Miata Track Impressions – The Learning Curve

One of the biggest challenges in learning to drive my Miata in a competitive setting has been adjusting to the fact that it is much, much smaller and lighter than anything I have ever driven before.  I grew up driving mostly large sedans and pickup trucks, and previous to this my autocrossing and ice racing experience was done behind the wheel of a 1991 BMW 5-Series sedan.  While the E34 is a capable platform, it weighs in the neighborhood of 3,400 lbs, which is a half ton more than my Miata.

The first few autocross events I attended in the new car saw me trying to fight the vehicle around the cones as though it were the same portly beast that I was accustomed to piloting.  My BMW had been all about controllable oversteer, with a lack of rear grip amplified by narrow tires and an abundance of torque from its inline 6.  This led me to develop a driving style that could perhaps best be described as ‘reactive wrestling’, and combined with my propensity to be abrupt rather than smooth with my throttle and steering inputs, I was unsettling the Miata on an almost constant basis.

After attending a 2 day Evolution Performance Driving School, I finally began to see that in order to wring better course times out of the Miata I would have to approach it much more delicately.  The car simply did not possess the power to cover up for my mistakes, and it wasn’t prone to linear oversteer but rather gripped until the last minute until it would abruptly step out of line thanks to the shorter wheelbase and Torsen rear differential.  This meant that I had to maximize my smoothness and maintain as much momentum as possible throughout the course.

The lightness of the car also lent itself to a very different approach when it came to course evaluation.  I found that I was often holding back in terms of acceleration during slaloms and straights instead of pushing the car to a high speed and then slowing down for corner entry.  The lightness continues to surprise me in terms of the vehicle’s overall dynamics.  It also took until very recently for me to trust that I could turn in much quicker than I had in the BMW and still clear the cones – leading to much faster times.

This coming weekend will be my first 2 days on a road course with the Miata, and I expect to learn even more about the vehicle during that time.  Does anyone other there have any tips or stories related to their own track experiences that might be helpful to me as a first-timer?

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