Top 5 Favorite Track Day Cars

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Dec 4, 2017 | BMW, Ford, Mazda, Porsche, Subaru | Posted in Features | From the Dec. 2017 issue | Never miss an article

Sometimes you just want to click off laps–like, a lot of laps–without worrying that the brakes will fall off, the tires will combust, or the car will simply slow to a halt mid-corner.

Not every track machine is up to the task, though. Some are wicked fast but a bit fragile. Others have a robust appetite for tires and brakes. Wacky homebuilt specials may generate buzz, but they’re also more likely to be dragged home on a hook.

The right track cars–like the ones on this list–can reliably deliver rewarding, pain-free laps. We included options for a wide range of budgets, too. These aren’t just our personal favorites, though, as each pick is also backed by practical advice from an expert on that marque.

1999-2005 Mazda Miata ($2000+)

Miatas have been track day staples since their release almost 30 years ago. They’re fun, rewarding cars that are easy on consumables. Plus, the top goes down. Now that there are four generations, how did we choose one? Process of elimination.

The current cars cost the most, while the first-generation Miatas aren’t getting any younger. As for the third-gen cars, Flyin’ Miata’s Keith Tanner has a word of caution about taking them on track: “The biggest problem with an NC for that sort of use is the roll protection. It’s more problematic than with the earlier cars.”

That leaves the second generation, produced from 1999 through 2005, in today’s sweet spot. Tanner favors the more powerful ones built after 2000. “The 2001–’05 cars will be quickest and of course the newest,” he continues. “They also come with the largest brakes, but you can still run the ideal 15-inch tire. There are lots of roll-protection options, and it’s fairly easy to drop in a race seat. Hardtops are available if you want.”

Expert Advice

“The biggest area that needs attention is usually the cooling system,” Tanner explains. “The stock plastic radiators get brittle and can crack on track, which can ruin the day of more than one person if it dumps. That’s the weakest point.”

Before going on track he’d also service the brakes, including the slider pins and pads. “Check the condition of the front hubs,” he adds. “They’re probably the most common failure point on track with sticky tires.” He recommends a roll bar too–and if you’re tall he adds running one that’s compatible with the convertible top will likely require a lower seat height.

Prep is even easier if you start with a fresh healthy car Tanner continues. “There’s a reason that the 25 Hours of Thunderhill looks like a Miata-only race about 18 hours in. Inspect those front hubs regularly and keep the brake fluid fresh.

“Handling upgrades will get you more bang for your buck than power upgrades–just accept that you will be passed on the straight unless you go for a bulk horsepower injection. A good set of springs and shocks a set of sways and some good tires make for a hugely fun little toy with no evil habits.”

Need a low-buck tire source? Tanner says to check in with the Spec Miata and Spec E30 racers. Their takeoffs should still have some remaining life for a lapping day.

Keith Tanner
Flyin’ Miata
(970) 464-5600

Subaru BRZ, Scion & Toyota 86 2012+ ($10,000+)

In a world of 700-horsepower pony cars and twin-turbocharged whatevers, the Subaru BRZ and its badge-engineered cousins sold via Toyota and Scion dealerships are a bit of a throwback: rear-wheel drive and only 200 horsepower. They’re like modern interpretations of the AE86-chassis Toyota Corolla or original Nissan 240SX.

Choosing from these models is easy: Regardless of model year or badge on the nose, they’re all the same car. Okay, there are a few small differences regarding trim, chassis tuning and available colors, but for the most part they’re identical. There aren’t even any pesky sunroofs to avoid, as they were never offered on these cars. tl;dr: Look for one with a manual box.

Element Tuning’s Philip Grabow put his FR-S on track back when it was brand-new. “I was on a waitlist and got one of the very first cars in my area, so I decided to bring it to one of my races,” he recalls. “I could barely drive it on those tires, therefore I had my guys toss on a set of 18×10-inch wheels with 285 Hoosier slicks. I straight embarrassed people with that car and I knew it would make for an amazing race car.”

Expert Advice:

“An oil cooler is a must,” Grabow says. “People are seeing 280-plus-Fahrenheit oil temps naturally aspirated. This hurts oil pressure, and we’re seeing bearing failures from naturally aspirated track guys. Endurance race teams can see failures in one race; enthusiast cars meet a slower death. Don’t be afraid to up the viscosity to deal with the higher oil temps. A huge misconception is that there are some insanely tight clearances requiring 0w20. We’re an engine company and can assure you that is not the case.”

Grabow prefers a relatively track-oriented setup for his own FR-S. “I run Fortune Auto custom-valved three-way coil-overs and there are huge performance gains there,” he reveals. “We also found a ton of time by dialing in our suspension without a rear bar, keeping the inside-rear wheel planted.” When his FR-S took its first stab at our Ultimate Track Car Challenge just a proper chassis setup shaved more than 2 seconds off Grabow’s Virginia International Raceway lap times. The stock brakes are fine for the factory horsepower levels he says but they’ll need major revisions to rein in cars with more potent engines.

Philip Grabow
Element Tuning
(240) 246-0302

BMW M3 2001–’06 ($12,000+)

Just like the Miata, the Mustang and several other greats, the BMW M3 has been an enthusiast favorite for decades. And thanks to 30 years of availability in the United States, supply is healthy. So, which M3 is the most reliable track companion?

BimmerWorld’s James Clay recommends the E46-chassis cars. “To me,” he says, “an E46 M3 is the perfect combination. The BMW marque means it will always be a solid track machine. As an M-car, it’s further focused for motorsport and track use. It’s the appropriate age, too, built when cars began to have more power but not an excessive amount of electronics to frustrate and intervene.”

The E46-chassis M3, available for the 2001–’06 model years came in a few different flavors. For track use, we recommend a hardtop fitted with the six-speed manual transmission. And if you can find one a non-sunroof car offers a bit more headroom and a bit less weight up top.

Expert Advice:

The newest E46-chassis M3 was built more than a decade ago, so Clay’s pre-track to-do list starts with maintenance items. “On the top of the list is the need for a proper high-sheer-strength oil. I prefer Red Line 15w50.”

Rod bearings have been problematic on these cars, and Clay says that not sufficiently warming up the oil is the primary reason. Either inspect the bearings to ensure they’re still good or install fresh ones, he advises.

Another commonly discussed weak point of the E46 chassis are the rear trailing arm bushings–typically they should be replaced every 60,000 to 80,000 miles Clay explains. “At some point you need to address the rear subframe bushings and potential metal reinforcement,” he adds. “You can do inserts as a low-cost, low-time option to reduce the rate of degradation.

“It’s odd advice coming from a performance parts retailer, but keep the engine stock–and with fresh rod bearings,” he explains. “As with any car, the first track mod should be proper brake pads. Even if you’re new, you will need them and appreciate the confidence they inspire.”

Where should you direct your attention after that? Clay says suspension upgrades are the best bang for your buck on these cars, specifically shocks and springs. “Complement them with the right bushings. If you only do one thing, do suspension–and save money by doing it the right way the first time.”

James Clay
(877) 639-9648

Ford Mustang GT 2011–’14 ($15,000+)

When asked to recommend a Mustang GT for easy, no-hassle track work, Dario Orlando of Steeda Autosports answers quickly: S197. That fifth-generation Mustang, offered for the 2005–’14 model years, lands in a developmental sweet spot. It’s simpler and less expensive than the current car, yet more advanced than anything offered before it.

That simplicity and reliability is partly thanks to the rear axle. Like its predecessors, the S197-chassis Mustang uses a durable live axle in back. Unlike those earlier iterations, however, that solid axle is suspended by a three-link arrangement. It doesn’t bind or have weird tics like the old four-link setups. Plus, upgrades can be easily made.

The big upgrade for the S197-chassis Mustang GT came for the 2011 model year: The 4.6-liter Modular V8 was replaced with the 5.0-liter Coyote. The same basic engine can be found in the current Mustang GT. “Anything 2011 and up would be the best,” Orlando adds, and ideally he’d go with a 2012–’14 Mustang GT fitted with the Track Package: upsized Brembo brakes, sportier 3.73:1 Torsen differential and heavy-duty radiator.

Expert Advice:

We asked Orlando to name the weak point of an S197-chassis Mustang GT, and again he responded immediately: “The clutch,” he replies. A stock Coyote-powered Mustang GT makes a little more than 400 horsepower. If you add a novice driver to the mix, Orlando figures that after four or five events the clutch will need to be replaced.

Eventually the transmission’s synchros will go, too, he says. “Sometimes it’s more cost-effective to just replace the gearbox,” he says. Replace it with what? He’d choose the new Tremec Magnum XL. In addition to offering much stronger internals, the Tremec box replaces the remotely mounted shifter with a more precise, directly mounted one.

“Brakes will go a couple of weekends before you need to replace a set of rotors,” he adds. “Usually we can get two or three weekends out of the rotors.” And don’t overlook the fluids: “Make sure that you have the whole powertrain on synthetic lubricants.”

Dario Orlando
Steeda Autosports
(800) 950-0774

Porsche Cayman GT4 2016 ($100,000+)

Porsche has offered track-ready versions of its venerable 911 for decades–pretty much since the beginning of time. The mid-engined Cayman hasn’t been so thoroughly blessed: Porsche just recently gave consumers a track variant, the one-year-only Cayman GT4. Think of it as a Cayman chassis fitted with the 911 GT3 suspension and brakes. Then add a 911 Carrera S engine–and subtract the 911 price premium.

“Out of the box, the car satisfies the simple requirement that most car companies’ vehicles do not,” explains John Tecce, director of BGB Motorsports. “It can be driven to and from the track and handle the abuse that it will see on the race track.”

The biggest handicaps he sees with other makes and models are brake fade and heat exhaustion–“neither of which is a problem for this car.” Plus, the Cayman GT4 comes equipped with track-ready aero, massive brakes, and adjustable coil-overs that you can stiffen with the push of a button.

“While it does come with a six-figure price tag, what you get for your money is pretty good,” Tecce says. “As director of a business that builds cars like this from more stock variants, what Porsche gives you out of the box is rather awesome.”

Expert Advice:

Porsche built the Cayman GT4 for track use, so Tecce says that the car won’t need much work before that first session. “A lot of our customers run Sebring and some other bumpy tracks, which induces a lot of ABS intrusion,” he says. “We like to make sure the pads, fluid and brake lines are addressed.”

He also likes to align the chassis while dialing in a bit more negative camber. “We recommend purchasing some additional camber shims and some rear toe links so that you can put a more track-oriented alignment on the car,” he explains. “You can drive the car with the stock alignment–it’s just better with a more aggressive alignment.”

Tecce notes one downside of the Cayman GT4: failure of third gear. “But Porsche, as always, is standing by the failures and replacing them for all cars having issues. That is the only weak point I see that is of concern.”

John Tecce
BGB Motorsports Group
(386) 265-1979

Join Free Join our community to easily find more BMW, Ford, Mazda, Porsche and Subaru articles.
View comments on the GRM forums
smokindav Reader
12/4/17 11:44 a.m.

I love lists! For me, the criteria I like to start with is what's the easiest car to get on the track with the least amount of prep. The list is pretty short. You need to add 911, Boxster, Camaro and Corvette. Don't forget the GTI and Civic Si/Type-R. 370Z also. And since you put the unobtanium Cayman GT4 you might as well include the Nissan GT-R.

StuntmanMike New Reader
12/4/17 12:28 p.m.
smokindav said:

I love lists! For me, the criteria I like to start with is what's the easiest car to get on the track with the least amount of prep. The list is pretty short. You need to add 911, Boxster, Camaro and Corvette. Don't forget the GTI and Civic Si/Type-R. 370Z also. And since you put the unobtanium Cayman GT4 you might as well include the Nissan GT-R.

^^^YES! They definitely missed those, but that makes the list complete. Any given autox/track day consists of all of the above.

APEowner GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
12/4/17 12:39 p.m.

Having driven them on track, the GT-R would not be on my list of favorite track day cars regardless of price.  Were price no problem and if the car also needed to be streetable my addition to the high price end of the list would be the Porsche GT3.

jimbbski Dork
12/4/17 12:41 p.m.

I can't argue with any of the selections on that list but  what I would like to see is a list of cars that one would consider both a DD and track day capable?

I instruct at track days and while I see many a Corvette, BMW, or Porsche I also see Camerys,  Jettas, & Focus being tracked.   Some of these can make good dual purpose cars and for quite a bit less than most of the cars listed in the story.  Only the Miata would be hard to beat on cost to track.  

Vigo UltimaDork
12/4/17 9:31 p.m.

failure of third gear. “But Porsche, as always, is standing by the failures and replacing them for all cars having issues

I wonder how many 996 2nd gears got fixed for free? I have to spend my own money on mine! 

Cool article. And i actually appreciate the broad 2k-100k spectrum.  

Our Preferred Partners