The mods you need to make a Tesla Model 3 into a competitive racer

J.A.
By J.A. Ackley
Dec 10, 2023 | Tesla, ev, Model 3, Tesla Model 3, electric cars, Electric Race Cars | Posted in Features | From the April 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Larry Chen

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What’s sleek, low and offers a ton of power? The Tesla Model 3. 

Sure, you may not see it at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (or many 15-minute races, for that matter), but thanks to strong handling and virtually instantaneous power, this EV has become a force in settings as diverse as local autocrosses, One Lap of America and Pikes Peak. 

But before you race one, the experts offer some prep advice.

Why the Model 3?

“They’re comfortable. It’s almost like being in your living room while in traffic,” says Sasha Anis of Mountain Pass Performance, a Tesla prep shop. “They’re also quite powerful and have a really good chassis. It’s a great car to drive on the road and it’s super fast on the race track.”

Then there’s the fact that the Model 3, like all electric vehicles, has far fewer moving parts than ICE cars. “It’s simple yet complicated,” notes Mike Chang, whose Evasive Motorsports Model 3 placed first among EVs at this year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. “You don’t have to do much. Do what you normally would do to any other car for racing.”

Making one faster is easy. “When we first started developing our Model 3, we upgraded the brakes, wheels and tires, and suspension,” Chang continues. “It was a night-and-day difference from the factory. At Buttonwillow, we were able to shave 7 to 8 seconds just from that.”

Then it gets complicated, especially when it comes to shedding weight and finding more power. “To shave another second requires reducing a lot of weight,” he explains. “You have to add aero, figure out suspension setup. If you want to keep going faster, it gets really hard.”

New Brakes Are a Must

One of the drawbacks of a Model 3 is its weight. It pushes the scales at about 4000 pounds straight from the factory. Combine that with around 500 horsepower–Tesla does not reveal its official power numbers–and you’ll achieve incredible loads. 

Photography Credit: Courtesy TeamPRG

Plus, it uses regenerative braking, which lessens the need for a robust brake system on the street. On the track, however, it’s a different story.

“Put in racing brake fluid and get better brake pads,” Anis advises. “The factory brakes are not up to it, and the brake fluid is DOT 3. Track use will boil the brake fluid. As you get faster, you’ll need larger brake upgrades because factory brakes with just pads won’t be enough.”

Tires and Wheels, Too

Again, the weight of this vehicle affects what kind of tires and wheels it should wear for competition. “More than 40% of the weight of the car is below its centerline,” explains Tesla racer and Pikes Peak rookie of the year Blake Fuller of Electric Performance. “Tire loads are much higher than for a vehicle of similar weight. It’s almost a factor of 1.2 to 1.5 for a car of its size.”

This demands beefier tires. “You definitely want to go with a tire with a load rating of at least a Y,” he continues. “If you go with anything below that, you’ll get a whole lot of sidewall flex–and you might have a sidewall go. It might not be as big of an issue with autocross, but it is for certainly anything on the track.”

Photography Credit: Larry Chen

Likewise, Fuller offers an additional setup tip: “The tire pressures are going to be about 5% higher than what you run on most cars. We’ve run 30 to 44 psi, depending on the tire, to keep the sidewall from flexing.”

You might want to upgrade the wheels, too. “The Model 3 runs a 5x114.3, which is super popular,” Fuller notes. “There may be a temptation to take wheels from another car, but those wheels might not be made for the weight of the Model 3. My recommendation is to go with a forged wheel. Period. Make sure any wheels you buy are rated for a vehicle like a Tesla or the wheel company has data that shows that the center loads can handle the car.”

Fortunately, the Model 3 accommodates bigger tires and wheels. “You could do a 275-wide tire without having to buy adjustable suspension arms, although it wouldn’t look pretty,” says Ben Schaffer of Unplugged Performance. “You could do a 295 if you installed adjustable upper control arms. You could even do a 315 tire, but you would want upper control arms, fender modifications and a dedicated wheel-tire package for it.”

Shore Up the Suspension

The good news is the Tesla Model 3 comes with a solid foundation for suspension: double wishbones up front and a five-link rear. “They didn’t cheap out on the suspension layout,” Anis says, “but the suspension dampers are floaty and soft. The best bang for the buck would be to install a sport suspension system that gives the car great response, great body control, but is still comfortable on the road.”

“From the factory, you can’t give it any camber,” says Andrew DeKoning, whose teamPGR finished third overall in a TeslaS Plaid at this year’s One Lap of America and who has run the Model 3 in past years. “You can completely change the driving dynamics of the car by throwing on a few parts to make it more adjustable.”

Photography Credit: Courtesy Unplugged Performance

In addition to swapping in adjustable parts and appropriate dampers, bushings make a difference, too. “They have soft rubber bearings up front and spherical bearings in the rear,” Anis notes. “There’s a lot of compliance and camber loss, with very little camber gain in front. Change the front bushings out and you’ll get laser-sharp feel and better connection to the road.”

Other mods include swapping in a limited-slip differential–two in the case of an all-wheel-drive version. It provides the same benefits as with an ICE car, maximizing traction under high-speed cornering.

Add Aero Carefully

Air’s free, and aero enhancements are relatively inexpensive when compared to other mods. “The cars are relatively high-powered and they generally respond well to aero changes,” DeKoning says. “The underbody of the car is already perfectly flat. Lowering the car, putting diffusers in the front–either for the brakes or just for downforce–works really well. 

“We lowered the front lip, put a splitter on it and added a rear wing. We had a nice balance. It had a little bit of oversteer at low speed and a little bit of understeer at high speed.”

Today’s aftermarket is already rife with Tesla speed parts. Some examples: upgraded brake and suspension hardware for teamPGR’s Model 3, aero upgrades as shown on the Evasive Motorsports Pikes Peak car, and Öhlins coil-overs and adjustable arms from Unplugged Performance. Photography Credit: Larry Chen

DeKoning points to a specific example: “When our Model 3 was totally modified but had no aero, at high speed in transitions–such as at Nashville Superspeedway, where there’s this long 180-degree sweeper and then you immediately come to the left–you had to be very gentle and light on the steering wheel. Once we put the aero on, the car became very stable in those transitions.”

However, Chang recommends avoiding too much aero on any track with superlong straights. “With this car, you can overdo aero because the power dies out on the top end. If you have an aero-heavy car, it makes it worse. We try to find a balance between downforce and drag.”

Make the Weight Count

Here’s where modding the Model 3 gets more complicated. The car is simply heavy, and unfortunately there’s not much fat to trim without taking some drastic measures.

“For every panel possible, we went with a carbon-fiber version,” Chang says of the Pikes Peak car. “All the doors are carbon fiber. We replaced the roof, trunk, hood with carbon fiber. We took out almost 400 pounds. It was all custom-made. But we added a cage and a cooling system, too, so with the driver we were still over 4000 pounds.”

How can you save weight on a Tesla? Evasive Motorsports ran carbon-fiber panels on its Pikes Peak racer, while Unplugged Performance offers bolt-on carbon doors. Photography Credits: Courtesy Evasive Motorsports (top), Courtesy Unplugged Performance (bottom)

Fortunately, this Model 3 doesn’t move like a bloated car, so while experts still recommend remaining conscious about weight, don’t lose sleep over the fact you’ll still have a heavy car.

Heat (or Cool) the Battery

If you’re fantasizing about running a Model 3 at full power in an an endurance event–or even a sprint race–let’s kill those dreams now: It ain’t happening, at least with today’s readily available technology.

“For Pikes Peak, that’s the absolute limit of what the car can do,” Chang says. “After 10 to 11 minutes, the car’s going to be super slow.”

A fully charged battery offers the most horsepower, and then it goes downhill. “The car starts to lose horsepower until about 75% charge, and then it starts to lose power even more quickly after that,” Anis adds. “Every time you go on the track, there’s a good chance it’ll be a fast time, but you need to be able to do it quickly.”

Some aftermarket companies sell add-ons that heat the battery. That helps deliver more power, but the battery gets only hotter from there, which then destroys performance.

Photography Credit: Courtesy Evasive Motorsports

“If you’re going to do a few laps, you want the battery as cool as possible,” Anis advises. “The battery doesn’t thermally balance like a gasoline engine. You gain 5 to 7 degrees Celsius [41 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit] of battery temperature every minute you run it, even if you upgrade the cooling.

“If you want to run for 10 to 15 minutes, you want to precool the battery to 20 to 25 degrees Celsius [68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit] and run it up to 55 degrees Celsius [131 degrees Fahrenheit] or so.

“If you want to run one fast lap, start with the battery at full charge and at 40 degrees Celsius [104 degrees Fahrenheit]. You’ll have an extra 10 to 15 horsepower.”

Adding cooling to the battery helps extend how long you have peak power, but those efforts may only provide a small benefit.

“The limits on discharge and power are software-modeled,” DeKoning says. “They don’t seem to reflect reality closely. So if you cool everything, it doesn’t change how the car works.”

On the bright side, when fully charged, the car delivers the same power regardless of environmental conditions, unlike an ICE car.

“With an electric car, they’re more consistent and repeatable than a gas-powered car,” Anis says. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is, you’re always going to have the same acceleration.”

Outsmart the Software

While the Model 3 comes from the factory with plenty of power, who doesn’t want more? Let’s just bolt on some headers, do an ECU tune and maybe add forced induction. Wait, that’s not possible here? Oh, right.

We have a battery pack and, if our car is all-wheel-drive, two electric motors and two inverters (otherwise one each for the rear-wheel-drive version). That’s it. Simple, right? So simple that it’s incredibly complicated to squeeze more performance out of these items.

“From an aftermarket programmability standpoint, you can’t do anything to a Tesla,” says Lawson Mollica of AEM EV. “For us to be able to control a Tesla within a Tesla chassis, we would have to literally un-Tesla the vehicle. You would take out their inverter control board, insert ours, and connect to our vehicle control unit or VCU. With the way CAN bus is integrated throughout the car, the minute you do that, something might shut down, because it wouldn’t see what it expected to see.”

A different battery pack, an inverter or a motor would count as an unexpected item to the system, but other changes can also pose a problem. “I’d strongly advise against removing anything electrical from that car,” Mollica continues. “It’s most likely connected to that CAN bus network, and if it cannot identify that missing item, it will most likely throw the car into a limp mode.”

Devices exist to get around the software limitations, however. Ingenext, which helped a Tesla Model S Plaid hit 216 mph, offers the Ghost Upgrade. It promises to add 150 horsepower, improve throttle sensitivity, and offer a slew of adjustability. It also displays live battery data and offers battery pack heating.

Mountain Pass Performance sells a Partybox that provides a rear-wheel-drive car many of the controllable features that Model 3 Performance offers. For the Performance, it also allows the user to disable stability control and reduce traction control.

Items such as the Ghost and Partybox may void Tesla’s warranty and require care when making Tesla software updates. Others, such as Unplugged Performance, steer away from the electrical components of a Tesla.

“We don’t touch [the electronics], because there are too many unknowns,” Schaffer says. “That stuff is so sensitive to what makes a Tesla a Tesla. A Tesla is a Tesla not because of its brake system, its aerodynamics or its tire package. It’s a Tesla because of its firmware updates, its battery system and its electronics. Most of the Tesla ownership experience is getting these updates where the car learns new tricks and gets better.” Nevertheless, some view this area of modding as the frontier of finding additional speed, and we’re far from scratching the surface of its potential.

While tuners have had 70 years to work with the Chevy small-block, the Tesla Model 3 has had only five. Expect more mods to come.

But, as of today, for the sports car enthusiast, we’re again reminded of Chang’s wise words: “It’s simple, but it’s complicated. At the end of the day, it’s like any other race car. But what you take out from the equation is the ability to add power.”

David Marcus made Tesla news in 2019: first SCCA Solo title for an EV. Fast-forward to today, and SCCA offers a dedicated class for electric vehicles, while Mountain Pass and Gridlife have teamed up to launch the Model 3 Challenge later this year. Unplugged Performance hosts track events under its TeslaCorsa banner. Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
2/28/23 11:16 a.m.

Exciting to see what the future holds for EV race cars, as it seems like we're just now scratching the surface of mods and upgrades.

CrashDummy
CrashDummy Reader
2/28/23 12:08 p.m.

Seems like a great tool for trying to win at high level autocross or other specific events (like Pikes Peak) but seems like it's still a terrible tool for general enthusiast fun with cars.

I can't imagine anyone would prefer this experience to the typical 100+ miles of flat out lapping that you can get at a typical track day in a tradition car car: Here’s how Chang typically manages his day with the Tesla Model 3: “If we’re going for the fastest lap, we do two sessions in a day–one in the morning (we’ll get three laps) and one towards the end of the day, after it fully charges. If you don’t mind having a lot less power, with a 50% charge you could do probably four laps before it pulls all of the power because of the temperatures.”

The other issue, that wasn't really mentioned in the article, is that a lot of the track events I sign up for have a blanket "No EVs" rule. For example: https://www.tracknightinamerica.com/events/2002697-track-night-2023-new-jersey-motorsports-park-april-26 

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
2/28/23 12:44 p.m.
CrashDummy said:

The other issue, that wasn't really mentioned in the article, is that a lot of the track events I sign up for have a blanket "No EVs" rule. For example: https://www.tracknightinamerica.com/events/2002697-track-night-2023-new-jersey-motorsports-park-april-26 

Weird, I've never seen a "no EV" rule at any of the events I've been to.  I wonder if it's a regional thing?  Or maybe just SCCA being conservative?

As for the small number of ideal laps thing, to an extent that's true of any car.  Qualifying or TT sessions, the fast guys will do 2 or 3 laps and then pit, because once the tires get hot they'll never go as fast.  Mix that with the track's tendency to get slower in the afternoon and you've got at most 4-6 laps to do a fast time. 

For non-competitive track day fun, I see model 3s at the track all the time.  They do usually wind up missing a session in order to make enough time to go into town and recharge at lunch, but otherwise they run as much of the day as anyone else.

 

GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
2/28/23 1:35 p.m.
CrashDummy said:

Seems like a great tool for trying to win at high level autocross or other specific events (like Pikes Peak) but seems like it's still a terrible tool for general enthusiast fun with cars.

I can't imagine anyone would prefer this experience to the typical 100+ miles of flat out lapping that you can get at a typical track day in a tradition car car: Here’s how Chang typically manages his day with the Tesla Model 3: “If we’re going for the fastest lap, we do two sessions in a day–one in the morning (we’ll get three laps) and one towards the end of the day, after it fully charges. If you don’t mind having a lot less power, with a 50% charge you could do probably four laps before it pulls all of the power because of the temperatures.”

The other issue, that wasn't really mentioned in the article, is that a lot of the track events I sign up for have a blanket "No EVs" rule. For example: https://www.tracknightinamerica.com/events/2002697-track-night-2023-new-jersey-motorsports-park-april-26 

My thoughts as well. I often wonder if it was really a smart choice for me to buy an ICE-powered dual-duty car in 2021 (I most often have this thought any time I see how much speed a Mini SE picks up on a straightaway), but this article says "yes." Right now on my 86, there are no artificial limiters in the ECU I can't flash out of the way (Rev limiter? Bumped up and smoothed out. Top speed limiter? Safely tucked away somewhere north of 400kph). The only thing that causes any performance dropoff between going onto an opening lap and running out of gas is tire heat, and I think my next set will fix that.

Hopefully not too far into the future there will be more modder-friendly EVs with better cooling and less weight.

kb58
kb58 UltraDork
2/28/23 1:36 p.m.

Mods to make it into a race car: remove half the weight... well that's not going to happen. Given that, enormous brakes, unless of course it can't run long enough to overheat them.

I remember a review of the Plaid model, with the reviewers saying the power plant was about 10X what the brakes could handle, and that any racing other than drag racing could put it in limp mode due to hot brakes, or in a ditch.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
2/28/23 1:44 p.m.

Meanwhile, I've seen a C5 Corvette overheat in about 5 laps of our local track. Not all cars are bulletproof track cars right out of the box, even performance cars :)

EVs have characteristics that make them difficult to beat in certain types of competition. ICEs have characteristics that make them difficult to beat in certain types of competition. Get the right tool for the job. 

While I'm not sure I'd call a Model 3 "sleek and low" - more like "dorky" - this article is a good insight into what it takes to make one work better in competition, just like all the articles on how to make JG's Corvette work reliably in a track environment.

STM317
STM317 PowerDork
2/28/23 8:03 p.m.
codrus (Forum Supporter) said:
CrashDummy said:

The other issue, that wasn't really mentioned in the article, is that a lot of the track events I sign up for have a blanket "No EVs" rule. For example: https://www.tracknightinamerica.com/events/2002697-track-night-2023-new-jersey-motorsports-park-april-26 

Weird, I've never seen a "no EV" rule at any of the events I've been to.  I wonder if it's a regional thing?  Or maybe just SCCA being conservative?

I bet it's safety/insurance related. EV fires are a whole different animal.

wvumtnbkr
wvumtnbkr GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
2/28/23 8:22 p.m.

Njmp also has state troopers there to give you tickets if you cause an infraction.

 

They will also get mad and make you use a different fueling rig if it isn't a dot approved gasoline (red) jug....

 

Ask me how I know. 

BAMF
BAMF HalfDork
4/3/23 9:29 p.m.
kb58 said:

Mods to make it into a race car: remove half the weight... well that's not going to happen. Given that, enormous brakes, unless of course it can't run long enough to overheat them.

Au contraire, mon frere. Solid state batteries might make that a reality.

 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/3/23 10:50 p.m.

In reply to BAMF :

Solid state batteries are the 100 mpg carburetor of the EV world. We'll see if Toyota can follow through with their claim that they'll be in production in 2025. Toyota was also leading the charge (har har) for hydrogen fuel, of course...

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