Driving Other People’s Cars in 2020

I was lucky to be able to drive a lot of other people’s cars this year.

I have Aim Solo data for most of these, as well. For each car I’ll give my quick thoughts on what I liked and didn’t like, and then go into a longer description. At the end I’ll put up a chart with lap times and other stats for comparison.

BMW Z3

What I liked: Great torque, soft rev limiter
What I didn’t like: Unsupportive seats, shift knob falls off

Pineview owns a 1998 Z3 with a hard top, which is used for rentals and instruction. It has all-season tires, which are slow but a lot of fun. The seats suck. The shift knob fell off twice, once at my feet (I found and put it back while at speed), and a lap later it went to the small of my back, where I left it as a lumbar support. The seats suck.

The Aim data shows this car has the same acceleration as my 1.6 Miata, and both cars have similar lap times on all-seasons. But the Z3 is softer everywhere, and has a lot of body roll. It’s a pity Pineview doesn’t have a spare set of wheels with good tires, because on RS4s, this car should be able to do a 1:16.

BMW 128i

What I liked: Snug cockpit, holds 4 tires, lots of power
What I didn’t like: Light switch power delivery

Napp Motorsports has a youtube channel where they test cars and build things, and in one of their episodes they got to track test Andrew Johnson’s modified BMW 128i at Pineview Run. I was there that day, and they were nice enough to let me try it.

Andrew’s modification list is long and includes swapped parts from other BMWs and the end result is a lot more power. As in 250 wheel horsepower . Andrew also added some kind of fancy diff. I don’t think it’s a Torsen or a clutch pack, but maybe some weird combination of the two. I’ve never driven a car that hooked up so immediately. I didn’t like it.

I don’t know if it was the diff or the power delivery, but this was the most difficult car I drove this year, it plowed into corners with understeer, and as soon as I got on the throttle it transitioned to massive oversteer. I like to play with throttle modulation, but this car’s power delivery is a light switch; on or off. I only did a few laps, and I had to completely change my driving style in order to get in a good lap. Stephan is a good driver, and also struggled to put in a good lap, so it wasn’t just me.

There’s a lot of potential in this car, and with a softer hit on the bottom, and maybe tuning the diff (or fuck it, an open diff), it would have been a lot faster. Maybe at other tracks it’s perfect, but at Pineview it was a handful. Weirdly, this is on the short list of cars I’d buy tomorrow. The cockpit is super nice, the seats fold down to hold four track tires, and 128s are a used car bargain.

Ford Focus RS

What I liked: 4WD and lots of power
What I didn’t like:
Felt like FWD

Steve Wilson’s Focus RS is a good looking car with rally roots. I like virtually everything about it, except it behaves a bit too much like a FWD car. There are different modes, such as Sport, Track, and Drift, and I drove it in the Track mode.

I only did three hot laps because when I drove by Start/Finish, I noticed Steve had both of his hands up to his head, like he was freaking out that I was going to crash it. But I think he was actually taking video on his phone, and I misinterpreted the gesture. Alas, three laps is enough to get to know most cars, and I set a decent lap.

For sure the car needs more camber, and the RE71Rs were just about spent, and had already been flipped once, so that didn’t help. I’d like to spend more time in the car to figure out how to rotate it. I got it to pivot on the nose once and it felt brilliant. If Steve lets me try it again I’ll throw it in Drift mode and see if I can drive it like a rally car. Either that or put some harder tires on the rear.

Steve and I looked at the Aim data, and if we combine the parts of the track where he’s fast with where I’m fast, this car is capable of doing 15s for sure.

Honda S2000 AP2

What I liked: Honda-ness, cockpit
What I didn’t like: Lack of torque

Melody and a couple friends came to Pineview to do an autocross experiment, and while we won’t be doing autocross at Pineview, we had a great time messing around in cars. I got to try Melody’s AP2, and loved it. Mostly.

I’m a Honda guy. My first motorcycle was a Honda, most of my cars have been Hondas, and I will probably have more Honda motorcycles and cars in the future. So it’s pretty hard to disappoint me in a Honda.

And yet while the car is Honda-perfect, the engine is a little disappointing. Even this longer stroke version that’s supposed to have more torque, well, doesn’t. The VTEC has a wonderful hit, but it happens so late in the game. In hindsight, I should have used 1st gear at least in the S-trap. At some other track I would be singing its praises, but not at Pineview. This car would be a predator at Watkins Glen. At Pineview, it’s prey.

Hyundai Veloster N

What I liked: Everything
What I didn’t like: 19″ wheels

I drove two Veloster Ns this year, Chris Gailey’s and Philip Milligan’s. I have Aim data for both, and they are similar, but not the same. This might because of the different driving modes you can program. I don’t recall what I used in Chris’ car but in Philip’s I told him “turn everything off.”

In hindsight, I should have left rev matching on. Not that you get out of shape by downshifting a FWD car, but it’s such a cool feature and it pleasantly surprises me every time the engine blips automatically right before I throw it in the gate.

The motor is a mass of torque, and it tempts you to short shift and ride the rising boost, rather than spin it to redline. In fact I created a Veloster in OptimumLap, and it also short shifts in the computer world. So don’t rev it, ride the wave.

I’ve driven 4WD cars that felt more like a FWD car than the Veloster. I’ve driven RWD cars that felt more like a FWD car than the Veloster! Mash the throttle in the corner and of course it understeers, but if you trail brake on corner entry and transition to throttle, it’s very neutral. The power, the balance, the shifting, this is as complete of a package as I’ve driven in a FWD car.

If I was going to buy a new car tomorrow I’d buy a Veloster N. This is coming from a Miata guy who was teetering on quitting racing and buying a ND2. Yeah, the Veloster is that good. I would roll the fenders flat and fit the widest 18″ wheels and tires that would fit, add a splitter and a wing, and fucking dominate.

NA Miata

What I liked: Miata everything
What I didn’t like: Miata power

I have two NA Miatas, my cammed NA6 and my NA8 race car. They put out about the same power and both are solid little cars. When I jump in another NA Miata, I pretty much know what to expect. Sahir’s NA Miata has Vmaxx coilovers and 225 RS4s, and I had a good idea how it would handle. Which is why I found his NA8 a bit puzzling.

It was loose. Not just in the sense that it oversteered, but it also felt disconnected, and had more roll than it should have. On the first lap I spun the rear wheels in the Toe, T9 (the uphill 180 left) and in the S-trap. On the plus side, there wasn’t a lot of power, so the oversteer was easy to manage. In fact I probably made it through the S-trap faster in his car than mine.

But my overall sense was that this was a car that wasn’t quite the sum of its parts. Maybe it needs new suspension bushings, a stiffer front bar, an alignment, or shock adjustments, I don’t know. I managed a decent lap time driving around the problems (faster than I did in the K-Miata, ahem), but when this car is sorted, it’s a PV Cup class C4 killer. Oh wait, it already won that class. Class C3 beckons.

NB1 Miatas

What I liked: NB > NA
What I didn’t like: NB > NA

I was lucky to drive three different NB1 Miatas this year, from Davey, Clayton, and Alyssa. NBs are better cars than NAs, and if I was building a dedicated track Miata, I’d start with a NB. I have two NAs, and it’s taken me a while (and some tears) to come around to admitting this.

Davey’s Miata has stock suspension because he also uses it for ice racing, and ice is super bumpy. Therefore, his car lacks a bit of speed and grip compared to other track-modified Miatas. But it’s really fun to drive and reminds me that a stock Miata is a wonderful thing. I forgot what lap times I ran in his car, maybe low 21s? But by the end of the season Davey was doing low 20s on well worn VR1s.

Clayton’s NB1 is a bit more modified, with some bolt on performance, Tokiko shocks, and FM dual-duty spring rates and sways. When I drove it the alignment wasn’t fully sorted out, but it felt exactly like a NB should.

Alyssa Merrill’s NB1 is the quintessential budget Miata track car. It has Delrin bushings, Blisteins, 800/500 springs, 15×9 wheels, 245 RS4 tires, a chin airdam, splitter, and 9LR wing. The motor has the usual bolt ons, but still a stock ECU.

The interior is gutted and it has a race seat bolted down, and this was my only problem with it, I couldn’t adjust the seat or heel-toe shift. This isn’t entirely why I was 1 second slower than Alyssa, but I will hang onto every excuse I’ve got. I recall I did a low 16 that day, to her low 15. Later that year she’d do a 1:14.580 and move the goal posts to the near impossible.

Alyssa’s car is also a rolling laboratory, with sensors for wheel speed, throttle, and brake, with all that going through a 5 hz GPS device tracking the usual variables. There isn’t a better track-sorted Miata that’s been to Pineview, and she hasn’t really gotten around to the motor yet. Fawk.

K-Miata

What I liked: It’s a Miata
What I didn’t like: I wanted more from the engine and tires

Stephan Napp’s K-Miata was disappointing. It dynoed at almost 200 hp on Rick Gifford’s Land and Sea dyno (which reads like a Mustang) and on a Dynjoet this would be about 220 hp. That’s a lot of power for a Miata, and so it better have good tires. And it did: 225 Rival 1.5 S. I forgot what it’s got for suspension, maybe Xidas? It’s not lacking in any specification.

If you’d asked me before I tried this car, I would say the car should be doing 1:15s. I created a model of this car in OptimumLap and the computer says it should do a 1:15.32. And yet I could only get within 2.5 seconds of this time. What gives?

For one, I didn’t like the tires. I looked at data, and the peak Gs are great, they generated more grip than RS4s, which are my benchmark tires. But the Rival 1.5 S just doesn’t work with my driving style I guess. Alyssa or Josh might get a lot more out of the these tires, but I lacked confidence and couldn’t adjust.

I also didn’t love the engine: VTEC on top, nothing down low. Just when I got into the power I had to jump on the brakes. Like Melody’s S2000, this car might be awesome on a big track, but at Pineview, it’s a scalp for the taking. To put a point on this, both Stephan and I drove my 1.6 Miata about a second faster than we each drove his K-Miata. So this wasn’t a case of car familiarity, or lack thereof.

Stephan is boosting his K-Miata over the winter, and that’ll help the torque curve a lot. I’d like to get this back to Pineview, preferably on a different tire (I have lots, borrow mine!), and put this car into the 14s.

VVT Swapped NA Miata

What I liked: Best Miata motor ever
What I didn’t like: (this space intentionally left blank)

This car started as a 1.6, got a NA8 swap, and then later a VVT swap. The head is decked, ports cleaned up, standalone ECU, custom exhaust etc. It made 135 hp on Rick’s dyno (150 Dynojet), with lots of torque down low.

This is hands-down the best Miata motor I’ve ever driven. Instant throttle response, very tractable power, and perfectly suited to the Miata chassis. I don’t think a Miata needs (or wants) more power than this. When I look at the Aim data, the VVT has the same acceleration off the corners as the K-Miata, and if these two cars were on equal tires, my money is on the VVT, despite being down 70 hp.

Unfortunately they weren’t on equal tires, Dylan was running on S.Drives. I drove that tire all last year for giggles, and it makes nice noises, slides well, but doesn’t set very good lap times. We later fit some 8-year old Z214s to Dylan’s car and he went .5 seconds faster than he did when driving Stephan’s K-Miata. Not apples to apples, but there you have it, the VVT was faster than the K-Miata with the same driver.

Stephan obviously knows the recipe for a great VVT motor, and can make another one just like it. Anyone looking for an ideal Miata motor should get in touch with Napp Motorsports and specify the same build. I hear that Dylan is boosting his car this winter, and it won’t surprise me if it goes slower around Pineview afterwards. But he’s a street guy, and I’m a track guy, and so we have different priorities.

Mini R50

What I liked: Flickable, planted, sorted
What I didn’t like: Acceleration

When I met my wife she had a Mini Cooper S with sport suspension. It was love at first sight. So when Adam Gerken brought his Mini R50 to Pineview, I begged for a drive in it.

Adam did a lot of sensible upgrades, like later model aluminum control arms, brakes, some weight loss, and RE71Rs. I believe the motor was untouched, or at least if felt it. Yeah, slow. On the street it might feel peppy, but on the track it could hardly get out of its own way.

And that’s why it’s surprising to me how much I enjoyed it. In fact, I almost bought it! The steering is quick and precise, with a darty lively feel that people always say is like a go-kart, but I find it more like a Miata. Through the Knuckle I could lean on the power all I wanted and it was planted, without a hint of understeer. The brakes were strong, it shifted great, and the whole experience put a huge smile on my face.

For fun factor, this car was the biggest surprise for me, and I’ve been looking at R53s since (no sunroof, LSD, 20004 +).

Porsche Boxster 3.0

What I liked: Solid torque, solid chassis
What I didn’t like: Care and feeding

Dieter was there for the autocross testing day and let me drive his baby. Compared to Melody’s S2000 it felt torquey, more planted, and faster everywhere except the end of the straights. I didn’t have my Aim Solo in the car, and we were running an abbreviated track with cones, so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But in back-to-back testing, the Boxster was faster than the S2000. I really liked the Boxster, thanks Dieter!

Used Boxsters are cheap now, but I’m not in the market. Mostly I’m worried about maintenance and consumables. Oil changes, brake parts, and the other consumables are Porsche-money, and for a guy used to buying $20 rotors and $40 brake pads, uh-uh, no way.

Scion FRS, Supercharged

What I liked: Motor, chassis
What I didn’t like: Diff, shifter (v1)

Ronald Xheng has been really cool about me driving his car. I didn’t even drive other people’s cars much before this, but Ronald kept insisting I drive his, and this has led to me driving all the cars on this page. Thanks for getting the ball rolling Ron!

The first version of his car was a well tuned N/A making 190-ish hp, lots of weight reduction, good suspension bits, etc. I drove it on RS4s and it was pretty magical. People trackside could see my stupidly wide grin as I passed Start/Finish. Ron’s Aim Solo was in the car instead of mine, so I don’t have the data, but I believe I did mid 15s. There was a 14 in it, but I missed half the downshifts into 2nd.

If you pull the shifter all the way left, it gets caught in no-man’s land and won’t go in the gate for 2nd gear. Ron fixed that in V2 of his car, with an IRP shifter, which is short and buttery. He also got a clutch-style diff and a supercharger. I could take or leave the diff, and honestly the supercharger is a bit more power than I’m comfortable with, and I needed more laps, but then I broke an axle. Not my fault, this is the 3rd axle this car has broken.

Part of my lack of comfort was the Champiro SX2 tires, which I have no familiarity with. They are somewhere between a RS4 and ECS in grip, and start howling when you’re still thinking about corner entry. Lots of fun, and I could grow to like them, but I need more time, especially with the supercharger. Which is awesome. And I want one.

Toyota Yaris

What I liked: Familiarity of an old shoe
What I didn’t like: Speed of an old shoe

This was the first year in many years I didn’t race my brother’s Yaris. His is B-Spec prepared, handles well (if soft), but needs more power and a LSD.

I needed some FWD car data for the Pineview Cup, and so when I saw that Nick Dixon had just bought a Yaris, I asked him if we could test it at Pineview. Nick obliged, and the car came wisely shod on Conti ECS tires. I had a bunch of tires stored at Pineview, but the fenders weren’t rolled so only my 205 Toyo RRs on 15x7s fit it. For the most part the car felt like a Yaris (both good and bad), and handled better with the RRs, but it had issues.

The main problem was it kept cutting power out. I’d go through T2, ease off the brake and onto throttle, and then… nothing. It just fell flat on its face. If someone was close behind you, this is an accident waiting to happen. Nick later found out the problem was stability control, and when it engaged, you sat there for a full second while the ECU mulled things over. I’m not sure if it can be turned off or not, maybe there’s a fuse you can pull, but the car is miserable and unsafe on track with this feature on.

Volvo Wagon

What I liked: Turbo, 4WD, brakes
What I didn’t like: Sticky throttle, heavy, understeer

4000 pounds and a long wheelbase aren’t the recipe for going around Pineview quickly. But this Volvo wagon has the T5 turbo and 4WD, and puts the power down. It understeers a bit, and if it were my car I’d move the bias rearward with tire pressure, but The Family Truckster is fun as is.

The most disconcerting part was when I’d lift off the gas, the engine kept going! It’s only for half a second, but it makes transitioning from throttle to brakes a little weird. In a way, it’s like driving a Tesla for the first time, but you soon get used to it. By my second lap I had forgotten about this altogether and put in the necessary pause from throttle to brake.

The Firestone tires are every bit as good as people say they are, on par with Conti ECS in my book. They didn’t overheat despite the weight, and were predictable the whole session. The big Volvo also stopped really well, and overall handled better and was more fun than I thought it would be.

Summary Data

Here’s a summary of the cars I drove this year, with tires and lap times. I’ve included my 1.6 Miata on different tires, as a benchmark for performance.

One thought on “Driving Other People’s Cars in 2020”

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