Buyer Beware! The Real Meaning Of "Bolt-On"

By Winding Road Staff

January 03, 2018

We love cars and so do a lot of our customers. And we understand the desire to make your car better and faster, especially if you are doing HPDEs or time trials or wheel-to-wheel racing. Upgrades are fun and almost all of us enjoy the process of figuring out a new way to lower weight or increase power or improve suspension behavior.

At the same time, we notice a lot of customers coming through our race shops in Austin and Sonoma who are "second timers". The "second timer" is someone who wants to upgrade his or her car, has found what looks like a great value upgrade, has installed the upgrade elsewhere (or on his/her own) and then comes back to us (the "second time") to make the upgrade work properly. This has happened to us, so we understand the seduction of the inexpensive path to speed.

A long time ago, after a few too many experiences being a second timer ourselves, we vowed to listen more carefully to the experts. Once you realize that not everybody in the racing business is trying to empty your wallet just for fun, it is easier to listen. In reality, since the race car services business is a hard way to make a profit, most shops are doing it because they enjoy the work. Most shops will also be happy to help you work within a budget to achieve your goals.

After we set out to become experts ourselves, with our national championship customer racing programs in Spec Miata, Global MX-5 Cup and Pirelli World Challenge, we started to notice a pattern. A significant percentage of "second timer" work in our shops was from customers who had been confused by the idea of "bolt-on" or "universal" parts. After seeing a bevy of cars that were overheating or running badly or not making the power their owners imagined, we came up with the following translation guide:

Universal means "not designed for any specific application and therefore will require significant engineering and modification to be adapted to your vehicle".

Bolt-on means "bolts will be used in the installation of this product, but you should be clear that special brackets or firmware or shrouds or re-location of parts or additional internal modifications and testing may be required for the product to work in your application".

If you have the ability and time to do the fabrication and software and testing to adapt these parts, then you may be able to save money with bolt-on, universal parts. But otherwise, these parts are often a false economy. You end up losing time on the track while you are spending money to complete the design of a product.

Because of this and a related problem -- the "cascade rule" in which upgrading one part reveals failure points in other subsystems -- we always urge drivers to discuss their goals and the complete upgrade path they envision with their race shop. Your shop will often say "that's a $15,000 upgrade" and you'll think they are ripping you off. You will then buy $5000 in parts, spend $4000 installing them and then another $10,000 to fix what didn't work. Instead, ask your shop to detail what they would do and why it costs what it does. You'll often see that their price is reasonable for all the work that is really needed. If you can't afford it, then you also can't afford the costs of being a second timer. Better to spend your money on a simpler solution or on more track time.