#TBT Starting the Miata Sensation

In 1989, Mazda introduced a car that would shape SCCA competition for 25 years...and counting.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Mazda Miatas have become a common sight at all varieties of SCCA events. This wasn’t always the case. While the cars were quick to take off in Club Racing’s Showroom Stock C, it took a couple more years for Solo success. In 1997, eight years after the car’s release, it was introduced to SCCA members in what is now its most recognizable form: Spec Miata. At the 1999 American Road Race of Champions, a Runoffs-like showcase of SCCA’s regional classes, Spec Miata had the 2nd largest class entry. The class has since grown to become one of Club Racing’s most popular national classes.

The following article first appeared in the April, 2014 edition of SportsCar Magazine. SCCA members can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here after logging into their account; To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.

Where were you in the summer of 1989? Do you remember the first time you saw the new Mazda Miata that year? Many SCCA members will remember that moment clearly, although some of our current competitors and National Champions hadn’t even been born yet. But while it was obvious that Mazda’s new lightweight convertible hit all the right notes to set a sports car lover’s heart dancing, what we couldn’t know (though some suspected) is just how profound an impact the little car would have on the SCCA.

“I came into motorsports about the same time the Miata did,” says Steve Sanders, Motorsports Development Manager at Mazdaspeed. “There was immediate interest in racing the car in autocross, and the Showroom Stock C class was full of Miatas. The competition was incredible.”

The Early Days
Out of the gate, the 1,600cc Miata posed a familiar challenge within the SCCA – where would it be classified to Club race? At the time, new models were required to be a year old before they were classified into Showroom Stock, and Miata was placed in Showroom Stock C for the 1991 competition year. But not everyone was willing to wait.

Dan Edmunds was a professional test driver as well as a volunteer Flagging and Communications worker for Cal Club Region, and he had some connections to Mazda. Edmunds was among the first to lay eyes and hands on the new car, and he holds the distinction of being the first to bring a Miata to an SCCA Club Racing event. Edmunds brought the car to a Driver’s School and had the first Miata logbook issued in September of 1989. Edmunds and his Miata won the first Southern Pacific Division National race on Feb. 10, 1991, sanctioned by Cal Club at Willow Springs Raceway in February.

“I got the car in June of 1989, and it was something we were initially going to run in World Challenge,” says Edmunds. “I brought it to the last race at Riverside, but we had to keep it in my trailer so no one could see it. We decided not to race in World Challenge for 1990, and you couldn’t race a Miata in SCCA Club Racing until 1991, so the car languished until the Willow Springs race in February of that year. I won that race at Willow Springs and really crushed it. I think I took two or three seconds off the lap record.”

Among the people who first saw the Miata race at Willow Springs that day was Pratt Cole of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I went to the race at Willow Springs in a Peugeot, and I was looking for a new car,” says Cole. “Dan Edmunds showed up with that Miata, and I watched him run around and thought, this car is going to be great! I called Steve Sanders and had a Miata ready by the Double National in Seattle in May, and I finished fourth in that car at the [National Championship] Runoffs that year.”

The Miata fared well in Showroom Stock C in 1991, competing in many Divisions and at the Runoffs. Although Eric Van Cleef took the SSC Championship for Mazda that year, he did it driving a Protege. The Miata’s first National Championship in SCCA Club Racing came at the capable hands of Randy Pobst in 1992.

“I had raced against the Miata a couple times the year before, and I saw how good it was,” says Pobst. “I found a deal on a Miata, put the roll cage in it the night before my first race, and drove straight to the track. I don’t think anyone realized just how good it was going to be.”

After Pobst proved the Miata could take the top spot, two-time SSC champion Michael Galati drove a 1.6-liter Miata to his third and fourth championships in 1993 and 1994, cementing the car’s reputation in that class. Galati also won the SSB National Championship in a 1.8-liter Miata in 1997. Galati established the Miata as the car to beat in SSB, with the crown passing to David Daughtery in 1998 and 1999, and then to Randy Saucier in 2000 and 2001, back to Daughtery in 2002, and finally to Harry Manning in 2003 – all in Miatas.

“In 1992, I won my Division but didn’t do so well at the Runoffs,” says Galati. “In 1993, I switched to BFGoodrich tires and it was a different story; in two years I won 27 races.”

Winning in Solo
The Miata was slower to win in SCCA’s Solo competition, and it wasn’t until 1993 that Marla Davis took home a National win in C Stock Ladies. Bob Klingler followed that up with a Miata C Stock Championship in 1994, and Michael Butler took C Stock honors the following year. Then in 2002, Matthew Braun drove a Miata to C Stock honors, followed by Steve Telehowski in 2003 and 2004. Guy Ankeny drove a Miata to the C Street Prepared Championship in 1997.

“Hondas were the weapon of choice until I won in 1997,” says Ankeny. “Since then, the Miata has been the most dominant car in CSP. Once the door was open, it hasn't been closed.”

1.8-liter Miatas won in B Stock starting in 1997 with back-to-back championships by George Doganis. Garry Thomason took over in 1999, and Peter Raymond won the class in a Miata in both 2000 and 2001.

“At first it was not clear how high the limits of the car were, so people did not really believe what it could do,” says Doganis. “I went through five or six cars before I drove a Miata. I never bought another car. It was obvious to me that the Miata had huge potential.”

The Production Racing Dynasty
While the Miata was dominating Showroom Stock in the 1990s, several drivers began the long process of development necessary to succeed in Production racing. The Miata was first classed into E Production in 1993, and San Francisco Region’s Terry McCarthy and Showroom Stock veteran Pratt Cole built Miatas for the class.

“Late in 1992, I crashed my car really hard at Sears Point [Now Sonoma Raceway], and I built that into the E Production car,” says Cole. “The Miata was allowed into E Production for 1993, and I stayed after it. I was going to race until I won.”

McCarthy drove his Miata to victory in EP in 1994, and Cole took his turn at the top of the podium in 1997, 2001, and 2004. Bob Boig took the EP championship in a Miata in 1998, and Jon Brakke claimed top honors in 2003, 2010, and 2012.

“I raced a Chevrolet Corvair for 20 years, and my brother started racing with British sports cars, and he had gone to Spec Miata,” Brakke says. “We looked around and finally chose E Production with the 1999 Miata in Limited Prep. By the time we got to E Production, there were very few full prep cars being run.”

Because of Limited Prep rules and the different engines available, the Miata has been eligible to race in both E and F Production, and more recently in GT-Lite. That versatility attracted the father/son team of Kent and Jesse Prather. Kent was already a well-known figure in Production racing, having claimed six prior championships in his MGA. Jesse took the F Production championships in 2006 and 2007.

“For F Production, the Miata has become the old MG Midget of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” Jesse says.

Rick Harris succeeded Prather by winning the 2008 F Production title in a Miata. Jesse moved his car to E Production that year and won again. Then Kent took the same car and moved it to GT-Lite, winning the class in 2011 and 2012.

“In 2010, Jesse and I decided to run the same car in E Production and GT-Lite,” says Kent. “We would come in and change tires, change the fuel injection program, and put on the restrictor. We were both able to be competitive in the same car. Then [Jesse built a new] MX-5, so I built a GT-Lite engine and went out and won in 2011 and 2012 in the same car. It has five championships on it; three with Jesse and two with me,” Kent says.

In addition to winning multiple championships, Jesse has made Prather Racing into one of the leading Production and GT Miata builders in SCCA, attracting customers from across the Club. Jess Heitman of Portland, Ore., plans to compete in F Production at this year’s Runoffs. “Jesse has given me invaluable help and information in building my F Production Miata,” Heitman says. “The working relationship with everyone has been fabulous.”

Changing the Game
While the Miata was winning Showroom Stock races in the 1990s, the groundwork was being laid for one of SCCA’s most popular classes of all time. By the mid-1990s, Miata production had eclipsed both the MG/Austin-Healey Midget and Sprite (355,888 cars) and the MGB (386,789 cars), and by 1997 Mazda had produced more Miatas than both MG models combined. For SCCA members, a plentiful supply of low-cost used sports cars inevitably leads to great racing. The Miata had been classed into Improved Touring S, but was not competitive there, and many drivers believed that a new class was needed.

In the late 1990s, several people around the country were thinking along the same lines. From his vantage point at Mazdaspeed, Steve Sanders was able to connect these people with each other and with the larger SCCA community.

“I really can’t take credit for all of it, because there were two guys who spearheaded the Spec Miata class,” Sanders says. “I set up the part numbers so people could buy the Bilsteins and the correct springs and the sway bar kits. But the two guys who helped launch Spec Miata were David delGenio and Shannon McMasters.”

With help from Sanders at Mazda, delGenio in the northeast plus McMasters and Tim Evans in Texas put together a unified set of rules and built several cars.

“I had been involved with the Miata starting in 1991 building SSC/SSB cars,” delGenio says. “By 1995, when there were used up 1.6-liter SSC cars, Shannon McMasters down in Texas moved his thoughts and efforts to the Miata. It was 1997 when Steve Sanders asked if I would help. We agreed on the original rules and I put together the suspension and tire package. Then Shannon and I turned into salesmen. It wasn't easy, but we kept at it.”

Then things really began to take off when Jim Daniels joined the team to promote the class. The tipping point for Spec Miata happened when a major effort came together between McMasters, delGenio, Daniels, and Mazda to bring as many cars as possible to the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) at Road Atlanta in the fall of 1999 to showcase the class.

“We put together a tow, tire, and entry assistance program to get the Texas and New England cars racing in Georgia, and it ended up being the second largest class that first year.”

With the Spec Miata concept proven at the ARRC, the next step was to get the Regions on board. Jim Daniels became the master of the SpecMiata.com Website and forum, and he set out to promote the new class to the Regions.

“The ingredients were all there – it just needed someone to strike the match,” says Daniels. “We had to call all the Regions to get their fax numbers, and I made up a one-page flyer that said Spec Miata was going to revolutionize your Region. I did a broadcast fax to every Regional Executive in the Club.”

By the end of 1999, racers were building Spec Miatas all over the country, and the class took Regional racing by storm. The next few years were characterized by huge success, as well as the struggles that often accompany success. Efforts to keep costs down and the competition close were only partially successful, but class numbers kept increasing. With that success, the pressure to make Spec Miata a National class built up quickly. After several years of robust growth, Spec Miata achieved nationwide rules with its own section in the GCR for 2004, and became a National Championship class in 2006.

The 2006 championship race drew an impressive 61 entries, and 55 Miatas started the race. Andrew Caddell of Northwest Region became the first Spec Miata National Champion. The class has become even stronger at the Runoffs in the years since, setting Runoffs class size records of 60 starters in 2010 and 69 starters in 2013. In a testament to the close competition, it was not until the eighth National Championship was awarded that Spec Miata saw a repeat winner: Jim Drago won in both 2012 and 2013.

“I really think people enjoy the racing and the camaraderie,” says Drago. “Since the beginning of Spec Miata, it’s been a little different. Everyone has spare parts, and often you’ll see different teams and different guys helping other competitors get their cars together. Everyone wants to win, but we want to beat the other guys at their best.”

Beyond the Runoffs, Spec Miata is now a critical source of participation and revenue for SCCA Regions around the country. Sustained participation has meant the difference between red and black ink from coast to coast, and the class has brought hundreds of new racers into the Club, with Spec Miata consistently finishing in the top two – more often in the top spot – for overall class participation.

The Miata Goes Pro
When the Miata was introduced, the first racing venue to classify the car was the brand-new SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge series. The Miata was placed in the Super Production class, along with cars such as the Honda CRX and Eagle Talon. Two cars were commissioned by Mazda and developed by Rod Millen Motorsports, but they achieved no great success in World Challenge and the Miata did not come back to SCCA Pro Racing until the advent of the Mazdaspeed Miata Cup series in 2003.

The Miata Cup offered Pacific and Atlantic championships from 2003-’05, and was replaced for 2006 by the Mazda MX-5 Cup, featuring the third-generation Mazda MX-5 in a completely specified configuration. After working to promote Spec Miata at the Club level, Jim Daniels became the first MX-5 Cup champion.

From the beginning, the Miata has helped boost professional racing careers. SSC Champions Pobst and Galati went on to stellar careers in World Challenge, with Pobst earning four championships and Galati holding five.

“Everyone likes to start with fancy cars, but the Miata was a great launch to my career,” says Galati. “The reliability was incredible, so you could finish and win. With low horsepower, you develop your skills. The Miata helped me tremendously.”

The MX-5 Cup series has been the immediate SCCA Pro Racing destination for several Spec Miata National Champions over the years. First Caddell, then 2007 Champion Brad Rampelberg, and 2008 Champion Eric Foss have all taken a turn in MX-5 Cup, and then moved on to World Challenge and other professional series.

“I truly believe driving a Miata helped my racing career tremendously,” Caddell says. “The skills I learned in a Miata translated well to every other car I got to drive, and if you can be fast in a Miata, you have the skills to be fast in anything.”

Looking to the Future
As the MX-5 Miata celebrates its 25th anniversary, the phenomenon shows no signs of weakening. With over one million Miata and MX-5 models produced to date, there are plenty of affordable racecars still on the road. There’s a predictable harmony among the leading Miata racers in SCCA when it comes to the future prospects for the little car: all see the Miata continuing as a mainstay of the Club.

Jim Daniels plans to return to the Runoffs for 2014 in Pratt Cole’s old E Production Miata, and he has a vision for the future of Spec Miata: “I think you’re going to see the MX-5 merged into Spec Miata. I think it will keep the class fresh and keep the young blood in there.”

Jesse Prather is equally optimistic, saying, “As long as Mazda continues its awesome support, I think we’re going to see many years of Miatas in Production racing. Limited prep Production rules have attracted a lot of drivers, and I have customers running Super Touring Light, too.”

Perhaps most importantly, Mazda has no plans to abandon its legacy. “We have a new sports car coming to replace the MX-5 in a few years,” says Sanders. “The Miata has really been the lifeblood of our motorsports program for the last 25 years – it’s been the biggest success in Mazda Motorsports ever.”

Pobst has winning experience ranging from championships in Solo to World Challenge GT. His analysis is simple: “The Miata is the modern version of the classic sports car upon which the SCCA was built. It’s like all the MGs from the TC to the MGB, and the Triumph Spitfire. Just like all those elemental sports cars that are well-balanced with great handling and feel, in the modern era, the Miata is the quintessential sports car.”

Words By Jeff Zurschmeide
Photo By Rupert Berrington