May 3, 2016
When it comes to ranking great sports cars, the Japanese machines of the previous century are rarely considered. Yet in their day they offered performance and reliability that was nowhere to be found in Detroit's American competitors.
The Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros of the 1970's had around 130-180 horsepower, most of which was only usable in a straight line since American sports coupes weren't noted for their handling. Meanwhile, Japanese cars generally fell within that same power range and offered vastly superior road-holding and mileage.
I have been fortunate to own and race all of these cars, and this series will begin by comparing their performance on the track.
1991 Mazda Miata
The Miata makes an average driver good. It is predictable and returns excellent road feel through both the steering wheel and the seat.
The stock brakes on the Miata are superb and hold up surprisingly well under race conditions, largely due to Mazda's long term commitment to its own Spec Miata racing series.
The Miata's 1.6 liter four-banger struggles to make 116 horsepower, but the rev range is perfect and the car's small frame would quickly become undriveable with more horses – and therefore more weight – under the hood. As it is, the Miata is well balanced and begs to be driven hard.
My favorite race in a Miata was at Texas World Speedway's 16-hour endurance race in 2015 when Rocksteady Racing scored its first podium. The track is fast and agrees with the Miata's transmission. I could drive 90% of the track in fourth or fifth gear with my foot flat on the floor, averaging nearly 90 mph through those sections.
The Miata is quick and reliable, earning a first place tie in our Japanese race track face-off with…
1974 Datsun 260z
The early Datsun Z cars are still seen at club races around the country, and for good reason. The 260z's 139 horsepower 2.6-liter inline six dwarfs the power output of the Miatas, and its handling capabilities place it on par with the Porsches and BMW's of the same era.
Unlike the Miata, which is already operating near capacity, the Z cars get much faster when outfitted with all-out race equipment such as upgraded struts, coil-overs, and engines that can easily be built to produce over 200 horsepower.
The big weakness of the Z car is the brake system. The rear drums cease to be functional within a few laps, and the front discs will overheat minutes later. A four-wheel disc upgrade is mandatory for serious road racing.
Once done, the Z car is crazy fast. Its longer wheelbase allows it to be drifted through turns with more driver feedback and less risk. The car is hooked up properly when the inside front wheel lifts in the corners while the rear end slides gently and predictably under acceleration.
I have over a dozen wins and two championships in Z cars, but one of my favorite events was back in 2000 while driving a Datsun 240z for owner Jeff Saulsberry. We won the GT-2 class handily and had fun mixing it up with a pair of high horsepower Chevy Camaros for the overall lead, eventually settling for third overall in a field of nearly 40 cars.
If you ever have a chance to drive a Datsun Z car in competition, take it. On the other hand…
1987 Toyota MR2
This car is a handful on the race track. Its short wheelbase makes it twitchy. The mid-engine layout makes it counter intuitive. The steep rake of the hood produces surprising downforce and plants the nose firmly. The steering wheel is small and the lock-to-lock rotation is tight, making the car highly responsive.
The MR2 demands an accomplished racing driver. Its 112 horsepower, four cylinder engine cannot pull you out of a corner. Instead, the driver must fling this tricky little car into a turn with abandon in order to make speed.
But woe be unto he who fails to account for the MR2's twitchy nature. As with most mid-engine cars, when the rear tires begin to slide you cannot let off the accelerator. On the contrary, the driver must ease back onto the throttle to bring the car back in line. Its pretty weird until you get used to it.
My most memorable racing experience in a first-generation MR2 came at Oklahoma's Hallett Motor Racing Circuit in the fall of 2004, driving for my old friend, George Buhr. With no prior experience in an MR2, I spun out twice in practice before finally figuring out how to drive the thing. I managed to score the best lap ever for that car, but still could do no better than third in the race.
The Toyota MR2 makes a fine race car, but its lack of horsepower and short wheelbase result in a third place finish in our Japanese face-off. On the street, however, the MR2 tells a different story… and that story will be told in an upcoming blog.
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Co-host, Mecum Auctions on NBCSN
Driver, Boschett Timepieces/McGunegill Engines #21 Super Cup stock car