Remember the dream of the Grand Am B-Spec series? The best and brightest econoboxes, stripped and caged and ready to rock? Well, that died. The series was shut down after its debut in 2012, but the prepped race cars found their way to enthusiasts, where there's actually been grassroots efforts to get them racing once again. I recently enjoyed wringing one of them out for an afternoon.
I was at Harris Hill Raceway, in San Marcos, TX, and I wasn't there exclusively to drive a car that was once categorized by Enterprise Rent-A-Car as "extremely economical," but I'll come back to the Mazda2 in a bit. I was spending the afternoon with Chris Taylor, learning about racecraft, driving fast, and pining for some track time in the red Spec Racer Ford parked in the paddoc.
You know those driving schools, like Skip Barber or BMW Performance Driving School? Chris Taylor Racing Services is not like that. It's one-on-one driving instruction, and when you're ready to take it to the next level, racing instruction. If you've done a bunch of HPDEs and now you want to go racing, this is for you. Or if you wanna race, but aren't ready to commit to buying a racecar, you can rent one from from Chris, who will transport it to events and maintain it. It's a gateway into racing culture.
I don't think I need to state the huge difference between "lapping on a track" and "racing," but in case there are any doubts, it's a chasm. Wheel-to-wheel racing requires loads of skills, and knowing how to lap a racetrack quickly, all day long, is just one small prerequisite. Chris Taylor takes a serious approach to instructing proper racecraft. Chris goes out in a second car, and you run drills to practice passing and practice defending a position. I did a LeMons race once, and it became clear that it would take a ton of seat-time to pick up these skills naturally and master them all on your own. And all that learning time equals slow, terrible results. Late braking, setting up passes, these are things that Chris says, "You learn, or you don't do very well."
Chris Taylor is a guy like us, except, unlike us, he actually grew up racing competitively in midgets and go-karts from a young age. He's been doing this his whole life. His race shop is located outside of Austin, in a town called Del Valle. A few years ago they built a racetrack called Circuit of the Americas across the street from it.
Unfortunately, the red Spec Racer Ford pictured suffered an alternater-related issue in my first lap with it, so I was unable to do any additional laps. Still, I drove a half a lap under its own power, and no one can take that away from me! The SRF (or a similar one) is available to rent, or if you'd rather, you can choose to rent a Spec RX-7, or Miata. Or the B-Spec Mazda2.
So how 'bout that Mazda2?
I climbed around the welded-steel rollcage and into the squishy, stock passenger seat. I've done plenty of HPDE's, so I was coming at this from an intermediate level, and although I've driven the track before, it wasn't in this direction. I got some coaching and rode along to get an idea about braking points, track position, and to observe how the car drove. It felt like Chris was getting impossibly close to the track edge on each corner exit, and the bumpiness of the track was magnified by the bouncy stock seat. After a handful of quick laps, we swapped seats.
This racing seat on the driver's side sits about 6-inches lower and makes the car suddenly feel planted and reassuring — what a difference! I've never really pushed a front-wheel drive car very hard, except at a few autocrosses a decade ago. So this Mazda2 (it's called the "2" because it has two horsepower, Hah-Hah!) has a very slick gearbox and the motor loves to rev. I mean it doesn't rev too quickly, but you can just tell it's enjoying itself, or else the front bumper wouldn't be smiling. After a bunch of laps I started learning which corners I didn't really have to slow down for, and how to get the rear to rotate just a smidge by lifting off throttle. Nothing dramatic, trust me, just, "Ooh, I could feel that." Wait; that sounds weird.
The cool thing about tracking a front-wheel drive car without any power is that you really can drive all the way up to the track edge at the corner exits. Let's be real here, you have some time to plan a good line, and if you realize midcorner that you're too hot, you can just, like, turn more, with no ill effects. The car is so predictable and forgiving, no matter how hamfisted your inputs. Half-throttle makes virtually the same power as full throttle, so smooth throttle application is optional!
I joke about it being slow, but it can carry some speed, and it's actually a great tool for the tight, 1.8-mile-long Harris Hill circuit. The track flows with the Texas Hill Country terrain, and has a rhythm that, in my head, has always recalled the fabled Gran Turismo original Deep Forest Raceway. Once I found my bearings, I received more instruction that helped me maximize the momentum and improve my pace. I think anyone, with any experience level, could get in this car and have fun and learn to go fast, safely.
It's important to remember that even though it's probably (definitely) too late for you to become a professional racing driver, it's never too early to start supporting your kid down that long and expensive road. Make them live out your dreams!
Big thanks to Chris Taylor Racing Services for the seat time and instruction. http://christaylorracing.com