We entered the banked straightaway of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California just inside of the Oval’s turn four at about 90 mph. I had built up quite a head of steam in my 1.6 liter race prepped Spec Miata race car through the long left hander — flat in third gear. The bump of changing camber from flat to banked surface had now become familiar as I upshifted to fourth in the redline power band and headed towards the flag stand in the bottom lane. Looking ahead, about four car lengths, was the leader, Mike Allen. A glance in my mirrors revealed a hard charging Jeremy Barnes in third place, right on my bumper.
Using a NASCAR styled technique, I put up my right hand and pointed right, then circled my finger forward. I was not pointing Barnes by, as is sometimes signaled in racing — but asking him to stay on my bumper as I took the high lane — incorporating “the draft.” Barnes, understood and I made the gradual move upward to the higher line. Typically, in our own air, the car would top out around 115 mph around the banking. The g-forces would make a novice want to slightly lift — but I looked deep into the corner and kept my foot in it each lap. Lifting would actually unsettle the car and could prove disastrous.
Barnes stayed on the bumper as the shared air allowed him to stay in place at about half throttle as he pushed me past the leader at about 125 mph. Damn! I was leading the very first Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Mazda Heritage Cup Trophy race! We came down the back straight and banged down two gears into a hard left and right complex — into the infield road course. We then moved to the right, outside lane and braked hard for the entrance to the carousel — a double apex left hander with a wide exit — past the rumble strips. We then upshifted to fourth again, foot flat on the floor through a fast left-right chicane then braked hard and banged the gears down to second for the tight, decreasing radius, right hand hairpin.
Back hard on the throttle for the exit and an almost immediate upshift to third — this needed to be a conscious flick of the wrist as that 2-3 shift had been difficult all weekend. Bam! In it went and back hard on the loud pedal, flat through a tight right-left chicane of pylons leading to a short straightaway under the back straight bridge where several of my friends, and other spectators had gathered to watch the infield and turns one and two of the oval in the distance. The tach read 7600 RPM and I made the shift to fourth right before the telltale “click-clack” of the rev-limiter while moving to the right side of the track to set up for the next corner.
Three sets of pylons on the right warned of the upcoming 90 degree right hander into an immediate left complex. I got on the brakes at the first pylon, downshifted to third and turned into the complex, using the rumble strips a point of reference and the correct line while feathering the throttle. Past the complex, it was back to full throttle for the long left-hander flying back to the main straightaway. Still leading!
Spec Miata has been the largest class in both SCCA and NASA. On any given weekend, as many as 80 cars will show up to contest an event. Dean Case, Mazda North American Press Officer for Motorsports said, “We have sold nearly 3000 Spec Miata kits over the years. Because the second generation Miata, with the 1.8 Liter motor, is much more competitive in these particular races, most competitors lean towards the faster car.”
This leaves numerous 1.6 liter cars being unused, in many cases collecting dust in numerous garages around the United States. Thankfully, the first generation car, at age 27, is now eligible for vintage racing. To be considered “vintage” for race competition, the general cut off is 25 model years. Brand new opportunities exist for these cars, and thanks to the plethora of cars available, competitors wanting to get into racing at a lower budget can enter. For Mazda, they see the right set of circumstances for a new generation of would be racers to participate and learn race-craft. The SVRA was very happy to facilitate the five race Mazda Heritage Cup series during their eighteen race 2017 calendar. The five specific events include Auto Club, now in the history books, Road America, Mid Ohio, Portland International and Virginia International.
To say that the “bang for the buck” factor is “thrilling” might just be the understatement of the year. The cars handle exceptionally, have a relatively bullet proof motor and gearbox — making them very reliable — and parts readily available from Mazda and a few assorted aftermarket retailers. They run on 91 pump gas and after the “kit” install, make about 118 Horsepower in a 2300 pound car. A race-prepped gen one 1.6 liter Spec Miata can be acquired for as little as $7000 and the SVRA entry fee for the race entry is under $300 per event.
To participate, you do need to have an approved racing license, which can be had through a number of racing schools and sanctioning body schools such as VARA University each January. Obviously safety gear is needed as well including a fire suit, boots, gloves, helmet and HANS device. I was fortunate too to have brand new Hoosier OEM Slick tires on my car, which boosted confidence in the corners.
So did I win? No. It was a teachable moment in racing when you start thinking more about the podium, than where you are on the race track. This has happened to many — in many different disciplines. Consider the golfer with a two-stroke lead standing on the 18th tee in the final round of the Masters, who triple bogeys the hole. This was me. I continued to lead around the banked oval, but my head, swimming with visions of grandeur, lost sight of where I was on the track. The difficult left-right onto the infield road circuit proved my achilles heel as I turned in early, adjusted, and found myself having to save the car in the grass. Fortunately, I did save the car from hitting a left hand tire wall and jumped back on the circuit third. The mistake led to other “headcase” moves. Needless to say, driving is one thing, racing sometimes is an entirely different animal.
Did I mention that Spec Miata is a “momentum car”?