Monday, May 16, 2011

Track Car for the Novice

It’s easy to find a lot of articles about which car is the best track car, but they are usually measuring which car can turn the fastest lap time.  That is really good for experienced drivers, but what about the best track car if you are a first timer?  I thought it would be good to do a write up on what the best novice track car would be.  If you are interested in really honing your skills so that you can drive a car at or near its limit on a track or would like to get into racing, then please sit down with an open mind and let me explain my philosophy before you just peruse the list to see where your car falls.

Whenever I talk to someone about tracking a car they always assume that a car needs to be modified.   Why?  I guess many assume that when taking a car out onto the track it should be prepped for the track with power and suspension mods, but most cars that you would want to take to the track will be just fine in the stock form.  Adding power and suspension modification only adds another layer of complexity and obscures the skills a novice driver should be focusing on.  Watching track and race videos can be very deceiving since you really don’t get a good feel for how fast those corners seem to come at you, how hard to turn, and then there are the walls, the little bumps, and the slip angle of the tires.  A friend of mine summed it up in one word: scary.  It’s a fun scary, but you won’t really know what I mean until you have done it.  Even now you are probably thinking “I am going to tear the track up!”  Basically if you really want to be a skilled driver then put on the training wheels.  It seems that every hobby I have pursued, there are the foundational skill sets that when mastered will make it easier to concentrate on practicing the advanced skills.  So with this in mind, I have a few suggestions on what is the best way to learn to drive a car at speed on a track.  Of course, always be safe.  You aren’t going to become a great driver if you crash and burn.

Try AutoX (pronounced auto-cross) first.  Not glamorous, but it is fun.  One benefit is that the courses are set up to try and limit the possibility of you wrecking your car if you spin or otherwise make a fool of yourself.  But really the best part of autoxing is that you can get a feel for the car in a relatively safe setting.  Don’t make excuses that the events are “confusing with all those cones” or some BS like that.  Try it.  When you do, really push the car.  Try and make it spin.  Try and brake really late and hard.  Practice threshold braking.  Feel how hard you can corner.  What does the car do when you take it into a corner to fast?  What happens when you give it to much throttle in the middle of the corner?  There shouldn’t be any hard obstacles or people out there to hit if you totally push wide in a corner or spin.  When I make new significant modifications to my car I like to thrash it around at an autoX first just to see how the car feels and it gives me more confidence when I got to the track that if I do spin I have some idea what I need to do to recover.

I will assume that you probably already have a car, and that is the car you intend to track.  However, if you don’t have a car yet or want to buy another car, I have compiled this list of cars from Ideal to Terrible.  Now I wish that I could have driven all these cars, but I haven’t so some of this is based on the tech sheets or second hand knowledge but I wanted to list most of the popular models.  It’s important to note that one assumption I made with this list is that the cars are NOT MODIFIED or have minor modifications such as intake, exhaust, sway bar change maybe some newer slightly adjustable suspension.  So no turbo upgrades, no coilovers, no aero.

Ideal Cars - These cars will all share common characteristics; front engine, rear wheel drive, low powered. Why these characteristics?  Most high powered race cars are going to be rear wheel drive and since those cars are going to be prone to oversteer, you should learn to control it and use it.  Sure a lot of high power cars are going to be mid-engine, but mid-engine cars can be difficult to learn in because when they start to spin, they spin fast where a front engine car has more progressive oversteer, that’s easier to detect, correct for, and recover from.  Now, the most important part is you want a low power car so that you can concentrate on fundamental driver skills such as racing lines, smooth down shifts and car control without having to do it at 100+ mph.  Trust me, like I said earlier, it may seem like the faster the better, but once you actually do it, it’s better to start slow, learn the fundamentals and then step it up to the fast cars.  Remember, training wheels before the ten speed.

Mazda Miata (base model, no forced induction)
Mazda RX-7 (old models that aren’t turbocharged)
Toyota Corrolla (83-87 AE86, RWD car)
Pontiac Solstice (no turbo or supercharger)
Saturn Sky (non-tubro of course)
Nissan 240SX, 300Z
Porsche 944 (non turbo)

Good Cars - These cars are fun and will help the novice driver learn to drive a track, but may not have handling characteristics that emulate the typical race car or higher end sports cars.

Honda Civic, Accord, Fit, CRX
Dodge Neon (DOHC or SOHC versions, not the SRT4)
Acura Integra (not the Type-R)
Nissan Sentra (normal or SE-R)
VW Golf, Scirocco, Corrado, GTI (no VR6 or turbos)
Ford Focus, Escort, Fiesta
Chevy Cobalt (not the SS of course)
Subaru 2.5RS, Legacy, regular Impreza
Mini Cooper

Marginal Cars – These cars are rated as such mostly because they are a little fast to make the Ideal or Good list, though a couple mid-engine cars made the marginal list since they have well tuned suspension or low power so that they aren’t to much of a handful.

Ford Mustang
Chevy Cobalt SS
Dodge SRT-4, Challenger, Charger
VW R32, VR6’s
Toyota Supra (Mark 2&3), MR2 Spyder (’00-’05)
Nissan 300ZX (non-turbo)
AudiA4, TT
Porsche Cayman, Boxter, 944 Turbo
Fiat X1/9
Nissan 350Z & 370Z
Mazda RX-8

A Little Scary – Handling characteristics are tricky or speed is just getting to fast to make them a good novice car. For instance, the mid-engine layout has some very solid advantages, but they also can be very “snappy”, meaning that when the tail end breaks loose and starts to spin, it will do so quickly and the driver needs to be very attuned to the car to be able to catch it.

Chevy Corvette, Camaro
Toyota MR2, Supra (Mark 4)
Lotus Elise
Subaru WRX or STI
Mitsubishi EVOs
Porsche 911 (non-turbo)
Nissan GT-R

Terrible – Keep in mind this is for a novice driver.  Don’t misinterpret this list; all of these cars make great track cars but not if you are trying to learn.  Basically, take all the super cars and lump them into this class, but here are some particularly difficult to drive:

Porsche 911 (especially the older ones)
Dodge Viper
Ariel Atom

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