Believe it or not, there is a relationship between the curb weight of the 2016 MX-5 Cup car and the devastating earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear power plant in 2011. It’s also possible that the Fukushima earthquake might have affected the price of the newest generation of Mazda’s venerable roadster.

How are such disparate elements related? Mazda North American Operations vehicle development engineer Dave Coleman explains:

Mazda North American Operations Vehicle Development Engineer Dave Coleman
Mazda North American Operations Vehicle Development Engineer Dave Coleman

“Aluminum is really expensive in Japan because it takes a lot of electricity to refine aluminum, and they shut down all the nuclear power plants after the earthquake and the tsunami, so power is particularly expensive there,” Coleman said. “So, that’s part of why, largely, most of our cars are focused on high-tensile steel instead of aluminum, which is, I think, good.

“Aluminum is kind of an easy out for saving weight, whereas we have focused on the high tensile steel and working on a better structure, a more efficient shape, and get weight down that way. We’ve gone through a whole generation of staying away from aluminum as much as we could and really optimizing the steel to the point where that stuff is really light. We do come in where aluminum is worthwhile, the hood, the front fenders and the uprights in the front suspension.”

Details of the global automotive manufacturing business aside, the new MX-5 also uses the lightweight alloy for the upper and lower control arms and bolt-on lateral braces under and inside the car.

Coleman said that all of the characteristics that make the MX-5 so rewarding to drive on the street are what make it so well suited to racing. A low curb weight is part of that, he said, as is a proper balance and good suspension geometry. Even the production oil pan was designed to withstand the rigors of 1.5 sustained g’s, so there are no major hardware or components that need to be changed to turn the new MX-5 into a racecar.

It’s widely known that one of the weak points of earlier cars were the wheel hubs. Mazda engineers knew that going in, so the new car’s hub is smaller and lighter and has a bigger bearing. It went from a five-lug pattern to four, and features less offset from upright to wheel face, so it creates less leverage on the bearing

To show off the new racecar, Mazda invited a group of journalists out to drive the new Global MX-5 Cup car at the Streets of Willow road course in Rosamond, Calif. To make the day even more illustrative of the Miata’s place in the history of sports car racing, Mazda also brought along one of each generation of Miata: an NA 1.6 and NB 1.8 Spec Miata, an NC MX-5 Cup car and the new model, fresh from being built at Long Road Racing, in North Carolina (see sidebar for driving impressions of each generation car).

Tom and Glenn Long go over the highlights of the new Global MX-5 Cup car for a group of journalists.
Tom and Glenn Long go over the highlights of the new Global MX-5 Cup car for a group of journalists.

Because these were racecars on a racetrack, all the journalists invited hold competition licenses. They understand Mazda’s commitment to racing and grassroots motorsports. Even journalists who write for newspapers and business journals understand that commitment, according to Mazda North American Operations Director of Public Relations and Brand Experience Jeremy Barnes, a Spec Miata racer himself.

Journalists had a chance to drive each generation of Miata, from a 1990 model all the way up to the 2016 car.
Journalists had a chance to drive each generation of Miata, from a 1990 model all the way up to the 2016 car.

“Everyone’s first question is always, ‘So, it’s an MX-5. You’re going to be racing it, right?’ Barnes said. “We’ve always said the best street cars make the best racecars and vice versa, and when we launched the third-generation MX-5, we took it straight to Thunderhill for the 25 Hour. We broke three gearboxes and four differentials in that race. All of those parts were shipped back to Japan and three months later we made a production run change on shift forks and the way we set the differentials up in the factory, because we broke parts on racecars. It never happened on a street car, only in racing. But we made better street cars because of it. That’s the philosophy behind why we race.”

Mazda Motorsports Business Development Manager David Cook
Mazda Motorsports Business Development Manager David Cook

Of course, before it ever sets a wheel on a track, the whole thing has to make sense on paper. Mazda is, after all, in the business of selling cars. David Cook, business development manager for Mazda Motorsports pointed out that the program must be financially sound, but also contribute to the brand.

Pricing on the new car has yet to be determined, but one of the more interesting details about the new Global MX-5 Cup program is that City National Bank is underwriting a financing program. It seems odd to be able to finance a racecar, but it’s something teams asked for, Cook said.

“Racecar drivers overall have very good credit, and it’s a difficult situation when a team is spending a lot of cash during the actual race season for them to also have to lay down even more if they want to order a car, or even multiple cars,” Cook said. “So the financing option for them is very helpful. City National Bank understands, and has done its due diligence, has partnered with us, and it’s really looking like a great recipe to make this happen.”

Cook added that key benchmarks for the new car and the racing program are reliability, durability and reasonable operating costs. He explained that there are only so many races per season, and mechanical DNFs needlessly hamper a driver’s ability to accomplish his or her goals. In terms of the costs to operate a team, Cook said the company is working not only toward maintaining operating costs, but also toward lowering the expenses compared with the previous generation of car.

“Ultimately, operating costs are arguably more important than the price of the car,” Cook said. “Our intention is to bring the operating costs down from last year, which already was the lowest in sports cars at the professional level.

“The performance of the car needs to be there,” he said. “The quality, the dependability, the reliability of the car are all very important to give these individuals who put their money, time and investment into us, everything they deserve.”

According to NASA’s Performance Touring National Director Greg Greenbaum, expect the new MX-5 to slot into PTE. For endurance racing, E3. To order a car, simply call Mazdaspeed at 800-435-2508. A $10,000 deposit is required.

 

Generation Gaps

Mazda Media Day at Willow Springs

Mazda has gone to great lengths to maintain the magic of the first-generation Miata in subsequent iterations of the model. Its DNA shows in the similarities of how each generation of car behaves on track. It’s also interesting that there are still some subtle differences among them. We spent some time lapping each. Here are some of the highlights.

 

1990 Spec Miata

Mazda Media Day at Willow Springs

The one that started it all, the 1.6-liter car has lively and tossable kart-like handling. It requires everything from the driver to get the most out of it because it lacks the torque of later 1.8-liter cars. Still, a load of fun in the lightest package of them all.

 

2001 Spec Miata

Mazda Media Day at Willow Springs

This VVT car has a bit more oomph out of the corners, but like so many aspects of the Miata, the differences are subtle. The biggest difference lies in the handling. The NB feels larger than the NA, with more body roll and less of the kart-like traits of the first-generation car.

 

NC MX-5 Cup Car

Mazda Media Day at Willow Springs

The third-generation MX-5 was larger and heavier than the previous two generations, but it also had a larger engine and more horsepower. Body roll was well controlled and this car was just as fun to throw around as the NA and NB. The Miata DNA was still evident. There was nothing lost in translation here.

 

ND Global MX-5 Cup Car

Mazda Media Day at Willow Springs

This car feels more like the first generation car than the NB or NC, believe it or not. It’s light and tossable. The best part of this car, however, is the gearbox. It’s brilliant. Mazda says it lowered the ratio of the rear axle and increased the ratios of the individual gears. The result is larger gears in the transmission and you can feel the difference. Combined with the new shift fork designs inside, this transmission is a joy to row.

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Images courtesy of Brett Becker and Al Merion Padron