How Fast Does It Go?

A few years ago I decided to learn how to race a car. Not just driving on a race track during a track day, but full-blown, wheel-to-wheel, amateur racing where you line up in a grid, the starter waves a green flag, and the first driver to cross the finish line wins.

When I tell people that I race cars for fun, inevitably one of the first questions asked is “how fast do you go?” I’ll get back to that in a minute.

For amateur racers on a budget, the Mazda Miata is a natural choice. They handle well, they’re inexpensive to buy and maintain, and they’re safe. Since 1989, over one million of them have been built. The first two generations of the Miata make perfect amateur race cars, and the SCCA runs hundreds of weekend Spec Miata races all over the United States every year. The Spec Miata class has strict restrictions on car modifications and tires, which creates a level playing field.

Living in San Francisco, there are lots of great local options, including Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway. A typical race weekend field of Spec Miatas has 40–50 identical cars, which makes for intense competition. In this racing class, you win based on car handling skill and racecraft, not on horsepower.

Exiting Turn 2 at Sonoma Raceway, July 2017. I started 19 of 47 Miatas; finished 13th.

Spec Miatas are a lot of fun to race since they are elemental cars: fully manual 5-speed transmissions with a clutch pedal and a stick shift, manual steering (no power assist), and non-ABS assisted brakes. The biggest knock on them is a distinct lack of acceleration: they only develop about 120 horsepower. In order to deliver competitive lap times, you have to maintain momentum through the corners.

Racing a Miata at the limit is an intense physical and mental workout. The car has absolutely no modern stability control systems. Their brakes work great … unless you lock them up. The cornering ability due to slick tires is awesome … but if you start to slide, you have to quickly countersteer to catch that slide and avoid a mid-race spin. To keep from unsettling the car as you enter a corner under hard braking, you must use “heel and toe” downshifting, a technique where you engage three pedals (clutch, brake, and throttle) at the same time (yes, with just two feet).

Exiting the car after a 40-minute sprint race against 50 competitors, your racing suit is drenched in sweat. It’s an intense physical, emotional, and (yes) intellectual experience, all at once, which requires focus, endurance, and problem-solving in equal measure. It’s an incredible experience.

So back to the original question which almost everyone asks: how fast does it go? In the case of my 2000 Miata, the top speed is about 125 miles per hour. In practice, on a racetrack, the highest speed you’ll see in a Miata is about 110mph (unless you’re bump-drafting).

But asking about the top speed is the wrong question … the real question is cornering speeds. Most of a driver’s skill is required in and around the corners, which is where Miatas shine (and are the equal of any racecar without aerodynamic downforce). Anyone can mash a gas pedal, but it takes a lot of skill to maneuver a car at the limit, without any form of stability control, around corners on a racetrack full of highly competitive drivers.

People who race ask about lap times, not top speeds. The difference between the Spec Miata drivers that win races and those who finish mid-pack is about 5 seconds per lap. That doesn’t sound like much, but finding those last few seconds per lap is tremendously difficult, and where I have a huge amount of respect for the people that win these amateur races.