Car Culture: More street-legal race cars than ever


Almost every major carmaker is now selling a street-legal car intended to be driven on a race track. Tire and chassis technologies have made production-based racing cars much easier to drive on the street, and I think that’s the main reason for the recent proliferation of racing cars that wear license plates today.

Auto racing has been intimately intertwined with car production since the industry began: The first auto race took place in 1894 on a 75-mile route to Paris. Ferrari’s famous road cars began production based on racing cars in 1947, primarily to fund company racing expenses.

In 1969 Chevrolet introduced the COPO (Central Office Production Order) drag-racing Camaro, which was a bear to drive on the road. This fall a modern version was launched, which grandma can easily drive.

Rob Keough, product planner for Honda, explains his company’s new 2018 Civic Type R is a “race car for the road.” Yet, he continues, “Older generations of the Type R were raw, undrivable as a daily driver.”

Carmakers have extraordinary passions for racing cars that sometimes transcend normal business plans: The “Level 2” performance package for the 2018 Mustang GT was developed by Ford engineers who reportedly created the racing parts and systems in their spare time, not on the clock.

“I feel like I’m on a track even when I go to the grocery store,” Auburn Hills resident Jeremy Goddard says about his Audi A4 RS4 high-performance sedan. Audi’s new rear-drive R8 is a street-legal supercar. Both are called “race cars for the road” by Audi motorsports boss Stefan Winkelman. “We have a wish to win on the race track. We want to bring that to the road.”

This year’s new Civic Type R (for “race,” of course) features extra structural adhesive in the body to keep it stiff (increasing body rigidity 3 percent), suspension geometry that keeps the front wheels tracking straight despite the 306 horsepower driving the front wheels, and a setting that allows the traction control system to be turned off for maximum driver control. The brake pedal booster is stiffer for better feel for the driver at maximum track braking levels, too.

Two months ago Jaguar showed its race-intended, hand-assembled XE Project 8, “the most powerful street-legal Jaguar vehicle in history.” Jaguar says the car is the fastest four-door production-intended sedan to be timed on the famed Nurburgring racetrack in Germany. George Sharpe, general manager of Jaguar Grand Rapids, says his customers will take their new $187,500 XE Project 8 sedans to nearby Grattan Raceway. They aren’t the type to unleash the limited-production car’s 592-horsepower supercharged V8 on I-96, he said.

The street-legal racer that holds the record at Germany’s Nurburgring Nordschleife race track is the 2018 Porsche 911 GT2 RS, which circled the course faster than the Dodge Viper ACR (for American Club Racing), Lamborghini Huracan Performante, Porsche 918 Spyder and Nissan GT-R Nismo, all production street-legal cars built for the track. The GT2 RS has a 700-horsepower 3.8-liter twin-turbo flat-six engine and its top speed is 211 mph.

The best benefit of driving a race car on the street, I believe, is that it brings back to drivers a focus on driving as a skill, which seems to me has lately been replaced by an emphasis on infotainment and social media connection.

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