Spec Miata radio box made from tea box

How to build a Budget friendly race radio setup – 3 Essential pieces to get going for WAY less than you think

Adding a car-to-car and car-to-spotter communication system is something that can both make sprint racing even more fun, and give you a real competitive advantage . For Endurance racing, comms are essential. However, Radio systems on the market are WAY more expensive than my budget would allow. After borrowing and testing cheap radios from a friend, I went forward with piecing together a cheap system for about $150 total. The results were impressive but I constantly struggled to broadcast out of my car without anything but the sound of my screaming engine. Thankfully, I found an “Easy button” kit to have great sounding audio and still keep an entire setup under $250. 


Legal Note: Even cheap and easily purchasable radios have the power to broadcast on radio bands reserved for emergency services, CERTAINLY make sure you do not do that (Ours did arrive set within the amateur frequencies). To operate radios you should have some level of an amateur radio license (A basic license can require forking over a few bucks to the government, to advanced licenses with full tests.) There are rumors of a possibility of government deregulation, but I’m not yet holding my breath for it. 


Getting a system together without spending a fortune:

The problem with in-car radio systems is the extremely high cost. Typical “Name Brand” systems seem to start at $700 and go up to (and well beyond) $1500. If you are racing on a budget (Be it with NASA, SCCA, Champcar, LeMons, etc) a $1500 radio is just out of the question. I’m sure there are some very high quality setups out there, but I just couldn’t imagine they were THAT much better than some cheap generic radio with pieced together accessories. On top of that, I’ve seen plenty of people with big money, name brand kits struggling to get them to work. 

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PTT button on shifter

Nobody online seemed to have done a super-cheap setup before. There were a few posts of people asking and being told “no, no, that would never work!” but I couldn’t find anyone who actually tried it and failed.

I was able to get a HIGH QUALITY car-to-car, and car-to-spotter radio setup for less than $250.

After a few years, the system continues to work great. The only spot that had given us trouble initially was communication out of my car. It’s quite loud Inside a car constantly at Wide Open Throttle, 5-7,000 rpm. I initially tried using a standard generic earbud mic, but all the other side could hear was engine noise. I added a lapel mic and clip it inside my balaclava, and it improved output sound quality a bit, but my voice was still so garbled it was barely usable. If your car doesn’t have the “angry bee” buzz of a revvy, rattling Spec Miata, this may not be an issue at all. The good news is I found an affordable option from Nerdie Racing that covers everything you need, including a good mic. At $150 it’s a bit more expensive than piecing together parts from Amazon, but not much… and it works. 

Range has been super impressive. The biggest single concern people voiced to me was that without spending big money on super powerful radio units we would have terrible range and most tracks would work for only a few turns.  Even with my cheap $25 trunk lid mounted antenna and $10 spotter antenna, We have had mostly flawless results all across tracks in the Northeast. Even the sprawling Watkins Glen has spotter reception everywhere but in the toe of the boot.


Parts List:

Here are the main parts of the kit I pieced together: Items on amazon change availability and price often, please let me know if you notice any unavailable products! I try to stay on it finding and replacing similar parts. The Nerdie kit does GREATLY simplify your “shopping list”, but if you are someone who really wants to tinker and try the cheap route, I’ve retained the old links below. 

**Note: If you order through these links to Amazon, I earn a small percentage off the sale, You’ll be helping to support this blog and it’s content (And it doesn’t cost you anything extra)… so please use the links, thank you!

If you order directly from Nerdie Racing, please leave a note in the comment box that you heard about them on No Money Motorsports!


1) 2 BaoFeng UV-5R Radios (One for in-car, one for spotter) 

Note: The UV-5R Radios seem to come and go frequently from amazon, I’ll do my best to keep an updated amazon link. Try to avoid the “plus” model as the metal front cover can interfere with the plug. The GT-5R seems to be the “new for 2021” radio, and is purposely limited on channels. This is a good thing as we don’t need to broadcast out of that range. 

BaoFeng UV-5R Radio (Mixed availability)

BaoFeng GT-5R Radio 

UV-5R


2) Antenna for the Car 

Car Antenna

budget-racing-radio-tips-how-to


3) Nerdie Racing “NASCAR SYSTEM” Helmet Kit. I had previously been piecing together cheap individual pieces (Mics, push-to-talk buttons, extensions, etc) but for only a few dollars more, this system not only works great, it’s MUCH higher quality pieces that should last much longer. For cars with multiple drivers, additional helmet kits can be added for just $25-30.

*If you purchase this system, please leave a note in the checkout that you found them on No Money Motorsports!

2015 Nerdie NASCAR System 

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At this point, you can stop: You will have a functional system for LESS than $200

However, the next few pieces will go a long way in making your system function better and be more fool proof. 


4) Battery Eliminator (While this isn’t required, hardwiring the radio to the car’s power saves me from forgetting to charge the radio… I have seen plenty of competitors not realize their battery was dead until they are rolling to grid)

Battery Eliminator for Baofeng Radio


5) Spotter Antenna. Standard antenna should be fine for small tracks, but I figured with how cheap antennas are, it was good insurance. My exact antenna doesn’t seem to be sold anymore but this one is very close

Spotter Radio Antenna


6) Spotter Earpiece. It gets really loud at the track, and you don’t necessarily want people around you hearing what’s being said, so some sort of headphones is good for a spotter as well. I’m considering spending the money on a full earmuff style headset, but so far a cheap setup like this has worked well.

Cheaper option:

Baofeng Black PTT Earpiece Earphone Headset Mic

 
 
Slightly less cheap option:

Other Misc Items:

  • “Radio Boxes” are prohibitively expensive (Around $50 for a metal box, some foam, and a roll cage mount). You can’t just sit a radio in the passenger seat, some sort of holder is important. I also wanted to minimize vibrations from the car getting to the radio, so bolting it directly to the chassis was out. I used an old metal tea box, shoved some soft packing foam in it, and attached it to my cage via u-bolts.
  • I mounted a Dual Cigarette Lighter Plug to the cage near the radio to get power. The open plug is also was a convenient way to get power to my cameras.  (Check out my post on recycling your old cell phones for trackday cameras!)
     

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Good luck, let me know how it turns out for you!


*Affiliate note: This post contains links to Amazon, NoMoneyMotorsports earns a percentage from qualifying purchases made through these links. If you enjoy the content, please support us!


For those who are incessant, tinkering cheapos (much like myself) who STILL want to try and make this system work as cheap as possible, here are links. After seeing how improved the quality and results were with the Nerdie Racing Kit, I personally do not recommend the piece-it-together route… After spending money on several mics, adapters, and several lengths of wire, I would have been much better off just going with the Nerdie kit from the beginning.

1A) PTT (Push-To-Talk) Kit (The PTT button is on a bit shorter of a wire than I hoped and with my layout it doesn’t reach my steering wheel, but it reaches my shifter just fine)

BTECH 2 Pin (K1 Connector) to 3.5MM Adapter with Push-to-Talk Button

baofeng push-to-talk-plug-racing-radio

2) Headphone extension cable (Gives me plenty of wire to run the wire to a convenient spot for hooking the in-car system to the wire coming off me) Depending where you want your helmet hookup, you may be able to get a significantly shorter cable.

20 foot extension cable


3) Microphone (earbud microphones didn’t seem good enough, These are currently working somewhat well for me, but from a loud car they send a lot of noise out)

Lavalier Microphone with headphone jack

Lapele-Microphone-In-Helmet-Budget-Race-Radio

4) Generic Earbuds (without an inline microphone would be nice, I just taped over my earbud mic because I’m using the lapel mic). You can use fancy noise-canceling earbuds as well, but they seemed unnecessarily expensive and any generic ones seemed to muffle my loud exhaust just enough when under a helmet. Get ones that are relatively flat so they fit snugly under the helmet without being uncomfortable.

Panasonic Wired Earphones


5) Input Splitter. Depending on which mic and earbuds you go with, you may need a splitter so you can plug both your mic and earbuds into the PTT adapter. (Hat tip to Steve for pointing out that I missed this!)

Input Splitter

race-radio-splitter-mic-headphone


10 thoughts on “How to build a Budget friendly race radio setup – 3 Essential pieces to get going for WAY less than you think

  1. Great article! Just an FYI, prices seem to have gone up quite a bit, the cost on this system now is nearly $300.

    1. Thanks! I’m not quite seeing $300 unless you wanna totally go all out. Can be up and running in-car under $200 and about $250 with a spotter radio.

    1. Thanks for the heads up, I added a new one. It’s tough to keep an active link for these things!

  2. Can you update the 8w version link as it appears to not be functional , Great write up and This is exactly what I wanted. I would like to be able to communicated car to car and with a spotter so all three are on same channel. Would this set up work for that?

    1. Will do, Thanks for the heads up! Those listings change so often it’s hard to keep up!

      That would definitely work, most races we have about 5 cars and a spotter on the one channel.

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