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 some years ago. There are now driver education programs for teenagers 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 northwest of 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 had my time on the track. Granted, I'm not at least intermediate on my track skills, but I completely understand what it takes to run a track. It takes a car with great balance, agility, and control to be successful on a given lap.
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.
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 – 250-270 HP on tap (depending on model year). What about the tires and the entire set-up? Actually, I have tracked this car – and it's fun! It might not be perfect, but it deserves a good thrashing – give me the track fee to pay for the privilege, I’ll go through the safety briefing and let’s get it on!
MINI COOPER S: Think about it: A small, concentrated hatchback with a very low center of gravity. It is an excellent car for the track! I speak with authority and experience to state that I had the best autocross time on a karting track in one. It was in the John Cooper Works version – all 228 horsepower of turbocharged butt-kicking cornering monster. Wait…a small hatch as a monster?!? If you understand vehicle dynamics, then you'll understand why the MINI Cooper is perfect for all tracks, big and small.
VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI: While the Toyota Corolla FX16 seems like a fun hatchback to rock a track, there is no denying that the original hot hatch to do even better. Originally, it was made for the road, later generations of the GTI were given better suspension and performance to handle extremely well in the corners. I found the MkVII GTI to be easy to chuck on a handling-rich course while gobbling up time on the straights. Engine performance is accessible, and setting up is equally simple.
LEXUS RC F: "Oh, it's so big and heavy." So were a few of my ex's. One of the reasons why this is one of my favorite vehicles ever is that I was able to take it onto the track and work it through the corners. The key to making the RC F a track day hero is to understand its overall dynamics and exploit them wherever you plant it on the track. I knew I had a big bruiser on my hands, but I also know that it would follow the line through the corners. Compared to some two-ton beasts, I like my chances in an RC F on the track.
TOYOTA GR SUPRA: You knew this was coming! I experienced this Toyota-BMW collaboration on the track. It was made for the track. The turbocharged engine, driving dynamics, and overall design were made for maximum engagement at every turn. The power is controlled at the turns, but can be unleashed on the straights. There is really nothing more you can say about this GR Supra when it comes to track work.
All photos by Randy Stern