Track Day Cars (first published 12 March 2013)

Introduction
When I first started trying my hand at track days they were really just starting to become popular.  I’d just lashed out on a mid-life crisis second hand Caterham 7 and I took it to Brands for an Easy Track day on the GP circuit.  Be warned!  Once you start, the bug really bites and it becomes an addictive pastime that can last a lifetime.  All I knew about track days and track day cars at the time was that the Caterham was clearly designed to race and from what I could glean from chat rooms it could more than hold its own on track against far more exotic and expensive machinery.  I’d kind of put to one side the bit about a lot of the performance comes down to the skill of the driver of course.  The Cat in my eyes was second to none on circuit.

TD Cars Pic 1

Now that I’ve been running track days for over 12 years, my picture about cars and their capabilities is quite a bit altered.  Also our customers, except for a very few who I could probably count on one or two hands out of a total of literally thousands since we started up, all fall into the classification of real enthusiasts making the most out of  their chosen car be it a recovered insurance write off to really exotic supercars.  You’d be surprised at how many McLarens there are out there although there are a lot more VW Golfs!

So if you are thinking about taking up track days and are wondering what to drive, maybe this will help you make a choice.  You can spend a fortune, but it’s really not necessary.

Don’t be fooled by the model
I guess the temptation when deciding what to buy is to look straight away at sports cars in their various guises.  And indeed the sports car will provide a ready-made package pretty much track suitable straight from the dealer without the need for much modification.  However, there are other options that will provide you with a very competent track car, probably at a fraction of the price of some sports cars, albeit you may have to put in a bit more effort to achieve that.  Hot hatches for example can be really cheap to buy, cheap to modify and as long as they are effectively roadworthy don’t have to be road legal.

TD Cars Pic 2

With the cost of car repair nowadays being relatively high compared to the value of the damaged car, insurance write offs can result from what amounts to pretty superficial damage but nevertheless is uneconomic for the insurer to repair.  Often the application of a little fibre glass and maybe a new panel or two renders the car perfectly roadworthy and suitable for the track.  After all it doesn’t have to look like it just came out of a showroom.  We had a Lotus Elise track car for a couple of years that was an insurance write-off but just needed a crack in the nose-cone repairing.  It cost very little to buy and fix and gave us very good service.

Front wheel drive or rear wheel drive
Most of the sports cars are going to be rear wheel drive, whereas the hot hatches and most of the saloons will tend to be front wheel drive.  I’m not touching all-wheel-drive.  Both front and rear wheel drive cars have their pros and cons.

Front wheel drive
Because the drive train has to cope not only with power transmission but also steering, there is a practical power limit to what can be successfully handled in a front wheel drive car whilst avoiding unacceptable torque steer, and achieving the basic mechanics of getting the power onto the road.  Front wheel drive cars tend to be limited to around the 200 bhp mark.  Their handling will be familiar to most drivers; it’s pretty predictable but with a tendancy to understeer through the corners.  Understeer is a relatively benign trait and fairly forgiving for less experienced drivers.  Although the car will not follow the line requested by the driver, it will tend to remain stable.

Front wheel drive is usually cheaper than rear wheel drive and possibly a little lighter too.  On the downside, reliability and maintenance may be a little higher, mainly because of the more complex drive train/steering arrangement.

Rear Wheel Drive
Rear wheel drive cars are probably the most fun and most rewarding to drive. If you choose rear wheel drive there is also scope for different engine layouts ie front, mid and rear engine, all with different handling characteristics.  Out-and-out horse power is not a limitation either with a good choice of naturally aspirated, turbo and supercharged models around.  Rear wheel drive will, however, be less forgiving to the bold driver than front wheel drive – especially in the wet or greasy conditions, but let’s face it, that’s half the fun!

Here’s a selection of the most popular cars for you, taken from our bookings records in 2012/13; there are many more you can choose from.

A small selection of front wheel drive cars

Renault Clio
VW Golf
Ford Fiesta
BMW Mini
Honda Civic
Peugeot 205
Renault Megane

TD Cars Pic 3

A small selection of rear wheel drive

Caterham 7/Westfield/Locost
BMW M3 especially the E36
Mazda MX5
Porsche (various)
Toyota MR2
Lotus Elise/Exige

TD Cars Pic 4

Other favourites are the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi EVO in its various evolutions.

Mods to consider
Or how deep is your pocket?

Actually you don’t need to fork out much at all to get you going on track.  Straight off the road the car will be fine, although you will in all probability find that on-track the brakes quickly start to become ineffective once your competence and speed starts to build.  Road-going brakes are generally going to quickly overheat under sustained track driving conditions.  The car will also probably tend to roll quite a bit in the corners if it’s a family saloon.

So what to fork out from your hard-earned?

Well I’d start with making sure the car’s general mechanics are up to scratch before you go anywhere near the track.  The bodywork should, of course, be sound.

·        No sloppy joints or bushes.

·        Steering properly aligned and rack in good fettle.

·        Braking system with new fluid; Dot 4 or better.

·        Plenty of wear left on the pads.

·        Discs not seriously worn or grooved.

·        Engine oil change with new air, oil and fuel filters if the car’s service history is a bit of a mystery.

·        Coolant fresh and no leaks.

·        Radiator clean.

·        Check the seats are secure and the seat belts are in good nick.

·        Tyres should have plenty of wear left in them and at least 3 mm.

I think at that point I’d stick it on the track and try it out.

In ascending order of things to consider doing next would be:

·        Get some quality instruction from a qualified instructor  before you do anything else (ARDS Grade A recommended).  No really just do it!  This will be by far the best value early upgrade to the cars performance you can do.

·        Uprated brake pads.

·        Better tyres more suitable for track use.

·     Strip out all unnecessary weight eg rear seats, carpets, headlining and soundproofing, and anything else you don’t need on the track eg radio.  BUTmake sure that in stripping out you don’t leave any sharp edges unprotected and unpadded that the driver or passenger could get carved up on in the event of an accident.

·        GO ON A DIET!  Can be a very effective weight saving measure on a lightweight car.

·        Fit a proper race seat and harnesses for the driver (remember you also need a proper passenger seat and harness/belts if you are going to take a passenger or would like some on-track instruction.

After you’ve done the above any further mods are going to involve potentially serious money and may not be worth it on the car you bought.  These could include:-

·        A roll cage.

·        Stiffened/lowered suspension

·        Modified steering geometry

·        Increased engine horse power

Remember that the overriding objective is to have fun, and you will get most fun by making the best use of what you’ve got with some proper instruction to show you how to do it and what driving skill to work on next.  The basic car is really all you need but you may also get a lot of fun out of fiddling with it.

Enjoy!

David White

(Edited 20 March 2013)