After an exciting weekend of racing a vintage 1.6 liter Spec Miata, a whole week and four days passed before the folks at Mazda Motorsports invited me to Thermal Club, a road racing circuit in the California Desert for another interesting ride — the current MX-5 Cup racing car. So, fresh out of the Spec Miata seat and fresh in my memory, I had the rare opportunity to drive and compare the most modern Miata race car to the original. The MX-5 Cup is purpose built, from the factory, to contest the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup Series Presented by BF Goodrich. The car is also Pirelli World Challenge, SCCA and NASA eligible — out of the box and right from the factory.
Despite being a “Spec” series, the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup Presented by BF Goodrich might be one of the world’s most crazy-competitive race groups. Most weekends, anyone can tune in either on Mazda’s website or Facebook live. It’s definitely worth a gander too! The entertainment aspect is amazing as the Cup cars race on some of North America’s best tracks, and swap the lead more frequently than underwear on folks with irritable bowel syndrome. Side mirrors are the most constant victim, as the cars run close — as in millimeters-close. Needless to say this is not a series for the timid — but for ballsy men and women, hopeful of climbing to the next rung of the Mazda Road to Indy or the Mazda Road to 24 scholarship programs. It’s no wonder that I actually watched the last race, from Barber Motorsports Park, on my phone, in the pew at church, waiting for Mass to begin… It’s that exciting.
Thirty years on makes some difference, but the MX-5 Cup car had many of the aspects of the original Spec Miata that I liked. Mazda has built 140 copies of this version — and it actually appears in the dealer brochure with its street-centric brethren. They have just about sold out of the first run — for good reason, no less. They have wicked handling, great acceleration, and pure race car feel. Much like the original, if you can run fast in one of these, you can run fast in just about anything. Further, if you can win amongst the hard-charging snarling pack of Battery Tender Cup cars, you have the potential to be a winner just about anywhere! Mazda recognizes this, and this is the reason that the first rung on the ladder is as competitive as the last.
The MX-5 Cup option comes complete — ready to race — sans a driver’s seat (everyone has their preference, they found) for the entry-level price of $58,900. See if you can find a brand new race car anywhere else for that price! Equipped with a SKYACTIV Aluminum 2.0 Liter, 16-valve Straight Four that makes 155+ horsepower in a car weighing 2130 lbs, it is quick and agile. Like its predecessor, it too runs on 91 pump gas — which at a race track is about $8 per gallon less than the 101 race fuel! There are numerous ECU tweaks and a sealed Motorsports 6-speed manual gearbox. Needless to say the corners came up much faster than with the original, but the handling qualities that I enjoyed so much in the prior weekend was apparent in the current steed.
Out at the desert oasis that is The Thermal Club, outside of Palm Springs, California, I suited up once again, and squeezed into the surprisingly roomy cockpit. The track is nearly brand new — and while the weather is hot — the clubby atmosphere is very apparent! The pit lane has a spread of snacks, water, assorted cold drinks, coffee service — and a sitting area with nicely appointed outdoor couches and padded chairs. Very gangsta! Not like any pit lane I had ever been. It was more like a wealthy Sheik’s dessert camp. The comfort level did little for my typical anxiety for getting into a strange car on a strange circuit — as per my type-A condition. Several teams were there along with us, testing their various race and high-performance street rides.
I also had some good coaching and help. Under the pit-side supervision of Rolex 24 Champion, Kenton Koch, allowed for the gathering of feel and speed. We went out to “learn” the track together. With Kenton behind the wheel of Mazda’s new “Targa-styled” Miata RF, he showed the salient points of the track, including turn-ins, apexes and exits. The track itself was sporty. A medium length straightaway leads to a slight right hander, into a carousel. The whole complex is taken in Fourth with slight braking before the entry to turn one. The flowing carousel is taken on the inside with a mid-track exit, prior to straight-line braking and a down shift for a medium right-hander onto a longer straight, where you will hit top speed. I hit about 115, right to the rev limiter, not making the upshift to Fifth with some slight late braking into another flowing right and left complex, before banging it down a gear for a tighter left.
Back on the throttle for a quick blast, then heavy braking and a blip to Second for the left hand hairpin. The wide exit and back into Third gear at the limiter then sets you up for a quick left-right chicane and the shift to Fourth at the exit. Now comes the part of the track where I was particularly aware of potential mistakes — and the possible bending of the car: Slight braking in Fourth leads into a tighter right to left complex with guardrails and plastic k-rail through the whole thing. Even Kenton warned that this could potentially be a place for trouble. My potential lap times were slower just because I pussy-footed it through here at about 6/10ths. Once through the “trouble complex” the road opened up again to a blind left-to-right series in fourth which then ended up at the final corner, a decreasing radius left hander back onto the straightaway past the pits. It was a very nice technical layout for truly feeling the car, though not for top speed.
At Auto Club, a couple weeks before, I was told to run “eleven-tenths” and to race to win. I managed to pull one race win of the three races that weekend, but unfortunately became a head case whilst leading the final trophy race. Now was a little bit of a different story. Like most of the race cars I test, there is a certain “self-control” aspect of running about eight-tenths. This strategy gives a solid feel for the car without taking unnecessary risks — or being what we call in auto writer lingo: “That Guy.” For reference, check out YouTube video with the journalist who wrecked a Camaro SS Mule on Belle Isle at a GM press event. I hear he is now a Wal-Mart greeter hoping to be promoted to bakery soon.
The modern car is very nicely laid out. Behind the suede steering wheel is an AIM dash and data acquisition unit which displays all the pertinent info. This one also has a full fire system and not much else you need to go fast. After each of the three sessions I did in the car, coach Kenton Koch plugged a laptop into the AIM unit — which had a data interface on the passenger-side dash. He was able to look at every inch of what I covered and provide great analysis and feedback. So much so, that his advice on “keeping the car in Fourth through the carousel and chicanes” improved me ten whole seconds per lap by the second session.
The power band is lower on the spectrum than the older 1.6, but so is the redline at 6800. Like most small bore roadsters, the best way to go fast is to keep the revs up — I got it to the limiter quite a few times. In reality, this is where the best shifts are made to carry momentum in the longer sections of the track.
Fast I went. A solid 25 laps in the MX-5 Cup car was a great experience. It is easy to see how this has become the go-to learning tool for so many racing stars, like J.R. Hildebrand, Zach Veech, Kenton Koch, Tom Long, Drake Kemper and Joel Miller. Most of the sports car stars running today have had wheel time in a Miata — or competed successfully in the MX-5 Cup series. The barrier to entry proves pretty low when an up-and-coming driver can get in one of these cars and compete in a pro-series on a shoe-string budget, compared to the other crazy-money ways to go racing. This is probably why the Miata itself is the single most raced marque in the entire world — on any given weekend.