What's It Like Driving a Mazda MX-5 Cup Car?
Why are automotive journalists so infatuated with the Mazda Miata?
And it’s not just us media types that adore this Japanese roadster: Driving enthusiasts, droptop lovers, and amateur racers alike go weak in the knees and wax comically poetic about this little car, though truth be told, after even a short drive, it’s not hard to understand why. The Miata is purer than gold bullion from the U.S. Mint, so sweetly dialed in it feels like another limb, one that happens to be made of steel, plastic, and joy rather than bone and flesh. You don’t sit in the MX-5, you wear it like a pair of bespoke yoga pants.
SEE ALSO: 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Review
Appropriately, “We don’t believe the car is an appliance,” said John Doonan, director of motorsports at Mazda North American Operations. “Driving matters.”
And the company’s focus is obvious; Miata is something special, and as it has since Day One, proves you don’t need stupid amounts of power to have fun, a chainsaw to slice an apple fritter. With just 155 horses in its stable, today’s ND model delivers all the thrills you could ever need (though the loony folks at Flyin’ Miata with their V8-conversion kits would probably disagree).
To 11 and Beyond: The MX-5 Cup Car
Still, there’s a version of this humble Mazda that takes all the standard model’s wonderful attributes and cranks them to 11… and then twists the knob clean off, upping the ante in every way. The MX-5 Cup Car is a purpose-built race machine used in the Global MX-5 Cup. Likely against their better judgment, company representatives let us climb behind the wheel for a few track laps and it was nothing if not impressive.
Built in Japan then shipped to North Carolina for modification by a company called Long Road Racing, Cup Cars start as run-of-the-Hiroshima-mill Miatas. Painted white, the cheapest color short of bare metal, they undergo extensive modification that transforms them into track-dominating beasts.
These alterations are specific and sweeping, including the addition of more than 250 race-grade components. To begin, the cars are completely disassembled – airbags get junked, the stock seats removed and sound deadening tossed in the trash. Then, all the seam sealer is painstakingly scraped and ground from the body to reduce mass, a process that takes 13 hours. Dry weight is scarcely more than a ton at an advertised 2,130 pounds.
Once prepped, a TIG-welded roll cage is installed followed by a coat of easy-to-clean gray paint applied to what’s left of the cabin. For racers so inclined, custom colors are available, though they do cost extra.
After the body shell is prepped, a boatload of go-fast goodies gets installed. The drivetrain is comprised of a specially sealed 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder engine that’s controlled by a custom ECU. It breathes through a full-race header and stainless-steel exhaust system.
An upgraded six-speed manual gearbox routes torque to the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential, while Castrol synthetic lubricants keep everything running smoothly. The transmission and rear end also receive separate fluid coolers for enhanced durability. Non-glycol coolant ensures engine temps remain in check day in and day out.
Drivetrain enhancements result in a modest horsepower increase, roughly 15 ponies at the wheels. But with little weight and tenacious grip, it’s more than enough for serious speed. Again, you don’t need a jackhammer to crack peanuts.
As expected, the list of chassis upgrades runs for miles. Special coil-over springs are wed to adjustable dampers, the front stabilizer bar is tunable, there are unique spring perches and everything rolls on forged 17-inch Rays lightweight-aluminum wheels encircled by BFGoodrich racing slicks.
Stock Brembo four-piston front calipers squeeze special pads that work in conjunction with slotted rotors. Brake-cooling ducts integrated into the fog-light openings keep heat at bay, even after repeated abuse.
Wringing its Neck
For testing, Mazda invited us to the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, an 87-acre property that features private garages, a restaurant and banquet center plus retail space; it’s essentially a playground for car nuts. But the centerpiece of this attraction is a 1.5-mile track. Essentially flat, this circuit nonetheless has some challenging sections and decently long straights that provide plenty of entertainment.
Starting in a standard Miata, I got a lay of the land, hustling it from one corner to the next. Within about three turns, I remembered why I love this car; it comes alive in your hands. It’s so approachable and easy to drive smoothly; as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it simply becomes an extension of your body. Just think where you want to go and it’s there.
After a few laps, I swapped into the Cup Car. A scrawny guy, it took me quite a bit of gymnastics just to get seated, that roll cage being a pain to snake your body around. Heaven forbid you’re much bigger than I am or you’re going to need the Jaws of Life to get out.
But once strapped in and underway, the MX-5 Cup Car is an absolute hoot. Through corners, its body remains absolutely flat – literally – it feels like there’s ZERO roll. Turn-in from the small-diameter steering wheel is telepathic, the machine changing direction faster than a brain synapse.
Despite the ferocious amounts of traction available from its fat racing tires, this car will rotate if you want it to, the back end gently sliding when the throttle is prodded while turning. I was gentle while doing this to avoid spinning out, but the MX-5 Cup Car never felt brusque or unpredictable.
The shifter is likewise brilliant though the gearing seems shorter than the standard Miata’s, meaning you’ve got to keep tabs on the tachometer to avoid bouncing off the limiter, which kicks in around 7,000 rpm.
The MX-5 Cup Car is an unmitigated pleasure to pilot on track. In the hands of a skilled driver, it can undoubtedly do amazing things. It’s just too bad the uncorked exhaust is so raucous, trumpeting a four-cylinder drone at deafening levels. This makes concentrating a bit tough. Also, the open top means you’ll occasionally be pelted by small bits of gravel while following other cars, which is a bit annoying (or strong encouragement to finish first).
Cost and Availability
Racing is a great way to make a small fortune… out of a larger one, that is. Going fast ain’t cheap, neither is the Mazda MX-5 Cup Car. They’re priced from around $60,000, though racing one is going to cost a lot more. “A pro season is about 100 grand,” said Doonan. For series that require lids, a removable hardtop is an available extra that adds another $3,085 to the asking price.
The MX-5 Cup Car may cost a pretty penny, but it sure is fun to drive. If you’re of the means, it’s a great piece of hardware, amplifying the road-going Miata’s laudable attributes, turning it into something absolutely brilliant.
Discuss this story on our Mazda Forum
Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
More by Craig Cole