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Evaluating the Tesla Model 3 as a Track Car in 2023

Today, it may be more sensible than ever to track a Model 3, as the charging infrastructure and aftermarket support have come a long way since I first started doing this in 2019. In addition, the Model 3 has proven to be a very robust platform that has low running costs and high reliability. Oh, and let's not forget that it is more affordable than ever, thanks to tax credits and price cuts.

First, let’s address the boogeyman in the room for 2023 - an EV thermal event on the racetrack. Did you know that an EV is 61x less likely to catch on fire than an ICE vehicle? It’s also worth noting that battery cells do not instantaneously combust in the way that fuel does. A slow chemical reaction takes place, causing the cell to increase in temperature until it reaches ignition point and causes thermal runaway. Thermal runaway is also extremely rare due in part to the fact that very few things can cause the cell to heat like this. You would effectively either need bad software that overcharges the cell (not a driving on track scenario) or a dead short where the battery pack has been completely compromised. There have been 198 cases of a Tesla fire. Given there are now over four million of them on the road, it’s safe to say that the chances of a Tesla catching fire on a racetrack are extraordinarily low. There are also portable systems available that can penetrate the battery pack shell and put the fire out where it began, rather than dousing thousands of gallons on top of the car. Unfortunately, none of these facts have stopped some of our favorite tracks from outright banning EV’s (VIR, Summit Point, etc). Hopefully, these decisions are modified as people become more knowledgeable in the subject area. This is of course not to say that a battery fire on the track is not possible, but rather the risks are being exaggerated and methods to properly handle them are being dismissed as opposed to discussed.

Next, I’d like to address another common misconception - the Model 3 is so much heavier than a comparable ICE vehicle. This is simply a false narrative. While the Model 3 is by no means a light vehicle, when compared to similar new 4-door sedans, it is relatively inline. Take a look at the G80 M3 AWD - weighing in just under 100lbs less than the Model 3 Performance. Or, perhaps the Kia Stinger GT AWD, which is about 200lbs less. It’s a similar story for others, including the Cadillac CT5, Alfa Romeo Giulia, etc. In fact, the lightest variant of the Model 3, the SR+, is nearly 400lbs lighter than the Model 3 Performance, and lighter than many other “luxury” 4-door sedans.

Let’s move on to running costs. The Model 3 has simply been the cheapest car to track that I have ever owned. No oil changes after every track day, no engine components failing, no fuel to consume - it just simply works. Brakes last longer thanks to regenerative braking. The only thing it might use more of is tires. Thanks to the Kumho V730 though, I am now spending way less on those!

That segways nicely into reliability. I’ve accumulated just about 3,500 on-track miles between four Model 3’s. So far, I’ve yet to have any failure while driving on the racetrack. No motor failure, no battery failure, no suspension failure, no brake failure. Of course, I’ve taken steps to improve the on-track characteristics of the car - namely the stock brakes are not up to the task of road-course use. Regardless, I doubt there are many ICE vehicles that could tout the same track record - certainly not one that I’ve found (looking at you BMW)!

Another topic that is often not discussed is the noise. Enthusiasts bemoan the lack of noise! Yet, in turns out in some situations this is actually a benefit. Racetracks are constantly under duress from their neighbors over sound levels. And it isn’t specific to one individual track. Many racetracks implement noise limitations, and some even only allow driving during certain hours or certain days of the week. EV’s eliminate this problem! Racing during the evening or on a Sunday at Lime Rock suddenly becomes a possibility! In addition, it’s something you get used to very quickly, and it actually allows you to focus on your main point of feedback - the tires. Normally, it’s a bit difficult to hear the tires over the roar of your engine! Simply put, it’s not nearly the deterrent it’s made out to be.

EV’s are fast - and not just in a straight line (though that doesn’t hurt either). Interestingly, while the Model 3 Performance is quick from 0-60, it’s actually not terribly fast at racetrack pace in a straight line (60-140+mph). This is due to the power falling off as the motor RPM’s increase (something we call back-emf). Fortunately, although the same basic design, the motors in the Plaid Model S solved this constraint, and are able to hold consistent power throughout the RPM band. The Plaid also showed us what is possible with last-generation cells as far as cooling and current limits go. Despite using an 18650 form factor, the Plaid’s thermal/cell limits are considerably higher than the Model 3’s. Rest assured that once this technology trickles down to the Model 3, it will become a much more potent track vehicle. The Model 3’s chassis is superb, delivering a low center of gravity, double wishbone front suspension, and multi-link rear suspension. This all combines into a very fast and capable platform when given the right dampers and tires.

While charging between sessions is admittedly still inconvenient, the number of Superchargers in North America has more than tripled since 2019. On top of that, DCFC is now available onsite at some locations including Buttonwillow, Laguna Seca, and Atlanta Motorsports Park. Over time, this accessibility will continue to improve, eventually becoming more or less a non-factor.

Finally, the aftermarket has done a really fantastic job supporting this platform. There is now many options available for track enthusiasts to choose from. From coilovers and sway bars, to big brake kits and wheels - pretty much every suspension and brake piece can be upgraded. Not only that, but there are pieces available to improve the cooling of the motors and battery pack. Using the Cooling Party Controller from Mountain Pass Performance, I can finally drive a 15 or 20 minute session at slightly reduced power levels without worrying about battery current limiting pulling power - pure driving bliss!

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