As far as publicity stunts go, it was an outstanding one. No doubt inspired by the many stories of “10/10ths driving” out there in the motoring press, Skip Barber decided to hold a media-only round of its MAZDASPEED Challenge, dubbing said race the “Skip Barber Media Challenge”. The purpose of this event would be to determine the fastest journalist in North America. Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen that way.
Why not? Consider this. Imagine a stadium containing every self-styled “motoring journalist” on the continent. There would be at least ten thousand people in that stadium. Now imagine that you ask everybody without a valid major-sanction racing license to leave. After the Who-concert-style trampling subsides, you will be left with thirty or so people. Ask those thirty people to accept a $7500 damage liability, a fairly rigorous travel schedule, and post-race publication of the results. Now there will be just one person left, and that person was me. To keep from feeling completely alone, I suggested that Skip Barber invite SHARP magazine’s occasional motoring editor, Brian Makse. I know Brian well, as he was my One Lap of America co-driver in 2005 and 2006.
Two journos does not a race make, so we were given the chance to participate in a regular-season MAZDASPEED Challenge at Laguna Seca Raceway. The race weekend was scheduled to start approximately 36 hours after the conclusion of CTS-V Challenge. I drove home from Monticello to Ohio and then flew from Ohio to California, which left me four hours to sleep. At the conclusion of that four hours, Brian picked me up at the hotel and drove to Laguna Seca, where we were packed into a Ford Econoline van with the rest of the MX-5 racers.
Don’t say “Miata”, by the way. These are modern 2007-vintage MX-5s, not Miatas, and they are worth about fifty grand each thanks to a comprehensive package of safety and performance upgrades. Skip Barber fits the MX-5s with two different types of seats to accommodate drivers from petit to point guard; at 6’2” and a 48” chest I fit easily into the “regular” seat. In terms of performance, these cars are considerably faster than a garden-variety Spec Miata but not quite up to a full Playboy MX-5 Car, largely due to the super-slippery G-Force Sport street tires. Hustling the Barber MX-5s requires putting them fairly sideways at the exit of every turn and the entrance of some.
Having prepared for this “track walk” with a strenuous two-week program of videos, pace notes, and coaching from top-level professionals, Brian cheerfully anticipated each corner and chattered endlessly with the SB instructors. I fell asleep on the Econoline’s vinyl seat, because I was dead-tired, stressed-out from the aforementioned CTS-V Challenge, and I’d never so much as watched a TV race at Laguna Seca.
Our first practice session revealed the true superstars in the race group. Two young drivers, improbably named Tyler and Coulter and each attended by a retinue of handsome, California-esque family members, were clear of the field by approximately a second or so. Behind them, a couple of older drivers vied with my pal Brian for mid-pack honors. At the back of the pack was Jack Baruth, who was still trying to figure out which way the racetrack went. It takes me a while to learn tracks, you see. I’m still learning Mid-Ohio, and I’ve been racing there for years.
Unlike at my Mid-Ohio club races, however, here at Seca I had some help available. At the conclusion of every on-track session, each Skip Barber racer receives detailed, individualized feedback from the corner observers who watch more or less every inch of the track. These observers are successful racers in their own right and have been thoroughly trained in the absolutely perfect MX-5 line around Laguna Seca. After speaking to each of the corner observers, I had a much better idea about what I would need to do in order to avoid finishing dead last in the non-Media Challenge.
I will readily admit to being a lousy qualifier. I simply don’t drive well on a timed-lap basis. (See: CTS-V Challenge). Racing is what I do. I love to bang fenders and make dramatic passes, neither of which leads to good qualifying results. Still, I was depressed to see that I had qualified no better than sixth out of thirteen. Luckily for me, however, Brian had broken a swaybar in qualifying and only managed a single lap, which landed him in seventh. Woo-hoo! Still fastest journalist!
It’s worth noting that when Brian came in to the pits, the Skip Barber people had a replacement MX-5 ready to go. They take the availability, and equality, of their cars seriously. I never heard an allegation that any of the cars were “ringers”, nor would I have believed it. The cars were so equal that differences in driver weight were readily apparent going up the hill towards Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew.
As I expected, Tyler and Coulter were qualified at the sharp end of the grid. Given that I would be starting seventh, I didn’t expect to make their acquaintance during the race. But I did expect to finish better than sixth, particularly after getting a solid night’s sleep for the first time in a week. I was so interested in doing well, I even agreed to watch a couple of MX-5 Cup races with Brian before calling it a night.
Race results and more MX-5 Cup impressions in Part Two.