I’m into my second year of serious track driving, and I have made some surprising discoveries about my attitudes towards automotive performance. So far, I have had the good fortune to test the waters at a variety of different tracks and had a number of instructors sit in my right seat and offer fresh perspectives on my driving. I have also ridden along with much more experienced drivers to see how they handle the same corners and straights that I regularly tackle.
The biggest change in how I now approach performance driving has to do with the concept that I should be investing in myself, rather than investing in the car. There is no question in my mind that seat time and quality instruction are the two most important elements in turning in hot laps. Each and every turn around a track, if properly analyzed and understood, both while it is happening and afterwards in the relative peace of the paddock, is a learning experience that can be built on. Ultimately, the product of running lap after lap is the ability to push your vehicle to the absolute limit and turn in the best possible time.
In the past, I would not have been nearly so receptive to this particular line of thought. I used to be a disciple of the school that preached the gradual replacement of stock components with performance parts in order to increase horsepower, tighten up handling and shrink braking zones as much as possible. Indeed, I was initially drawn to the Mazda Miata as a possible platform for an LS1 engine swap, or at the very least, as a candidate for forced induction.
After two years of track driving, however, I have come to realize that my driving skills have not yet reached the point where I am capable of extracting every last hundredth of a second from my stock R package Miata. This was driven home most effectively two weeks ago when I found my rearview mirror being regularly filled by another Miata running several seconds faster than I was. I pointed him by several times during the course of the day, but it wasn’t until the next to last session that he came up to me in the pit, introduced himself, and revealed to me that not only was he driving a stock Mazda Miata but that it was powered by the smaller 1.6 liter engine.
Despite his horsepower deficit, he had no problem catching and passing me on several of the tighter sections of the track. Rather than be depressed by this, I actually found it inspiring – if he could do so much with his ‘slower’ stock Miata, then what amount of potential remained locked up inside my car? We talked for quite a while, and I was able to pick his brain regarding setup tips and general driving strategies for my car. It was a rare treat to meet someone driving an unmodified Miata, and a welcome perspective that was more useful to me in many ways than the experiences of drivers piloting track-oriented editions of the car.
Yes, there are important pieces of equipment that should not be overlooked when seeking a lower lap time – I have stepped up to wider R compound tires after 18 months of competing on street rubber, and of course my brake pads are not OEM – but ultimately, I will be keeping my Miata stock for the foreseeable future. Until I can reach the goal posts that continue to elude me in this car, there is no need for me to kick them further and further down the field by increasing its performance capabilities until they dwarf my own.