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.”