Mazda likes to say that on any given weekend, there are more Mazda’s on racetracks in America than any other brand. It’s not an exaggeration. On average more than half of the cars running on tracks are Mazda’s, and most of those are MX-5’s. This shouldn’t be too surprising as the platform lends itself to performance driving and racing – it’s lightweight, balanced, rear-wheel drive, with a bullet-proof engine and easily upgradable suspension. In fact, after it was banned from SCCA competition for endlessly beating everything in it’s class, Mazda and the SCCA started a single-make racing series known as Spec Miata. They offered a standard kit with parts that converted a stock MX-5 into a spec-series racer and have sold over 3,000 kits. That’s a lot of race cars. Now Mazda offers another MX-5 racer based on the new ND (4th gen) chassis. Known as the Global MX-5 Cup car, Mazda intended to not only run it in a single-make racing series to advance the careers of future race drivers, but had the foresight to meet the criteria of other racing series officiated by the likes of FIA, SCCA, NASA, and IMSA as well.
For this project, Mazda partnered with Long Road Racing, in Statesville, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte – racing mecca of the American south. Long Road Racing has done much of the development work and constructs each of the Cup cars for Mazda’s racing clients. Each MX-5 Cup car starts life as a new white MX-5, fresh off the assembly line. Long Road Racing then takes delivery of the cars, removes everything not necessary for racing – the top, carpeting, sound deadening material, stereo, infotainment system – and installs over 250 motorsports-specific parts. By the time all the changes are made and the car is ready to be delivered to it’s eager customer, it’s a highly tuned precision race car. Surprisingly, the weight is about the same as a stock MX-5 fresh off the assembly line.
About the only thing that remains unchanged is the engine. For racing purposes, the engine remains stock and is sealed to prevent competitors from fooling around with the internals and gaining an unfair and illegal advantage. A racing header and exhaust are added, which give the engine about an extra 10-15 hp over the stock car’s 155 hp. What you end up with is a slightly more powerful, race-prepped MX-5.
How different is it from a standard MX-5? Is it faster? Does it handle at all like a stock MX-5? Can any of the racing parts be switched over to a street car? What’s it like to drive? Mazda invited us to come experience it for ourselves at Detroit’s new race track: The M1 Concourse.
The new M1 Concourse lies along the west side of Detroit’s famed Woodward Drive, just north of the ritzy suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Conceived during the recent recession and Detroit’s dark days by an entrepreneur named Brad Oleshansky, it seemed like a crazy idea at the time – secure, private, high-end garage lofts for Detroit’s gearheads and car enthusiasts. But while he was busy laying the groundwork, the economy improved and Detroit became a happening place again. And when the idea was announced to the public, it was quickly embraced by Motor City denizens and Detroit’s newest automotive sports facility was born. A 1.5-mile long track winds between the rows of beautiful garages and it’s tight turns, elevation changes, and short straights are a suitable test of any car’s abilities.
It was on a beautiful, sunny but windy day in June that a handful of journalists arrived at the brand new M1 Concourse for a brief presentation by Mazda Motorsports executives about the new Cup car and Mazda’s passion for and commitment to racing. The point of the MX-5 Global Cup is to find and develop the skills of young racers and help advance their careers. The Global Cup is part of Mazda’s Race to 24 (#MRT24), meaning the 24 Hours of LeMans, and is designed to develop drivers for Mazda’s sports car prototype racing program. It’s a sister series to Mazda’s Race to Indy (#MRTI), which seeks to find and develop talented drivers for Mazda’s USF2000, ProMazda, and Indy Light programs. Over $200,000 in racing “scholarships” are on the line for the MX-5 Global Cup competitors so there’s good incentive to compete.
After the brief presentation, we were taken out to the Cup cars. The big wheels, the big brakes, the full cage, treadless rubber, and the bold racing stripes all combine to make this MX-5 look serious. Two of the cars were open-topped, one had a hard top on it per SCCA spec, and the last car wasn’t a Cup car at all but a street MX-5 convertible with race brakes, race wheels, improved suspension, and Cup car exhaust. Long Road Racing, besides preparing MX-5 Cup cars also modifies street cars with a host of well-matched performance parts to raise the street car’s abilities to another level.
We were then paired up with a professional Cup car driver who would take us for a few fast laps around the M1. Climbing into a Cup car’s caged cockpit with a helmet on is a challenge, especially when you’re 6’1”, 240 pounds, and middle-aged. It’s even more difficult than getting my large self into a standard MX-5, if you can believe it. The racing seats are narrow and have tall legs bolsters, prominent hip and torso bolsters, and a HANS device-like helmet bolsters. Once you slip into those baby’s, you’re not moving, no matter how violent the maneuver. Of course, THEN you have to buckle the 5-point harnesses. One belt comes around from the left side of your hip, one comes around from the right side of your hip, one comes up between your legs, and one comes down off each shoulder. Each belt locks into a circular harness lock,which is incredibly difficult to do in that tight racing seat, and then the straps are cinched down good and tight so your body is incapable of movement. You can still move your arms and legs (somewhat) but your body, for all practical purposes, is now part of the car. Your helmet has about an inch of movement to the right and left before it thumps the cage tubing and that’s about it.
Properly fastened in, the drivers then wound out of the pits, onto the track, and into a scrum in the first corner. Buzzing like an angry swarm of bees, the four cars swapped positions on straightaways, hanging mere inches off each other’s bumpers through tight corners, cutting each other off mid-turn with only inches to spare. You quickly came to understand that not only were these drivers highly talented and attuned to each other, but that these cars were so focused that they were easy to drive at these high speeds on the track. After the first few turns, the driver had my complete trust. His reflexes and responses were perfect. After about 3 laps, I remembered that I get mildly motion sick at high speeds when I’m not driving. After 4 laps I felt slightly disoriented and nauseous. After 5 laps, I began hoping someone in the pits had Dramamine and a sick bag.
Then we pitted to swap passengers. Woozy, I undid the harness and slowly and methodically leveraged myself out of the car’s cage as I watched the waiting journalists climb into the cars for their laps. Except for one car, which still had no passenger. “We’ve got an open seat. Anyone want to go again?” the pit manager asked. Ignoring my queasy stomach, I quickly raised my hand, got the nod, and bolted to the car to begin the process all over again. After slowly and methodically leveraging myself back inside the cage, I struggled to get the harnesses all locked in. After what seemed like 15 minutes (but was actually more like 30 seconds), I managed to cinch the belts in, gave the driver a thumbs up, and the Cup cars all cranked to life and rolled out of the pits again, winding out to redline on their way onto the track.
Watching the rows and rows of garages flashing past as we wound out the engine on one of the short straights, hanging mere inches off the bumper of the car in front of us, I took a few seconds to survey the M1 Concourse. All the buildings were brand new and tastefully designed. Quite a few had construction crews parked out front, finishing the interiors to the owners tastes. I had to admit, this facility was a brilliant idea and perfect in car-mad Detroit. Then, suddenly, all three Cup cars were braking hard and diving into the hairpin, still inches apart, the drivers expertly holding formation. Four more hard and fast laps left me nauseous again but elated at the prospect of driving one. Then, finally, my driver let off the throttle and we drifted into the pits.
Now it was my turn to actually drive one of these, to see how it handles the track, to see how if differs from a street MX-5. As the owner of a suspension-modified MX-5 myself, I was looking forward to the experience. The first thing I noticed is that it’s not any easier to climb into the cage on the driver’s side. But once you’re harnessed into the full-on racing seat, you really don’t see any point in getting out again – especially after you drive it. The view out the windshield is unchanged. The sexy front wheel arches frame your view of the track the roll cage tubing doesn’t affect your line of sight. The standard red Start button on the MX-5 dash is gone.
It has been replaced with a 3-position toggle switch on the dash. Switch it from “Off” to “Power” so the LED racing dash comes to life along with the sound of fans in the engine bay. Push in the clutch and switch it from “Power” to “Start” and the starter cranks the motor to life and settles in at a smooth 750 rpm idle. Snick the six-speed shifter into first, let the clutch out, and roll down the apron onto the track. Nail the throttle and the car picks up speed quickly; not supercar fast but like a slightly more powerful MX-5. Very slightly. Remember, it’s a stock MX-5 engine with less restrictive exhaust and it’s at stock MX-5 curb weight, so it’s not going suddenly throw you back in the seat. Still, the engine feels torquier and more flexible than the older models. It winds out to it’s 6700 rpm redline without any falling off in power. In fact, it feels like the engine could just continue to rev higher and higher, delivering ever more power if they removed the limiter. Consequently, I found myself hitting the rev limiter more frequently than I care to admit. The engine feels that eager and strong.
Into the first corner I slowed, the brakes easily scrubbing off the modest speed I’d achieved. Perfectly modulatable with no grabbiness or lack of bite. Turn in was sharp but intuitive thanks to the suspension and sticky slicks. Back on the throttle and the MX-5 quickly buzzed back up to speed. I wound it out down the short straight, then downshifted for the first corner, lined up along the right side of the track, braked a bit, then dove into the left hand turn. The racing tires stuck like glue and the car sluiced through the corner. On the gas for another straight, a left jink, then a hard right, faster this time, clip the apex, and back on the throttle, down the straight we buzzed like a swarm of angry bees, past rows of garages, into another right handed corner. I didn’t even brake for this one, I just threw the car into it hoping it would stick. The tires strained to hold the car on line at first, then let go a bit. It predictably drifted left of the line before finding it’s grip again and off we went down the next short straight. Another left hander: I let off the gas and let the car glide through it, drifting a few feet wide before grabbing again. Back at the pit straight, we started our second lap.
The second lap was faster as we quickly adjusted to the cars behavior. The behaviors are not any different than a stock MX-5’s so it’s easy to predict how the car will handle any given situation if you have any familiarity with it at all. Despite the slicks, despite the racing brakes, despite the racing suspension, it still handles just like an stock MX-5, but with much, much higher limits. The character of the car is completely intact. What a blast to drive!
By the fifth lap, I was pushing through the corners hard enough to break the tires free, but it was amazing how much speed I was carrying through them. If I got back on the throttle fast enough, the car flew around the track. I never expected an MX-5 to be able to carry this much speed and it was exhilarating. I need an MX-5 like this to drive every day. My daily commute would be SO much more entertaining.
After we pitted, we were given our choice of Mazda street cars to drive around the M1 track. They had a few MX-5 RF’s, an MX-5 GT roadster, a Mazda3, a CX-5, and a CX-9. I’d recently driven the impressive new RF and as curious as I was to see how it handled the track, I snagged the GT convertible instead and headed out to give it a good thrashing. Halfway through the first corner, I was reminded that this was not a Cup car. The brakes did a decent job of slowing the roadster but as I turned in, the car felt like it was about to flop over as the tires squealed loudly and the car slid well wide of my intended line. Okay, apparently my reflexes had already adjusted to the much higher limits of the Cup car. I wound it out down the first straight, lining up with the apex cones and began turning in…and the car once more slid wide of my intended line. It was actually good fun but it required some patience waiting for the tires to reconnect with the asphalt. When they did, the cars slide was arrested and we continued along on our way but the street tires didn’t do it any favors on the track. The lean through corners was more than expected too. It felt a lot softer than the RF I’d driven recently but that RF was a Club edition with a more sport-oriented suspension setup and Bilstein shocks. This GT had the softer, more compliant suspension and none of the poise. After a few noisy but riotous laps in the GT, sliding around corners with abandon, it was time to pit. And that’s where I discovered what might just be the best of all worlds.
Long Road Racing, which builds and prepares all the MX-5 Cup cars for Mazda, also applies it’s extensive knowledge of MX-5 performance dynamics to street MX-5’s as well. Brake kits, suspension kits, exhaust kits – they offer it in part or as a whole package. The demo car they had on hand, a leather interior GT roadster like I’d just driven, had Brembo brakes, race wheels, improved suspension, and full Cup car exhaust. It sounded great going around the track, and looked pretty competent when other journalists were driving it, but it couldn’t keep up with the Cup cars running full race suspension and race slicks. The Cup cars are on a whole different plane of performance. Still, it would probably run circles around the GT roadster I drove. And the factory RF for that matter. Besides the performance improvement, another great feature is that none of the changes made to the car void the Mazda factory warranty. It’s all 100% blessed and approved by Mazda.
But perhaps you want the full-on Cup car, as I do. A turnkey MX-5 Cup car runs about $58,000 fully prepped to tackle the intense competition of the Global MX-5 Cup series or one of several other series officiated by IMSA, FIA, SCCA, or NASA. Which is awesome for a fully-prepped race car. I can’t think of another race car you can buy for that price. Period. They may not be as visceral as a 911 GT3 RS or a Viper ACR but between tires and other consumables, they’re much, MUCH cheaper to run and a heck of a lot of fun. As of June 2017, they’ve built and sold over 100 of them and would love to sell you one as well. It’d make a great weekend track day car, that’s for sure.
Our thanks to Mazda North America for inviting us to learn more about their racing endeavors and for giving us the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the MX-5 Cup car.
Our thanks also to Brad Oleshansky and the M1 Concourse in Detroit for hosting us.