Wedging myself into the cockpit of Keith Tanner's 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata turned Targa Newfoundland podium finisher, I'm struck with the realization that most race cars are the automotive equivalent of a pet electric eel. They look fantastic lounging around, and you may even be struck with the impulse to get close, but the reality is that it's only a matter of time before it reaches out and lights you up like a cheap string of Christmas lights. This notion is only underscored when Tanner hands me a set of noise-cancelling headphones with an integrated com system.
"Here. You'll probably want these," he says. "It can get kind of loud in here."
With a 400-horsepower General Motors L33 wedged between the fenders of the poised Miata, it's only a matter of time before the stripped interior resonates with the sound of eight furious cylinders. I ask if there's anything I should know before I hit the ignition. Tanner says no. I'm beginning to suspect he's lying to me.
There's a brief moment of mental disconnect between hitting the stock Miata key and feeling a small block V8 fire to life beneath me. The cabin fills with the kind of perfect cacophony that can only come from god's great gift to internal combustion. I notch the Tremec six-speed into first gear and burble to the closest intersection. Tanner gives the all clear and I roll into the throttle and splash into an endless well of torque. I expect drama. I expect tire smoke and ham-fisted tiller swinging. I get perfect, controlled, linear acceleration courtesy of a capital P Positraction rear end borrowed from a Cadillac CTS-V instead.
I expect tire smoke and ham-fisted tiller swinging. I get perfect, controlled, linear acceleration.
"It really comes alive around 4,000 rpm," Tanner says as I click through to third.
The pure mechanical precision of the gearbox is heaven, and I dip deeper into the throttle as we pull a long uphill into a medium right out of Flatrock. Again, I expect to be forced to lift in the face of dire understeer, but with a mere 200 pounds over stock weight and a 52/48 weight balance, I'm rewarded with the perfectly poised suspension and litheness of a stock Miata that just happens to have four times the power. I can't believe how perfectly drivable this car is in every way. It's controlled, comfortable and completely contained. This isn't an electric eel at all. It's a basset puppy with greyhound in its veins.
This isn't an electric eel at all. It's a basset puppy with greyhound in its veins.
Tanner originally prepared this car to compete in the 2008 Targa Newfoundland, and at the time, the vehicle relied on a reworked version of the stock four-cylinder. The demanding stages of the event required more thrust out of each corner, and for 2011, Tanner decided to move to the more forgiving rules of the Open class with a V8 conversion under the hood. The end result is a slightly tamer interpretation of the 430-horsepower LS3-powered street conversion that Flyin' Miata produces for mass consumption. Yes, Flyin' Miata will build you your very own V8 conversion for daily driving and on-track shenanigans.
A V8 Roadster's subframe supports the aluminum small block out front, and with most of the weight of the conversion saddled in the heavy six-speed manual gearbox, the vehicle still retains its playful balance. Tanner says that an excellent Targa car is effectively a well-sorted street vehicle – something that won't punish you with a temperamental powerplant or overly harsh springs, and that's exactly what he's built. The Flyin' Miata crew raided the full history of MX-5 production for the very best components, be it the lightest dash borrowed from a 1990 or sharpest suspension bits. The racer uses steering and upright components from a 2005 Miata in the front and 1994-1997 uprights in the rear. A set of custom-valved AFCO shocks are paired with coordinated springs for a compliant and poised suspension that's been tuned to step out on command. It's the kind of playful that begs you to get frisky with the throttle.
The Flyin' Miata crew raided the full history of MX-5 production for the very best components.
Hopping onto the Trans-Canada Highway toward St. Johns, I give the throttle a long plunge and feel a great invisible fist of twist press on my chest once again. This is addicting, and – purists be damned – it's exactly what the Miata has been missing all of its life. Our exit comes up too quickly and I sample the Flyin' Miata big brake kit at work before diving into the cloverleaf at a speed I'd think twice about in a modern Corvette. The light-weight Targa Miata soaks up the lateral forces without so much as a hiccup, and I realize I'm nowhere near this vehicle's threshold. It's the kind of platform that breeds confidence with every turn, and it's never ending wealth of power means that it wouldn't take long to wring some serious speed out of the machine.
Tanner started down a path cut by the likes of the AC Cobra and Sunbeam Tiger. One where a small car finally gets the redemptive power it needs to waltz up and dot the eye of more impressive metal, and he succeeded in every way. Tanner and his wife, Janel, were one stage away from claiming this year's gold at the 2011 Targa Newfoundland. A faulty Mazda main relay caused a DNF on Day 4 and put the team in third overall. Otherwise, the vehicle performed without a single mechanical issue over 1,300 miles of racing and transit. Now that's a proven pedigree.