1997 Mazda Miata: The Seven Year Itch - Part One
April 05, 2012
It doesn't seem like it was that long ago, to me anyway, that I packed up my gear and drove two and a half hours home from Buttonwillow Raceway Park. The car was fine, but I was stewing over not having more power. After all, 100 horsepower at the wheels in a 2800 pound station wagon isn't going to get it done at a modern track day. During the long, dark drive home, I considered upgrading the struts, buying a set of dedicated track wheels and tires, and gutting the interior (only for the track days) in an effort to make the most of my car's good handling.
In the meantime, the aggressive summer tires were replaced with all-seasons, the struts have worn out and the big rear sway bar is gone, falling victim to a snapped end link tab. I also got married, bought a house and have been throwing money at a pile of junk project car. I haven't been on a track in seven years.
But we have this Miata...
Fast forward seven years and I find myself sitting in a classroom at Buttonwillow Raceway Park learning about proper passing techniques and what to do when you see certain flags. I've done all of this, but as it had been such a long time, and since it can't hurt, I decided to hit the reset button and sign up for the Novice run group with the NCRC. Another factor was me not ever having driven a rear wheel drive car on track before today. Did I mention it's a company car? I had enough pressure.
Mark was nice enough to drive up and take some pictures my foray. And besides offering moral support, which included making me laugh to stop me from vomiting in my helmet with nerves, he taped my number to the doors and created a new font in the process - Trackside Sans.
After three sessions of various lead and follow exercises and point-by passing techniques, I had seen the rest of my fellow novice drivers and their cars and I'll be honest, I had a moment of deja vu. My Novice group, the group specifically designed for people with very little track experience, consisted of a C6 Corvette, and C5 Corvette, a Boxster S, a Cayman S, a Lotus Elise, a modded Evo X, a Caterham, a Type R Integra, an E46 M3, a fully caged GTI VR6, a built Fox body Mustang, a brace of caged Miatas and the piece de resistance, a late model 911 GT3. I was going to be lucky to get out of the way. Is there even a shallow end anymore?
But we had all paid attention in class, and with the NCRC's intelligent approach to passing rules, everyone quickly spread out and found their pace. The Miata, busy and rattly in the city, settled down and relaxed. The steering is amazing. It's light, but never vague, and direct without being darty. The car, at the pace I was driving, was very neutral with a tendency to understeer ever so slightly at the limit. It's an overused term in our business, but it was confidence inspiring.
And those tires. Without a doubt, they generated the most interest of any part on the car while it was in the paddock. I'll tell you what I told everyone else. They're very progressive, no matter the speed. And while a slow speed spin is annoying, going off at high speed because your tires aren't telling you anything, is not fun. After I get my degree in tire psychology I might want for a more serious tire, but for now, these Hankook's are outstanding. Buy them.
The second most interest generating piece of equipment on our Miata was the front mount intercooler and the Kraftwerks supercharger connected to it. As one fellow driver said, "I couldn't figure out how that Miata was still with me. Then I saw that front mount intercooler and knew that thing meant business." It's not a burnout machine, but it provides effortless and steady power all the way to 7,000 rpm. Later in the day, I was topping out fourth gear on the longer straights, which put me around 110 mph, and with the good exits speeds I was carrying, I could manage to stick with all but the most serious cars down the straights.
I was turning out to be one of the pesky Miatas.
But not all was perfect. While the brakes generated plenty of fade free stopping power, the long pedal issue was not resolved with the replacement of the old, tapered pads. By the time I was getting into the meaty part of the brakes, the pedal was so far past the gas pedal that executing a rev-matched downshift was very difficult. When size twelve shoes can no longer bridge the gap, and adjustment needs to be made. As a result, I missed a few throttle blips and blew a few turn-ins. Erring on the side of caution, and my job, I decided to brake a little sooner and not quite as hard to make braking less dicey. I was still quick, but not quick enough.
Talking with Jay, he suspects that while the master cylinder is showing no signs of breaking down, it might be getting a little long in the tooth and is the likely culprit. Thankfully, he says they're relatively inexpensive, and honestly it's the only thing I would change for the next track day.
There's so much more to say, but I'll save that for part two. And you can put your pitchforks down, I'll have in-car video for the next post, too.
Kurt Niebuhr, Photo Editor @ 136,502 miles