Fresh out of school, George Stamatopoulos decided to reward himself with a new-to-him car. The big three contemporaries on his mind were the peanut-eye Subaru STI, the Mistubishi Evo VIII, and the Nissan 350Z. Trying to make a decent impression on his colleagues at his new corporate job, he felt the grown-up looks of the Z would do more for his image than a boy-racer sedan with a big wing.
His neighbor made him an impossible-to-refuse offer on an ‘03 Track Edition 350Z, which in stock trim worked well enough for George’s foray into competitive motorsport. A set of sticky tires and a cup of coffee were all he needed to begin autocrossing, and after spending several years carving cone courses, he decided to give track days a try.
Not surprisingly, it was the Z’s weight and its front end that made themselves apparent his first time at Sebring. The car’s liveliness had masked its flaws when negotiating narrow autocrosses, but once the speeds and lateral loading increased, its grand-touring nature made itself obvious. At least it had the big motor befitting a comfortable cruiser.
Combine cheap grunt with robustness and a reasonably long wheelbase, and the appeal of the under-loved Z is easier to appreciate. It’s not too heavy, nor is it underpowered, but it’s definitely not what one would consider a momentum car. It does have some strengths shared with a Miata, however — as George learned, its braking power and tire wear are the exception.
Combine those perks with the cost of entry and the short list of modifications needed to make one track-worthy, and George decided that all its strengths outweighed its shortcomings. Four years ago, he made the decision to jump into TT4 with the intention of becoming a contender. Through close competition in a state that breeds driving talent, he’s figured out precisely what the Z needs to claim a place at the pointy end of the pack.
Spartan and No Longer So Sophisticated
First things first, the car could be considered porky by modern standards. When compared to an E36 M3, the other platform he knew well, “the Z couldn’t be teased in the midcorner phase the same way,” he states.
Because it was tougher to get the car back on the intended line after a botched entry, he found himself driving the start of the corner in a much more measured fashion, and soon after began a habit of a slightly early turn-in. The change to the set of four-way Konis from an ex-Grand-Am car improved the handling, as did a little toe-out up front, the right amount of rake, and enough camber. “It’s all macro — there aren’t any special secrets,” George adds.
However, the most effective means of making it more agile was weight reduction, a larger footprint, and a few aero pieces to help it sit still at speed.
Weight savings were easy to find at first, but getting the car near the TT4-minimum weight took careful inspection and home-brewed pieces. First, he scrapped most of the interior, slapped on a carbon hatch with a homemade polycarbonate rear window, swapped the wheels for a set of Enkei RPF1s measuring 18 inches X 10.5 inches. Depending on the tire he chooses to run, each wheel and tire weigh between 43-45 pounds.
Since he sat significantly overweight in the then-current trim, George picked up a Holley Hydramat system to run his tank down to a few wisps without starving the engine. Although starting and finishing the event with plenty of fuel in the tank helps the handling balance, the Z is much faster without 50 pounds of gasoline sitting in the tank come impound time. Recently, he replaced the Hydramat with a Radium surge tank to be able to run the car reliably with even less fuel.
As it currently sits, the Z weighs 3,001 pounds with fuel and driver, which makes it semi-svelte for a car with 249 average wheel horsepower. Not too shabby for a former grand tourer within minimal composite accessories.
Once lightened, it’s more lively than many of its competitors. The problem becomes a matter of stabilizing the car’s rear end. With lots of low-end torque, a 350Z can drive loosely. To generate the necessary bite off the corner, he opted for a better differential than the flimsy factory VLSD. First, he tried the Cusco RS. “This differential was very confidence-inspiring and substantially improved traction on corner exit, but it also significantly reduced the yaw of the car on entry and caused a lot of on-throttle push out of the turn.”
Then he switched to the OS Giken 1.5-way differential. “It absolutely transforms the machine. It’s the most eerily transparent clutch-type diff I’ve ever used,” he states.
Though it comes with short rebuild intervals — he’s had to rebuild it twice in the past three years — George has been able to enjoy the right propulsion at the corner exit. Especially at Sebring, a track dotted with slow corners separating fast straights, he’s noticed the difference it has made to his corner exits and straight-line speeds. “It also significantly minimizes inside wheelspin out of corners, which even with Hoosier-level grip is apparent via the wheel speed sensors.”
Though this aids its traction in slower corners, some aerodynamic assistance does more for steadying the Z at higher speeds — a must for George. Considering his home tracks are Sebring and Homestead, he’s had to focus on the aerodynamic side of things to make it a competitive car.
Stickier at Speed
The first wing, a Nine Lives Racing Wing, made a massive change. At the front end, he mounted a homemade birchwood splitter to the original NISMO V3 bumper with a set of Devsport Acura RSX splitter mounts. With minor modification, these allowed him to fasten the splitter exclusively to the bottom of the bumper, enabling blind removal of the splitter in short order.
Chassis mounting corrected its angle of attack and the resulting gap was filled by a homemade air dam that replaced the bulky NISMO bumper. “Just bolting on a splitter was only the first step. I learned that the material used, the mounting position, and the reinforcements were the little details that made the difference in extracting the splitter’s full potential,” he adds.
“I realized that once the front end was outperforming the rear end, it was time to upgrade my rear aero.”
George started thinking that a larger element would make the desired downforce while minimizing the drag penalty imposed by running smaller elements at higher angle of attacks, so he threw on a Klaus Composites GTMax carbon wing spanning 70 inches. Mounted on his own swan-neck uprights, he transformed the car’s high-speed balance — and trimmed a considerable amount of high-mounted weight, too.
Working, Whittling, Winging It
For now, George is happy to continue grinding away at TT4 times. Why? “The formula works!” he starts. “I believe the series offers real parity.” When and if the time comes, it’s clear that he’ll have something to take to the TT3 fight. However, that needs to wait a while — at least until he’s got more power.
Ride along with George Stamatopoulos as he laps the historic Sebring International Raceway.
Plus, being a tinkerer and a perfectionist, he still feels the Z’s under-loved chassis still has more to offer. True, it’s fast and it’s fairly friendly, but he feels that there’s more to be gained from pulling weight and further improving aerodynamics. In the case of the latter, he’s just as concerned with the aero balance as well as the outright downforce generated.
Maybe there’s a little to be gleaned here: get into an unpopular, affordable car with respectable stats — like a Nissan 350Z — see how quickly you can go, and avoid the taxes attached to more prevalent machines. That extra dough can go a long way in terms of tires, brakes, aerodynamic additions, and track time. With a talented driver and an innovative tuner pulling the strings, this budget grand tourer can quickly morph into something special.
For more on George’s line of wing uprights and carbon components, visit his online shop here.