When we first started brainstorming about a 10 Best Track Cars story, we thought it might be fun to take a no-holds-barred approach. But then we realized the list would be exotic mega-dollar machines from Europe that very few of us will ever be lucky enough to own. So to bring things back down to earth just a bit, we’ve broken the list down by price and a few other categories for a little added flavor. We look forward to your hate mail about the 996 Porsche and Viper ACR making the list.
NA Mazda Miata MX-5
For the track-day whore who’s ballin’ on a budget, it’s impossible to beat a first-generation Mazda Miata. We put the Miata tops on our 10 Best list last year because of its unbeatable combination of fun and affordability, not to mention nationwide racing in the wildly popular Spec Miata and MX-5 Cup series. This time we’re highlighting the little roadster for similar reasons, but particularly because you can find track-prepped NA1s for less than $5K that should provide you with years of low-buck, track-day fun. It’s also worth noting that because of their light weight, Miatas are easy on consumables like fuel, tires and brakes, plus their low-horsepower RWD setup will teach you how to preserve momentum like a karting champ. And, as the saying goes, it’s always more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
AP1 Honda S2000
Now that the Honda S2000 has been around for more than a decade, it’s not unheard of to find AP1s for less than $10K. Pretty amazing to think that you can get a hardcore sports car with a ULEV 9000-rpm engine for this kind of money, but thanks to our good friend depreciation, there were no fewer than 22 AP1s for sale on autotrader.com for less than $10,000. It’s no coincidence that we’ve opted for another razor-sharp roadster, either; in many ways, the S2000 is like a Miata on steroids, thanks to its powerful 2-liter engine and generous wheelwells. Just be warned: the AP1 has a very twitchy rear end in stock form, so at the very least you’ll want to equip it with a larger front sway bar and a clever four-wheel alignment to help you keep it pointed in the right direction. A wide set of wheels and sticky rubber also work wonders on the AP1.
Mitsubishi Evolution IX RS
In the $20–$25K range, you’ve got a ton of options for a track toy. A quick search of the usual websites reveals attractive options like track-prepped E36 M3s, modded GD STIs, K-swapped and track-ready Hondas, as well as the seriously quick but old-man-styled C5 Corvette Z06. All of these are solid options, but for us it’s the Mitsubishi Evolution IX RS that catches our eye in this price range. It’s no secret that EVO VIIIs and IXs are an absolute blast to drive at the track, and highly modified versions like the CyberEvo and the SSE Evo have proven that the CT9A is as good as it gets in the world of time attack. For a track-day toy, you may as well start out with the RS model since it’s already done away with luxury items like a stereo system, power windows and locks, a rear wing (which you’ll want to add for improved rear downforce), trunk lining, and sound deadening.
996 Porsche 911 GT3
This rear-engine Stuttgart special was the first production car to break the 8-minute barrier around the Nürburgring back in 1999, and for less than $50K it’s impossible to overlook the driving exhilaration provided by the 996 GT3. Although the 996 911 has a bad reputation, thanks to a crankshaft that likes to go on walkabouts, the GT2, Turbo and GT3 models have a totally different 3.6-liter engine that’s proven extremely stout. Equipped with a half rollcage, racing bucket seats, a fully adjustable suspension and massive brakes along with a complete absence of any weight-adding luxury items (meaning no air con, stereo, sunroof or sound deadening), the 996 GT3 is also void of any e-nannies (stability/traction control systems, though it does have ABS), making it an extremely focused instrument of speed that requires an equally focused driver.
’12 Nissan GT-R
Hey, come on, you knew the R35 GT-R would have to make it on the list somewhere. With the ’12 GT-R featuring 45 extra ponies, an improved dual-clutch gearbox, improved aerodynamics, revised Bilstein dampers and larger front rotors, just to name a few of the tweaks, Godzilla is more of a beast than ever. The ’09–11 GT-R was no slouch, that’s for sure, but the ’12 is undoubtedly a better balanced and all-around faster machine, as reflected by the 4 seconds it dropped over its last trip around the Nürburgring. The ’12 GT-R also posted an absurdly fast lap around Top Gear’s test track, making it literally the second-fastest production car The Stig has ever piloted. The ’12 also has a new Comfort mode for the suspension, so you can cruise to the track without making your kidneys bleed and then lay a whooping on just about anything else in the paddock with a license plate on it.
For us, the decision is easy if you’ve got your heart set on an old school track-day car. With the right mods, the S30 Datsun Z is surprisingly fast even by today’s standards, and it doesn’t take a mountain of money to build one because of the huge aftermarket that exists for these timeless beauties. Whether you stick with the L24/26/28 series of straight-6s, which makes absolutely amazing noises with a set of triple sidedraft Webers, or swap in a more powerful SR or RB, you’ll have an absolute blast driving a classic Z at the racetrack, thanks to its simple and lightweight FR layout. You’ll also feel like a time traveler who has turned the dial back to 1973, so you might want to grow some big, bushy sideburns and invest in a polyester leisure suit to go along with a vintage racing suit. Now that’s racing in style, if you ask us.
Ariel Atom 3
For those of you looking for a go-kart-like driving experience that no standard road car could ever hope to offer, look no further than the Ariel Atom. They may not be street-legal in your state, but the “peel the skin off your face” driving experience should more than make up for the hassles of towing it to the track. Just like their slogan states, these things are built with “no doors, no roof and no compromises!” The standard Atom 3 comes with a K20 Honda powerplant that produces the expected 200 hp (and costs just under $50K), but you can also opt for a 245hp naturally aspirated version or a 300hp supercharged version. If that’s not enough power for you in a 1,350-lb exoskeleton speed machine, there’s always the Atom 500 V8, which (as the name suggests) makes 500 hp and revs to 10,500 rpm — all for “just” $230K. Zoinks!
Hennessey Venom GT
So you just hit your Powerball numbers and it’s time to go track-day car shopping. First of all, can we borrow some money? Secondly, you’ll need to consider what sort of driving thrills you’re really looking for. The super-rich are all about exclusivity, not to mention a touch of money-induced lunacy. Add to that the pride you’ll feel by buying American, and the utterly bonkers Hennessey Venom GT is a pretty compelling choice. Not that we’ve ever driven one, but with a stretched version of the lightweight Lotus Exige chassis combined with a twin-turbocharged LS9 (Corvette ZR1) engine that pumps out a ridonkulous 1,200 hp, it’s undoubtedly the fastest production car ever built. At a cool $725,000 for the 1,200hp version (the 750hp model is a mere $600K), chances are you’ll be the only one at the track with one, unlike all those commoners in their dime-a-dozen Porsches and Ferraris.
Dodge Viper ACR
We may not be big on domestics around here, but one Detroit special that can give a GT-R a run for its money around any racetrack is the ’10 Dodge Viper ACR. In fact, the Viper ACR recently reclaimed the Nürburgring production-car record with a stunning 7:12 lap time. That’s 10 seconds quicker than a GT-R, and a lot of it comes down to the ACR’s GT racer aerodynamics. As we discovered firsthand when testing the ACR around Chicago’s Autobahn circuit, the big snake’s front splitter, dive planes and rear wing combine to generate more than 1,000 lbs of downforce at 150 mph. Add to that a 600hp V10, 345/30R19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup rear tires and a transmission out of a M1 Abrams tank (OK, we may be exaggerating here, but shifting gears in a Viper takes serious upper body strength), and you’ve got a recipe for some extremely quick lap times. Mullet not included.
Renault Megane RS Trophy
If you’re a diehard FWD fan but want something to set you apart from the throng of K-swapped Hondas you’ll find at just about any lapping day around the country, why not import a Renault Megane RS Trophy? The current king of the front-drivers around the Nürburgring with a time of 8:07, this funky French hot hatch is limited to just 500 examples and is powered by a 2-liter turbocharged 4-banger that pumps out a rock solid 265 hp and 266 ft-lbs of torque. It’s also built on a track-tuned Megane Cup chassis, so you know it’s designed to carve corners with the best of them. Best of all, show up with one of these at the track and you can get away with wearing a beret and a scarf instead of the standard issue Alpinestars cap and Piloti shoes. If thrashing on a French hot hatch and dressing like Pepe LePew doesn’t get you excited, there’s always the Euro spec Honda Civic Type R hatchback.