Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Driving the Mazda MX-5 Race Car Reminded Me of Dreams That Long Faded


As the Fast and Furious’s only Asian hero, I have to admit: I had fantasies playing Han Lue; after all, who wouldn’t want to lock lips with Gal Gadot while driving a sportscar. Yes sir, I’ve always wanted to get down Han style if I were 20 year younger, 20 pounds lighter, and well, 20 million pesos richer. Sad to say, that dream has faded, and I was pretty content to move on with my life.

I was ready to accept my gut, my high cholesterol, and the fact that the only thing I’d be locking lips with in my soft-riding SUV would be with my dog. That is, until Mazda sprung a surprise. No, they didn’t send Gal Gadot over (though that would have been extremely cool), but they did send over the next best thing: a Miata Spec Series racer. Yup, for a fleeting moment (well, around a week actually), I’d actually get to drive and live with what’s essentially a race car with a plate number.




For the uninitiated, the Miata Spec Series is a turnkey race car that takes the MX-5—the new 184-horsepower one—and slaps on racing bits from Cusco (coilovers, front and rear sway bars, power brace), Mazdaspeed (strut tower brace), Concept One (17-inch wheels), and Nitto (215/45 R 17 NT555 G2 tires). It also gets some nice Sparco stuff like the steering wheel, one-piece seats, and four-point safety harnesses. And of course, prerequisite track safety paraphernalia like a six-point roll cage and driver’s footplate. In short, this isn’t your uncle’s MX-5.

See, your uncle (like myself), values comfort over everything else. Despite our desire to get a sportscar, we’ll need space for our thighs, fanny packs (or murses), and our laughable sense of humor. The run-of-the-mill MX-5 can do that. Despite sitting so low to the ground and having a cabin as tight as a…errr…umm… (never mind), we can fit. Unless you’re extremely tall or obese (or both), you’ll be able to David Blaine yourself into the Jinba-Ittai cabin. With the Miata Spec Series car though, the presence of the roll cage requires a bit more flexibility. Now, I find that the best way to slip in would be to sit on the roll cage, let go of all your inhibitions, and drop into the Sparco racing buckets butt cheeks first. It’s not beautiful to watch nor is it poised, but at least you don’t bonk your head on the roll cage. Suffice to say, your one and only passenger will have to go through the same thing so better tell her to skip the skirts, and stick to stretchable yoga pants.




Once past the roll cage though, things fare better. With Mazda Philippines working closely with their Japanese motorsport counterparts, the roll cage doesn’t rob any visibility or interior space—both of which are already in limited supply. Now, unlike other race cars with a number plate, the Miata Spec Series isn’t inhospitable. As a matter of fact, it keeps most of the stock MX-5’s comfort trimmings intact making it even more “stock” than a special edition Porsche or Ferrari. The air conditioning is still there, so is the 7-inch Mazda Connect infotainment screen (and corresponding rotary knob), and heck, even the DVD slot between the seats. Even the roof goes up and down like before, though some grace is needed to move around the roll cage and heavily bolstered seats. As a matter of fact, the only trim pieces binned are those that got in the way of the roll cage, seats, and harnesses.

And speaking about the harness, this is single-handedly the Miata Spec Series’s only pain in the ass—literally. Remember when I said that you need to drop into the sport seats butt first? Well, imagine what happens when ass meets Sparco metal buckle? It’s not pretty, and I’m sure your lady friend won’t like it either. After a while, I find that the best way to avoid all this ass poking would be to carefully layout the four-point harness each time you get out. That way, you can avoid the entire metal buckle debacle, while also being able to tell where each of the four points are. Regardless, an extra few minutes is needed to get yourself sorted in. Oh, and because the harness doesn’t retract, remember to close the door before you tighten everything up; else you’ll find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having to undo everything, and then close the door.




Now, for all of the Miata Spec Series’s peculiarities, this isn’t a poser car; it’s a race car that you can drive to and from the racetrack. Its direct inspiration is the MX-5 Global Cup Car, and remember, that one isn’t even road legal. With that, there were some gives and takes in terms of comfort and convenience in the name of safety. That’s why, it’s still surprising how this MX-5 remains hospitable as a daily driver. Discounting the acrobatic act to get past the roll cage, it behaves just like a road car—and I mean it in the best way possible—it doesn’t choke at low revs, the air conditioning’s cool, and Sara Geronimo sounds just fine on the radio.

Flicking the engine kill switch to “on” and pushing the “engine start” button breathes life into the 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G. For the one-make series, the engine and gearbox are left stock, so the same adjectives apply: extremely tractable, a willing revver, and of course, the best gearbox from the house of Jujiro Matsuda. However, the decision to install a custom exhaust system unlocks a bit more anger here. At start-up, there’s a nice bark before settling to a nice, rhythmic brrrrr. At partial throttle, a wonderful low-pitched sound fills the cabin, while at full throttle, it becomes a symphony of sound that brings a mental image of Michael Fassbender saying, “perfection” to mind.




And perfection is what the Miata Spec Series feels like even when it’s just trundling around EDSA. It’s going to gain attention—lots of it, perhaps because of its racy paint job or its loud exhaust note or perhaps because the driver looks like Han’s retired stunt double—or may be even all three. Floor the gas though and your face will light up, guaranteed. A caveat though: if you plan to daily this P 2.5-million race car, always remember to re-adjust those Cusco coilovers. Leaving them in a setting suitable for the Clark International Speedway results in a razor-sharp handling at the expense of an unsettled ride, and that can leave you with a sore tailbone.

Quirks aside, it fulfills its role of being a race car that you can drive to and from the track. This appeals to people who want to get their feet wet in circuit racing, but perhaps aren’t convinced yet of buying a purpose-built race car. This makes the MX-5 Miata Spec Series an interesting safety net for budding racers because Mazda will throw in all the stock parts so you can convert it back to storm form at any time. Now, there will be those who’re crazy enough to daily drive it, and for those, I can say that it’s surprisingly usable despite the roll cage and harness. On a more personal note though, I feel hurt by having tried the MX-5 Miata Spec Series. Just when I thought I put my dreams of playing Han Lue way past me, Mazda offers me this. Now, I just can’t shake off the urge to play tongue hockey while driving fast.

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