn’t know what to expect before I drove this half-scale race car. All I knew was that it had a bunch of power from a motorcycle engine, six gears, and it was designed to turn left. I walked away with something of a motorsport revelation, all from the affordability of the car and the delight of driving it. 

If you didn’t know, racing is expensive. Stupidly expensive. Most race cars easily arrive at the $30,000 mark—and that’s before the additional thousands you’d have to spend in entry fees, getting licensed with a sanctioning body, and maintaining and towing a full-sized racing car. Legend cars have an exceptionally low barrier of entry, requiring minimal licensing to start racing wheel-to-wheel, and they are exceptionally cheap. Think of U.S. Legend Cars as F1 and INEX as the FIA. While U.S. Legend Cars International handles the car at $17,500 turnkey, INEX handles the actual racing. An INEX membership costs $175 per year and, according to the U.S. Legend Cars Managing Director Graham Smith, most local tracks only charge $50 for a driver entry. 

Maintaining the cars themselves, according to St. Ours, is mostly painless since the introduction of the water-cooled Yamaha FX-09 engine. They are sealed—meaning that they cannot be modified—and require virtually zero rebuilds for several seasons. The tires are around $500 for a fresh set and last about two race weekends, which include practice, qualifying, and a 20-lap race. All this is meant to make the racing much more fair and inexpensive.

The real expense is hauling the car around with a trailer, but it is such a small and light car that a larger trailer and truck won’t be necessary. I bet it could be towed by something like a Toyota RAV4 with a U-haul trailer, thanks to its Volkswagen GTI-sized track width of 60 inches.

The fact that these cars also compete on road courses, albeit with a different suspension setup that allows the car to turn both ways, is also really enticing. Affordable, fun, competitive racing is virtually unheard of beyond karting. Sure, you could do Lemons, but there isn’t as much serious competition to be had, even if it is a lot of fun. Best of all, the Legend car is just as much of an instructor as it is a fierce racing car. It tells you what you did wrong and carefully guides you towards being a better driver. It is almost the perfect starter race car.

I took an extra two lapping sessions in it. As the sun set over Irwindale Speedway once more, I found myself challenged and determined to solve the puzzle of driving a good race car well. That is priceless. And that euphoria lasted even as I switched the car off for the last time, gloved hands vibrating and a funny wiggling sound in the quiet of my ears. Motorsport doesn’t have to be gatekept with lofty costs of entry and scary cars. It can be done for way cheaper, and in a car that’s both loud and in your face, but patient with you, too.

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