Track days. They are a simple test between human and machine.
The subject of track days came about during a discussion on advanced driver education programs. There has been a push to create driver education programs for teenagers by teaching them advanced, but necessary skills. Car control is a huge piece of the puzzle, as teenagers need to understand how their vehicle can react when presented with a dangerous situation. It used to be called "defensive driving," but teaching these skills on controlled environments raises this concept to new levels.
The racetrack is a place where teenagers are given more than enough tarmac to test out their abilities to become a safer and more aware driver. This domain is not exclusive to teenagers. Adult drivers who feel their skills need sharpening are looking to track instructors to further their education. A good racing instructor can give even the most experienced driver some tips on how to handle a car at higher speeds or to improve on their car control methods.
Yet, the track is there for recreational purposes as well. About a couple hours out fog the Twin Cities, Brainerd International Raceway provides enthusiasts a chance to either take the wheel of one of their vehicles or allow a car onto their track for at least a few hundred dollars. You get a safety briefing by the BIR staff to ensure you will use the track safely and wisely, as well as to know what happens if something goes wrong with your track day experience. Various vehicles are available for use by BIR ranging from a single seat light racecar to a Ford Crown Victoria police car.
I've always wanted to experience a run on a racetrack. My problem is that I'm too chicken to do so. Let's not forget my neurologically challenged inability to coordinate a clutch and a shifter. To be able to accomplish a track day is out of the question in realistic terms – for now.
But, what if I did? If I were to bring my own vehicle, what would I use to tackle the track? In this edition of Five Favorites, I went through a catalog of potential track day vehicles to find the right one for the job. My criteria were a bit complicated since it involves many items that were necessary to ensure a safe few laps on the tarmac. The car had be comfortable for me to safely and competently drive in an alert position behind the wheel. It will not come with a clutch, but a robotized manual with a good mix of both shifted and automatic modes is allowed – perhaps preferable. I would need any driver's aids, such as traction control and launch control, to be controlled by me – on or off.
What five track day cars made the cut? If you know me too well – don't be surprised at all…
1970-72 DATSUN 240Z: A vintage racer? Well, we can call it that since it is about 40-plus years old. It ruled the track in its time taking on all comers. Yet, the 2.4litre in-line six revved like a madman and its light composition, low center of gravity and tweaked suspension set-up created one of the best cars of its era to grace a track. Already, the Achilles' heel is the 3-speed automatic. Nothing a right foot, strong steering and plenty of grip can't overcome. Yeah, I could drive the manual for a better track feel, but the one thing my neurological system got right was the connection between the brain and my right foot. The original Z has to be driven to understand what I am on about when I say that a good example can achieve track greatness once again.
1986-88 TOYOTA COROLLA FX16: A hot hatch on a track? Of course! But, why drive this one? Isn't this supposed to be a "vintage racer?" First reason: The engine. The incredible 4A-GE is a 1.6litre DOHC 16-valve powerhouse loved by the Drift/Fast and Furious set. They plunked them into rear-drive Corolla coupes, namely GT-S models. Secondly, their autoboxes react very well to the track – so I'm told. As being familiar with that gearbox, it is one that can handle the revs and shift points well. The package on the FX16 can be adjusted well with the right TRD (Toyota Racing Development) parts. Slap on some good rubber and let's find an apex! This would be an awesome SCCA club racer.
BMW M3: Front engine and rear drive: It is the ultimate set-up according to everyone who knows sports cars. The traditional driveline where you have all the power from the front flung rearward to create one hell of a track experience. In my case, I can start with a non-clutch model as early as the E36 generation – about 1995. Yet, I was told that the ultimate non-clutch experience is with the current E92 coupe with the M-DCT gearbox. The 4.0Litre V8 in the E92 will be the last of its kind as the next generation M3 could sport a triple-turbocharged six-cylinder mill. Not for me. Give me my M-tuned V8, my M-DCT and a track. From what I gathered, this could be better than sex. Considering I never driven a BMW, this better be like sex with a muscle bear – something else I've never done before. You get the idea of what an M3 is on a track day – a good high. It is the "Ultimate Driving Machine" after all…
PORSCHE 911: Forget telling which year or generation it is. Forget deciphering which model to run. The point of a 911 is simple: It has done the job many times over. Sure, the engine's in the back. Not every driver likes this set-up, but how many titles it won with it? It can be comfortable – some models may not be. The Tiptronic and PDK are fine by me as there's not enough room for my size 14 feet to do anything other throttle, brake and rest. I've never driven a Porsche. They seem easy to run – very straightforward for my liking. Sometimes, you have to remember that bringing the right tools to the job is what makes someone a success. The 911 is a track day car that comes home after a hard day's work happy.
2012 BUICK REGAL GS: Like I said – if you know me, you wouldn't be surprised to find the eagerly awaited hot version of V&R's current lovechild amongst these five. Why the Regal GS? Isn't it a Turbo? Yes – 270HP on tap. What about the tires and the entire set-up? If it's track-worthy, you bet I'd put on a few hot laps in it! The top tier journos already did. They came away impressed. It might not be perfect, but if it wants a good thrashing at BIR – give me the track fee to pay for the privilege, I'll go through the safety briefing and let's get it on!
If you're curious about track days, check around to your nearest race track to inquire. Here my fellow Minnesotans, check out Brainerd International Raceway. If you want to learn how to drive on a track, there are plenty of instructors to help you out. If you happen to be in Northern California, check out T. Marc Jones of Finesse Motorsports and Motorama LIVE. Otherwise, check out who are the instructors at your local track.