There is so much goodness dialled into this little car that it rewards the driver and passenger hour-after-hour…
With a flash of lightning beside our car, my co-pilot Alexandra Straub let out a screech as loud as the accompanying crack from the massive flash.
Pouring rain in our tiny car made the very first day of the 2014 Mazda rally one to remember. The Mazda MX-5 (Miata) is a car most would associate with sunny, summer top-down driving but this little machine was determined to show what it was made of. The howling wind, torrential rain and debris-covered roads were all taken in stride as we carved our way through the Tennessee mountains on our way to the Brasstown Valley Resort in neighboring Georgia.
Over the next three days, we experienced the MX-5 on some of the most dramatic and scenic roads this continent has to offer, and there was money on the line, big money.
Last year was the inaugural Mazda Rally, which Alexandra and I won, taking home $10,000 in charity money for Kidsport. As last year’s champions, we had extra pressure this year to repeat, something we later found out would be much tougher than we had imagined.
If you ever take a drive through the south east of the United States, do yourself a favour and divert away from the interstate highway system and experience driving nirvana, traversing the Blue Ridge, Unico and Smokey Mountain ranges. The lush National and State parks along with small towns and twisting river valleys is something to experience.
This is a destination for drivers too, especially the “Tail of the Dragon”, a section of highway 129, just inside the North Carolina border that has 318 turns over an 18-km stretch. This is a favourite of motorcycle riders but it is open to anyone wanting to experience back-to-back corners ranging from very tight to wide, sweeping turns. Our run up this road was wide open thanks to steady rain, with a few dozen motorcyclists out for a tour and several photographers taking pictures, then selling them to tourist, the same way you can buy a picture of your rollercoaster ride at the PNE!
Paved roads are the place the MX-5 shines, wet or dry. It never felt like the car was out of control, even on the fastest and most aggressive corners. There is so much goodness dialled into this little car that it rewards the driver and passenger hour-after-hour. With a front engine, rear drive setup and perfect weight distribution, the MX-5 has been one of my all-time favourite cars because of its simplicity.
The small, light, thrifty dimensions matched to a raspy 2.0L 4-cylinder and 6-speed manual makes for a fantastic power-to-weight distribution, meaning the 160hp engine might not sound like much on paper but, in practice, it makes the most of every situation.
One thing Mazda’s event planners has us do was drive and collect information for each days challenges. All of these were kept secret until the beginning of each drive, including the roads we might travel. A surprise was that some sections were unpaved. Taking Mazda’s brand new MX-5 through forest back-roads at speed, meant rocks flying, branches felled from the previous night’s storm kicking up, sliding sideways through corners and pounding over rough and rutted gravel.
At the end, the MX-5 showed no signs of wear; it just powered on to the next challenge, which was another surprise, the Atlanta Motorsports Park for an autocross challenge. To say we went from one extreme to the other is an understatement. An hour earlier I was sliding across gravel roads, followed by sliding around a racetrack trying to avoid pylons to dial in my best lap time. As it turns out I did get the second best time of the event but one of those pylons got in the way, knocking down my time by two seconds, all part of the challenge’s rules.
Over the three-day event, Alexandra and I didn’t have one disagreement, I made some navigational errors and so did she. We let it roll, these were long days and we hoped a few small glitches wouldn’t impact our score too much. We also missed one major clue in our guidebook, one that was worth a whopping 50 points. At the end, we had slipped from second place after the first day to fifth place. Sadly, next year we won’t be able to proudly display the number one on the side of our Black Press car.