The Next Generation

The Next Generation

SportsCar Magazine, June 2020

Mazda’s Spec MX-5 package for the NC Miata should make for economical fun in SCCA Road Racing’s Super Touring Lite – so I built one to find out.

In January 2001, I traveled to Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., to photograph a new class of racecar for SportsCar. This was the first Spec Miata I had seen, a lovely little white NA prepared by Larry Oka Motorsports. The class was just beginning to take off, and while it was gathering momentum quickly, few might have predicted that it would become one of the most popular classes in SCCA Road Racing and beyond, even spawning a pro series and springboarding many drivers to professional careers.

Nineteen years later I was registered for the first Spec MX-5 Challenge race with the new specification for third-generation, NC-model MX-5s, to be held, coincidentally, at Willow Springs. Alas, that race was postponed due to COVID-19 and social distancing but, fortunately, I had already shaken the car down at a couple of SCCA  U.S. Majors Tour race weekends and had a pretty good handle on how the package works.

Why Spec MX-5?
The first thing to know about Spec MX-5 is that Mazda Motorsports says it’s not intended to replace Spec Miata. As Mazda Motorsports Specialist for Technical Development Josh Smith, who was responsible for coming up with and testing, in conjunction with Panic Motorsports, the specs for the car, notes: “We have no incentive and no reason to take from one pool and add it to another. We’re trying to grow the number of Mazda racers, not just cannibalize our own.”

In my case, I’m moving from one class to another, with the same car. My own personal reason for switching my car to Spec MX-5 configuration was competition. A little background: My 2006 MX-5 started out as part of the Mazda press fleet when the NC was launched. The previous owner bought it form Mazda and converted into an MX-5 Cup car, racing it in a few MX-5 Cup events a year as well as some SCCA races. Having raced and enjoyed SportsCar’s project MX-5 in 2006, I jumped when offered the opportunity to buy it. I raced the car first in STL for a year, then converted it to Touring 4 specs simply because I thought I would be more competitive there.
I raced the car in T4 for three years. But in that time, in Southern California we went from about nine T4 cars in a Majors race to one. Trophies and checkered flags are nice to have on display, but no fun to “earn” when there’s no one to race against. Without selling it and buying a new car, STL was my best option. And while Dany Steyn has proven an NC MX-5 can win National Championships, I wasn’t prepared to invest the time and money that he has put in to build a winning machine. The Spec MX-5 configuration in STL seemed like a much more cost-effective way to have a reasonably competitive STL car for someone with no realistic Runoffs victory aspirations.

David Daughtery, though, does have realistic national championship expectations; he’s got 10 of them, most in Showroom Stock B and many of those in Miatas, and along with John Heinricy, he’s one of the most successful racers of stock or near-stock production vehicles in SCCA history. He’s building his own Spec MX-5, and as a member of the Club Racing Board, has every intention of seeing it become its own class should it get the numbers, and he believes it will.

“I think it will be a fun class. It’s got a little more power [than Spec Miata] and the engines should be pretty darn even,” he explains. “I was one of the first people to go to the NB Miata, and I absolutely loved it; it was like an extension of your body. I loved driving them and racing them. I was on the forefront of the Spec Miata pro stuff with Jim Daniels. My biggest gripe about them was they weren’t very equal, and that’s my biggest gripe about Spec Miata now, that there are those who have and those who don’t have. I believe this new class will all but eliminate that.”

And despite Mazda’s intention to not cannibalize Spec Miata, some SM racers will surely find Spec MX-5 attractive. Todd Launchbaugh is one of those. Together with friend Wes Mollno, he found the timing right to sell his recently refreshed SM for a nice price, and both had Spec MX-5s built by Winding Road Racing in Austin. Winding Road has been at the forefront of Spec MX-5 and created, with Todd Lamb and Atlanta Speedwerks, the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series. That series began with refurbished Skip Barber school/race cars, and is now evolving into the new spec.

“Todd Lamb told me about this series when he started it a couple of years ago with Winding Road, and I’ve been telling Wes for years this is the next step,” says Launchbaugh. “It’s not going to be much more costly and we’re going to get more power. I think the economics between building a Spec Miata and  Spec MX-5 are going to be less than 10 grand. Bottom line is it’s a natural progression from Spec Miata, and it’s a small jump in cost to build for a big jump in horsepower and a more modern car.”

The Specs
“We created a racecar based on four pillars – affordability, tech-ability, reliability and really fun to drive,” explains Mazda Motorsports Manager of Business Development David Cook. “But the car and spec components are only a portion. The right support program for the racers and for the shops, to get everyone behind this working in the same direction, is key.”

Cook’s statement reflects one big difference in Spec MX-5 vs. Spec Miata: SM was developed by racers, using readily available, off-the-shelf parts. Spec MX-5 was developed by Mazda Motorsports with a clear goal (aside from selling parts and having more Mazda racers) and many of the parts were developed for the car by its partners to meet that goal.

Much of the Spec MX-5 components are based on the old NC MX-5 Cup platform. That series raced with the cars (along with a second class for the similar, but slightly different, Skip Barber cars) for 10 years until it was replaced with the single-supplier, ND-based Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car. That means there are a lot of existing cars out there – some of them have found homes in STL or T4, but others have been sitting idle. The springs, swaybars, cold air intake, header and exhaust are carryover from that class, “because they worked really well on the car,” says Smith. “The biggest thing we’ve done is put a proper shock package tailored to the spring rates under the car.”

For that, Mazda Motorsports turned to its new partner for SM shocks, Penske Racing Shocks, which developed a single-adjustable, tamper-proof shock for the class. On the drivetrain side, Mazda Motorsports specs a Roush-developed cylinder head and Mahle forged pistons and a new fuel rail. Power is delivered to the wheels through an ACT clutch (OEM is allowed), and there’s a new CR Racing radiator/oil cooler to keep the engine temperature under control, especially in a draft. Pagid brake pads, a new competition wheel from Rays (or OEM) and Toyo RR tires complete the package. Most of those components were chose for durability, reliability and, especially in the case of the cylinder heads, easy to tech.

“We went through some of our old surveys, and we had quite a few inquiries from customers if Mazda would every make a Spec Miata cylinder head or would do a CNC cylinder head; that kind of led us down that path,” explains Smith. “We are trying to build some durability into the cars…. We’ve now been racing this car for 10-plus years, so we’ve learned a lot along the way, and we wanted to utilize all the lessons to make this class something enjoyable for everybody and try to reduce some of the costs in consumption rates and parts.”

The Build
Because I was converting the car from a T4 car – and the optional suspension for the NC MX-5 in T4 is essentially the MX-5 Cup/Spec MX-5 suspension with non-adjustable shocks – the build was pretty straightforward. I enlisted the help of Mark Nichols’ Iron Canyon Motorsports, which has taken care of the car for me and provided trackside support since I bought it; he was assisted by ONV Motorsports. Mynor Barrios had already smoothed out a few body wrinkles and applied a shiny new paint job to the car.

The suspension work was as uncomplicated as it gets, with only a little finesse and doing things in the right order required – the front shock and spring assembly can’t fit through the A-arm with the top mount attached. For the engine, I had the choice of pulling mine and having it built with the Roush cylinder head and Mahle pistons; but having only one good engine, and with Mazda Motorsports offering 20 percent discounts to the first Spec MX-5 customers, getting a turnkey engine from Mazda was the sensible choice. The other engine will be converted when my bank account recovers.

With the engine out, the rest of the stuff – new clutch kit, the new radiator/oil cooler and adapter lines – is pretty easy. Mazda Motorsports was a little light on documentation with the first ones it sent out, so there was a little bit of figuring out to do, but they promise to fix that situation. A couple of items of note … there are two ports in the radiator for a zinc anode and temperature sensor that need to be plugged if you’re not using them, but the plugs are SAE and can be found at Home Depot; and the correct water hose is the one for a 2006-’07 MX-5 without the factory oil cooler.

Mazda Motorsports ran into some supplier bottlenecks, so we didn’t have the engine in for the first Majors race at Auto Club Speedway in January. The engine arrived right after that event; and the ECU flash wasn’t received until just before the Hoosier Super Tour at Buttonwillow. With the engine, the EGR blockoffs need to be installed before the engine goes in and the manifold goes on, because at that point it’s inaccessible. Mazda Motorsports should have a kit to do that now. Also make sure that the fuel rail is installed correctly; things can go very wrong if it’s not.

Altogether, It was about $12,000 in required parts to do the conversion, including the turnkey engine. Labor, of course, will depend on how much of this you’re able to accomplish yourself. And, naturally, with mroe parts required, the cost will be more for someone building a racecar from a street donor.

Launchbaugh bought a donor and shipped it to Winding Road. He says his build cost could have been as cheap as $36,000, but chose some options that will take that higher, such as converting the rear hubs to RX-8 hubs (a durability modification that I haven’t done, although I use the RX-8 hubs on the front), a new seat and new data system. He estimates about $45,000 all-in. One could actually spend that much on an SM, albeit a Runoffs-winner-quality car, so it’s not a huge leap for a new build.

The Result
As far as the actual driving goes, there are two main differences between the car in T4 and Spec MX-5 configuration: the weight and the shocks. The engine power isn’t greatly different (Mazda says a small power bump over a T4 engine, and that’s what the butt dyno suggests). But those other two items make a big difference.

The NC MX-5 minimum weight is at 2745lbs. with the 100lb. penalty for the alternate suspension and a 20lb. penalty for an aftermarket hardtop. The Spec MX-5 minimum weight is 2500lbs., and that’s the weight for the car in STL if it’s prepared 100 percent to the Spec MX-5 rules, including the Toyo tires. My car isn’t there yet – at Buttonwillow I was at 2593. There’s some HVAC stuff that can come out, and the headlights can be replaced with blanks. And the driver needs to drop some weight as well. But that 150lbs. so far is a huge improvement in the feel of the car, especially braking.

The Penske shocks are a huge improvement over the non-adjustable Bilsteins I had in the car, which weren’t valved correctly for the springs. The adjustability is a nice touch, but just having proper shocks in the car feels much better. The last turn at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., is a big, sweeping turn that is the most critical on the circuit, as any momentum lost is given up for nearly a mile of straight and Turns 1 and 2 of the oval before braking for Turn 3. While technically it’s two turns, in practicality, because of an abundance of pavement, it’s really one turn with a minor adjustment in most cars. It’s also very bumpy. But with the Penskes, the car felt far more stable through that section, and I was able to go to full throttle sooner. Being able to dial in some stiffness for a higher-grip track like Buttonwillow Raceway Park is a bonus.

In short, it’s a fun package. And obviously it will be competitive in its own spec class. But for now, the car’s only option in SCCA is STL. We had hoped to see how a top-tier driver competed in one at the VIR Majors and the Willow Springs Majors in March, but COVID-19 ruined that chance. So we have only relative lap times and my own experience to go by.
The car should be capable of lap times pretty close to NC MX-5 Cup times. Comparing some of those with existing track records shows that it would be competitive in STL at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. At Road America, though, the results are likely to be very different.
The horsepower-to-weight ratio isn’t bad compared to Steyn’s – Steyn says he makes about 200hp, and weighs in at 2793lbs., the minimum weight for an MX-5 in STL without ABS. He also has a few hundred more RPMs to play with. But Steyn’s power-to-weight isn’t best-in-class, either, and a true STL car has both aerodynamic advantages and can run a choice of tire. While the spec Toyos are certainly durable and consistent – I made it through two Majors weekends and a day of testing, and the tires would have likely carried me through another test day – they lack the ultimate grip of Hoosier R7s of BFGoodrich R1Ss. Add in the aero downforce and in a fast corner, a Spec MX-5 driver is going to watch a true STL car walk away. In slow corners with hard braking, though, the MX-5 driver might be able to make up some of that.
For myself, while it’s not indicative of anything, I managed a third-place finish at the Auto Club Majors – better than any results I had in T4 in a similar-sized field – and was running third in the Sunday race at the Buttonwillow Hoosier Super Tour when I threw it away with a mistake. In the hands of a good driver, the car has potential, but it’s not likely to carry anyone to a national championship until such time as Spec MX-5 becomes a national class.

The Next Steps
For my car, the next step is to get some weight out and get the car on the one-inch-wider alternate Mazda Motorsports Competition MX-5 Wheel, which according to the testers really helped the car (we planned to have them on the car for Willow Springs). For Spec MX-5 as a class, it’s got pretty good momentum seeing that, as I write this, only one car has turned a wheel in competition. Mazda says 50 kits to build or convert have been sold, meaning 50 cars built or under construction, and it’s preparing the next 50.

“We are one year into executing the strategy to make Spec MX-5 a national, standalone class in both SCCA and NASA,” says Cook. “Our projection is that it will take four years (2023) to achieve critical mass across both sanctioning bodies, which requires adoption across the country. We could have wild success in one part of the country, but until we have success in every part, we won’t have achieved our goals.”

Until such time as it achieves the numbers required, the Spec MX-5 package in STL is an economical way to have a really fun-to-drive racecar. The option to race in the MX-5 Challenge Series, where Mazda Motorsports and its sponsors are offering some pretty big prizes, only adds to the appeal, and the car has been approved in classes in other sanctioning bodies as well. It appears Mazda Motorsports has delivered on its goals in creating the spec; now it’s up to the racers to get on board.

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