(Lead photo courtesy of Car and Driver. Seriously…road racing a Suburban? AWESOME!)
If you haven’t driven at a track day, especially on a purpose-built road course like Pacific Raceways in Seattle, NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, or Wild Horse Pass near Phoenix, you’re really missing out on some fun! Autocross is neat, but it tends to be designed to keep your speeds low. Good for technical driving, not so much for the speed portion. Take it from us, when you nail a good corner approaching triple-digit speeds, you feel amazing. But what do you bring to the track? Big suggestion from us: not the daily driver, unless you can afford to explain what happened if you mis-judge your skill set. We picked 11 good options for a first-timer to look at. Did we hit the mark or miss the broad side of the barn? You be the judge!
11. Any FWD car you choose
Hear me out. Front-wheel-drive is perfect for someone learning how to drive fast because of one word: understeer. When the car is ignoring your steering commands, it’s time to get your foot off of the gas. After that, everything will come. But what do you choose? First thought tends to choose a cheap beater…something like a Corolla or a Saturn. But take a look at the 2008 Accord we found for $6,800…six speed manual, perfect second-car fodder. Invest in some good rubber and brakes, try to not bounce it off of a barrier, and I bet you could even get the significant other to buy in on this one!
10. GM G-body
Embrace your inner NASCAR! Just kidding…the GM G-body is arguably the best combination of old school and new school tech in one car. The size might put off smaller courses, but a bigger road course is almost perfect for the wheelbase. With plenty of G-machine parts out there for the taking and values climbing, building a G-car just makes sense. Besides, who wouldn’t love to see an El Camino embarrassing a Viper on a road course? That’d be awesome!
9. Cheap BMW
“The Ultimate Driving Machine”? Yep. Engineered by professionals who have the Autobahn in their country, built to tolerate as much abuse as can be dished out, and honesty not too difficult to find with manual transmissions, BMW products could make for some entertaining track days…if you can afford to keep one up. This particular 2003 325i sedan, complete with six speed, is about $5500. We’d also go for a 5-series or a Z3 if you are hunting newer, and finding an E30 at this price range would be a score. Just be wary of anything with an M-badge on it that isn’t old enough to drink yet. Problems may abound.
8. DSM All-wheel-drive cars
Yeah, yeah…”Danger To Manifold”. Ha, ha. Don’t act like you don’t remember the first time an all-wheel-drive DSM (Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser) caught you sleeping at the stoplight. Largely used, abused and tormented to death, if you can find one of the all-wheel-drive pocket rockets, prepare to have a good time. The 4G63T four-banger is one of the original turbo four-banger monsters and the all-wheel-drive system combine to make for a surprising performance. Just don’t expect a Craigslist special to be sorted when you find one.
7. Pontiac Fiero/Toyota MR2
Two totally different cars, but the same mission: mid-engine on the cheap. If you are going for a Fiero, look for the 1988 models that have rear suspension that wasn’t cribbed from the Chevy Citation. For the MR2, we’d stick with the first two generations of the car and go hunting for anything with a “SUPERCHARGED” badge on it. This is about as cheap as a mid-engine car is going to get…after this it’s looking for rough Ferraris. Sorry.
6. 4th Generation GM F-car
Seats two comfortably enough, comes with a V8 and a six-speed, and can handle it’s own. Why wouldn’t you choose to beat on a 4th-gen F-car? The 275 horsepower early cars will have enough torque and gear to get you into trouble if you so choose, or you can follow the trend and jam an LS in there. For once, there might not be tons of people complaining about your engine choice! If you want to get really into the scene, wrap the car with a Trans Am-style livery!
5. Subaru WRX and STI/Mitsubishi Evolution
All-wheel-drive turbocharged rally rockets sound like a blast to drive, and they are. The Subaru WRX and STi models and the Evolution versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer have die-hard cult followings for a reason: small, nimble, violent acceleration that gives actual credit to boosted four-bangers…how can you not like that? Here’s where we have to throw a caution: Most, if not any of these cars you find on Craigslist have had a sincere beating at some point in their lives. Prepare to go through the car thoroughly, but if that doesn’t bother you, expect a very rewarding driving experience on the other side of that tunnel.
4. Chevrolet Corvette (C4 and C5)
The C4 and C5 generation Corvettes are currently sitting at the bottom of their value curves, which means that if you don’t mind jokes about your mid-life crisis, you can pick up a stout performer for modest change. Cheap might not be all that great, and we’d avoid the earlier C4 models in lieu of a 1990s car if you aren’t wanting to spend much money. But if you are serious about track performance, we’d suggest hunting for a C5, specifically a hardtop model. With the rear-mounted transaxle helping weight distribution and everybody’s favorite love-to-hate engine under the clamshell hood, a C5 is the most fun you can have with something plastic that…you know what, nevermind, ignore that joke, moving on…
3. Mazda Miata
Not one “chick car” comment. The Miata is one of the most-raced vehicles on earth, due to it’s size, weight, and handling characteristics. It’s everything to love about old British roadsters, but with Japanese reliability and airbags in case you royally botch it. There’s millions of them out there, and for every one that has been stanced (or worse, fitted with googly eyes and eyelashes), there are five that have been left alone and a couple that have some minor but useable modifications. Great for beginners, excellent for hard-core drivers who can appreciate a balanced chassis, the Miata might not always be the perfect answer, but it’s an excellent educated guess.
2. Ford Mustang (1979-newer)
They are a couple grand all day long, the aftermarket is huge, and you can pick and choose your options as you want. Four, six or eight cylinders…four, five or even six speeds…automatic, notchback, hatchback, SN-95, New Edge, whatever. A Mustang can be found that suits your needs. If anything, taking a Pony to the track is the best idea ever: there’s only grass, gravel traps and Armco barriers to hit in case the car’s natural instincts kick in. And if you aren’t trying to build a time attack killer, you could even drive it home without reducing it’s chops in the corners. Win-win!
1. …whatever’s cheap and durable!
The ultimate decision when it comes to purchasing a car to take out onto your local track: don’t bring something that you aren’t afraid of hurting. If the thought of sweeping up fiberglass after you botched a hot corner in your Corvette bothers you, maybe you should look a little lower down the cost ladder. Take this Mercury Grand Marquis. It’s $650 right now in the Phoenix Craigslist, and you can find similar cars all across the country in about the same condition for easy money. Yank the gutless smogger, spend some of the money you didn’t use on a hot engine and some serious brakes, and go beat the stuffing of it on the track with no fear whatsoever. You’ll learn car control, how to read corners, where your limits are and what to do when you overdrive your skills in one shot. And if you screw up, it’s not like you’ll feel that bad as you bash out the fender with a sledgehammer.