Stripped down and tuned up, the race-ready RC F GT3 is a wolf in Lexus clothing

The hills are alive with the sound of speed. It’s race day at Lime Rock Park, deep in rural Connecticut. The beastly roar of Corvette V8s mixes with the alien buzz of Ford’s twin-turbocharged V6 GTs, the whine of Porsche flat-sixes and high-revving Ferrari V8s thrown in for good measure. And in the middle of it all are two cars wearing Lexus badges.

Lexus has raced before, but most people still associate the Toyota luxury brand’s products more with country clubs and shopping malls than racetracks. So for 2017, Lexus enlisted Michigan-based 3GT Racing to put its cars up against the best the sports-car world has to offer.

Their weapon of choice is the RC F GT3, a racing version of its RC F coupe. The “GT3” refers to FIA GT3, a class of race cars based on showroom models designed to run in race series across the globe. GT3 is supposed to emphasize commonality with production cars, but the demands of today’s racing environment mean they end up becoming something else entirely. It may have started out as a regular luxury car, but the RC F GT3 is a completely different animal.

From road car to race car

Inside the 3GT Racing garage, mechanics are making final adjustments on the teams’ pair of RC F GT3s before that afternoon’s race. Wearing a mostly blue livery, the cars look like automotive versions of Sonic the Hedgehog. The bodywork bristles with appendages, from spoilers and ductwork, to massive fender flares that enclose upsized wheels and tires.

Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Each RC F GT3 starts out with a stock RC F bodyshell, but from there things get a little more interesting. Every visible panel is made from carbon fiber to keep weight down. Lexus also added a massive rear spoiler and rear diffuser, which produce aerodynamic downforce that helps stick the car to the track.

Despite looking like a boy racer’s dream, the aerodynamic aids on the RC F and other GT3 cars are actually pretty tame by racing standards. Engineers at the factory could have gone further, and teams aren’t allowed to make any changes of their own. The powers that be wanted to keep costs down, and to make the race cars look as much like their showroom-ready counterparts as possible.

Lacking luxury for ludicrous laps

It may have started out as a regular luxury car, but the RC F GT3 is a completely different animal.

Affordability and road-car relevance are the whole reason for GT3-type cars. In the U.S., the RC F GT3 races in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in the series’ GTD (GT Daytona) class. In a series in which up to three classes of cars run at once, the GTD cars are the slowest by design. Teams engage in a race within a race, aiming to beat the other GTD entrants rather than take the overall win. But while the cars are slower, they’re also much cheaper to run. On tires alone, GTD teams spend half as much per set as teams running the faster GTLM (GT Le Mans) cars, said 3GT Racing owner Paul Gentilozzi.

Peering into the cockpit, you won’t find any of the usual Lexus luxuries. Instead of leather and wood, the interior is almost entirely bare metal. The single seat (no passengers allowed) isn’t exactly the last word in comfort either. It’s meant to hold the driver in place during hard cornering, not to be an armchair.

The carbon fiber bodywork and crash diet produce results. The RC F GT3 weighs 2,866 pounds, or about 1,000 pounds less than a stock RC F. In the automotive world, lightness is next to godliness. Shedding weight improves every aspect of a car’s performance, from fuel consumption to handling to acceleration.

Helping the RC F GT3 in the latter area is a V8 engine punched out from the stock 5.0 liters of displacement to 5.4 liters. It produces over 500 horsepower, compared to 467 hp for the stock RC F. The stock eight-speed automatic transmission is also ditched in favor of a six-speed sequential racing gearbox. However, the driver changes gears using paddles taken from a production RC F.

lexus rc f gt3 race car details specs tech feature 13840
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Besides the paddle shifters, one thing the race car and the road car have in common is extensive use of electronics. Just like the driver of a stock RC F, the GT3 race car’s driver is confronted with an array of steering-wheel mounted controls. But instead of setting the cruise control or activating Bluetooth, they do things like select different software maps for the engine and transmission, and engage a limiter that keeps the driver from going too fast in the pits.

Computer brains to match engineering braun

Each car has four CAN bus computer controllers, which send out data over two Ethernet connections, as well as an LTE telemetry system, said John Gentilozzi, 3GT Racing technical director and son of team owner Paul. The team can monitor virtually every aspect of the car from the pits meaning, among other things, that drivers have no excuse when they screw up.

In the automotive world, lightness is next to godliness.

“You can’t get away with anything,” said Scott Pruett, co-driver of the No. 14 Lexus. “In days gone by, if a driver missed a shift, you’d go ‘I didn’t miss a shift, I didn’t over-rev it.’” Silver-haired and square-jawed, Pruett, 57, looks like a race driver sent from central casting. He’s raced in a number of different series over a career spanning decades, and his resume includes five Rolex 24 at Daytona victories, and numerous other race wins and championships.

Pruett misses the “purity” of the days before electronic driver aids and data acquisition, when racing really was just about driver and machine. But he believes the encroachment of technology has been worthwhile because of how it benefits road cars. Technologies like computerized engine management were refined through racing, Pruett said, and that process has helped make modern road cars better.

“You drive down the road probably 70, 80 mph [in a modern car], and the car’s nice and quiet, you’re sitting there having a nice conversation, and you don’t even realize, because it’s so tight and refined,” Pruett said “A lot of that has been driven through racing.”

But that technology transfer is very gradual, even when you’re an automaker racing the same car you sell. Mark Egger, Lexus motor sports manager, said there is a dialogue between the race program and engineers working on production cars. However, he noted that the pace of automotive development cycles—in which a given model is completely redesigned every four years or so—mean any changes take awhile to show up on cars people can actually buy.

For Lexus, just being seen on track is a big part of the appeal of racing. Lexus chose the GT3 category because it wanted to build a race car based on a production model, and the popularity of GT3 allows it enter cars in a number of different series around the world, should it choose to do so.

“IMSA has the most premiere tracks in the country,” Egger said of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. While racing has experienced a decline in popularity, and thus in value to advertisers, it’s still an important platform for automakers trying to emphasize performance, as Lexus is. IMSA’s races—which includes iconic events like the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring—is something car enthusiasts pay attention to, even if the general public doesn’t.

The more automakers are involved in racing, the better it generally is for the fans. Along with Lexus, the IMSA GTD lineup currently includes the Acura NSX, Audi R8, BMW M6, Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracán, Mercedes-AMG GT, and Porsche 911. Different versions of the Bimmer, Ferrari, and Porsche also race in the GTLM class, along with the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford GT.

That’s quite a lineup. At best, the average person might typically see one of these high-end cars parked outside the local Starbucks. But racing lets people see them doing what they were built to do—drive fast. All of that sound and fury might even help improve tomorrow’s production cars.

Cars

Driving a prototype 2020 Passat at Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground

Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground is where new cars are tested to the breaking point, including the 2020 Passat midsize sedan. Ride along as the new Passat completes testing ahead of its 2019 launch.
Cars

Aston Martin’s 1,000-hp Valkyrie will boast the Mona Lisa of the engine world

Aston Martin has released new details about its F1-inspired Valkyrie hypercar. Co-developed with Red Bull Racing, the Valkyrie will be one of the most aerodynamic production cars ever made.
Cars

Bloodhound’s plan to build a 1,000-mph car has run out of gas

The Bloodhound supersonic car (SSC) project has officially shut down. The upside is you can now buy a 135,000-horsepower car powered by a jet engine and a cluster of rockets for $319,000.
Cars

Nissan and Italdesign’s GT-R50 concept will become a $1.1 million reality

The Nissan GT-R50 is a customized sports car built to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of both the GT-R and design firm Italdesign. Underneath the sleek bodywork sits a 710-horsepower engine fortified with race car components.
Cars

Thinking of opting for a car with a diesel engine? Here's what you need to know

Modern diesel-powered models prove that it is possible to build a clean, efficient diesel engine without sacrificing performance. Here's what you need to know about diesel cars, and how they differ from gasoline-powered models.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Cars

NYC mandates minimum wage for Uber, Lyft, other app-based rideshare drivers

New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a rule that drivers for companies such as Uber and Lyft must be paid at least minimum wage, even though they are independent contractors. The new pay rate includes operating costs.
Cars

These winter-warrior cars will never leave you out in the cold

Snow can be an absolute pain if your vehicle isn't optimized to handle that sort of terrain. If brutal snowstorms are an annual part of your life, we recommend you pick up one of these winter-ready vehicles.
Cars

2020 Toyota Supra caught hiding in a trailer without a shred of camouflage

Toyota's plan to once again lure enthusiasts into showrooms involves bringing back the Supra, one of its most emblematic nameplates. Here's what we know so far about the upcoming coupe, which Toyota is developing jointly with BMW.
Cars

LM Industries’ autonomous shuttles head to Phoenix, Sacramento campuses

LM Industries will deploy Olli low-speed autonomous shuttles at school campuses in Arizona and California as part of its ongoing "fleet challenge," which asks local groups to propose uses for autonomous vehicles.
Cars

Bosch’s CES-bound shuttle concept takes us on a trip to a not-too-distant future

Bosch envisions a future in which driverless shuttles occupy their own market segment. The German firm won't build the shuttles, but it wants to provide everything else, ranging from the drive system to the apps used to hail them.
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.
Product Review

Boring takes a back seat as 2019 Corolla Hatchback mixes fun with practicality

We drive the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback, the latest hatchback to bear the Corolla name. As the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, Toyota has high expectations to meet. This model mostly lives up to the legacy.
Cars

Hertz speeds up car rentals with biometric scan technology

Biometric security technology that uses face, fingerprint, and voice recognition is gaining traction, with Hertz emerging as the latest company to incorporate it into its daily operations.