Payne: At speed in (wee) Mazda Miata Cup racer
Fielding an IndyCar for the season costs about $6 million. If that sounds too rich, Mazda has a deal for you.
For $58,900 you can go racing in a race-prepared Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup car.
The Cup car is based on Mazda’s adorable little $25,790 MX-5 Miata production sports car, now in its fourth generation. Since its inception in 1989, the Miata has anchored Mazda’s sporty brand, sold more than a million cars and introduced thousands of motorheads young and old to motorsports.
With the more expensive Cup toy, Mazda is most interested in that latter stat as it sucks new recruits into the racing wars. Master the entry-level MX-5 Cup series and Mazda will give you a seat in a Formula F2000 car. Continued success will take you further up the racing ladder to Indy Lights Mazda racer where graduates go on to pro racing jobs like driving Mazdas’a RT24-P Daytona Prototype that carved up Belle Isle this June.
Or you can keep your day job and be a weekend Miata jockey in some of the most entertaining racing on the planet.
Your entree is a stripped MX-5 modified for racing by Long Road Racing. The North Carolina race shop takes a fresh Miata, filets it, strips it of all interior comforts and sound-deadening materials — then bolts in a roll cage and racing seats. Add racing slicks and shocks, bake in 15 more horsepower from engine tuning and — voila! — Cup racer.
The production Miata is already the tightest squeeze of any production car on the market. The Cup model was doubly tight for your 6-foot-5 scribe. Screw me in and before I even turn the key I’m stuffing the easy-stow ragtop in the boot. Otherwise, my head is in the roof.
The Cup car may have jettisoned the soft top, but in its place is a full roll cage that could keep great white sharks at bay. I enter through a small side cage opening that is then immediately sewn up with a window net.
Knees in my teeth, helmet wedged under the cage, elbows in net, I then put on the steering wheel — removable so that I could get my size 15 flippers down the wheel well in the first place. And I thought my wee Porsche 906 was a tight fit.
Mazda could market the MX-5 Cup as a cure for claustrophobia. There’s no better place to be.
At M1 Concourse in Pontiac, the Cup is immediately familiar as a Miata on steroids. Fling the rear-wheel driver through corners, then mash the throttle on exit. Too much throttle? No problem. The short wheelbase car is predictable, easy to correct at full slide. The sport exhaust howls, but the 15 extra ponies are barely noticeable in the small-displacement, 2.0-liter mill.
More noticeable are the BF Goodrich slicks which gives the minnow a much bigger handling envelope that the street car. Rotate the Miata into fast Turn 7 at the end of the back straight and the slicks bite, creating more confidence with each lap as I danced on the limit.
It’s what makes the Miata such a perfect entry-level race car and the most raced sports car on the planet. That confidence also allows Mazda Cup cars to race just inches from one another in Cup racing, where drivers are separated by tenths of a second and drafting is essential.
Cup grad Tristan Nunez, who piloted the Mazda prototype to third place at Belle Isle the following weekend, gave me a taste of this kind of racing (stuffed in the passenger seat, I had even less room than the driver’s side) with three of his peers around M1. Playfully, they tucked behind one another, drafting down the straight, popping out for a pass under braking. Fun, fun, fun.
In real Cup racing, however, the gaps would be narrower, passes made under more duress. The lead pack is often an eight-car train. That means a lot of fender rubbing. So add a couple thousand dollars a weekend for repairs and new rubber to that $60,000 investment. Serious drivers will want to turn their car over to a racing shop — Long Road will do — to make sure you ring every tenth out of your car on race day.
If that sounds like too much coin, then Mazda still has a deal for you: Just go to www.MazdaMotorsports.com and buy parts — roll cage, limited-slip, brakes — to transform your own production MX-5. So you can commute to work then terrorize M1 (or Gingerman or Grattan or an autocross parking lot) on weekends.
Racing is a drug. And the Miata is your gateway.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup race car
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car
Power plant: 2-liter, dual overhead-cam 4-cylinder
Power: 170 horsepower
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, NA
Weight: 2,230 pounds (about 100 lbs. lighter than production MX-5)
Fuel economy: NA
Highs: Sticky BF Goodrich slicks; 15 more horses
Lows: Tight fit for six-footers; seriously addictive