Four Times a Racer: Driving Every Mazda MX-5 Miata Race Car

Inside the cockpit of the all-new MX-5 Miata Global Cup car, I cinch down the shoulder harnesses until I have trouble breathing. I feel the usual cocktail of warring emotions that accompany the first drive of an unfamiliar race car. Exhilaration. Wariness. Anticipation. Anxiety. But as I try to focus on the racetrack in front of me, one thought flashes repeatedly in my mind like an annoying Internet pop-up ad.

I sure hope Mazda hasn’t screwed this up.

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Ever since Mazda introduced the Miata for 1990, the MX-5 has been the sports car for the masses, beloved for its simplicity, purity, affordability, and fundamental goodness. Nearly a million MX-5s have been sold, making the Miata the most popular roadster in history. More than 3,000 have been turned into race cars, prompting John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports, to call the Miata “the most raced car on the planet.”

“Thankfully, no, Mazda didn’t screw it up. Its new Cup car marries contemporary sophistication with the honesty of the original Miata.”

Two-seaters are never going to generate huge profits, and revenue from grassroots motorsports has only a minimal effect on the bottom line of an automaker as large as Mazda. Still, racing is so essential to the Miata’s core that three preproduction models of the fourth-generation Miata, known internally as the ND, were shipped to Long Road Racing in Statesville, North Carolina. There, owner Glenn Long and his son, Tom, a longtime Miata racer, transformed the street machine into the race car that will replace the NCs next season in MX-5 Cup races around the world.
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Mazda showcased the fruits of its labor at the Streets of Willow Springs racetrack during a brutally hot summer day in Southern California’s High Desert. And I can tell from the moment I roar onto the front straight, scythe through the kink in fourth gear, bury the brakes at the top of the hill, dance through the tight right-hander, and plant the throttle that thankfully, no, Mazda didn’t screw it up. Its new Cup car marries contemporary sophistication with the honesty of the original Miata. As such, it’s a bridge to the past and a way forward for a company experiencing an unexpected renaissance.

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See that manual shifter? As good as Miata gearboxes always have been, this one is even better, with throws so direct you’ll swear you can feel the cogs meshing. The interior is roomier than in the past, fitting drivers up to 6 feet 4 inches.

Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Mazda guy. I owned a pair of RX-7s back in the day, and I race a first-gen MX-5, so I’ve been salivating at the thought of sampling Mazda’s latest track-day toy. But the biggest reason why I’m braving the heat at Willow Springs is that Mazda has rented the tight, narrow track to give journalists a unique opportunity to test all four gen­erations of racing Miatas back-to-back.

Although I was tempted to go straight to the dessert course and sample the ND, I decided it would be more educational to start with the first of the Miatas, a bright-yellow 1990 NA owned by Mazda PR chief Jeremy Barnes, who races it in a class known as Spec Miata. It’s basically a stock Miata with a gutted interior, roll­cage and other safety gear, larger wheels and tires, and aftermarket-but-specified springs and shocks.

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The new Cup car builds on three generations of momentum. The original and second-gen remain extremely popular among club racers.

The Spec Miata class grew like a weed in the late 1990s after club racers Shannon McMasters and David del Genio talked to Mazda Motorsports manager Steve Sanders about creating an affordable, durable race car. “They put the idea in our mind,” Sanders recalls, “and we put the parts together.” By the early 2000s, Spec Miata was the most popular class in club racing—no other class came close—and it continues to thrive today, allowing NA- and NB-era cars to compete.

“Durable, cheap, and like a frisky puppy on the track, the original Spec Miata is the elemental sports car.”

A few laps in Barnes’ ride is all it takes to understand why Spec Miatas have been playthings for countless club racers and springboards for so many aspiring pros. Light, agile, and magical under braking, it’s like a frisky puppy, full of energy and eager to play—an elemental sports car built for Everyracer. Power? Not so much. Barnes’ car makes 115 horsepower on a good day, but unlike a lot of other “momentum” cars, the Miata responds well to being tossed around. In fact, hurling it into corners is the only way to make time, which is why it’s such a hoot to flog around a racetrack.

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The second-gen car, introduced in 1999, is the puppy without the baby fat. The NB at Willow, also prepped to Spec Miata regulations, is owned by Ken Saward, manager of Mazda Design, which is fitting considering he was the lead designer of the street car. The biggest plus of the NB is its 1.8-liter engine, which produces substantially more midrange grunt than the 1.6 in the early NA. After a stint in Barnes’ car, Saward’s Miata seems to launch off corners like a speedboat. The downside is 125 pounds of extra heft. Except for acceleration, everything takes longer in the NB, and the car demands a smoother, more disciplined driving style. Recent history has shown that this is the car to beat in Spec Miata. But if I was lapping just for funzies, I’d still prefer an NA model. (Did I mention I own and race one?)
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The third-gen car is quicker but less satisfying.

When the third-generation NC debuted in 2006, it matured into a big dog incorporating modern electronic wiz­ardry and a whopping (by MX-5 standards) 170 horsepower, but the original’s purity was hidden under the extra weight. The NC showcased at Willow Springs is a proven winner that’s survived countless endurance races, often in the hands of hapless drivers, so I’m expecting to be wowed when I wriggle through the car’s rollcage. But the cockpit is so cramped there’s no room for my left elbow. The power steering is ridiculously light, and turn-in is almost disorientingly aggressive. Faster is always better when it comes to race cars, and the NC makes its older siblings look like slowpokes. Still, it’s a distant third in the smiles-per-miles competition.
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In designing the new ND, Mazda corrected several of the NC’s flaws. Besides sporting more attractive body-work, it also benefits from a higher roll center at the rear and a lower one at the front, which improves cornering and braking stability. Reviews of the street car have been almost universally glowing.

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At the same time, Mazda overhauled its race-car program. When the Spec Miata class got off the ground, most cars were put together by guys who planned to race them personally. They started with cheap donor cars and retrofitted them with parts bought directly from Mazda. But over the years, professional builders got into the game, and prices skyrocketed as they improved every conceivable component. (While decent Spec Miatas sell for about $10,000, top-of-the-line cars can go for as much as $35,000.) Meanwhile, the MX-5 Cup—a pro series for NC Miatas—has seen its share of cheating despite Mazda’s best efforts to level the playing field.

So now, in the interest of maintaining parity, Mazda decided to have all left-hand-drive ND race cars built at Long Road Racing and sold with sealed engines, transmissions, and engine control units. Fifty Miatas are on the way to Glenn Long’s shop in North Carolina, which is soliciting vendors for the brake pads, shocks, and tires. But the ND at Willow Springs is very close to the car Mazda will sell to the public for use in the Cup class.

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When I climb in, I’m gratified by how roomy the cockpit is. Long says it was designed to accommodate drivers up to 6 feet 4 inches tall, and it’s by far the most comfortable of the four cars on hand. It’s also graced with the best gearbox, with short throws so direct and decisive you can almost feel the cogs meshing. For years, Miata fanboys have boasted that MX-5s had the most satis­fying transmissions this side of formula cars. These days, formula cars come with sequential shifters, so you could argue the ND has the finest H-pattern ’box in production.

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With 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque, the new car is less powerful than the old one, but it’s roughly 150 pounds lighter. The race car should get three or four more ponies and is lighter still—a mere 2,100 pounds less fuel and driver—so it accelerates more briskly and feels more nimble when changing direction. With spring rates roughly three times as stiff as the street car, mid-corner stick is predictably impressive. At Streets, the car suffered from persistent power-on understeer, but Tom Long explained after my session that he and his father dialed out most of the oversteer to prevent journalists at the event from getting into trouble. The biggest revela­tion is the anti-lock brake system, which kicks in so seamlessly that it’s virtually imper­ceptible. “You just plant your foot on the brake pedal and let the computer take care of things,” Long said.
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The car is everything a race car ought to be—easy to drive fast, rewarding to drive at the limit, and more exciting than a James Bond marathon. The downside? Well, there’s the cost. Mazda is selling the race car for a turn-key price of $53,000 (some 60 deposits are being taken thus far). This may be, as Doonan says, “the best value in sports-car racing,” and it’s a bargain by racing standards, but it ain’t cheap. In addition to the MX-5 Cup series, Mazda is trying to find classes for it in SCCA and NASA club-racing competition. Even so, it’s hard to imagine a car that expensive becoming a grassroots sensation and recapturing the lightning in a bottle generated by the Spec Miata series cars.

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Mazda is coming off consecutive years of record profits as its fuel-efficient Skyactiv engines and on-target crossovers find a global audience. In the grand scheme of things, the Miata race car isn’t a make-or-break product, but as Doonan puts it, “The car embodies everything that our brand stands for.” I guess I should have known that Mazda wasn’t going to screw up the Miata. Now, all enthusiasts should hope that the market doesn’t screw Mazda

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