He had brought out their B-Spec Mazda 2, and with some introduction, a discovered shared love of the Mazdaspeed Protege, and proof I was indeed a card-carrying NASA member, Jim had me signed up to take the car out in the last session of the day.
Hopping into the little car, even with the stock dash and race equipment, everything falls right to hand, and taking off was indeed a bit like heading out to get groceries. Just with all the safety equipment and going via a few hilly laps of Infineon Raceway along the way. What's really great about this car, is what they didn't have to change to make it completely competent on the track. Stock suspension mounting points, stock engine and transmission, and otherwise off the shelf parts to build this car. Also especially neat is that so many new cars' electronic systems get very fussy from having parts removed, but Jim explained they'd just pulled a few parts out, and went racing. And this was the very same car that had been out for the 25 hours of Thunderhill, had done every single track session at the NASA event that weekend, and who knows what else in between.
And it was great. The stiffness of the suspension and chassis were very complementary and wherever you pointed the car, there it went. It didn't wallow around in some of the more technical areas like exiting the 3a-3b complex, and it was credibly stable through the faster areas like exiting the carousel T6, or just breathing off the throttle to make T10. Even the ABS kicked in predictably pushing a braking zone to the limit or avoiding slower traffic. Certainly, the power isn't anything that's going to bend anyone's mind, but setting up much more powerful cars on the brakes or just plain driving around them on the inside of T7 or outside of T2 kept me giggling the entire drive. All too soon, it was over, and I had to give the car back to the team to pack it up for its ride home.
Musing a little about the drive, I imagined some kind of not to distant world, where perhaps forty of these cars might show up to race in support of some larger series...particularly on a street circuit...some kind of crazy 'Keystone Cops do Monaco' event would be tremendously popular with race fans. Sure, a typical fan comes out to see the big boys race, the Rolex or ALMS or other sports cars, but a supporting series with cars that aren't just silhouettes, but real honest cars that they use for the mundane everyday movement, particularly two, three and four wide through the first few turns -- that is something that a race fan will really delight in seeing.
That also points too to the future of the series - it's great to have an easily accessible chassis, parts and support. And it's also great to drive a fun little car around for the day, something that's a joy to toss around, is light on consumables, but I personally think the future for building a car that's on sale now has got to be some lower end Pro series. Even just a little money and TV coverage could get quite a lot of these cars out all over the country, and not just from Mazda but any other manufacturer that have a sub-compact car they even remotely hint might have some performance.
In the meantime, Mazda is really leading the way with this. Particularly to be able to spare the time to bring their car out for just anyone to try out, is just amazing. Even further to have a chance to hear Jim talking about calling the race for the #40 GT Rolex RX8 at the 24 hours of Daytona, and describing pulling every trick in the book to hold off the might of TRG Porsche...I had to pinch myself a few times. That's a company that cares.
So, thank you Mazda! We'll be definitely keeping two eyes on this one.
Photo from Mazdausa.com