1997 Mazda MX-5 Miata Long-Term Road Test

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1997 Mazda Miata: Saturday at Laguna Seca

March 14, 2013

1997 Mazda Miata

It's raining.

I wasn't able to keep up with the other three cars on our drive up, so I'm perfectly all right having excused myself to the novice group. Oh sure, I've driven Laguna Seca before but only in a simulation. And as good as that was, that's not real. Not even close.

So, for my introductory time at this legendary track, I've wound up with an instructor, Don. Apparently, riding shotgun with some guy in a supercharged Miata made more sense than taking out his own supercharged NSX. The latter would have made Don brave. The former, makes me wonder.

So how did I get on?

Well, obviously I didn't die. And no, Don didn't die either.

The rain, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise for my all-boot-and-no-brains driving style had to be refined to cope with all the rain. There was also a distinct lack of runoff room, too. Sure, Laguna Seca is FIA and FIM approved, but in the wet all that dirt and sand had turned into something the consistency of wet concrete. Going off meant getting stuck. Or worse, it meant rolling over. Since I like my job the way it is, and I had to drive 300 miles to get home, I decided to not damage the car.

1997 Mazda Miata
C is for the Novice run group, not for crap. Thanks.

Don let me go it alone after a few sessions, and as the track dried out, I tried to maintain the same levels of smoothness I'd used in the rain. For the most part, I did. But being smooth takes a mental toll. If feels soooo slow. It certainly didn't help that I've seen all manner of fast, aggressive driving at Laguna Seca, so for me, I felt like I was running a series of parade laps only without some small town mayor hanging out the side of the car.

As the day went on and the track dried out, I became reacquainted with my old nemesis, this Miata's brake pedal. Even with the replacement of the master cylinder, a complete bleed of the system, including the ABS unit and new brake pads, the pedal travel is still too long. By braking earlier, and not as hard, I can drive around the issue, but by pulling back in one aspect of my driving, I find it difficult to drive near 100 percent at the rest. I got over it, but still.

1997 Mazda Miata
Garage parking at Laguna Seca. If you can get it, take it.

Below is a video from two laps of my final session. The track, from curb to curb, was dry. Some of the curbs were dry as well, but there were some I didn't trust enough to use. The runoff, or lack of dry, non-hazardous runoff, also kept my inner Sterling Moss in check. It's better to get in 15 decent laps than only half of a really fast one.

I should add, since I'm in the novice group, there's only passing once the driver ahead of you signals you he's ok with you passing him. As a result, you'll see me gesture out the driver's window after every pass. When someone pays attention and doesn't hold you up, you let them know you appreciate it. That's track etiquette.

I don't want you to think I chose these laps because I passed anybody. I'm not showing off. Honestly, with a total of eight cars on track in my group, there was a lot of empty track around me. I picked these laps only because there's something else for you to look at, other than my iffy driving.

1997 Mazda Miata

So about that empty track.

In the interest of those who have never been to a track day, never belted themselves into a proper seat and never driven at Laguna Seca, I've uploaded my final session, in its entirety.

Some things to note. I take my warm up lap very seriously. Not only am I listening for the wrong rattles but I'm making sure I get the brakes and tires, as well as the oil, up to temp before I start hammering it around the track. On a day like today, I also used the warm up lap as a sighting lap. I need to know where the water is, what curbs I can use, and which ones I can't. Only then do I feel comfortable enough to drive as quickly as I'd like.

I take the cool down lap seriously, too. This is the time to bring the car down a bit. I use a higher gear through every corner and I stay off the brakes as best I can. I want the tires to cool down gradually, too. Not to mention, this is a chance to wave to the corner workers. It's a way to say thanks after every run.

It's over 20 minutes. You've been warned.

There was another day to go, but Sunday was promising more rain. I would have happily settled for another day like today, but Mother Nature had other ideas.

1997 Mazda Miata

Kurt Niebuhr, Photo Editor

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