Palatov Motorsport is competing in the 2015 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb after winning the Unlimited Division in 2012. This year, they are bringing a production vehicle to compete in the Open Class. My Life at Speed took time out before Pikes Peak to chat with Dennis Palatov, founder of Palatov Motorsport, to learn more about their track Day cars.
MLAS: Tell us a little about yourself and Palatov Motorsport.
Dennis Palatov: Palatov Motorsport for me is the realization of a life-long dream. As a kid I used to sketch cars and dream about how I was going to design and build them. My first career path was pragmatic – the computer industry was taking off in the ’80s when I started college and that seemed like a logical way to go. I did enjoy it and accomplished a lot of cool things, but cars were always a passion. One thing that proved really valuable is that I was a part of several computer start-ups and learned first-hand what it takes to run and build a company, what can go wrong, and what has to be done right.
In 1997 I quit my regular job as a CTO for a California computer company and moved to Oregon to set out on my own. Portland is the only city in the US with a city-owned racetrack that’s just minutes from downtown, and that was a big part of the decision to move here. I wanted to finally pursue track driving and bought my first track-worthy car, a BMW M Coupe, shortly after the move.
The progression from buying production cars to building a kit and finally to designing and building my own is documented on my blogs at www.dpcars.net. The design work that I was doing on my first car, the dp1, led to a job for a startup electric car company designing the chassis and running the engineering department. There I further developed some of my suspension concepts. As a result we ended up with a little car that could corner at 1.1g on $25 tires, take street corners without slowing down and run over curbs at speed. The electric car company folded in 2008 and I saw this as an opportunity to finally put all my theories and experience into practice.
In October 2008 Palatov Motorsport was founded with seed funding from Karl Asseily, a fellow car enthusiast. Karl lives abroad so day to day it was just three of us – Tristan doing fabrication, my wife Morgan in charge of admin and myself handling all the other jobs that a growing company requires. We had our first car, the D4, fully designed, tooled up, built and driving only 9 months later. The company has been evolving ever since and we now have four different car models, including the street legal D2 and have delivered more than a dozen cars to customers. Many more designs are on their way.
MLAS: Palatov Motorsport won the Unlimited Class at Pikes Peak in 2012. Tell us a little bit about that experience and what that win did for Palatov Motorsport.
DP: The 2012 Pikes Peak race has been a tremendous experience. It was an eye opener and instilled great respect for the Mountain. For us as a company, first and foremost our success on first try is a validation of a lot of the design concepts that I have been developing. My cars have many unorthodox features, including suspension, drive-train and packaging, that I created believing this was a better way to accomplish the job. The fact that a car designed and built by three people in five months can stand on a world stage like Pikes Peak and succeed is a testament to the effectiveness of these solutions. There is a separate blog for that adventure on the dpcars site.
It didn’t all go smoothly and a post-race inspection revealed that we had no compression on one bank due to incorrect valve springs having been installed. So the race was essentially run on half an engine! Fortunately we had David Donner driving for us. He is a veteran on the Mountain and delivered an awesome drive under difficult conditions. Even running on half the cylinders his time of 10:04 was good enough for a class win and only 19 seconds off the new overall record that year.
Besides validating some of the design concepts, we also discovered several areas that needed to be improved. Everything we have learned from the 2012 race has greatly contributed to the evolution of all of our cars. It’s a classic example of racing improving the breed.
MLAS: You are going back to Pikes Peak this year, competing in the Pikes Peak Open Class. Why Open?
DP: When we started Palatov Motorsport the focus was initially on dedicated track cars like the D1 and D4. Since then customers have asked for a streetable car that could be used on more than just a few track days a year. This led to the development of the D2 which is powered by GM LS ‘E-Rod’ emissions legal engines and we have delivered a dozen of these cars to date. So this year our goal is to see what our street car can do.
In order to be effective on the Mountain, the car needs to not only be fast but also give its driver the confidence to push the available performance in a very demanding environment. Given the design goals of our streetable D2, it is the perfect and ultimate test.
We are running a D2 in street legal trim as an assembled vehicle, built in cooperation with our primary individual sponsor Pete Stoppani. It is equipped with catalysts, DOT tires, lights and all other necessary bits. The Open class is the most appropriate for a production car like this, since we don’t meet the 500 unit minimum for Time Attack.
Interestingly, after the car showed quite a bit of speed in testing early June, we are already being protested and may eventually get bumped into Unlimited.
MLAS: Jonathan Frost is the driver for this year’s Pikes Peak effort. Can you tell us a little bit more about Jonathan and why he is the driver for Pikes Peak?
DP: We first connected with Jonathan at Laguna Seca in 2010, where we needed a driver in a hurry for our electric dp1/e in the ReFuel time trial – that was an adventure in itself and the blog is worth reading. Jonathan had been following my blogs and was eager to drive the car. He only had one lap in practice and one race lap, which got us third overall. I was impressed with his ability to adapt to a car that’s very unconventional and extract the most from it with virtually no practice. After the race was done we had agreed to stay in touch.
Couple years later we needed a development driver who was available on our schedule and was willing to work with a startup company like ours. I contacted Jonathan and he became closely involved in our development effort. In the course of our testing I put him on challenging tracks like Oregon Raceway Park in a variety of brand-new untested cars. Every time I came away impressed both with his talent, skill as a driver, and his professionalism.
This year’s Pikes Peak effort is really a logical continuation of our development and test program. It’s one thing to do laps at a now-familiar track like ORP, or go run a couple track days. It’s quite another to go up against some of the world’s toughest competition in one of the world’s toughest races. From a driver the Mountain requires ability to learn quickly, adaptability, control and a methodical approach. I’m confident Jonathan can deliver and it’s our challenge to provide him with a car that can get the job done.
MLAS: What would another win at Pikes Peak do for Palatov Motorsport?
DP: Our primary goal this year, as in the past, is to evaluate the performance of our car and to learn. It’s both an experiment and a test. So the focus is on the task at hand. Should we be fortunate enough to win, we’ll just have to see where it leads. Anything can happen on race day.
MLAS: Based on the website, Palatov Motorsport is developing track day cars. What is your philosophy and approach for your development?
DP: When I started driving on track I quickly realized two things. One is that I really enjoyed track driving. I never knew what ‘fast’ really is until I was able to push a car on the track. It is not possible to do that on the street and survive for any length of time. The other thing I realized was that I had no aspirations of becoming a racer. The amount of effort, expense, dealing with rules and race schedules, all was more than I was interested in doing. Track Days can be done at one’s leisure and convenience. Racing is a whole different level of commitment.
As my experience with buying and tracking various cars expanded, I saw that production cars are generally ill-suited to the track. They require expensive modifications that render them unusable on the street, they are expensive to run and are still compromised in performance by their street ‘roots’. At the other end of the spectrum, pure race cars are designed to gain the most advantage within the narrow rules for a particular class. That also makes them ill-suited for track days, but for reasons opposite to that of street cars.
What I set out to design and build is cars that are optimized for track day driving. The first key principle is light weight. We are not limited by minimum weight rules of most racing classes, and a light car is easy on consumables and faster than a heavy car. But unlike a formula or a sports racer, a track day car has to share the track with full size sedans. So the frame has to be built to the standards of much heavier machines. It’s definitely a design challenge but what we now produce are cars in the 900-1,900 lb range, depending on model, that are built to SCCA specs for cars over 2,500 lbs. Safety is a very high priority in our designs. All frames are TIG welded from aircraft grade chromoly tubing and incorporate driver safety cells, 6-point belts and generous crush structures front and rear. Designing and optimizing the car as a complete system from the ground up is what allows us to achieve the light weight.
Another challenge of creating a track day car is that it has to be fast enough to keep even the most experienced drivers entertained, yet forgiving enough that less experienced drivers can be safe and learn quickly and efficiently. I’ve seen a lot of designs where the manufacturer purposely creates an ‘8/10ths’ car, making it fun but ultimately limiting performance when pushed. I didn’t want to go that route and instead developed a now patent-pending suspension system that is both effective and forgiving. As a result the D2 pulls 1.4g sustained (1.7g peak) on street tires, and D1/D4 platform is capable of over 3g on slicks from just mechanical grip.
To sum it up, we are designing and building cars from a clean sheet specifically for the job of track driving, without the compromises inherent in starting with either an existing street or a pure race car.
MLAS: So, is Palatov developing street cars too? Why both street and track day cars?
DP: Many of our customers want a car that they can use for more than just track driving. Some only do a couple track days a year and want to get more use out of the car than that. To meet this demand we have developed the D2 which is still primarily a track car, but can be legally registered on the street in most states when built as an assembled vehicle. The customer buys a GM LS crate engine from any GM dealer (it comes with a 2-year warranty and a 50-state emissions legal package), and supplies a gearbox from a variety of sources. Several assembly options are available.
While streetable, the D2 is still a pretty hardcore experience and is not particularly convenient. Consequently there have been requests for cars that are more street friendly, and we have started a Lead Customer program, the details of which are available in a pdf linked from our site. The goal of the program is to help us define what features are important in such a machine and give prospective customers a voice in creating their dream car. As we continue to grow and evolve as a company, we want to serve a broader range of enthusiast drivers but track driving is and will remain our core DNA.
MLAS: Are the cars affordable? Or are the components in the cars affordable? Tell us a bit about your build strategy for the cars
DP: Early on I realized that track driving can be expensive. When we started running our MINI Cooper S hard on the track, it was costing upwards of $600 per event in tires and brakes. The heavier and faster the car, the more it will consume when driven hard. So a key part of our designs is to keep it affordable to run. Light weight is a major part of the equation. Use of readily-available consumables is another. As an example we utilize Wilwood components for brakes which are a great value, perform well and can be purchased from a number of sources.
My design philosophy is pragmatic – when I believe that significant gains in performance or safety can be had from custom design I don’t shy away from it. We have full CAD, CFD, FEA and CNC capabilities inhouse. We design, perform sophisticated computer analysis, and then machine a lot of the parts on our cars. In all we have over 4,000 part numbers in the system. However when I see an off the shelf component that will do the job well I don’t reinvent the wheel just for the sake of doing it.
In particular, we have found a couple engine and transmission choices that we recommend to customers, and they work great totally stock. In the D4, we use Suzuki Hayabusa engines and integrated transmissions. They can be turbocharged if desired but it’s a proven, readily available design that has great performance out of the box. An entire engine with sequential transmission and all electronics can be found for under $4K on ebay. For the D2, the requirement for emissions compliance and the bigger overall size and weight of the vehicle has steered us towards GM LS engines. These can be coupled to a Porsche or Quaife transmission. While not as inexpensive as the D4 Hayabusa setup, they are still a great value, come with a warranty and deliver excellent performance. Parts and service are available from any GM dealer.
Overall, our cars are not something that would be classified as ‘cheap’ but for the performance I believe the value is excellent. A complete ready to run track-only D4 starts at about $65K and has proven to be faster than a $300K+ Porsche GT3 Cup, in same-day same-driver testing. A streetable D2 starts at around $85K complete depending on options and assembly. Running costs is where the cars truly shine. A D4 is only around $100/event in consumables and D2 is slightly higher at around $130/event. This compares very favorably to the $600 figure for an essentially stock MINI or several thousand for a car like the GT3.
MLAS: Will you be racing in any other events this year?
DP: Racing is a part of the development process for us. We use it [as] a hard benchmark to gauge the performance of our track cars, rather than doing it for the sake of racing itself. There are several races we’d like to participate in because they would be valuable learning experiences. The Thunderhill 25 Hour event in particular is of interest. Whether we will do it this year will depend on many factors including customer commitments and available resources.
MLAS: How would prospective customers get to do a test drive?
DP: We have a great relationship with Oregon Raceway Park and can schedule a private test day where a prospective customer can drive our cars on track. The fee ranges from $1,500 to $2,500 depending on model and can be fully applied towards purchase. We can provide more details on request and the best way to contact us is via email.
For those purchasing our cars, we provide participation in our track testing at ORP at no charge for the first year, with coaching available. Customers can either bring their own cars or have access to factory demos. This is just one benefit of local support.
Traditionally, track day cars have come from overseas, primarily from England. American specialty manufacturers have focused primarily on street-oriented kit cars. Our cars are designed, built and supported in Portland, Oregon, giving American enthusiasts a domestic option with genuine world-class track performance and full access to factory support.
Here are a few of our favorite photos from the Technical Inspection for the 2015 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb:
Palatov Motorsport Sponsors:
CMS Lap Timer
Oregon Raceway Park
Portland Speed Industries