Six Well-Behaved Buddies for a Day at the Track

By Per Schroeder
Sep 3, 2020 | BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru, Track Cars | Posted in Buyer's Guides , Features | From the April 2013 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by unless otherwise credited

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the April 2013 issue of Grassroots Motorsports]


Unless you want to be constantly giving a point-by, the days of the 100-horsepower track car sadly seem to be over. The reality is that today’s track scene requires a bit more grunt.

While it’s possible to whip up some zillion-horsepower special, what about realistic track cars for the rest of us—you know, cars that can go from the local classified ads to track with minimal prep? And to add another dose of reality, what about something that also can serve as a daily driver?

Then there’s the budget. Since taking a brand-new car on track involves a bit of risk, we’re thinking we’d rather let someone else take that depreciation hit. For the most part, we’re talking about 5- to 15-year-old cars. 

Wondering what fits this dual-purpose bill? So were we, so we did a little asking around and found six cars that are definitely worth a look—one for each basic food group, you could say. For helpful setup tips, we then spoke to some experts.

Small Roadster: 1990-and-newer Mazda Miata

Miatas are light, balanced, and they rarely break. Most modern sports cars are far too heavy to be consistently quick in the turns and after just a few laps the heavyweight, high-dollar wonder cars see their lap times falling off. I have been passed on the first lap by plenty of 3000-pound, all-wheel-drive, multi-turbo supercars, and then had the great fun of chasing them down and leaving them in the dust five laps later after their overworked tires turned greasy.

The Miata is an awesome track car because it is already much lighter and better balanced than the competition. We add a good suspension and wheel-and-tire setup and watch it run fast and consistent times all day long and all weekend long. 

Once we add that grip, the Miata can outrun most other cars into and out of the corners. With higher corner entry and exit speeds, it does not take much added power to make the Miata into a lap time champ. That low weight also means less stress on everything. All the consumables from brakes to tires last longer, and the Mazda mechanicals are amazingly reliable. —Brian Goodwin, track junkie and owner of Good-Win Racing.

Which car should I get?
All years of Miata are great—pick one that fits your budget. Enthusiasts often prefer the 1999-’00 Sport or base package as the fastest stock Miata, but I am a bigger guy at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, and I fit better in the 2006 and newer MX-5. Try to find one that already has a limited-slip. 

What should I do before going on track?
Start with fresh plugs and plug wires, add fresh suspension, brake pads, good wheels and tires, race seat, harness and roll protection, and go have some fun. 

What is likely to break?
Coils eventually fail, as do the clutch master and slave cylinders. If the radiator is original, then upgrade to the 37mm core or bigger.

What’s the life span of consumables?
Consumables last much longer in a lighter car.

Is there anything else I need to know?
This is the sports car all track enthusiasts should own and drive. 

Coupe or Sedan: 1995-’98 BMW M3

Although the suspension is a strut-type in the front and is similar to the E30, the rear suspension really works better than the previous chassis. The car is really well balanced, and the wheelbase and track are really a nice match. At the moment, the E36 is overall probably the best bang for your buck BMW-wise. quickly. Tony Salloum, President of BMW tuning house VAC Motorsports.

Which car should I get?
The M3 would be my choice, of course. However, a 1996 or newer 328i would do nicely. 

What should I do before going on track?
The E36 has a few weak areas that need attention prior to track use. The first thing we do is reinforce all the suspension points. In the front, we reinforce the front subframe engine mount area using our kit. We also reinforce the anti-roll bar link mount on the strut and upgrade the anti-roll bar links. 

The shock towers also need reinforcement plates to distribute the load and prevent the tower from cracking near the upper strut mount or camber/caster plate. A front anti-roll bar kit is also very helpful. 

What is likely to break?
The rear trailing arm mounting pocket is likely to crack at the seam where it attaches to the floor. This is a very common problem that can easily be spotted when it’s on a lift. Also, the floor pan—where the rear subframe mounts—is a common area for cracks.

What’s the life span of consumables?
The life span of tires and brakes really depends on the products used and how they are treated. A Hoosier tire, for instance, will live for less time than a Toyo tire, but the car will be much faster with the Hoosier. 

Having said that, the key to good tire life is getting the chassis set up properly with good alignment specs and paying attention to tire pressures and tire temps at the track. 

The brakes will have a much better chance of survival if new rotors and pads are bedded in properly. Again, pad materials and types play a large role in consumption. A softer pad tends to wear quickly but generally will be kinder on the rotor. The harder and more aggressive pads will last longer but typically wear the rotor much more quickly.

AWD Sedan or Wagon: 2002-’07 Subaru Impreza WRX

The WRX is an easy car to drive on track. The all-wheel-drive system is forgiving and predictable, and the car is not prone to any kind of snap-oversteer or other scary behavior. If and when you do overdrive it, it tends to moderate understeer and generally comes back into line when you get off the throttle.

AWD means it’s perfectly suitable for wet-weather track days. It can be fun to motor around a wet course when most other cars are parked. The WRX has excellent cooling capacity, so you aren’t likely to overheat no matter how hard you drive. —Dan Hurwitz, Owner of Subaru tuning firm Mach V Motorsports.

Which car should I get?
The 2006-’07 cars had upgraded four-pot-front/two-pot-rear calipers that are superior to the sliding caliper designs on the other cars, although the rotors are all the same size. In 2006, the WRX got a 2.5-liter motor, too, which has better torque than the older 2.0 models. 

What should I do before going on track?
Brake pads are a must. The car is not a lightweight, and the factory pads are not up to any kind of track use. At least get some more heat-tolerant pads. If you’re going with R-compound tires, think about upgrading the brakes to the STi Brembos or something comparable. 

What is likely to break?
We’ve seen wheel bearings and transmission synchros go bad on WRXs that are tracked hard and/or often. Those aren’t that common, though. 

It’s very common for front control arm bushings to tear over time—especially with track use. The rubber strut tops can also degrade and tear as they age.

What’s the life span of consumables?
On our own track car, which is a 2850-pound Impreza with a 300-horsepower STi engine and STi brakes, we go through a set of Hoosier R-compound tires in maybe 12 days of HPDE track use. Brake pads last about the same duration, and front rotors last around 20 track days.

Is there anything else I need to know?
It’s very easy to upgrade the horsepower on a WRX using simple bolt-on parts—like exhaust, intake, intercooler—plus ECU tuning. Remember that the car works as a complete system, and a track car with more horsepower but no other upgrades will be, in many ways, less fun to drive than a stock one. A high-powered WRX with stock suspension and brakes will quickly overpower its brakes and tires.

Sports Car: 2003-’08 Nissan 350Z

This is a perfect setup for the track: It’s inexpensive, and parts can be found very easily. While it doesn't make as much power as a V8, it handles very well with its wide track. This Nissan can be just as much fun as other sports cars, at a fraction of the cost. —John Parham, Certified tuner for Z-car specialist Z1 Motorsports.

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

Which car should I get?
There are a few different ways to go. For a 2003-’04 manual, the Track model would be the best as it comes from the factory with Brembo brakes. The other models are also very nice; they can be purchased from $6000 to $10,000 at the moment but may not include the limited-slip differential. Just look to see if it has a traction control button to know if it has LSD: no button, no LSD. The 2005-’06 six-speed models were known to have issues with oil consumption, and they should be checked before purchase.

What should I do before going on track?
Brake pads are a must, with Carbotech being the favorite pad of the community. Install a Nismo differential cover to keep the differential fluid from boiling.

What is likely to break?
Bushings, bushings and bushings. Mainly, the front lower control arms and compression rods, and the rear differential bushings tend to go.

Also, the older transmissions were known to grind. Nissan took care of this in the later years, and you can pick up a new transmission for $1695. You also will need to replace the front and rear upper control arms with adjustable ones to prevent tire wear.

What’s the life span of consumables?
Pads last two or three track days with the Carbotechs. Tires will last around five track days, but there are many variables. We also suggest routine maintenance on other components, such as radiator, differential, transmission, clutch and brake fluid.

Is there anything else I need to know?
If you have the coin, go for the 2007-’08 coupe with the dual-throttle VQ35HR engine. This engine makes gobs of power and can compete with the best. We use Osiris for tuning and have seen 316 rear-wheel horsepower out of a cammed and tuned HR. HR. 

Pony Car: 2005-and-newer Ford Mustang

The Mustang is a car that goes fast in a straight line and brakes okay but can’t turn. Once you address the shortcomings of the suspension, you start to realize how great this car is. —Brad Grissom, Marketing manager for Mustang tuning house Kenny Brown Performance.

Which car should I get?
The best bargain for your dollar is a 2010-or-older model—pick any GT with a five-speed. 

What should I do before going on track?
Strut tower brace, lower cradle or K-member brace, rear shock tower brace, and midpan or rocker panel supports are all common/necessary upgrades. Engine tuning should be considered as well, and there are very simple handheld devices that will optimize not only the engine, but also cooling fans, traction control, and a few other ECU-related items. Engine cooling seems to be an issue as well, but a larger radiator easily solves that problem. You may also consider a good engine oil cooler. 

What is likely to break?
The factory clutch is not very suitable for open-track applications and eventually will fail. Transmission synchronizers have also been an issue in some cars, but you can get a lot of life out of the basic gearbox. Otherwise these cars are fairly bulletproof.

What’s the life span of consumables?
The biggest weaknesses are probably the brakes and driveline. The Mustang uses so much brake that it will consume an OEM pad in 2 hours, a premium pad in 4 hours, and a Hawk HP Plus pad in three or four days. As a result, the factory rotors are a big consumable also. The best way to solve this problem is the Ford Racing Brembo four-piston, 14-inch front brake upgrade, or other aftermarket six-piston upgrade with rotors. 

Tires take a beating on the Mustang unless you have addressed the suspension geometry issues, so a higher treadwear rating may be considered unless you’re a Hoosier dealer or get free tires. You would expect to get a couple weekends out of Hoosiers, while a Toyo or Nitto would be good for six weekends or more. The cars also seem to wear front tires more rapidly than the rear.

Is there anything else I need to know?
The Mustang has always been a car that is fast in a straight line, so don’t focus on how much power you can make. These cars have plenty. The greatest weaknesses are the brakes and suspension, so most of your focus should be in those areas, along with wheels and tires to complete the package.

Supercar: 2001-’04 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

You can’t buy that kind of performance elsewhere for that kind of money. I tell prospective brand-new Corvette customers that the best buy—new or used—is a C5 Z06. They’re durable and fast. —Danny Popp, Corvette tech at McCluskey Chevrolet, four-time SCCA Solo national champion, three-time SCCA Pro Solo champion, and five-time NASA Nationals champion.

Which car should I get?
The Z06 is the thoroughbred of the whole platform. It also comes with the most power. The LS6 is a very durable track engine. The only slight negative to the C5 Z06 is that the M12 transmission is a better autocross transmission than a track transmission due to the gearing. Rev limiter in second gear is 70 mph, which is perfect for autocross. It’s a very slight negative. 

A Z06 is a Z06. Ideally you’d have a 2002-’04 due to the horsepower advantage. 

What should I do before going on track?
The cars are pretty durable as they are, and what to do really depends on driver ability. If you’re a novice driver, the only thing to do is make sure it has good brake fluid and synthetics throughout. The engine and differential came with synthetics, but the transmission did not. The brake fluid would have been fine when the car was brand new, but now that the cars are a little older, it should be changed as a maintenance item.

If you’re a more seasoned driver, install some more aggressive brake pads. These cars brake well, but they put a lot of heat into the brakes. Putting good brake pads on these cars is paramount.

Putting a big-brake setup on the car is actually a good idea. It’s not that the car won’t stop well from the factory, but after installing a big-brake kit, the cost of the consumables actually goes down. After my teammate bought a set of StopTechs, he ran three years on the same rotors.

For wheels, we run the rear C5 Z06 wheels all the way around the car. That way, you can rotate tires. You can run a 295-315mm tire on that. I’m one of those people who never limits front grip; you just make the ass end follow. Additionally, those wheels are cheap, light, and will clear most big-brake setups. 

What is likely to break?
Actually, these cars are very durable. You definitely want an engine oil cooler, and a transmission and differential cooler wouldn’t be a bad idea either. This just helps the car run continuous laps without getting hot. Also, get some brake ducts on the front. 

What’s the life span of consumables?
Brakes and tires will be the big consumables. It’s definitely not a Miata. However, your lap times will be 10 to 15 seconds faster. There are so many variables with regard to how long the tires last. If you’re running a hard compound tire on asphalt, they’ll last a long time. 

Is there anything else I need to know?
The C5 Z06 will be a killer car no matter what happens. The early C6 Z06 makes a lot of horsepower, but it’s not as reliable as a C5 Z06. I don’t think we’ll go to the track in the next decade and realize that there are no C5 Z06s there. 

Like what you're reading? We rely on your financial support. For as little as $3, you can support Grassroots Motorsports by becoming a Patron today. 

Join Free Join our community to easily find more BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Mazda, Nissan, Subaru and Track Cars articles.
More like this
View comments on the GRM forums
Tom1200 Dork
9/3/20 11:08 a.m.

Good advice and great picks but as someone who is tracking 100hp car , unless you're running big horsepower tracks you won't be doing constant point buys.  Granted I'm a better than average driver and by virtue of instructing I know every pavement seam on my home track but it still comes down to driver.

The only reason I bring it up is there is this notion you need a 300-400hp car to go to track days. An old Miata or Civic with the bone stock engine works just fine.Sorry for the thread hijack of sorts but I really hate the notion that somehow one couldn't show up in a Honda Fit and have a good time.

Note I am aware that a Miata was the first car on the list and it's definitely my pick of the bunch, cause I'm cheap.

spacecadet (Forum Supporter)
spacecadet (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
9/3/20 11:44 a.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Your notion isn't wrong.. and that's before you even start talking the $$ of consumables on the faster cars.

i do think this list is missing a Honda Fit ot 90's Honda/Acura hatchback..

driver95 (Forum Supporter)
driver95 (Forum Supporter) New Reader
9/3/20 3:59 p.m.

I think the general feel of this article reads as the writers picks if you were going to replace your current vehicle anyway. The reality is if you want to have fun at a track day then go to one! I track a 2003 Accord with 215k miles and it's a blast.

Tom1200 Dork
9/3/20 5:55 p.m.

@driver95 why so few miles? :)


Our Preferred Partners