MY BATTERY TENDER GLOBAL MX-5 CUP SERIES DEBUT – A FULL REPORT
Several of you might already know that I ran my first MX-5 Global Cup race this past weekend at Road Atlanta. I was invited to do this by Mike Collins, owner of Meathead Racing and new President of SCCA Pro Racing. Since it was a conflict for him he generously offered me his seat, and I jumped at the opportunity.
Many of you have asked about my experience in the car and in the series and I thought it best if I write an in-depth post about all aspects, including the car, the series, the racing and more. You should be able to form your own opinions based on the multitude of emotions that I experienced over the weekend. The report starts off with a race report and continues with a synopsis of my feelings about the car and the series.
When I arrived I was fitted in the car, and Ess White of the Meathead Team made numerous adjustments to the seating position until I was totally comfortable. Of course, since the cars are the current 2016 model year, they are gorgeous inside and out, immaculate, and mine had less than 6 miles on the clock! It had been replaced after an accident at Laguna Seca and this was to be its maiden voyage in the series.
PROMOTER TEST DAY AND PRACTICE SESSION
Unfortunately for our team, we struggled with a new setup change that had us all on the back-foot and the first four sessions had me extremely nervous, and almost afraid of the car. I didn’t want to hand Mike a wrecked brand new car, and the car was not doing what I wanted it to do. However I knew there was something not right with the setup as so many had told me how easy it was to drive.
Fortunately I have a lot of friends in the series, and several realized that I was struggling and offered their advice, but none more so than the current champion, Nate Sparks who pointed me in the right direction with setup and data. Sparky, thank you, and congrats on a stunning season. You will make an awesome representative for us all and good luck in the Mazda Road to 24!
The qualifying session was the first time that I finally had a car that I could control, and that wasn’t scaring me, but I still had no idea about its limits, or how it should handle, so I intentionally ran on my own at the back to come to grips with the handling and performance of the car which is very different to a Spec Miata.
At Road Atlanta, the back straight in a draft is worth 0.7 seconds in a Spec Miata, but in the MX-5 Global Cup Car it is worth at least a second, such is the magnitude of the hole that the open-top roadster punches in the air (more about this later). Since I ran on my own I was way off the pace and qualified back in 19th place, pretty much in the kill zone! But had I run in a draft my qualifying time gave me hope that I had the pace to run with the front runners.
Starting from 19th I knew that if I was patient, the expected attrition in the 45-minute race would move me up a few spots and I purposefully held back, avoiding the carnage ahead of me and slowly moved up to 15th position, which fortunately is the last money paying spot. At one point I had the fastest lap time, and at the end I was one of the 6th fastest cars on the course. I experimented with easing off the pace, and dropping back and seeing if I could come back up to the leaders in my pack and it was relatively easy.
While my lap times sound impressive on my first outing, do remember that the cars in the middle of the field sometimes get to run some really fast times for one or two laps, due to the draft of the cars in the lead group ahead of them. For this reason, the series had to adopt an unusual qualifying strategy. In qualifying your fastest lap sets the grid for Race 1, and your 2nd fastest lap sets the grid for Race 2. They do not use your race lap times, as due to the huge draft, in some cases this might mean a completely inverted grid whereby the 15th place car in Race 1 starts on pole due to the huge draft he got in Race 1.
For Race 2, I think I started in 17th or 18th position, not sure exactly. By now the championship had been decided and I knew that the gloves would come off in this last race, so I was even more conservative than in Race 1, and once again it paid off as I moved up to finish 10th, just missing the hard-charger $1,000 check by one spot. Once again I was definitely on pace with the lead cars, but I didn’t make any dive bomb attempts, kept it clean and brought home a spotless race car. Once again my lap times were competitive with the leaders.
Overall I was very happy with my performance. I know that had I been comfortable in the car on test day I could have qualified near the front and would have driven a completely different race had I started nearer the front. My 15th place in Race 1 and 10th place in Race 2 paid a total of $2100 in contingency payments which I paid back to Mike Collins and the team in appreciation on their generosity.
SO WHAT IS THE GLOBAL MX-5 CUP CAR LIKE TO DRIVE?
The car is really well constructed and beautifully finished off, and everything just works. The engine is peppy, has plenty of torque, and 6-speed gearbox is a pleasure to shift.
However, when it comes to handling, this car is very different to the Spec Miata that we have all become accustomed to. In Spec Miata, we come to a corner, stand on the brakes, generally threshold brake, turn in and typically commit to wide open throttle well before the apex. Well if you have driven the iRacing Global MX-5 Cup Car, you will know that this DOES NOT WORK with the MX-5 Cup Car. You can brake relatively hard, but you have to come off the brake gently, and roll a LOT of mid-corner speed though the apex, and then feed in the throttle gently, or the car will drive off the track with front-end push.
I had heard about this nuance from many drivers before the weekend, and I ignored their advice to my own detriment, so eventually I had to give in and adapt, and once I adapted my driving style, the lap times started to fall. Yes, the car is a little bit twitchy compared to a Spec Miata, and it's suspension is a little softer, but you have a lot more adjustment available with shock compression and rebound that can handle tracks as bumpy as Sebring and as smooth as COTA.
The BF Goodrich tires are very good, and do not fall off much, if at all, over a 45 minute race. The electric steering is very sensitive and the car will turn in much more sharply than a Spec Miata so you have to slow your hands down significantly. Also since the tires are really grippy, and the suspension soft, there is a distinct chance that if you get into a slide, the suspension will bind up and suddenly release, spitting you off the track. Once again you have to adjust your driving style to car you are driving.
Bye the way, the math engine of the iRacing car, from vehicle dynamics to the shock performance is pretty much identical to the actual car so there is a lot to be gained from spending time on the simulator.
All in all the car is fun to drive, a little faster than a Spec Miata, and the racing is closer than Spec Miata due to the huge parachute that the cars pull behind them as an open top roadster.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO RACE GLOBAL MX-5 CUP CAR?
It all depends on how you want to do it. Do you want to buy your own car and do your own trackside support? Do you want to own your own car and have someone else support it? Or are you like me and purely want do an arrive-and-drive, have someone else own and prepare and deliver a race-ready car to the track for you to have fun in?
If we look at the 3rd option, a full arrive and drive where the team preps the car, transports it to the event, registers to race including test day, provides the tires, gas and trackside support, you are looking at anything between $15k to $20k for the 3 day weekend including promoter test day. If you were to commit to an entire season this number will be very negotiable.
So what do you get for this seemingly large cost? Depending on who you race with and what you negotiate, you will get the use of a car, a set of scrubbed tires, two sets of stickers, an entry, and a promoter test day. You will be responsible for crash damage but you may be able to secure crash damage insurance if you are running the complete season. This typically runs $3k per weekend with a $5k deductible and a replacement up to $50k.
You get 3 x 25 minute sessions on the test day, a 30 minute practice session and a 30 minute qualifying session which is split into 2 x 15 minute qualifying sessions. Your lap times from the practices session determine if you are in the first run group or the 2nd run group, so it is important to get up to speed before the practice session so that you have some drafting partners.
Then on race day you get 2 x 45 minute races. So you end up with close to 3-1/2 hours of track time if there are no stoppages. In terms of dollars per smile it is quite a high price to pay, but when you factor in the exposure to the pro teams, this is about the cheapest form of pro racing you can do, other than B-Spec, but in my opinion, no-one is looking to B-Spec drivers to fill the seats in their ST and GS cars.
WOULD YOU CONSIDER LEAVING SPEC MIATA AND RUN GLOBAL MX-5 CUP?
This question has a simple answer. If you have any ambition of running in a pro-series, or moreover being picked up to run as a paid driver in a pro-series, then you need the world to know who you are. In Spec Miata you might be the king, but to all intents and purposes, you are invisible to the world.
To give you an idea of how much attention this series is getting, not only did we have the entire Petite Lemans track-side crowd to watch us, but Mazda's Live Streaming channel has had more than 450,000 views giving you some idea of how many people follow this racing. Not only that but you are attending pro race-weekends so you are on the track on the same day as many other IMSA classes, and guess what, most of the drivers and crew wander down to the exciting corners to watch the extremely exciting racing that happens in this competitive series.
Mazda’s commitment to the series is impressive:- from the Mazda village to the autograph signing event, to the parts and spares trailer that brings absolutely everything you will ever need, to the series provided driver-coach, Kenton Koch (whom I used at every opportunity I could), to the engineers, technicians and team drivers that were immediately under our tent when I asked for help with setup.
The cars are absolutely identical in power. New cars take about 500 miles to get to full power so in one weekend you will pretty much have what everyone else has. Mazda and SCCA Pro are very serious about rules enforcement. You cannot add nor deduct anything, otherwise you will get penalized and fined and the fines are substantial. Judging from the cars that I was around the power variance is significantly tighter than in Spec Miata, so you end up free from the drama that surrounds the never ending power struggle to find that one unicorn engine.
All cars run the AIM data system and every driver has to hand in video from each session within 30 minutes of the session end or be fined. The officials come to your cars and download data if they suspect the car is an outlier, and every now and then they take cars at random back to Long Road Racing for complete compliance checking. This is tech at another level.
The teams that compete in the series are professional teams, all running multiple cars sharing data, often with data specialists in house helping their drivers. Once I finally got comfortable in the car, series driver-coach Kenton Koch was instrumental in helping me find the final 10ths that I was leaving on the table.
WHY HAS THERE BEEN SO MUCH CARNAGE IN THIS SERIES?
The parachute that is dragged behind this open top car is just staggering. You can come out of Turn 7 at Road Atlanta more than 15 cars behind the car in front, and despite two completely identical cars, you will be sucked up to the bumper of the car ahead and can even consider making a hail-Mary dive bomb attempt into T10A.
This is the double edged sword that Mazda and the series is wrestling with. This draft brings the entire pack back together again, and ensures that there is very tight racing throughout the pack. There were many occasions when it was four wide into T10A during both races, and the ABS braking system makes drivers feel more secure going for the late dive bomb attempt than if they had to modulate the pedal themselves. This makes tremendously exciting racing for spectators and ensures that the series is seen by a huge worldwide audience.
So the massive draft makes for exciting racing, but it also ensures that no-one can break away and that a less skilled driver is able to pull back into contention lap after lap. Ultimately this gives false confidence and you can see it building where you know that there are going to be some low percentage passing attempts. My gut feel is that carnage will continue to be part of the series, as it is doubtful that Mazda is going to put a hardtop on their attractive roadster and dilute the roadster image
SO WHAT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO ANYONE CONSIDERING THE SERIES?
If you are a young driver with serious skills, a Justin Hille, Michael Carter or Ralle Rookey, and have the funding needed to race the series, I would advise you to sign up immediately as you will be racing amongst some of the best wheelmen in the country, in identical cars, in front of a huge audience that will be able to recognize your talents. And you might be able to secure a pro drive way earlier than you will by staying in Club Racing.
If you like the attention and “Big Show” aspect of pro-racing, then you will love the series. It is pretty cool to be signing autographs on posters and hero-cards for young fans who just love what we do. The show aspect is on a much higher level than even the biggest event in Club Racing, and this will appeal to many drivers who will enjoy the attention, publicity and professional event coverage.
However, if you are timid or do not like wheel to wheel racing with rubbing, or if you hate the idea of paying for crash damage, then this is not the series for you. There has been a lot of carnage and as much as I hate to say it, this will probably continue for some time to come, until the draft effect can be minimized.
The Pro Series aspect does have some tremendous advantages. Once you have your hard card you never register at the track, it is all done online. The compliance team comes to your garage to check on your gear and car. The event staff are all professionals and want to make sure you are having a good time racing in the series.
I definitely want to do this again. Now that I know how the car should handle and perform, I want to prove to myself that I can qualify well and run at the front. I am looking forward to a new challenge.
A huge thanks to all those that made this weekend so enjoyable. I especially have to thank Mike Collins for his generosity, and Karen Dildei of Meathead Racing for making all the arrangements work so seamlessly, and for taking the really great images that are featured in this post. Thanks to the entire Meathead team including team driver Nick Bruni for his insight, crew chief Jonathon Bergeron, and crew members Ian Brooks, Miller Roberts, Adam Crandall, Ess White, and Tim Meek.
Thanks to the entire Mazda team from John Doonan, Dean Case and to Glen Long and the entire Mazda tech support team that helped me sort out my car. Thanks to driver and series-coach Kenton Koch, as well as Mazda team drivers Tom Long and Andrew Carbonell for their assistance and advice. And of course to all the drivers in the series that welcomed me and made me feel right at home. Hope to see you all soon!