WHEN I SEE THE POLICE INTERCEPTOR SUV’S gloss-black nose peeking out from shrubs at the exit of Archy Smith’s Corner, my first thought is, red flag. Not the bullfighter’s taunt, but the signal I’d seen during qualifying for my Pirelli World Challenge race at the big track up the hill the previous day. Meaning: This session is ending early due to misconduct.
Sure enough, the cop follows me down Railroad Straight and through Friar’s Corner. Down the steep grade of Big Bend, I slot the Miata’s shifter into second then lift off the throttle entirely, still needing a fair amount of brake to stay within the speed limit. The Interceptor hangs back like a prototype racer keeping its nose in clean air until the time is right to slingshot past.
Entering the village of Watkins Glen, New York, there’s a sharp left-hander where William Milliken rolled his Bugatti T-35 A on the final lap of a four-lap qualifying race in 1948. Easy to see why: The road loses camber and altitude all at once.
A county sheriff appears and drops in behind the policeman. I signal for a right at the stoplight. The two cops pull alongside, examining the Ceramic-gray Miata from splitter to spoiler. When the light goes green, I start rolling, but they sit motionless until they are certain I’ve gotten the message. Red flag. This is not a racetrack anymore. I pull into a parking lot the same way I’d move off the racing line, carefully, but with all possible haste. Message received.
Scholar Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989 that we had reached “the end of history.” His use of that phrase was meant to signify that we had arrived at an enlightened era in which all future governments would be liberal democracies, but it also applies to the deliberate presbyopia employed by many automotive enthusiasts regarding our own history. Consider that in 1989, when the Miata was released, the “classic” status of the Jaguar E-type was beyond question. Today, the first Miata is as old as the 1961 E-type was then. Does that make the MX-5 a proper vintage car? Not to people who think automotive history ended sometime around the Tet Offensive.
Which is a shame, because the history of sports cars since 1990 is, with few exceptions, a history of Miatas. They make up the bulk of modern roadsters, with well over a million units delivered across 28 years. Coincidentally, that’s how long the original MGB was built—but MG and its successor, British Leyland, barely managed half that volume. That’s not surprising. The MGB was already behind the times on its 1962 debut, and the majority of its changes in the decades that followed were not always regarded as improvements. The Miata, on the other hand, arrived as a completely modern automobile, received a major redesign for its second generation, and was all-new in 2006 before being totally reimagined on a bespoke platform three model years ago, to near-universal acclaim.
Near universal, because not everyone thought it was a good idea to replace the 167-hp MZR fourbanger in the third-gen car with a more efficient but less powerful 155-hp Skyactiv engine. The 12-horse reduction was more than accounted for by a comprehensive weight-savings program evident from the paper-thin sun visors to the four-lug wheels, but in an era where each new car is expected to shame its predecessor at the dragstrip, this parsimonious power-to-weight approach failed to satisfy some potential buyers.
Surely British Leyland would have told those malcontents to pound sand, but Mazda is more protective of its customer relationships. For 2019, therefore, the Miata receives what amounts to a heart transplant in the form of a 181-hp 2.0-liter engine with useful extra torque throughout the rev range. Crucially, the added grunt does not come courtesy of a turbocharger. Instead, the little engine just works harder; redline moves from 6800 rpm to 7500 rpm. There are other, smaller changes, all welcome, but it’s the free-spirited new engine that has everybody talking—and justifiably so.
This being the 70th anniversary of Watkins Glen, America’s original and arguably most important sports-car racetrack, it seemed only logical to bring this unashamedly modern take on the sportscar formula back to the place where our national obsession with that idea began. The temptation here is to make this an exercise in nostalgia, a rose-colored look at wire wheels and chaps in caps. Not to worry. As we will see, there is plenty of sports-car history left to write.
THE LOCALS STILL CALL IT “the day the trains stopped.” Just over 70 years ago, law student and MG enthusiast Cameron Argetsinger came up with the idea for a sportscar race through and around the tiny town of Watkins Glen, in western New York. He soon realized that his proposed 6.6-mile course fell under the purview of nine governmental agencies and the New York Central Railroad, which crossed the road that served as the track’s back straight. This did not deter him. By race day on October 2, 1948, he had secured all permits and convinced the railroad to suspend service for the afternoon.
It was the first road race on American soil since the Second World War’s end three years earlier. Fifteen cars qualified for the grand prix, with the win going to Frank Griswold and his prewar Alfa Romeo 8C over Briggs Cunningham in the brutish “Bu-Merc” that boasted a Mercedes-Benz SSK body over a high-compression Buick straight-eight. As for the organizer, his familiarity with the circuit was insufficient to make up for the modest power of his MG TC; he finished a respectable ninth.
I’m looking at a copy of the original hand-drawn track map as I prepare to cross the start/finish line on Franklin Street. It specifies four types of road surface: cement, macadam, oiled gravel, and dirt. Today, the clockwise course is completely paved, with signs for tourists. The Miata fires at the press of a button, and I hold down a switch as the complex mechanism performs its intricate dance to make the hardtop roof disappear. (We performed our instrumented testing on a Miata with a manually operated soft-top, which is more than 100 pounds lighter.)
It would be nice to have a starter waving a green flag; instead, one of western New York’s omnipresent diesel three-quarter-ton trucks rattles by in dilapidated glory. Thankfully, it fails to make the right turn for Old Corning Hill Road. For a moment, the course is all mine.
It’s a tough climb through Townsend Road Corner to the White House S-turn, up through trees that crowd the narrow two-lane. The 2018 Miata would have droned up the hill in second before reluctantly lugging through the next shift, but this revised engine is eager to sprint. In no time, I’m flirting with that elevated redline in third. Our testing shows the new engine knocks a half second off the 0-to-60-mph time and 0.4 second off its quarter-mile. It might as well be a Bu-Merc to the old car’s MG TC. Just like the straight-eight in Mr. Cunningham’s racer, this engine has been hot-rodded, and in ways that Cunningham himself would have recognized.
Each piston sheds 27 grams, while each connecting rod loses 41 grams. There’s more valve lift—Briggs would call that a “hot cam”—and larger intake and exhaust ports to match the new higher-pressure fuel injectors. The result: an engine that, for the first time in U.S.-market Miata history, seems positively eager to rev.
I recognize this free-spinning characteristic from the 1.5-liter variant of the fourth-generation Miata available overseas. That engine makes peak power a full thousand revs above where last year’s larger-displacement sibling did, and it went about its business with quite a bit more joy, even if raw numbers didn’t reflect it. This new 2.0-liter revs like that 1.5-liter, all the while delivering more horsepower and torque. It’s the best of both worlds.
I blast from canopy cover into open sunlight down a long straight that passes beneath an old railroad bridge. The Miata soars to redline twice more before I stand on the optional Brembos and squeak to a stop near a stone monument on the road’s right side. It was here that on September 23, 1950, during the third running of the grand prix, sports-car-racing pioneer and Road & Track contributor Sam Collier was thrown from his fishtailing Ferrari 166. A weathered plaque informs that Collier “crashed here while leading the grand prix.”
As I pull the Miata back onto the road for the descent to Stone Bridge, I have a renewed admiration for Collier and the rest of the Glen’s first challengers. The section from School House to Archy Smith’s Corner is a nightmare series of blind corners shrouded by deep forest. Unpredictable and brief camber changes hide like land mines in the dark spots between sunbeams. It would take a hero to drive through here at speed and a madman to attempt a pass. Railroad Straight is longer than the front side of Road America; wickedly fast, even on the dirt surface of 1948. The final drop from Big Bend to Milliken’s Corner would be a fifth-gear sequence in a current World Challenge or IMSA car. A race on this road with today’s machinery would be fatally irresponsible. Which does not stop me from taking a second run of the route at a slightly more aggressive pace, for the hell of it. By the time I acquire my impromptu police escort at the end of that second lap, however, I’m secretly grateful for the external imposition of a fixed speed limit. This was never a course for the timid.
In 1952, it was the death of a spectator, rather than the death of a competitor, that called time on the original Watkins Glen layout. From 1953 to 1955, the race moved a few miles outside town to a 4.6-mile layout of farm roads. Three sides of that square course are still open to the public, and the Miata is at home on them, swallowing the occasional imperfection with the compliant ride that always shocks people who are new to the car. It takes some recalibration to understand that “road-hugging weight” is, and always has been, a myth. The Miata rides well because it is light, because there is very little inertia for the modestly proportioned suspension to control.
There’s time enough on these bland straights to appreciate a few mild ergonomic revisions for 2019. Most important is the telescoping steering wheel, appearing for the first time in a Miata. Long-legged drivers can now fit their knees behind the wheel’s leather rim, rather than beneath it. The weight of the mechanism is offset by the column’s change from steel to aluminum. Heated Recaro seats are now part of a package with the Brembo brakes and BBS wheels that were must-have options in previous years.
The 1956 Watkins Glen Grand Prix took place on a new course, designed with the help of Milliken and located in the parcel of land surrounded by the stopgap 1953–1955 layout. In 1961, Argetsinger convinced Formula 1 to come to the Glen, a satisfying outcome for the young man whose original efforts had stemmed from his dreams of emulating European road courses in rural America.
The rest is history. Yet to say that is to wave an impassive hand over a wild succession of events in the years between then and now: the deaths of two F1 drivers and a NASCAR racer; multiple revisions to the track itself; a high-profile bankruptcy, then a civic-minded rescue by locally headquartered Corning Glass Works; hundreds of SCCA and professional-series events; countless battles for position that have been forgotten, perhaps even by the drivers involved. It would also be to neglect Argetsinger’s career as he left Watkins Glen to lead the SCCA and later head the International Motor Racing Research Center. When the SCCA opened its hall of fame in 2005, he was an obvious initial selection. Three years later, Argetsinger died at home, only a few miles from the start/ finish line of his original course.
The history of the Miata has more twists and turns than can be easily told here. It became the underpinning of sports-car racing in the United States just 15 years after arriving in showrooms. Even as the third generation evolved into a slightly porcine grand tourer, a racing variant starred in a brilliant new pro series, MX-5 Cup. Naysayers continue to predict the Miata’s demise, while fanatics ignore even the most justified criticism— including the painful but true point that, until 2019, the Miata’s engine was always its weakest and least engaging aspect.
These histories, both of the Glen and of the Miata, are still being written. There’s still room for each of us to participate in them, to add our names to the lists of racers and drivers and owners. And while it may seem ignorant or even arrogant to say so, after spending my own weekend competing at the Glen’s current racecourse and driving this newest Miata along the paths trod by Argetsinger, Collier, and others, I feel it should be said regardless: The best is yet to come.