Why tiny Mazda rules amateur racing

on May21

Amateur racer Hannah Grisham, above, says the Miata offers a ladder that helps build a racing career.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to autonews.com/racing on Monday for our in-depth look at racing and the key role it plays in the auto industry. This story will be part of the section.

GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACHLong Beach, Calif.

If you were to draw a line connecting up-and-coming amateur racer Hannah Grisham — a 17-year-old Californian juggling water polo practice and homework — with Tom Long, a 35-year-old pro driver and racing coach with a resume full of podium finishes, it would go right through Mazda and its venerable MX-5 Miata roadster.

Mazda’s footprint in the auto industry is tiny. But its reach in the world of club and amateur racing is unparalleled, even against motorsports giants such as Ford and Porsche. This is thanks in large part to the Miata, born in 1989 as a modern take on the simple, fun roadsters that poured out of postwar Europe decades ago.

Cheap, fast and ubiquitous, the Miata has become the gateway to racing for countless speed-hungry souls.

Including Grisham.

Like many racers with motor oil in their veins, Grisham inherited her passion for motorsports: Her dad, Tom Grisham, is a former champion Baja motorcycle racer. Where her sister zigged toward their mom’s love of horses, Hannah zagged to anything that went fast.

By age 3, she was driving road buggies. Buggies evolved into kart racing. By the end of 2015 and reaching the limits of karting, Grisham was looking to step into auto racing as a career, her looming college decisions notwithstanding. After considering stock cars, she was approached by a team racing Miatas and offered a spot.

It was a natural fit — for three reasons that get to the heart of the Miata’s success throughout the realm of motorsports:

“They’re definitely not the fastest cars that you’ll see, but they handle very well,” Grisham told Automotive News. “And they’re affordable. They also offer this ladder which really helps you actually make a career out of it.”

That ladder starts with the Teen Mazda Challenge that Grisham started competing in last year and works its way up through the amateur and pro ranks. It’s perhaps the most defined path to a pro-racing career supported by any manufacturer in the industry.

Tom Long: Miata’s affordability is key to his progress as a driver.

At the top of the Mazda ladder are drivers such as Long, a textbook example of the evolution from amateur-spec Miata racing to top-tier career driver. He’s currently in his fourth season racing in the prototype class of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series.

Like Grisham, Long cites the Miata’s affordability and Mazda’s support of racers and the car as essential to helping him progress both as a racer and as a driver.

“I honestly owe my career to Mazda in the sense of the upward moves and the opportunities I was given,” Long told Automotive News. “That was literally the reason why we went that route. There was a pro opportunity that didn’t have to tack on multiple zeros onto the end of your racing budget.”

But it’s not just drivers with pro-career aspirations who noticed the advantages of racing Miatas. Weekend warriors across the country have, too.

So much so that in the early 2000s, a groundswell of amateur racer support for the Miata led to the two sanctioning bodies — the National Auto Sport Association and the Sports Car Club of America — to each create a spec series for the car, a race series featuring only a single make and model. The Miata spec series are now the most popular amateur racing classes in the country.

Within the Sports Car Club of America, the much larger of the two associations, Mazda-powered cars make up 55 percent of all production-based entries; Ford is a distant second, with 14 percent. That’s significant dominance for an automaker with under 2 percent market share among U.S. consumers.

The cars are a darling of the racing set for their combination of economy and old-school thrills. The Miatas are cheap because they’re mechanically straightforward, hardy and reliable. And they’re everywhere.

Ubiquity is essential for racers on a budget. Stuff your car into a tire barrier in a race or clip a fellow racer on corner exits, and you’re going to need parts. With more than 430,000 Miatas sold in the U.S. since the car’s launch, finding what you need online or at the local pick-n-pull is cheaper and easier than with a lower-volume competitor.

Ironically, it took some time for Mazda itself to begin to capitalize on the Miata’s popularity. The first generation of the roadster went on sale in 1989, but it wasn’t until around 2000 that Mazda began selling the sanctioned suspension kits drivers needed to install to race in Miata spec series. To date, the automaker has sold more than 3,000 of the kits.

Today, amateur racing’s fingerprints are all over the fourth-generation Miata, introduced for the 2016 model year. Not only does it harken back to the small size and low weight of the first two generations of Miata — the generations raced in the spec series — but elements such as the rear suspension design, the engine’s power delivery, even the gear strength in the transmission, are gleaned from Mazda’s experience with the Miata being raced.

This club enthusiasm also has helped perpetuate the Miata nameplate. It’s no secret that small sports cars and roadsters never have fully recovered from their recession-induced slump. When Mazda bean counters do the math on the business case for another generation of the Miata, knowing that there will be reliable demand for parts helps the car’s case.

“Those program managers in our process get that total business picture,” Robert Davis, Mazda North American Operations’ senior vice president of special assignments, told Automotive News. “They try to understand it upfront, so while the sales volume of the cars might not be there, they can expect to have X number of parts sales for the next six to eight years.”



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