Among the BMWs, Porsche 911s, Mazda Miatas, and assorted sports cars at the National Auto Sport Association’s eighth annual 25 Hours of Thunderhill, three econoboxes stood out like camels in a herd of racehorses: two Mazda 2s and a Honda Fit. Always up for a challenge, we accepted invitations to join the teams behind the Fit and one of the 2s.
Racing an economy car might sound like an oxymoron—or at least very boring—but the Mazda 2 and Honda Fit acquitted themselves nobly. The idea of racing such cars came from Mazda, and is an attempt to provide affordable turn-key racers. Instead of running a one-make series for subcompact cars, Mazda talked with other manufacturers about producing a B-spec class, which is a set of rules and standards agreed upon by the participants. Once the class is defined, the originator (in this case, Mazda and Honda) shops it around to place a national championship with a sanctioning body such as NASA, Grand-Am, or the SCCA. Honda joined Mazda in readying a car for the Thunderhill race.
As Stock as it Gets
The cars were prepared to a simple formula. The interiors were gutted and beefy roll cages, radios, five-point harnesses, race seats, data-acquisition systems, and fire extinguishers fitted. Mechanical upgrades were few: 15-by-7-inch Spec Miata–size wheels all around with BFGoodrich g-Force R1 racing tires; racing brake pads, fluid, and braided lines; and off-the-shelf, non-adjustable Bilstein coil-overs. Other than a rorty AEM exhaust on the Fit, the engines were left stock. Both cars had some negative camber added up front, but no changes were made to the rear suspension geometry on either. Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes says that, if the series happens, the cars’ performance will be equalized either by using ballast or by having an electronic control module that can be reflashed at the track. One interesting Fit fact: The street car’s clever rear seat weighs 300 pounds, mass that disappears on the race car.
Barnes says, “Our hope is that young people will pick up on it because the cars are still relatively streetable. Our goal is to end up with a $25,000 package, out the door.” Twenty-five grand isn’t exactly cheap, but the price of entry for a national championship, even with a Spec Miata, is invariably higher. Of course, a sanctioning body has to bite on the idea first.
Both the factory 2 and the Fit were beautifully done. With lowered suspensions, war paint, and auxiliary lights, they even looked kind of racy, although the Honda stood tall compared to most of the other cars at Thunderhill. The 2 was driven by the author, journalist Dan Edmunds, and a trio of Mazda employees: Tim Buck, Jim Jordan, and Nathan Edmonds. The highly professional crew running the car came from Robert Davis Racing, a team with years of experience racing Mazdas with both the SCCA and NASA.
The Fit also had Edmunds and yours truly among the drivers, alongside NASA (the race organizer, not the space-exploring outfit) employee Jeremy Croiset, and Sam Poznanovich, Max Kiert, Brian Shanfeld, and Scott Nicol from Honda. The crew also came from Honda. Later in the race, in a bid to close the gap on another car in its class, the team drafted two more hotshoes: SCCA front-runner Lee Niffenegger from Honda R&D, and Simon Pagenaud, who is somewhat more accomplished than the other drivers. He won the 2010 American Le Mans Series with Acura and is a factory driver for Peugeot’s Le Mans prototype team.
We’re fans of both the Fit and the 2 at Car and Driver, as they’re light and nimble and fun to drive, which is usually a good basis for a race car. But both are shy on power—the 2 has just 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque, while the Fit has 117 hp and 106 lb-ft—so preserving momentum is critical to racing them.
In the dry, the Mazda is more like a race car than the Fit. Although the suspension is only mildly changed, the racing version is tossable and very responsive to throttle inputs. Gently lift off the gas and it tucks in nicely. Lift big time and the tail snaps into a slide. It turns in sharply and grips hard—to the tune of 1.3 g in some corners. The steering is swift and responsive, the brake pedal is firm and easy to modulate, and the shifter is slick.
The Fit doesn’t feel as racy, mainly because it’s softer than the 2, rolling more than we’d like on corner entry. Plus, you sit high, because the driver’s seat lives over the gas tank, as it does in the street model. However, the Fit’s short gearing and more powerful engine allow you to run through corners in a higher gear, and the longer wheelbase makes it more benign in transient maneuvers. It stops really well, too, even if its pedal is a little mushy compared with the 2’s.
Both cars are a lot of fun. They also deliver important lessons about driving a car fast. Even Pagenaud was gushing about the Fit. “I love it,” he said. “It’s one of the best cars I ever drove. It’s a really good car to learn the business because if you can’t drive this well, you won’t drive anything well. I learned on a Peugeot 205GTI and it reminds me of that—you need to do the weight transfer perfectly, have to brake in the right place, get on the throttle the right amount.”
Rain, Rain, Stay All Day
The race was mainly run under leaden skies and on damp pavement. In theory, this suits lower-powered cars like the 2 and the Fit, but it was a real challenge to get past cars that had lots of straight-line speed and then acted like mobile chicanes when they got to the twisty sections. I did manage to pass such cars as a Factory Five Cobra, although it took a few laps to do it. I think they were shamed into letting me past.
The 2 wasn’t as easy to drive in adverse conditions as the Fit. The relatively stiff setup and its short wheelbase conspire to make it twitchy; on dry tires in the rain, a slight mid-corner lift would lead to heroic amounts of opposite lock—or a spin. With rain tires, the 2 became much friendlier, but it was still tail happy if you were injudicious with the throttle.
The Fit, though, was a blast in the damp. The combination of a longer wheelbase, a softer suspension, and more torque and power, which gives greater adjustability with the throttle, meant you could toss it around like a tall, narrow sprint car. The number of times I drove around Miatas and Acura RSXs in wet corners was amazing. Were I driving a Miata and found myself holding up a Honda Fit, I’d be tempted to hang up my helmet and walk away from the sport. As Pagenaud said, “Guys do not like it when you go past them in the Fit.”
The Key to Endurance Racing
Neither the 2 nor the Fit suffered any drama aside from near misses with suicidal Miatas. Nothing broke. Other than stops to change from dry to wet tires (or vice versa), swap out brake pads, and refuel, the cars ran around Thunderhill’s 3.0-mile track like wheeled metronomes. The only real problem with either car was self-inflicted: The Mazda ran out of front brakes half an hour from the end of the race because the crew didn’t change the pads.
Both cars finished in the top 20 out of 61 runners—an additional eight cars crowded the track for a concurrent six-hour event—doing so well because they didn’t spend any time in the pits with mechanical issues, and the drivers did a good job of not hitting things or suffering major off-track excursions. The Fit was 15th overall and fourth in class, running 1710 miles at an average of 68.4 mph including pit stops, a number of lengthy full-course cautions, and a 10-minute red flag stoppage. That was only 58 laps, or 174 miles, behind the winning Porsche 911 GT3. Oh, and it averaged 13.8 mpg. Pagenaud laid down the Fit’s best lap with a time of 2:09.4, an average of around 83 mph. In a Fit. The Mazda 2 was 19th overall and seventh in class, 11 laps down on the Fit, with a best lap about five seconds slower.
Finishing in the top third of the field in the least-powerful cars in the race—cars little changed from their production selves—is very impressive. If Mazda and Honda can make a B-spec series happen, it will be a fine training ground for beginners and—more important—it will make for great racing.