Last week, Danger Girl and I had "the talk." I've had "the talk" with a lot of my driving students, but I never thought I'd have it with my own wife. You know what I mean by "the talk," right? It's what happens when a driving student decides that he (or she, in this case) is tired of waving other drivers past at open-lapping days. And it starts like this:
"I really want a new Miata," Mrs. Baruth sighed, "but I really don't want to have everybody just blowing by me on the straights." The proper response to this, as a semi-professional driving instructor, is to tell the student that a well-driven Miata is capable of sticking with 90 percent of the drivers in 90 percent of the cars out there, and that what happens on the straights doesn't matter. Giving the student this response has two benefits. The first one is that it encourages them to get a car in which they can safely hone their skills. The second, and far more important, one, is that it significantly reduces the likelihood of the instructor being in the passenger seat of an Aventador SV when it hits the wall at the top of Laguna Seca's Corkscrew.
As much as I don't want to be a passenger in a really fast car during a really fast crash, I also don't want to spend every Sunday night being griped at by my wife because she failed to win a trackday. Plus, I owe her a crash; I crashed a Lincoln with her in the passenger seat. If she wants to crash an Aventador with me in the passenger seat, that's just squaring up. So instead of giving her that old line about Miatas and ninety percent and blah blah blah, I did the honest thing. "Let me," I replied, "explain the Trackday Food Chain to you."
It really doesn't matter what you bring to the track for your first weekend as a potential High Performance Drivers Education Champion (HPDEC), because you're going to be slow. Trust me. I thought that I was going to knock 'em dead on my first day, too. I thought I was a brilliant driver, and I figured that twenty years of experience racing bicycles would count for something. Needless to say, I had to wave everything from a 911 Turbo to a well-driven Toyota Corolla past me. In my defense, I think that Corolla had a turbocharger. Or at least a cold-air intake. But I digress.
After three or four weekends, the average student starts to want a faster car. But what he still really needs is to be a faster driver. Few of us are within ten seconds of a car's true lap time potential at that point. It isn't until you get maybe fifteen days under your belt that you start to get to the point that a faster car would be useful.
Now here's the problem. If you start with a slow car, like a Miata or a Fiesta or a BMW of almost any kind, (smirk) you will develop your skills faster. You really don't want to start in a Viper because the first time you slide the car you'll be in a situation where not catching that slide could kill you stone dead.
The reason that the marque clubs like PCA and Ferrari Club of America have a reputation for lousy trackday driving is simple: it's really, really, hard to learn how to drive on-track when you show up with a GT3 or a 458 Italia on Day One. I've coached a lot of those people. They rarely achieve their potential. The smart ones eventually buy a Miata and don't return to their supercar until they are absolute masters of a slower car.
I'll go ahead and mention a name here: my old pal Derek Whitis started driving in 2006 using a very fast and very fussy South African kit car. He was a talented driver, but his 500-horsepower, 2100-pound vehicle of choice was too much car for him at the time, which is why he put it into a wall. He dropped back down to Miatas. In just a couple of years, he was a hellacious Miata racer. Won a ton of NASA races. Went to Grand-Am. Became a Grand-Am champion. Today, he's one of the most respected (maybe I should say feared) drivers and owners in the paddock, and he's capable of handling anything from a Miata to an IMSA GT-class racer. Let that be an example to you of how intelligent, motivated people handle things.
Starting with a slow car is good, but eventually even the most talented and self-confident driver gets tired of waving people past on the straights. For nearly a decade, I used my Boxster S—shod with Hoosier R6 tires—as my trackday daily-driver. I put eighty- days and nearly 12,000 miles of track use on the car. There were days that I never got passed at all. With the right tires on it, and a committed driver, it takes a very fast car to get past a Boxster S. Invariably, however, some fellow with a tuned GT-R or Z06 Vette would run up on my bumper down VIR's back straight and cause me to grit my teeth while I put my hand out of the window.
Now, if I had a Ferrari 458 Speciale, or a Viper ACR, I would never again have to yield to anybody. That sounds ridiculous and self-important, but let's face it: truly well-adjusted people don't spend their weekends at a racetrack. So let's just admit who we are. My name is Jack, and I'm a wannabe trackday champion.
This is Danger Girl, and she's a wannabe trackday champion.
So how do you win a trackday without spending Viper ACR money? Can it be done for less? Much less? Well, I'm here to tell you that it can, with a caveat. For twenty grand, I can put you in a car that will win the vast majority of trackdays, but every once in a while you're going to have to yield to a well-driven Switzer GT-R or Radical SR8. If you can live with that, secure in the knowledge that you'll be frying all the rest of the bacon out there, we can do business.
After much thought and scanning of the classifieds, I've come to believe that the best choice is the C5-generation Corvette Z06. A good one can be had for fifteen grand. Later is better with these cars. Don't get a 2001; it's not as fast. And if you can stretch to the Commemorative Edition, that's even better.
Once you have that Corvette, have a local shop swap out the shocks, springs, and bushings for new Konis and some polyurethane stuff. You'll also want a transmission cooler, and possibly a high-temp radiator, depending on where you live. Get proper track-capable brake pads on it, and put Motul 600 fluid in the reservoir. Have it aligned properly. There are companies that make trailer hitches for C5 Corvettes. Get one. Buy a small tire trailer. On that tire trailer, you'll put four lightweight wheels, choice of brand is up to you. Put Hoosier R7 tires on them.
Poof! You've just spent between twenty and twenty-five grand, and you have a car that will be well-nigh untouchable on-track. You won't have the raw straight-line speed of a modern supercar, but you should be exiting the corners with enough additional momentum that they won't be able to snag you in the spaces between the turns. It will turn and stop with authority. You're going to be cracking brake discs a lot—get used to that, or spring another four grand for a full Brembo system.
Few cars are as enjoyable to drive on track as a well-prepped C5 Corvette, and when they have the right tires it's almost impossible to catch one. They aren't completely trouble-free, but the problems are well-known and there are fixes available. It's also possible to extract more power from the engine, if and when you decide you want to give the Huracans a run down VIR's back straight after all.
This is the advice that I gave Danger Girl, and it's the advice that I'm giving you. I can't say I was surprised by her response. "What? The Corvette with the chunky butt that all the old men drive? Are you sure? Do I have any other choices? Like something from BMW, maybe? Something that I can see out of? What about that M2 you were driving last month?" I don't think we'll see a C5 Z06 in our driveway any time soon. But when she has to wave you by in yours, she won't be able to say she wasn't warned.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.