For a bespoke racecar, having a recipe to follow is convenient. Having a proven recipe for a 1,450-pound car with 185 horsepower, a no-lift-shift sequential gearbox, downforce at the ready and a 7.84:1 horsepower to weight ratio goes beyond mere convenience and veers into serious fun, and that’s what the NASA Prototype delivers.

Introduced at the 2014 Performance Racing Industry trade show, the NP01 presented an entirely new concept: a hardcore prototype racing car with first-rate components for an unbelievable price. The only things that don’t come in the kit are fluids, safety belts, side nets and a foam seat insert.

The prices have inched up since its introduction, and so has the performance if you’re so inclined. Élan now offers an ST1 package, which increases the car’s performance through engine, suspension and aerodynamic modifications.

However, the lion’s share of the drivers run in NP01, a class designed to provide close racing in a car that is as reliable as it is affordable to operate. As you’ll hear from the racers themselves, the overbuilt nature of the car means components such as brakes and tires last a lot longer than most cars that can deliver this kind of performance.

To hear more about the car and the series, we got in touch with drivers around the country to get their thoughts. We asked them all the same questions, and edited their responses to avoid repetition.

www.nasaprototype.com

www.elanmotorsports.com/cars/np01/

Francis Hu, NASA SoCal

Q: How do like racing an NP01 compared with other racecars you’ve owned?

A: I raced Spec Miata for seven years, so the NP01 is similar being a spec class with very close competition. It is still a driver’s class and a momentum car. The NP01 has more adjustability and it has been fun for me to learn to play with the setup. The NP01 is easier to drive than a Miata and the limits are higher, and I’m still learning to find them. It handles more like a go kart.

Q: Is working on an NP01 any easier than working on a production car?

A: The car has been super reliable. I built the car from the kit and it took me about 150 hours (3 months). I do all of my own maintenance and the amount of work is about the same as the Spec Miata. It is easier to work on since I can remove all of the body panels to gain access. Also, the alignment and suspension setup is very easy to adjust. This car does not need to have a crew to support it. I go to races on my own or with my wife for moral support. Most race weekends involve only changing tires, putting in gas and cleaning windshield.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: It was easy to drive the car with downforce. The rear wing keeps the rear of the car planted, so on high-speed corners, the car will understeer and let you know you are at the limits. The car does pull a lot more lateral g’s than the Miata, so it is a physical car to drive. You can also brake harder than a Miata and will need to back off on brake pressure as you slow down and lose the downforce.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: Save the money, do a test drive and buy one.

Thomas Hahn, NASA Florida

Q: What’s the first thing you tell people when they ask about the NP01?

A: The first thing I generally tell people about the NP01 is just how inexpensive this car is to race for a car of this caliber. Unlike any car that can lay down these kind of lap times, it does not eat tires, brakes, gas, oil, engines, transmissions. I’ve raced cars, boats, karts, airplanes, mud trucks and motorcycles in my 65 years and never experienced anything like the NP01.

Q: How do you like racing an NP01 compared with other race cars you’ve owned?

A: I really like racing the NP01. This car doesn’t depend on raw horsepower to go fast like so many other cars. Instead it is a very well-designed, purpose built racecar that handles extremely well. The car gives you plenty of feedback and is easy to get dialed in. This car will make a better driver out of anyone. Élan really did its homework.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: What it took for me to get used to driving this car was trusting the car. I would go into turns and my brain was telling me I was way too fast, and at midturn I realize I’m really way too slow. I had to adjust my thinking. Also, you don’t have to heel-toe with the six-speed sequential gearbox.You stay flat on the floor and just pull another gear then left-foot brakewhile you blip the throttle and downshift without touching the clutch. You only use the clutch to stop and start.

Q: How do NP01 drivers get along on track?

A: One of the selling points of the NP01 is the camaraderie among the owners both on and off the track. Don’t get me wrong. The competition is fierce, but if you needed something to get back out on the track, everybody in the group would lend a hand or a part to get you there. The NP01 group is a great group of people.

Q: What was the most surprising thing to you about the NP01?

A: One the most surprising things about the NP01 to me is the type of cars that you can just drive right around. It’s like driving a shifter kart with a roof.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: When you do your demo test drive — the factory does test drives —take your checkbook, because when you get out of the car you are going to want one.

Chad Plavan, NASA SoCal

Q: What’s the first thing you tell people when they ask about the NP01?

A: I tell them the NP01 is the best bang for the buck. Older Porsche Cup car lap times, with less than Miata maintenance. It really is the cheapest car to maintain. It costs so much less to race than the vintage Porsche 911 that I own.

Q: How do like racing an NP01 compared with other racecars you’ve owned?

A: I love the NP01 on the track. You can make small changes on the double-adjustable shocks, or other suspension components and really feel the changes immediately, more so than on any production-based car I have raced. The sequential Sadev six-speed transmission is super slick: blip- throttle downshifts, no-lift upshifts. It makes left foot braking so simple, like a go kart.

Q: Is working on an NP01 any easier than working on a production car?

A: The simplicity of working on the NP01 is probably one of the most unknown benefits to non-owners. Looking at the NP01, I’m sure people are a little intimidated on maintenance. Those people can rest assured it is simple. I’m a “one man band.” I do all the work on it myself and do not have a crew at the track, while still being very competitive. You can have the body off in minutes, and everything is accessible unlike production cars. This will be my third full year of racing, and I have only replaced the front brake pads once. I have never touched the rear pads or rotors since I have had the car. I have replaced the front rotors twice total. You just change out the oil and transmission oil every other race. It only takes 20 minutes to do both. That is it. Just make sure it has oil and throw in the 91-octane gas. Like I said earlier, it is cheap to maintain.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: This was probably the hardest thing to get used to. I had never experienced downforce like this before. It just comes down to seat time. I’m still learning the limits of this car. Besides the “stick” you have in corners even with DOT-R compounds, the most eye-opening experience was the initial braking performance when you first step on the brakes at speed. I’m learning to push hard first on the pedal then slightly taper off. I never really thought of using the downforce for braking. I previously only thought about the cornering benefit of downforce. The other thing you start to learn — however, my right foot continues to “argue” with me — is that the faster you go, the better the traction is in the corner.

Q: What was the most surprising thing to you about the NP01?

A: The most surprising thing for me was the second race of the inaugural NP01 Pacific season. NASA had the Pirelli Challenge series racing with us at Laguna Seca. The Pirelli Challenge runs all Porsche Cup cars and The Cayman GT4 Club Sports. All these cars were, of course, on Pirelli slicks. The fast NP01s were 2-3 seconds faster than all the GT4 Club Sports, and faster than all 911 Cup cars except for the new 991-based cars. Those cars were only about 2 seconds faster than the NP01. Very surprising due to the fact, it was our second race ever in the NP01s and we were still finding out setups. We also we were on Toyo DOT-R spec tires and not slicks. Not to mention we are putting out about 167 horsepower to the wheels.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: If you are considering it, just do it. It has been the most fun I have had racing in over 20 years. The car is a “looker” and very high on the cool factor scale. I know some guys think horsepower is everything and turn their nose up to the NP01 horsepower numbers, while thinking it will not be fun. The fact is, the NP01 will make anyone a better driver without breaking the bank in maintenance. You will have a blast learning to drive this car. It’s a great challenge coming from a production-based car. The car is fast and reliable. The NP01 is awesome in every aspect.

Jaime Florence

Q: What’s the first thing you tell people when they ask about the NP01?

A: I can’t say enough about how much fun these cars are to drive. These spec tires last a long time and provide plenty of feedback. The sequential gearbox is super cool.

Q: How do like racing an NP01 compared with other racecars you’ve owned?

A: I love racing these cars. The cars are all so close to one another in terms of performance, so it really is all about the driving and finding the right setup. The NP01 owners are all pretty much a tight-knit group, so there is plenty of information and help available within the community, which helps with the learning curve if someone is just getting started.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: Not a thing. There really doesn’t feel like there is very much downforce. You can feel it a little bit in the fast corners, but it is pretty subtle. Getting used to left foot braking is probably the biggest thing to get used to if you haven’t done it before, but even that isn’t a big deal.

Q: How do NP01 drivers get along on track?

A: So far, it has been great. There are definitely some fast drivers in here. Everyone I’ve been in close quarters with has been super clean. I think most of us are well “over the hill,” so it would be good to get some young ‘uns in here.

Q: What was the most surprising thing to you about the NP01?

A: Probably the most surprising thing to me is how little the tires wear. I think we could have made 25 hours on two sets of tires if we had run them to the cords.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: Close your eyes and write the check. It is really pretty inexpensive to run this car and driving it will make it all better. Huge bang for the buck.

Stephen Myers, NASA Central

Q: What’s the first thing you tell people when they ask about the NP01?

A: By far the question I get asked the most is, “What is it?” and explaining the difference between a prototype sports racer and a racecar based on a production vehicle is harder than you would think. I think the term prototype is confusing to people who are not familiar with sports prototype racing because they think it means a preliminary model of future machine.

Q: How do like racing an NP01 compared with other racecars you’ve owned?

A: It certainly has the least amount of power and is way more efficient with fuel, brakes, tires and other consumables. I was previously racing a Panoz GTS with around 500 horsepower at the wheels, so the NP01 is almost as opposite as you can get, but on some tracks it is just as fast.

Q: Is working on an NP01 any easier than working on a production car?

A: The NP01 is very intimidating at first to work on, but once you dive in and have removed the entire body a few times, it is a joy how quickly you can remove all the panels to gain fairly easy access to almost any part. My car is fitted with air jacks, which makes tire changes and working on it in the paddock or in the shop very easy.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: I am used to racing cars with large rear wings, a front splitter, and lots of horsepower, so I didn’t notice that much of a difference until I raced the NP01 at the Gateway Motorsports Park and the Iowa Speedway. The downforce in combination with the banking on roval tracks is unreal. At Gateway, I was able to slalom around the other cars without worry of sticking in any lane around the oval and the combination of the downforce and the 14-degree banking at the Iowa Speedway give you the sensation that car is stuck to the asphalt, but you are going to be thrown out of your belts and out the door.

Q: What was the most surprising thing to you about the NP01?

A: When I first drove the NP01, I thought visibility would be a problem, and it was one of my top concerns. After my first race, I had everything dialed in and I have been very impressed with the amount of visibility, and it is even better in some situations, such as the Sinkhole at NCM, than a standard GT car. I have also been surprised I have not had problems with other people being able to see me behind them or getting up beside them.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: The NP01 is a car that you will have to do a good inspection on between weekends to make sure nothing has broken or come loose. It is very easy to take the body off for inspection, but don’t think you are buying a car that you can run weekend after weekend without a careful look-over.

Dave Balingit, NASA Southeast

Q: What’s the first thing you tell people when they ask about the NP01?

A: I love to tell people it’s like racing a Spec Miata on steroids. It handles great, it’s easy to work on, reliable and easy on consumables. You won’t find another car for the cost that is comparable.

Q: How do like racing an NP01 compared with other racecars you’ve owned?

A: I’ve had Miatas, Datsuns, Nissans, a Mustang and a stock car. It’s nothing like any of those for sure, but shares the best qualities of each of those. The horsepower to weight ratio is close to 9:1, so it accelerates like the Mustang and our ST3 stock car. The balance is similar to a well setup Spec Miata. You can make it over/understeer as needed. My favorite sounding car prior to the NP01 was our Datsun 240Z. The one thing the NP01 has above all the others is true downforce. Elan did a fantastic job at creating a body style with functional downforce that you can feel.

Q: What does it take to get used to driving a car with this much downforce?

A: I’d say the braking and high-speed corners is where I felt the most difference. After two and a half seasons, I am finally learning to trust the downforce in high-speed corners, which is weird, since the car is so stable at high speeds. All the years of racing sedans has my brain wired a certain way and I am still trying to tweak it.

Q: How do NP01 drivers get along on track?

A: The NP01 class is a close group on and off the track. We are very courteous with each other and rarely have body contact, most of which are minor rubs. While the bodywork is a fairly durable composite, it’s never fun doing repairs on any car! The competitors are friendly and super helpful off track. If anyone has issues and needs a part, there is always an NP01 competitor there to offer that part.

Q: What advice would you give to someone considering an NP01?

A: Test drive one! Seriously, the best thing you can do is get into a car and experience for yourself how it feels. At all of the NP01 series events, there are cars that can be rented for one session or for the entire weekend.

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Images courtesy of Francis Hu, Juha Lievonen, Chad Plavan, Jaime Florence, Brett Becker, Stephen Myers and Dave Balingit