“The answer is always Miata.”
So goes the common turn of phrase in the car enthusiast community.
I can’t begin to recount how many times I had heard this phrase when discussing the inevitable performance/value proposition in the modern sports car market. Cheaper to buy and own than a German or Italian counterpart, with all the smiles per miles. Yet despite decades of automotive enthusiasm, and a stable of more than twenty-five cars owned (only a few at a time mind you), a number of high performance driving events experienced, and yes – even an open mind – I had never so much as sat in one.
Definitely a glaring omission on my admittedly meager automotive CV, it was one I was eager to rectify. So when I got the call from Mazda Motorsports about an opportunity to try out the Global MX-5 Cup Car, I naturally jumped at the chance.
The 2018 Mazda Miata MX-5 is still very much the lightweight, affordable sports car Mazda has been producing since the model’s introduction in 1989, but with the natural development and engineering that comes in thirty some-odd years of manufacture. And like its previous generations, Mazda sponsors a single-model club racing series, known as the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup. The concept behind the Global MX-5 Cup series is simple. It allows drivers to compete with each other in cars prepped to the same specifications, meaning that driving skill, not budget, is paramount.
It should be noted that the Mazda MX-5 Cup car is a dedicated racecar for a dedicated series, meaning that they are fully caged, fully track-optimized vehicles that aren’t allowed on public roads. They are specially prepared for the Cup Series to be competitive against other MX5s, but are often used by owners outside the single-model series.
And that’s what I was invited to drive – my first time ever in a Mia...er...MX-5. I got to drive a racecar.
Now, this wasn’t my first outing on a race track, though it was my first outing at the beautiful Monticello Motor Club (see sidebar), but there is definitely something moderately intimidating about strapping on a helmet and HANS device and contorting oneself through the roll cage and into the driver’s seat of a purpose-built race car that gets me every time. Intimidating and absolutely invigorating, that is. Short of being an astronaut, this is definitely what I want to do when I grow up.
Despite my enthusiasm, past experience and conventional wisdom suggest that the first time you drive an unfamiliar vehicle you should probably drive it cautiously and gradually increase your speed only as you grow more comfortable. Even with sub-200 horsepower, racing slicks are racing slicks, and since the laws of physics have been known not to apply on racetracks, I set out with my professional instructor cautiously. I was fully aware that should my enthusiasm to get the better of me, I could very easily wind up in an undesirable position.
What I was shocked – and ultimately pleased – to learn, was that despite all of my unfamiliarity with the chassis, the motor, even the track itself, the MX-5 was NOT trying to kill me. Instead, it was forgiving, fun, and sensible – as sensible as a purpose-built racing machine can be, that is.
The transmission is manual for now, but a paddle-shift sequential gear box is currently being developed by Long Road Racing for the track-day crowd and anyone competing in the Series will continue to row their own gears. It was easy to get the hang of and offered no drama between shifts. The brakes are exceptional, and the handling of the chassis and suspension incredibly neutral. I’m not hyperbolizing when I say I became entirely comfortable flinging it around the track after only a few hot laps. I’m no Paul Newman, and this is coming strictly from the perspective of an enthusiast with only moderate track experience, and never in a purpose-built single series racecar.
At $58,900, entry into the world of Global MX-5 Cup car ownership is squarely within the range of reason when compared to other factory-supported racing series. The enthusiasm of the other owner/drivers I met at the track was tangible, and the personalities entirely grounded. The people who buy these cars are clearly in it for the fun – and for the chance to improve their skills as drivers. The competitive element is entirely approachable and offers additional opportunities for amateurs to compete on a national scale should they so desire (with cash prizes and sponsorships to boot!).
The result of this experience has left me entirely impressed, not only with the incredible car, instruction, and facility that were made available to me – but by the lengths to which Mazda Motorsport has gone to make the entire experience of buying and campaigning a race car approachable and affordable to mere mortals.
Without question, the Global MX-5 Cup program is one of – if not the – best value in amateur motorsport, and I’d highly recommend anyone looking to try club racing to give it a go.
It seems the answer to the question should always be Miata.
James Lamdin is the Founder of Analog/Shift, a leading vintage watch retailer based in New York City. He is also a freelance contributor to a number of automotive and horological publications.
Sidebar 1: MONTICELLO MOTOR CLUB
Located about two hours north of Manhattan in upstate New York lies the Monticello Motor Club, a private, full service motorsports park for area enthusiasts. Featuring a 4.1-mile long road course designed by champion racer Brian Redman, skid pad, car storage and maintenance facilities, clubhouses, dining facilities and galleries, MMC also offers driver instruction from world-class drivers, a karting track, and a similarly impressive off-roading playground with available ATVs.
Opened ten years ago, Monticello Motor Club puts focus on motorsports above all, while offering five-star services you’re more likely to find at an exclusive golf resort than a racetrack. Despite the luxurious accommodations and bucolic rural surroundings, members of MMC are also enthusiasts first and foremost. They are entirely approachable and as friendly as any group of car guys. The MX-5 Cup experience provided my first experience with MMC as well, but it certainly won’t be my last.
Sidebar 2: BUDGET RACEWEAR
In the high-stakes world of international motorsports, drivers and enthusiasts alike can be seen sporting some of the world’s most recognized timepieces both on and off the racetrack. Names like Daytona, Autavia, and Mille Miglia dominate the spotlight. But just because you’ve got high-octane blood doesn’t mean you have to spend a mint for a proper motoring enthusiast’s timepiece. Much like the value proposition of the Mazda MX-5 Cup Racers, these four timepieces offer a winning combination of style, quality, and affordability, all for under $5,000.
AUTODROMO GROUP “B” BRACELET MODEL ($695+)
Autodromo burst on to the micro-brand scene about six years ago, and has subsequently wowed consumers with intricately designed and beautifully packaged timepieces with a definitive automotive bent. This new release, a follow-up to the original 2015 Group B, now features a removable steel bracelet, further paying homage to the bonkers rally drivers and that indisputable 1970s and 1980s style.
FREDERIQUE CONSTANT VINTAGE RALLY HEALEY CHRONOGRAPH ($2,795+)
Classic design language and an appreciation for the golden era of sports car racing are what this ongoing limited series from Frederique Constant has in spades. Entirely under the radar, the Vintage Rally Healey Chronograph is available in several colors. The company is a long-time sponsor of vintage racing events in Europe, giving it additional “street” cred.
TAG HEUER FORMULA I ($1,000+)
The Formula I is the watch that essentially “saved” TAG Heuer (née Heuer) from the dark times of the 1970s. Introduced in the 1980s with a quartz movement, these now-iconic watches were the point of entry into watch appreciation for numerous racers, enthusiasts, and even the occasional watch journo!
TUDOR FASTRIDER BLACK SHIELD ($4,925+)
While better known in the U.S. market for their continually evolving Heritage line, Tudor hasn’t shied away from development of more modern designs and materials. The Fastrider Black Shield pairs an automatic chronograph movement in a thoroughly contemporary package, featuring a ceramic case and bezel at an attractive price point!