"What I wanted to do was create new solutions, break away from the tried and true. In racing there are very few opportunities to do that. Also, racing requires huge budgets relative to simply doing trackdays. But most importantly, I’m a trackday driver and not a racer. I wanted to design cars that I myself would want to own and drive."
Palatov Motorsport: Cars Designed for Trackday Drivers
by Ziva & Michael Allen
Following is an informative interview we’ve recently conducted with Dennis Palatov, owner of Palatov Motorsport and track car designer. Dennis has been a track day driving enthusiast for as long as he can remember. Early on, Dennis discovered that his own solutions for the best trackable car could be turned into a successful business. He recognized his skill and talent and combined his love for driving with his ability to design a series of cars that any track day enthusiast would yearn for. We were eager to learn more about Dennis, his unique talents and the cars he’s built and bring to you our Q and A below.
Q. Dennis, tell us how you evolved from an everyday track driver to a track car manufacturer.
A. The journey has basically been a search for the perfect track car. I started by tracking a BMW M Coupe, which at the time I thought was the ultimate track weapon. It was a steep learning curve. At first the car was way faster than I am and I didn’t even know it. As I gained experience and developed some skills, I began using the car closer to its potential and also discovering its limitations – weight, suspension, brakes.
There were several other cars that I thought would work better because of specific design characteristics, so I tried many of them. Lotus Elise for lighter weight (not enough power and suspension designed to be forgiving at the expense of speed). BMW M5 V10 (good power but too heavy and complex). 125 Shifter Kart (fast but brutal to the point of bruising ribs, and maintenance-intensive). The bike-engine powered Westfield that I built from a kit was the first step towards actually creating a car rather than just buying one. The Westfield was light, had good power for the weight and decent handling. However it lacked technical sophistication and the minimal chassis left me feeling exposed when on track at speed.
Using everything I learned from driving various cars on the track I started to develop my own requirements and solutions for what the suspension, engine and other components should do in a high performance machine. There are countless steps along the way, all of which are documented on my blog for the interested readers. I started my first original car design, the dp1, in 2002 – immediately after completing the Westfield. It took about four years to take it from a napkin sketch to a drivable car and I learned a tremendous amount in the process. Also as part of the learning experience I created the world’s first V8 Ariel Atom by buying an Ariel chassis and installing a V8 made by Hartley Enterprises in Wisconsin. I subsequently introduced Hartley to Ariel and the engine was used in the Atom V8, the car being released about three years after I finished developing my installation.
The blog I kept for the dp1 design led to a job for a small electric car company, designing chassis and other components. I further developed and tested my suspension technologies there, creating an electric car that would corner at 1.1g on $25 tires. The company closed its doors in 2008 and I took this as an opportunity to start Palatov Motorsport in October of that year. Karl Asseily, who I met through M Coupe ownership, provided some seed funding. Tristan Lewis, a friend who I also met through M Coupe, came onboard as fabricator and my wife joined in an administrative role. With Karl living overseas, it was just three of us day-to-day creating cars from scratch. The first, the D4, took about 9 months from concept to first drive. This was followed by the Hartley V8 powered D1, then our Pikes Peak run in 2012 where we won the Unlimited class. A streetable 2-seat D2 powered by a GM LS3 engine was started in 2010 and we have delivered 12 so far. The D2 design is currently undergoing a major styling revision which should be complete by the end of Summer.
Q. How did you arrive at the decision to design and build track cars versus racing cars?
A. Early on I realized that racing is driven by rules. There is good reason for this of course, which is to create close competition that would keep fans interested over the course of a season. So most aspects of design are highly regulated (some classes more than others). What I wanted to do was create new solutions, break away from the tried and true. In racing there are very few opportunities to do that. Also, racing requires huge budgets relative to simply doing trackdays. But most importantly, I’m a trackday driver and not a racer. I wanted to design cars that I myself would want to own and drive.
Q. You bill yourself as being able to build very lightweight track cars. Tell us how you have arrived at a 900 pound track-only car in your D4 model.
A. The primary design goal for all my cars is to put as much power as possible into as small a package as possible, while still being able to use it and maintain a high level of safety. So each design is an exercise in packaging and efficiency. The specific design brief for the D4 was to keep it under 1,000 lbs and be able to handle upwards of 400hp. At that power/weight ratio, AWD becomes a necessity. So the D4 is designed specifically to package an AWD system in a very light car and the side-engine layout is a result of this requirement. The design is very effective and despite its small size (only 68” wheelbase), it accommodates drivers up to 6’4” in a safety cell made of 1.5” diameter 0.120” wall chromoly tubing – SCCA spec for cars over 3 times the weight!
Q. You use a unique suspension linkage geometry, which is currently patent pending. Can you explain to us what this is and what makes it unique?
A. I have carefully studied all aspects of current suspension designs. In particular, I found that many different parts are being used to control wheel rate (effective spring rate as measured at the wheel) in different situations. Helper springs or dual-rate springs are used to achieve softer rates in droop. Progressive bump stops are used to stiffen wheel rate in bump. Third springs are used to stiffen suspension under aerodynamic loads. Anti-roll bars increase wheel rate on the loaded side in roll while decreasing it on the unloaded side. Antidive and antisquat geometry is used to reduce motion in pitch.
All the above can get rather messy and they are all piecemeal solutions that work in a narrow range of circumstances. The transition between the various effects is often abrupt which can make the car less predictable. What I did is take a look at the big picture of what a suspension is actually being asked to do, then came up with a solution that addresses all of it, in a smooth, predictable manner, across all operating modes. In my design this is achieved by controlling bellcrank geometry in a way that increases effective wheel rate from very soft in droop to very stiff in bump. It eliminates all the fussy extra parts in the process. When we tested the design on the D2, D4 and D1 we found the system worked so well that I decided to apply for a patent on it. The best part is that it’s retrofittable to almost any pushrod suspension.
Q. You design and create street legal cars and track-only cars for everyday HPDE enthusiasts. Please tell us about that and about the differences in the car made for the track, the car made for the street and how both of these differ from cars made for racing.
A. Personally, I’m a believer in a dedicated track car. Demands of the track are very different from those of the street, and any car that tries to do both has to compromise. The D4 and D1 are designed to be track only. Of course when an enthusiast hears ‘track only’ the first thought is of the need for a large and expensive trailer, a truck to tow it with and a place to store them. This is certainly true with most cars. However the very small size of the D1 and D4 enables a compact trailer that fits into a normal single parking spot. The weight of the car and trailer combined is only 1,500 lbs so anything can tow it. We have in fact trailered a D4 from Portland to Monterey, 1,000 miles over the mountains (rated as fourth toughest tow in the US) – with a Fiat 500! The D4 allows a dedicated track car to be towed with a daily driver and stored on-trailer in a single parking spot.
The other aspect of owning a high performance car is that for people who only do a handful of trackdays a year, a track-only car is of limited utility. They want to get more use out of it by driving on fun roads on nice days and sharing their automotive passion by giving rides to friends and family. This is the reason for the D2. I start all my designs by looking at the requirements of what it needs to do. Streetability and two seats dictated a very different approach from the D4. So I chose the emissions-legal GM LS3 as the powerplant and a conventional mid-engine layout. From my experience, the Lotus Elise is about the perfect size for this type of car, albeit underpowered. So my challenge was to package a 6.2L 430hp V8 into the footprint of a 2-liter 4 cylinder car, be able to put the power down and not compromise safety. The D2 succeeds at all the above and even weighs less than the Elise despite the much bigger engine and a full chromoly steel frame.
Q. Your D5 Supercar sounds thrilling! For those of us who can only dream, can you tell us what this car will offer and your target rollout date?
A. The D5 is basically taking the D2 platform, refining it to make it more street friendly and adding sophisticated style. The D2, while street legal (when built as a kit), is still a very raw, track focused car. Driving it on the street is an intense but tiring experience and only the hardcore enthusiasts will choose to do it regularly (some do). The goal for the D5 is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist, as it were. It will still be a very capable car on the track and will offer minimal creature comforts but will be more livable in daily use.
Refinement of this type is a lengthy process. There are many details to sweat over, lots of solutions to try. Everything has to work, everything has to fit. Fortunately the chassis technology is now mature so we can focus on the refinement but it’s still a long road. The target rollout date for the D5 is the second half of 2016. One of the things that are vital in creating this type of car is customer input. I created the D4, D1 and D2 to fit my needs as a track driver. However I’m not necessarily the typical customer for the D5 and so I’m looking for ways to get input from qualified prospective customers. To do this we have created a Lead Customer program, the details of which are in a pdf brochure linked on the front page of my blog. The target price for the D5 is around $150K so while not cheap, it’s going to be much more approachable than mainstream supercars. The Lead Customer program gives an opportunity for individuals to not just dream but get involved in creating the car – and save some money in the process.
Q. Can you tell us more about the custom trailers for your track dedicated cars because I personally find your solutions brilliant, as the getting to-and-from can oftentimes be challenging, with so many options, many of which are inconvenient. Tell us about this.
A. Overall, I view the trailer as an integral part of the D4 and D1 package. By enabling towing with an ordinary daily driver and storage in a single parking spot, we are creating the trackday equivalent of a jetski – a ‘powersports toy’ that can be transported and stored with minimal hassle and cost.
Q. Tell us about how you first became interested in HPDE events and, if you can recall, your very first track day and what that was like for you.
A. I’ve been interested in driving on a racetrack (but not necessarily racing) for as long as I can remember. I didn’t actually get out on track until I was in my 30s. There were too many other priorities early on, and looking back on it too many excuses. I did try autocrossing and it helped me develop some level of car control. When I finally did my first trackday it was an eye opener. Frankly I went in with a much higher opinion of my driving skill than I left with, which was a very healthy transition for me. I realized just how much there was to learn. And I realize what fast really is – and that a racetrack is the only sane place to try and go fast, because it’s a controlled environment and one can plan every action well in advance instead of having to react.
Q. For those enthusiasts who have to make do with an old fashioned, run of the mill “real” car, what track car would you recommend?
A. Any car would work. Those who check out the PAST section of my blog will find that I’ve tracked everything from Lotus Elise to Scion XB to BMW M5 and lots of others. I learned something from every car I tracked. That said, for people just starting out, a lower-powered nimble car would be the most satisfying and effective. This can be a Miata, a MINI, a Fiat, a BRZ or anything in that range. These cars are reasonable to buy and run, entertaining and allow the driver to focus on developing skills. The progress will actually be faster than in a higher powered car. Of course if one already owns a Corvette or a Porsche, taking it out on track can be very rewarding if the attitude is adjusted appropriately. Such cars carry the burden of expectations and the first-time track driver has to be able to leave these expectations (and ego) at the gate.
Q. For first time track drivers or for those just starting out, what modifications would you recommend?
A. For a first time track driver, the only modification that’s needed is attitude. Come to learn and improve, the rest will follow. When it comes to the car, just making sure it’s in good mechanical condition is enough. As the driver progresses and starts to use the car more, weak links will start to manifest themselves and can be addressed only if and when they become an obstacle to progress. It will be different on different cars. Brake pads are a common weak point on stock setups. Stickier tires are a good improvement (but all-out R compounds can wear fast, especially on heavy production cars!). Over time, it’s common to try and modify a car to where it’s no longer practical on the street. Unfortunately, being a street-based design, it still ends up falling short on track and making it faster gets exponentially more expensive, both to build and to keep running. A Porsche GT3 Cup is probably the ultimate example of that – without question a very fast and capable machine, but costing several hundred thousand dollars new and with running costs into thousands for a single HPDE event. This is where our cars come in. .Basically the ultimate modification is a track car designed for the job. A D4 costs only about $100 per event in consumables (tires, brakes, etc.) and a D2 is around $130. Both can match or even top the Porsche, in the right hands, and are far less demanding of the wallet. In some of our testing, a pro driver was 1 second faster in the base D4 than he was in a highly modified GT3 Cup, same track, same day.
Q. I notice your wife shares in your passion for driving. How had she come to find herself participating in track day events?
A. She grew up riding quads with her family and helping her dad work on his cars. Her interest in cars led her to hang out at the track with friends, mostly going on track as a passenger. This is where we met. She now drives our cars on track and has started riding motorcycles as well. Our situation is not unique – several of our customers have spouses and kids who are interested in driving. We always encourage our customers to bring their families to the track and organize private track days to further promote that. A passion is always more rewarding when shared.
Q. We really appreciate the time you’ve taken to answer our questions. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you, your company and the cars you offer?
A. I started designing cars, and later the company to build them, because I did not find anything out there that was specifically built for track driving. Production cars are designed for the many requirements of the road. Race cars are designed for the specific rules that govern particular racing classes. Kit and custom cars are made for people who enjoy the building process but are still geared toward street driving, even those that are made to look racy. What we are building and designing at Palatov Motorsport are cars for the trackday enthusiasts. Folks who want to go out on track, enjoy and improve their skills without the car holding them back or burning a hole in their wallet.
We design and build custom components in-house, including TIG welding and CNC machining. We have created many components from scratch because nothing off the shelf was fit for the job. On the other hand, we always look for readily available parts whenever possible. So all the consumables, such as brakes, are things one can buy inexpensively online. For the D2 we used a GM LS3 engine that comes with a warranty from the manufacturer and ready parts and service support. The D4 uses Suzuki Hayabusa engine and transmission that can be found inexpensively on eBay. It’s a pragmatic approach, we use off-the-shelf parts when appropriate but don’t shy away from designing and making custom solutions when there is a clear benefit to be had for the job at hand.
I started as a novice track driver at the age of 35. My blog details all the experiences and everything I’ve learned in the years since. In my development as a driver, I discovered the challenges that many HPDE drivers face and have come up with some solutions. The cars that Palatov Motorsport is building and designing now are the ultimate outcome of that process, which still continues.
Learn more about these trackday specific vehicles here:
Watch a track lap here: