2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata: Not A Miata - Driving the RX-7 GTO at Goodwood
by Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor on January 8, 2016
It is the sad trombone of the automotive world: The rapidly diminishing groan of a starter motor straining to crank with too little current. It's a start-line diminuendo that terminates in an awkward anticlimax before 150,000 or so spectators.
I did this. Go me.
It's the Goodwood Festival of Speed last June and I am driving, or attempting to drive, the 1991 International Motor Sport Association's GTO championship-winning RX-7 up the hillclimb course.
It's not a Miata. In fact, it's not even really an RX-7, at least by the standard Mazda offered in the production car. But it is powered by a Mazda engine and it is made for driving hard, traits that it shares with our long-term 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata.
Click through for a video of the whole fiasco, as well as the run up the hill.
Built by Fabcar Engineering and designed by Lee Dykstra, this car is to a second-generation RX-7 what a Montana Class battleship is to a bathtub duck. Its steel tube-frame chassis is pure racecar hardware wrapped in a carbon-fiber body. It's powered by a normally-aspirated four-rotor R13J Wankel engine, coupled to a Hewland five-speed dog-engagement gearbox. Output is about 640 horsepower, which serves as ample motivation to the car's 2,100-pound curb weight.
At Goodwood, the car was geared for 160 mph, which is about 100 mph more than I needed. Endure the first two-and-a-half minutes of electron jockeying in the video and you'll notice, as soon as the RX-7 rolls off the line, that it's a handful. The steering is busy, particularly under braking, and like most race cars it demands direct and deliberate control inputs.
Though managing it is a clearly a point of pride among those who do so regularly, it's not an easy car to drive fast - at least not here where the road width exceeds the Mazda's track width by about 10 inches. And it has a dark side. Like an ornery child or a top-fuel dragster, if you're not driving it, it's driving you.
Still, there's something immensely fulfilling about punching through the closely-spaced gears. The dogleg shift pattern (first gear is toward the driver and back) means that the most frequent shifts are only a push or pull. Once moving, the clutch isn't necessary for upshifts, but breathing the throttle at exactly the right instant is. My ill-timed yanks on the shifter are apparent at 2:40.
And for some reason, when I'm under pressure, all the nervous energy leaves my body by shaking the shifter.
Like its cousin the 1992 RX-792P, the RX-7 GTO wore rain tires at Goodwood. After all, there's no practice, no tire warming, and no warning labels at this event. Only hay bales and goodwill separate the masses from the inexperienced hands driving a car like this. It is a place that exists on passion and personal responsibility. And it works, brilliantly.
The RX-7, for its part, added to the rawness of the experience. In motion it's all gear noise and rorty flat-pitched exhaust. It's a machine made for winning races, which is exactly what it did seven times in 1990 and 1991. It makes no apologies for this character, nor would we expect any.
Mazda Director of Public Relations, Jeremy Barnes, who drives the car regularly, offers the following: "You've just got to grab it by the scruff of its neck and show it who's boss," a statement with which we find no fault. And one that he deftly demonstrates racing the car in events like the Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
In any event, the RX-7 GTO is a hand-built, race-hardened instrument for slaying racetracks. Which in most ways is what our Miata does to back roads.
Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor