Driving the New Miata Cup Race Car
Like the fourth leg of the Olympic Flame, the torch is passed to the latest and all-new Mazda Miata. Yes, there’s also an MX-5 in its name, but does anyone outside the inner circles call it that? It’s OK to say Miata, Mazda. It’s not a jacked-up 4WD or ground-pounding Corvette machomobile. Neither was the MGB or the Alfa Giulietta Spider. It’s a roadster, the all-time best-seller, and the only one still true to the classic tradition of agility and finesse. Of driving more by thought than muscle.
We’re at Streets of Willow, a place I know better than my own bedroom. Way better, in fact, with all four generations of Miatas in race prep, warmed up in a neat row-to-go. Courtesy of Mazda, I’ve got a delicious opportunity to wring them out back-to-back.
I’ve got Miata history. It was my honor in 1992 to win the very first national championship for a Miata, in Showroom Stock C (SSC) at the SCCA Runoffs at Road Atlanta. But it was a long time before I realized the 1999 NB version was a completely different car. I admit I long believed it was just a headlight change. (I miss the pop-up personality-laden first-gen frog-eyes, I also admit.) And I owned the NC third-gen, daily-driving one last year and have already cavorted at length with the brand-new ND baby at Best Driver’s Car and on “Head 2 Head.”
I’d spent a lot of time autocrossing and racing front-drives in my early days and had never driven a Miata as I spent all night getting my car ready and towing to Roebling Road in Savannah, Georgia, for my first national points race of ’92. We unloaded just in time for the first practice, left the pits, came back around into the rather fast Turn 1, turned in, and promptly spun the car. Welcome to the world of instant steering response! I messed up my careful alignment, but no real damage, fortunately. To my amusement and validation, my Southeast-division front-wheel-driving rival Eric Van Cleef got a Miata and did the exact same thing a year later. Easy on the steering inputs, we learned.
The first-gen Spec Miata 1.6-liter we tried was the same way. A relatively slow, small twist is all that’s needed into the turn, and for the love of god, don’t trail-brake it, too. The first-gen needs NO help changing directions. In fact, your job is to control that rate. Leave your weight forward a tad too long, and you’ll be backward. Very little input is required through the corner. It leans on the rears a bit, about a “one” oversteer. Cornering forces do not eat much speed in a first-gen. The no-ABS brake pedal is delightfully firm and drops the nose instantly, but it feels rear-biased in anything but straight-on decel, probably related to that ultra-quick steering response. Just get back to moderate power early, and all will be well. The cars are quite softly suspended, echoing the characteristic from the street setup. Very small and light for modern production-based racers, first-gens need lots of revs to keep up speed.
Next came the NB second-gen Spec Miata, powered by the 1.8 “big block,” restricted to even out performance with the earlier 1.6. This emphasizes the midrange, making quite a differing power curve. From the driver’s seat, this gen feels heavier and slower to respond, which translates to more stable. In fact its race spec is only 125 more pounds. It’s a much easier car to handle in the entry phase; the edge is not so ragged. Gen two is less frenetic by Miata standards. About a one in 10 understeer. Both cars feature the sweet-snickety gearbox.
Generation three was an MX-5 Cup car, a bit bigger and a lot more powerful. It felt more mature, less like a leaping puppy. It was more stiffly suspended, as well. It also had ABS and lost a lot of braking grip if I pushed hard enough to activate it. Still light and quick by most normal road-car standards. My car was understeering heavily, to the point that I pitted to have the guys take a look. The front tires were shot. Still, I know the cars have enough adjustment to swing the balance from under- to oversteer, as the driver wishes. This car makes surprising speed, as did my own street car when I ran it on track. It is that powerful potion of low mass and high cornering forces. However, within the rather tight confines of the Streets of Willow, the lighter early Miatas still held up well.
The all-new car is a surprising and refreshing step backward, unlike almost every other road car I can think of: smaller and lighter. The 2016 ND has returned toward its first-gen roots but with way more power. But not more than the third gen, something that raised the eyebrows of many of us Miata enthusiasts. I remember the first time I saw the specs, and the hp was not announced at the big intro. Ten horsepower LESS? Ah, but a much fatter midrange for the real world. And Holy Colin Chapman, 148 pounds less junk in trunk! How on earth did they lighten that flyweight by so much? Aluminum and special high-tensile steel, shorter overhangs (the Miata had overhangs?), and lots of engineering creativity. While everything else on the market expands, the best-defined sports car shrinks. Back toward the original light and agile feel that can be found almost nowhere else.
On track, the very strong front returns; this chassis responds with the immediacy of the first gen. Drive this car with your pinkies out. Light on the wheel. Fingertip touch, instant response, low effort. It does not need or want much trail-braking. And even in this race car version, there is still a distinct sensation of body roll, emanating primarily from the rear. This is a Miata tradition and is enhanced a little by the raised rear roll center and lowered front. The ND certainly knifes into the apex like nothing else.
At the same time, the rear hooks up strongly once the load has transferred to the outside. The new car has a more refined feel and more structural rigidity in spite of the reduced mass. More engineering magic. Technology marches on but not with increasing size. This fits-like-a-glove sensation is very rewarding from the driver’s seat. There is a strong confidence from the sense of control. Like a good horse that is not threatening to throw you.
The straight-line performance in deceptively fast due to the broad torque curve, especially in the lower gears where the power-to-weight ratio provides its greatest benefits. There is much more speed in holding a higher gear, which also lowers lap times with fewer shifts. And speaking of that, shifting is even more slick and quick. It has gone from snick to schlip. So light, fast, and precise. Terrific.
Through all four Miata episodes, the inherent behavior remains. The latest and greatest gen is also by far the fastest around a circuit. It races with fingertip finesse. This newest Miata MX-5 Cup car will add to the racing enjoyment of its ultra-competitive series. In today’s world, it feels like a lithe and athletic gymnast in a gym full of muscle-bound heavy lifters.