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FOR THE LOVE OF IT:

Professional Racing in the Mazda Miata/MX-5

By Kevin Morrison

The Jordan Brothers, Jim and Joe, are the men behind one of the few professional racing teams who campaign the Mazda Miata on the most famous race tracks in America. The Jordans’ Protomotive Race Team travels around the country competing in the Speedvision Cup, a series sanctioned by Professional Sports Car Racing (PSCR), formerly known as IMSA. Their two Miatas, both ’94 models, compete in the Compact class against other Miatas, Honda Del Sol VTECs and Nissan Sentras. The other classes in the series - Grand Sport, Sport, and Touring, consist of the most sporting of sports cars on the road today, including BMW M3s and 3-series cars, Mazda RX-7s, Toyota Supra Turbos, Acura Integra R-types, Firebirds, Camaros, and Mustangs. All the cars in the series are production cars with limited modifications. Every car in the series runs on the same tire, the Toyo Proxes RA-1. All these classes run at the same time, so it’s just about the only place you can see a Miata swapping paint with all of your favorite sports cars, and making a pretty good showing for itself. While obviously out-classed in speed on the long straights, the Miata can hold its own quite well in the turns with its nimble handling and superb brakes.

Jim Jordan first began racing in 1975, in an MGB in SCCA E production. He soon moved into the IMSA ranks where he raced a Datsun 510, a Mazda RX-3 and a Dodge Charger. After going to work for Mazda in 1986, Jim has raced Mazdas exclusively. It was Protomotive who gave the Miata it’s first professional race win in the United States.

Joe Jordan is the National Sales Manager for high performance tires for Toyo Tire USA. He started racing in 1986 in SCCA Improved Touring in Jim’s RX-3 and went on to great success in the SCCA ranks in an RX-7, finishing second in his regional class.

Protomotive’s other two drivers, Joe Fox and Charles Espenlaub, are both up-and-coming young drivers in the Sports Car ranks. Espenlaub won the "Rising Star" award in 1997, while Fox is in the top three in the drivers’ points race for the 1998 season.

So it was with great excitement that I and two fellow Miata enthusiasts from Tampa went to Sebring International Raceway in Highlands County, Florida on September 18, 1998, to serve as pit crew for the Protomotive team for the fifth race of the season. Protomotive has been in the thick of the points race this year and hoped to continue their success with a strong showing in this race. We arrived at the track early on the day of the race to find the yellow #94 car finishing its morning warm up. The car performed well and only needed a minor check-up and new brake pads for the race. Joe turned our attention to the #93 car, which had been having electrical problems for last couple races. The Jordans decided to quit fooling around with an electrical problem they couldn’t track down and to replace the entire wiring harness in the car. Joe told us to simply "start disconnecting stuff" and we descended on the car and proceeded to track down the end of every wire and unplug every connector, working our way back to the firewall and into the dash of the car. Within an hour or so, we had the old harness out and started to put the new one in, reversing the process. We actually believed that we might be able to get the car running before race time, now only a couple hours away, when we found that the new harness would not mate with the ECU in the car. It turns out that the #93 car was a very early pre-production car, and did not have the same connector on the ECU that later ’94 cars have. So we called it quits and started preparing for the race, which was fast approaching.

The facilities at Sebring are modest. The pits consist of a long row of concrete block stalls, each just big enough for a drum of fuel and a couple stacks of tires. We were sharing pits and helping crew for the Massari-Muller BMW team as well, so we determined that the best contribution we could make to the team at that point was to stay out of the way. So we went up to the small seating area on top of the pits where we could watch the pit stops and be close by if needed.

With the recent acquisition of the Sebring Raceway by the motorsports juggernaught of the Panoz family, Sebring is slated for a major facelift and upgrade. Several improvements have already been made to the track, including a reconfiguration of the fabled hairpin turn, a change that many purists find difficult to come to grips with.

Sebring’s main thoroughfares are constructed on the old pavement of what used to be an airport (the regional airport is still right next door). The concrete pavement is laid down in giant squares, so the cars make a rhythmic clunking sound as they fly over the joints in the concrete. Making the track even more challenging is the asphalt pavement in the corners, making the cars uneasy as they make the transition from concrete to asphalt and back to concrete.

But the rich racing history of Sebring shows through. The annual 12 Hours of Sebring race is as famous as the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans races. Each year, nearly 100,000 race fans descend on the raceway, camping in the infield, in tents, cars, and RVs.

So it was with stars in our eyes that we watched the start of the Speedvision Cup. The sound of the cars taking the green flag at wide open throttle is deafening, and as you watch the pack disappear, three abreast, around turn one at the end of the front straight, your heart is in your throat and you just pray that they will all make it through the first turn. This time they did, and the race was on.

Sebring is a really big track, 3.7 miles around, and it takes a Miata about two minutes and 45 seconds to make the trip. From atop the pits, you can see only about twenty-five percent of the track. There are no elevation changes and the track is lined with concrete barriers and tire walls, making it hard to see unless you can gain some elevation atop the pits, atop your RV, or atop one of the several small viewing hills situated around the track. Our car was in the middle of the pack as it started to spread out as the much faster Grand Sport and Sport class cars left the rest behind. Our chief rivals were one other Miata and two Honda Del Sols. It was with chagrin that we realized that our beloved Miata was no match for the VTEC Del Sol. There’s just no substitute for horsepower, especially on a track like Sebring, with its mega-long straights. Nevertheless, we stayed within striking distance. When one of the Del Sols retired with engine trouble, and the other one made a dire mistake in pit strategy, we found our car was in first place in its class.

As is often the case in central Florida, though, the rains came down about half way through the race, and a long period of full-course yellow ensued. A flurry of activity took place in the pits as all the cars came in to switch to rain tires, Toyo RA-1s with full tread depth. The water on the track had nowhere to go and in places was six inches deep making racing too dangerous, so the yellow stayed out. The rain finally stopped, and with about twenty minutes remaining in the 2 hour and 45 minute race, the green flag dropped again and it was a sprint to the end. As the race reached the final two laps, we were getting excited as the announcer declared us the Compact class leaders. Just then, the race-leading RX-7 blew a turbo and started belching huge clouds of thick white smoke. All the cars in the pack had to slow down drastically due to the near-zero visibility, and somewhere in the fray, the Del Sol, driven by class points leader Steve Nowicki, passed our car and went on for the class win.

Skinner, Espenlaub, Fox, Morrison, SwigerSecond place was good enough for a trip to the podium, though, and silver platters for Espenlaub and Fox, followed closely by bottles of champagne that were vigorously shaken and sprayed on everyone within ten feet. Joe brought us one of the bottles and told us to take a swig as a reward for helping the team, and we drank with enthusiasm, already drunk with the thrill of just being there.

It was after the race that we enjoyed the real gritty reality of being on a race team, ferrying tires, fuel and tools back to the race trailer using a golf cart and loving every minute of it. I was starting to realize it already, but we learned that the real sport of racing is not glamorous, it’s really hard work, and the guys that do it, do it for the love of it.

 

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