Over the last few years, I’ve both implied and said it explicitly: Spec Classes are THE way to go if you want to go racing, with VERY few exceptions. The affordability of spec classes makes them more attainable, so there are larger car counts. The tight rulebook keeps the cars relatively equal, so the racing is tighter and costs don’t balloon as much with popularity. Does spending a fraction of the cost for larger fields and tighter racing sound good to you? I hope so.
If you are at all familiar with the blog, you know I am a giant Miata Fanboy. For better or worse, I do really love the Miatas and credit the low running costs as a large part of how I can go to the track so much. Yes, the answer is always Miata… but what if you absolutely, positively, couldn’t do a Miata, is there something else?
I ::GASP:: Raced a Spec E30.
Spec E30 is a spec class based on the 1984-1991 “E30” 3 series BMW’s. Similar to the Miata: the E30’s are a simple, affordable car with relatively low horsepower and weight… It’s also a wildly popular class within NASA racing.
Thanks to a season of incredible growth in our local (NASA Northeast) Spec Miata field and the small size of “The Bull Ring” Lime Rock Park, we were able to convince our race director to give us a Spec Miata-only race group (We typically share a track with Spec E30 and Honda Challenge). There was one major side effect of the split from the “Lightning” run group: Rivals Spec Miata and Spec E30 were no longer running together. This allowed two Spec Miata drivers and two E30 drivers to “double dip” and run with both of NASA’s two most popular road racing classes.
I have been planning to write an article like this for a long time, but before a true comparison I needed to race an E30. Obviously, my lone weekend racing E30 does not make me an expert, but it’s better than nothing. I don’t even consider myself an exceptional driver, just an average enough driver to have fun and snag an occasional podium… hopefully my impressions are reasonably accurate for the majority of current and prospective drivers.
To help with the comparisons, I asked several E30 racers for their opinions, maintenance intervals, and budgets. I also reached out to a few other Spec Miata drivers to confirm that we had a general consensus on Spec Miata details. While there are some outliers who blast through consumables and/or have a large checklist of items replaced at incredibly short intervals, most of us are plenty competitive without going crazy.
So now for the hard question: Spec E30 or Spec Miata? What is the best class in racing?
13) The Driving:
Spec Miata and Spec E30 run a similar formula. Light, Low Power, Simple. The Miata is lighter and handles a bit better, but the E30 has more power and is a bit more stable. In our region, frontrunners in both classes run nearly identical lap times to the other class, albeit in different ways.
On an open track with minimal other cars (Like a HPDE day or qualifying) the E30 definitely seems like more fun to drive. They love to slide and be driven hard whereas the Spec Miata does need to be driven hard, but requires finesse to get around the track quickly. To make up for the relative shortcomings in E30 handling, I had to employ tricks from my “Mustang days” like throttle lift oversteer and the occasional steering chop. I’m not sure if they were the absolute fastest methods for driving the car, but it reminded me how much fun it was to drive a car like that. A miata just doesn’t go and stay sideways with the same ease of the E30.
Honestly, the largest physical difference driving the two was the steering input. Between a small 320mm wheel and the Miata’s steering ratio, the E30 felt like it required twice the steering input. This made my transition between the cars a bit interesting, but I typically “snapped back into it” on each outlap.
These differences aren’t huge. However you wish to swing it, these are small, light, low powered racecars, and that is the best part about them.
12) The Racing:
“Spec classes” have always been a place for races determined by driver skill vs technological improvements and ingenuity (And how much money you’ll throw at it). This means you have an entire class of VERY similarly capable cars, running extraordinarily close to each other.
The restrictive rulebooks of Spec Classes have bred a reputation for costing more than open classes, as drivers and teams may go to extreme lengths for the smallest advantage amongst otherwise identical cars. However, drivers and teams shooting to optimize their cars will happen in any popular class. In fact, Spec Classes minimize the advantage gained from tweaking every possible component.
To put it simply, both classes have fantastic, close racing all over. Just look up results in your local races and check out the lap time spreads. Both classes often have the first several cars well within one second in their fastest lap times. Each region will obviously have different spreads throughout the fields, but most seem to have a pretty well defined front and mid packs… Not everyone is racing for a trophy, but everyone is door to door with someone. Compare those lap times to other classes, not only are most other class fields significantly smaller, but they’ll often have huge lap time spreads between the few cars participating.
For actual racing, I have to give a slight advantage to the SM. I’m sure some of my comfort comes from my seat time in a Miata, but the Miata’s handling advantage is apparent at the limit. They are easier and more comfortable to drive door to door. I had more ability to maneuver (and evade), which allows closer racing through the pack. Results from my region’s races support this, with the Miata pack generally running tighter through the field than the E30’s.
11) Car Buy/Build Costs:
In my post “How Much does a Spec Miata Cost?” I go into detail of the costs to buy a Spec Miata, both new and used. The info I found on the SpecE30 market is surprisingly similar to the Miatas. For SE30 you can get a decent regional car for $8-10,000 and a very competitive car can be bought for $15-20,000. Similar to Miata, beyond a decent built platform and a built engine, most cost-adding extras are things for tech and vanity (fancy gauges, data systems, painted interiors, etc)… they may help a bit but aren’t going to be the factor that holds you back from or catapults you to a national podium.
The costs of a car and prep are quite similar, the one point where Spec E30’s really stand out is in the rollcage. Because of the cramped nature of the Miata, the cage design and quality plays an integral role in driver comfort and egress. The spacious interior of the E30 means the cage design is not as important a factor in driver comfort. A few years ago, the SM rules were modified to allow a ~1.5” floor drop, gaining a surprising amount more room for large drivers and simplifying seat mounting. SM main rollcage hoops can also terminate on the structural center of the Miata; The package tray. Miatas can fit drivers much larger than their reputation suggests, without doing too much work: But it will severely limit your market if looking for a cheap used car.
10) Running Costs/Consumables:
I spoke with five Spec E30 drivers from different experience levels and typical finishing positions to try and get a range of typical consumables in the class. I was shocked to hear near identical reports across the two classes.
Brake Pads: Both SM and SE30: Front pads last about half a season, rears easily go a full season.
Brakes Rotors: Both SM and SE30: Cheap Blank rotors work fine, and are usually good for over a season. (Often replaced annually, partially because they are so cheap.)
Tires: Tires are where you will get your biggest mix of answers from drivers in both classes. While I did get a large range of answers, it was similar for drivers across both classes. To generalize: The tires are at their utmost peak of competitiveness on fresh-rubber hungry tracks through around 6 heat cycles. They’re still plenty race worthy at and over 12 heat cycles, but can also be driven at reasonable pace well into the 20’s.
*At NASA events both cars run the same Toyo RR’s in 205/50/15 on 15×7 wheels.
** As of Feb, 1 2022 NASA announced that effective immediately: Spec E30 will use Maxxis RC1 & VR1 as their spec tires (Breaking from Toyo). This is huge (and unexpected), I’m sure more information will come out. Rulebook here. The Maxxis aren’t considered to be as quick as the Toyos, but they have a reputation for lasting longer, and currently cost $50 less per tire.
Spec Miatas and Spec E30’s are two of the most simple, underpowered cars in the paddock. With that comes reliability. Both cars are exceptionally reliable, and while there are the occasional drivers who wish to tweak every alignment setting through the weekend, the majority just add gas and go all weekend.
Evenings in other areas of the paddock are often jammed with the sound of repair work late into the night. Spec Miata and E30 paddocks are usually full of people just hanging out, enjoying themselves over a BBQ or around a campfire. I lost my tire gauge for a pretty significant part of this season, It was eventually re-discovered: On top of my track toolbox. That’s how rarely I need to touch my car at the track.
8) Built Engines:
The single biggest dollar-per-advantage “upgrade” in both Spec Miata and Spec E30 is the engine. Spec Miata relies on strictly spelled out “stock” modification rules, where spec E30 engine rules are similar, but also employ a strict 160.9 Horsepower/Tq cap. Purpose-built engines in both classes can offer significant gains over a healthy junkyard engine. While you certainly don’t need a “pro motor” to be regionally competitive, for fast tracks (like Watkins Glen) and championship races, the double-digit (and more) horsepower advantage may be insurmountable.
The cost for a fully built engine in both classes is similar, typically in the $4,000-7500 range (Yes, about the cost of a cheap car). The cost of a competitive engine is my largest single complaint about both classes, but it’s far from a deal-breaker.
7) Junkyard Engines/ Cores:
Despite the platform’s age, E30 junkyard and “core” engines are quite affordable, easily found in the $3-800 range. Many enthusiasts updating their E30’s to newer BMW powerplants means M20 engines are plentiful and cheap.
Miata Junkyard and “Core” engines have been fluctuating recently, (Driven no doubt in part by the “slap an eBay turbo on it and run till it blows” mentality of many street-miata enthusiasts) with many noting challenges finding unmolested junkyard pullouts. Expect a wide range of prices from $600-1500 for a decent used street engine.
6) Part Availability:
The recent flash in popularity of “80’s-90’s” rwd cars, plus the standard RWD “drift tax” has upset the parts market in many ways. Some aspects of the explosion have been helpful for part availability, others have used up some parts and/or driven up prices. The Miata does have an edge here, as the last SM-legal car was produced as recently as 2005, so there are still plenty of relatively new cars around. On top of that, Mazda has shown some real commitment to the platform and still produces many parts (including body panels) for both NA and NB cars.
Beyond producing parts, Mazda also lends it’s support to several Mazda racing classes in the form of generous contingency prizes and multiple driver recruitment/scholarship programs.
Eligible E30’s were produced between 1984 and 1991 so it is a much older chassis than the 1990-2005 Miata. Despite being out of production for 30 years, E30 parts are currently still available between used and aftermarket. The rules committee has also shown they are willing to make update allowances as parts become scarce for the older cars, but some parts are indeed become scarce.
Oh the 80’s and 90’s. These are still simple cars with minimal crumple zones, built before much concern for aerodynamics and pedestrian crash safety standards. In short: These cars are durable, Both are largely unaffected by bump drafting (imagine doing that in a class that allows big aero parts?). Both cars hold up quite well to both minor and moderate contact, which is a criminally underrated quality in any racing class. Cheap parts and simplicity of design usually means what can’t be fixed in the paddock with a sledgehammer can usually be swapped in 15 minutes.
4) Donor Cars:
Despite continuing to age (and rust), Prices have risen considerably for both cars over the last year or so. As these cars start to gain “classic status” I’m not convinced the Covid price bubble will pop and bring prices back down to where they were. While this will raise the cost-of-entry a bit for new builds, the higher value of street cars may encourage people to take better care of existing cars where they previously may have been sent to the crusher.
3) Rental Racecars:
Availability for both Spec Miata and Spec E30 rentals will be HIGHLY dependent on your area, and apparently… Luck.
In the Northeast, we had Drivegear Racing for Spec E30. The cars were available for HPDE, Racing and even Endurance racing. Drivegear rented competitive E30’s for very reasonable rates in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic Regions.
Finding Spec Miata rentals in my area has proven to be more challenging. Interested drivers (Licensed racers, ready to pay what was necessary) struggled to find cars to rent, with shops uninterested in renting, not answering the phone, or already overbooked between other events. Price quotes to rent a Spec Miata ranged from $800 to OVER $2,000 per day… The most disappointing part: There was little apparent increase in quality of prep for the most costly rentals. As my region’s NASA Spec Miata presence continues to grow, I hope the variety and reliability of the rental sources grows as well. Hopefully your area fairs better.
2) National Popularity/Field Sizes:
While Spec E30 is a very popular class in NASA racing, it doesn’t have quite the same following across other clubs. The class is recognized in BMW CCA racing as well as some SCCA regions, but they aren’t getting huge fields at the moment. Check your local results and talk to local racers to see what fields look like near you, make sure you won’t be racing alone.
Spec Miata is THE most popular class in club racing. These cars are raced everywhere. As we have discussed at length, this comes with some advantages as well as disadvantages. However, most of the “You need a $40,000 car to be competitive!” claims are either totally unfounded, or are referring to the top 5% of Spec Miata driver skill and car prep in the country. If you want to podium a championship race with 100 cars in class, you obviously need to put up a serious effort. To do well in a regional race with ~20 cars, your own skill will make the most difference.
The largest difference in Spec Miata rules between clubs is the allowed tire, meaning nearly all cars can simply bolt on the appropriate tire (Toyo with NASA and Hoosier with SCCA) and run across multiple clubs.
Despite it’s national popularity, there are big discrepancies in local Spec Miata participation. Not all clubs and regions are regularly seeing 20-30+ car fields, but there will always be someone to race (Which is more than many classes can guarantee) .
1) The Future:
A conversation I have often: How long can these cars be “The” thing, and what will be the next affordable Spec Racing car? Unfortunately, I don’t really have an idea. Sure, there are somewhat promising options like the 350z and BRZ/FRS/86, but they (As well as every newer car) lack the simplicity, durability, lightweight and low power that make the Miata and E30 the perfect club racing chassis. Sorry, the NC Miata is not as stout and production numbers aren’t nearly high enough. E36’s in “Spec3” have the a lot of promise. They are already gaining ground and I can see them taking the place of SE30 if/when SE30 falters, especially if they can make a couple tweaks like find a reasonable suspension package. But there is a pretty narrow “allowed year” range (Yes, you can swap engines to make any e36 legal but that’s extra legwork), and the last E36 produced in 2000, they’re even older than the NB Spec Miatas.
The more pressing question is When. How much longer will the classes persist before they fall out of favor, get too hard to find, or run out of spare parts. I think a big edge goes to the Miata here, as they are a much newer car and Mazda has committed to continue production on many parts and has even put some back into production. That said, I don’t see either class going the way of “Spec 944” for the next few years, there are simply too many cars around, and they’re too good.
You really can’t go wrong when choosing between Spec E30 and Spec Miata. On an open track (let’s say HPDE events or even qualifying) I very much enjoyed throwing the Spec E30 around. However, the actual door to door racing in Spec Miata seems a bit tighter and more enjoyable, and that’s what we’re here for, right? Each class has its own advantages over the other, with a lot of similarities as well. For me, I have a decade of knowledge and experience with Miatas, and I don’t plan on switching over (But I’ll happily run both again given the opportunity)… If I had to start from scratch, which platform to go with would take some serious thought. I know of multiple drivers who saved up the cash to buy a race car, shopped for both and got whichever deal came up first.
The Slam Dunk argument: Compared to nearly every other racing class out there: The rulebooks for both SM and SE30 do a fantastic job of keeping the cost-to-participate extraordinarily low, while allowing you to be competitive in large fields. Racing in a field of a few cars simply isn’t as fun as running with 10, 15, 20, or more. There are a few fantastically designed classes in racing, but without the numbers, they still can’t touch the fun of SM & SE30.
Don’t be tricked by small up-and-coming classes that claim they’re “the cheapest place to race, ever” especially if they have an open rulebook or are racing something like a corvette – Some may be on-par with top build SM/SE30 costs now, but most will skyrocket the moment they get sizable fields and the cost creep/arms race that comes with them.
So, what are you waiting for? Come race with us.
A note since I wrote this article: Andrew of Drivegear Racing recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. Andrew was a pillar of the community, and one of my absolute favorite people at the track, the paddock is not the same without him. Drivegear Racing is no longer operating and his cars are now spread up and down the east coast, still racing in the class that he did so much to foster and grow.
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