How the Mazda MX-5 Cup Built the Ultimate Test of Racing Skill
The “blink of an eye” takes about 125 milliseconds. It takes about 50 milliseconds for you to form a first impression of a new face. For a hummingbird, it takes 12.5 milliseconds to beat its wings. What does it take to win an MX-5 Cup race?
At least, that’s what it took at Sebring this spring. In a wild, three-car-wide photo-finish, one millisecond separated race winner Selin Rollan from second-place winner Michael Carter. Behind them by 12 milliseconds in third place was Gresham Wagner. Naturally, the crowd was thrilled. It was the ultimate close finish in a series that’s becoming known for them. The cup race preceding it saw eight cars finish within one second of one another. Down the list, when you look through the race results of any recent Mazda MX-5 Cup event, the third decimal out is the variable to look for. At Sebring, they were close to needing a fourth.
Why is this series so incredibly, so consistently — and so nearly immeasurably — tight?
Because it was built that way.
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The big word of the day is homologation. Defined as “the granting of approval by an official authority,” homologation is the process — performed by cup officials continuously — of making sure that all competing cars meet the official series specifications. This strict process limits the variability of one car to the next, making sure that they are sufficiently identical in structure, handling, and power. It’s what makes a spec series a spec series.
With so many technical variables removed, it’s not surprising to see close race finishes in this series. The playing field is very flat. But the consistent, crowded, edge-of-your-seat, razor-thin-margin finishes that MX-5 Cup races have provided of late are on a level of their own. It takes a lot more than well-matched specs to produce an eight-car finish (especially one that doesn’t end in a messy pileup!) It takes talent. Serious, bold, and incredibly well-matched talent.
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Under the hood of every MX-5 Cup spec race car is the hard work and influence of Todd Flis, the managing director of Flis Performance — the shop which serves as the official manufacturer of the MX-5 Cup. As manufacturer, Todd is in charge of keeping the cars of the MX-5 Cup safe and efficient — and the playing field as flat as possible.
We asked Todd: What’s the secret? How did MX-5 Cup racing get so good?
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“As a series organizer, as a technical partner, as a part-supplier, as a source of information for the competitors — everything Mazda offers the series is in-depth, dedicated, and simply unparalleled in the industry. Not to mention, there's absolutely no other racing series right now that pays $250,000 to win the championship. That is such a huge thing for these competitors, many of whom are young and just starting their careers.”
When asked why the series is uniquely great, Todd Flis doesn’t even mention the spectator fun. He’s 100% focused on the drivers and their teams. The series, in his eyes, is for them. All his hard work as well. Todd and the team at Mazda are very proud of the “complete package” they offer to drivers. The coordination, the technical support, and the performance mentorship, too. It all adds up to an experience worth getting serious about. The path to becoming a better driver is pretty straightforward. There are no secrets to it. If you’ve got the talent and the work ethic, the door to success is tantalizingly open.
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One Smart Car
“All of our cars are equipped with sensors throughout the vehicle that measure control, transmission, differential, engine performance, and more as the car drives around the racetrack. The data collected is used by the series to keep cars safe and within regulatory parameters, but it’s also available to teams to help them see where they stand in the series on a very granular level.”
When you walk through the paddock at the MX-5 Cup, you don’t just see pit crew holding wrenches and pneumatic impact guns, ready to service cars. They’re studying data from pre-runs and past races, comparing it with the current race, and searching for their team’s numerical edge. Teams running multiple cars enjoy the fruits of multiple data sets. Smart data acquisition and management are a factor in those multi-car photo finishes. It helps new drivers get up to speed quickly, identify and close their performance gaps, and join in the millisecond-margin fun.
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A Phenomenal Tire
“The tire is so phenomenal for these cars. We see literally zero issues with it. Our guys beat these cars to death, and the tires never give up. There’s no blistering, no overheating, nothing. It’s incredible. I can tell that a lot of time and expertise went into the development of the BFGoodrich® racing slicks for this car. I am truly impressed and proud to have them as a part of our total package.”
We are proud to support the Mazda MX-5 Cup Series with spec BFGoodrich® g-Force™ 215/610 - 17 racing slicks — one of our many purpose-built race tires engineered for drivers who take winning seriously. See this page to learn more about BFGoodrich® racing tires.
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A Low Barrier of Entry
“If you want to be a race car driver, there's typically a high financial barrier to entry. At Flis Performance and the Cup at large, we're very cost-sensitive to everything we do in this series. If you change one car, you have to change them all, so we’re very careful about which swaps and upgrades we make. We want the total cost of ownership to be as low as possible to attract the most talent. When it's easy for everybody to compete, the field is more competitive, and the racing is more exciting.”
The best drivers don’t all come from wealthy families. Current MX-5 Cup drivers come from a surprisingly diverse set of driving backgrounds because — especially compared to other racing series — getting into a Flis Performance spec car and joining the series is relatively affordable. This produces an environment where drivers with fewer resources can start racing, prove themselves, get noticed, and earn sponsorships over time. It’s a reason to stay hungry and to leave everything out on the track every time. This not only widens and enriches the talent pool but also creates an atmosphere of truly high-stakes and exciting racing.
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“One of the biggest parts of a homologated spec series is the amount of control we have over the vehicles. No one competitor can spend their way to first place. They can only drive their way to the top. Less talented drivers can’t lean on equipment to win. You either work on your skills, or you’ll eventually get driven out of the pool.”
With as many technical race variables isolated as possible, all that teams can show up with is preparation, wits, and talent. This situation attracts a particular type of focused, methodical, and hard-working driver. Those who relish hard-earned wins end up sticking around. Over time, this changes the driver pool to isolate those truly elite drivers who are driven by and dedicated to self-improvement — making the quality of racing truly elite as well.
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Simple, Pure, Good Racing
“Moving forward, I sincerely hope the series doesn’t undergo many changes. We have a great product. And it’s working! Of course, there are always minor tweaks. But in racing, anything, any change you make incurs a huge amount of money. I am always pushing to avoid those costs, so they don't get passed to our drivers. Right now, we’ve got great drivers, running tight, clean races, with plenty of room to grow. It’s simple, pure, good racing.”
To stay up to date on all things MX-5 Cup, follow the series @MazdaMX5Cup and Flis Performance @FlisPerformace on Instagram. If you haven’t yet, check out the next Mazda MX-5 Cup race to witness the results of a series purpose-built for tight, clean racing with an exciting finish almost guaranteed.
Photographs courtesy of Mazda Motorsports/Ignite Media