This is an Élan NP01. It looks a miniature Le Mans prototype, but it was designed with amateurs’ needs in mind: miserly budgets, tendency to crash and all. The NP01 is destined for the National Auto Sport Association’s new club-level spec series. How easy is it for amateurs to drive, exactly? I got behind the wheel to find out.
(Full disclosure: NASA chuckled so hard at our Tavarish-style pricing comparison after the car was announced that they invited me out to Buttonwillow to drive the car. They provided lunch, travel and lodging, which was kind of them.)
Most publications sent their token hotshoes for this drive, however, Jalopnik opted to send an idiot—I mean, a true amateur who’s only ever done crapcan races. I haven’t actually had the time or the cash to hop into club racing just yet. Any “racing license” I’ve attained so far generally involves showing proof that I’ve conned the DMV into making me street legal. So even with my grassroots racing experience, I expected this car to eat my lunch.
Nope. Not only did I get to keep all of the delicious banana pudding to myself, but I left the track with a big, dopey grin on my face each time I went out in it.
An Engine For The People
Admittedly, I have precious little time driving actually fast cars on track. Racing? Pfft, no. The fastest car I raced all year was a Civic. I spend more time at Wolseley Hornet speeds when racing wheel-to-wheel than anything.
Imagine my surprise when I hop into the NP01 and don’t immediately go off-track in a blaze of stupid. Somehow, it’s actually pretty easy to drive.
The 1,450 pound tube frame chassis NP01 is powered by a 185 horsepower, 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine good for a maximum speed of 155 mph. That’s the same engine from the NC-generation MX-5, albeit conservatively tuned for just a smidge of extra power above everyone’s favorite mid-life crisis special. The NP01’s MZR gets 20 HP over the NC MX-5 Cup.
I found the 185 HP to be just enough in a car like this, given its purpose. You want amateur racers to spend more time driving than spinning out, and keeping the power-to-weight ratio easier to manage is one way to encourage that. You also want reliable power, and a moderate tune on a proven engine is one way to hedge your bets against Captain Newbsauce popping engines left and right.
Still, if you just want to order the build kit and shove in a more powerful engine, or supercharge the MZR to dominate some trackdays, I wouldn’t blame you. That wouldn’t be legal for the NASA Prototype racing class anymore, but it’d probably be ridiculous amounts of fun. It’s just a nicely balanced mid-engine race car.
Either way, I felt as if the 185 hp in NP-class trim was more than enough for me to play with without feeling like I was in over my head—while still preventing it from being a slow turd.
I Have Needs, And All Of Them Are Sequential Gearboxes
Making it considerably easier to drive was something I hadn’t ever driven before in a race car: a six-speed sequential gearbox. Shifts were delightfully instantaneous as soon as you yanked the lever into place. I want this gearbox in everything.
One thing that may surprise you about me: I’ve done almost all my stick-shift driving on race courses. I’ve never owned a manual road car. I even had to learn how to drive a stick-shift to do my first 24 Hours of LeMons race. I’ve only ever been able to practice that skill on track, or in other people’s cars as they yell something baffling about shifting before redline when you’re on a public road. (Whatever.)
Getting shifts right in a true manual car is delightful, and an experience the sequential box can’t provide. That will continue to be an art form I’d love to master. However, the joy of getting it right for me is constantly dampened by the threat of doing it wrong. I know I’m not the best at driving an H-pattern gearbox, and I’m terrified of making a “money shift” during a race—especially in someone else’s car.
This sequential racing box? You only have to move the knob up and down. I’m so used to being afraid to grab fifth gear in my 944 with its loose shift knob that I was overjoyed to simply run through the gears in the NP01 without having to worry about whether the knob flopped a different direction after the last turn.
I’m in love with this gearbox. I almost feel as if I’m part of the problem in admitting this, as if I’m betraying the “save the manuals” crowd in admitting that I loved not having to worry about borking an H-pattern on track.
Yet this sequential shifter was so wonderful that I don’t care. This gearbox was clearly a violent, thrashing thing meant for a race car and would be miserable on the road. The manuals still have it for road car use. But on track? Who and how much do I need to bribe to stuff a sequential racing box in my crapcan 944?!
Easy-to-read lights on the dashboard let you know when to shift. A number in the LCD dashboard display shows which gear you’re in, along with other vital information from the car’s ECU. The only time I had to use a clutch at all was to get the car started, which can be a bit rough given the eight pound racing flywheel and clutch.
Once you got the car started, though, it was flat-footed shifting nirvana. You didn’t have to lift to shift—it just figured that out for you. Blipping the throttle still helped with smoothing out downshifts, but the third pedal really didn’t need to be used out on track.
The only downside (and my only significant complaint with the car) was that the shifter knob itself was a pretty lightweight piece. You have to put a considerable amount of force into shifting up and down in this car. Would I get used to shifting with the little sticklet in the car if I had more time driving it? Probably. That being said, I didn’t put my arm into it enough several times during the drive as I was trying to figure it out. A more substantial knob and linkage might’ve signaled to my stupid head that this was a piece of the car that I could be less delicate with.
Probably The Best Miata Ever
It’s the most overused cliche in all of cars, but the NP01 handles like a big go-kart in the best way. Having never driven a car with as much aero as this, I didn’t really notice anything super-different about its flat-bottom design, front splitter or big rear wing. Other, more seasoned reviewers will probably dissect all of that in full detail, and meanwhile, I’m just off giggling in a corner somewhere.
What I noticed was that the car went where I wanted it to go with minimal drama. Even when I did something dumb like catch the curb or take a stupid “I’ve never been to Buttonwillow before” line around a corner, it was easy enough to get back in line after my moment of derp. Back off a little, then get back on it, and, uh, don’t do that again.
Like many other purpose-built race cars, there’s a fair amount of adjustable pieces to set it up for different tracks. The NP01 comes with fully adjustable suspension with MCS double-adjustable shocks. The aluminum rear wing was also adjustable, with provisions to allow a gurney flap if racers want more downforce. Inside, there’s a knob to adjust brake bias on the fly. Just from our one test day, I can tell that getting the right set-up for a track will make a huge difference.
Randy Pobst and I somehow ended up driving the same car, and he suggested taking out some of the preload in the springs and raising the car just a bit before the second set of drives in it. That was all his idea, so I have to give credit where credit’s due, but that little adjustment made a world of difference. The suspension could actually absorb more of the bumps, and the extra travel made it easier to tell when you were loaded up on one side or the other of the car.
As for the brakes, the four-piston Stoptech system with 315 mm vented rotors is overkill in the best way. I never wanted for more stopping power in our short drive of the car.
Granted, our sessions with the car were short—and we won’t see how much punishment they can really take until they run the cars at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill—but for the short, in-and-out runs of this press drive, they were more than adequate to get a feel for this thing.
It’s great that the car is a lot of fun, but what ultimately matters with a race car is where you can race it. That would be the NASA Prototype series, which launches in 2016.
“Race NASA, not space NASA” (as they kept joking, and no, the acronym overlap wasn’t intentional) is still nailing down a lot of specifics on next year’s series. The number and location of races for the first year will be determined by where the first owners live. So far, they’ve sold 18 cars after announcing the series at the Performance Racing Industry trade show last year, including eight cars in the first three weeks, and 14 before they even had a car to show off.
Eventually, NASA would like to have Pacific, Great Plains and Atlantic series for the car, and they plan to add a bunch of major bucket list tracks to sweeten the deal. NASA’s championships next year are already set for Buttonwillow and Watkins Glen, for one.
Races for the NASA Prototype series will be 30 to 40 minute sprints, although they will be running at least one NP01 at the NASA’s flagship 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race this year.
It’s pretty obvious that the NASA Prototype class is a direct shot at the Sports Car Club of America’s Spec Racer Ford class. Faster than Spec Racer Ford was a performance benchmark for the NP01, after all. SRF, too, is a budget-oriented amateur spec series with all purpose-built race cars, only it’s an open-cockpit platform that’s been around since the 1980s. The SCCA is currently phasing in a third generation of the car with a new engine, but the basic design of the cars is older than I am.
The SRF class is a Goliath to be up against, though, with hundreds of cars already sold and a healthy used car market for those looking to pick one up on the cheap.
Being an early adopter of a new series with a significant buy-in for a car that isn’t currently eligible to race anywhere else is always a tough sell. No one wants to play on an empty playground, know what I mean? Still, the NP01 is a safer, more modern build by sheer merit of having a windshield and a roof—and they’re optimistic about selling more in the near future.
How Much Ramen Will I Be Stuck Eating While I Pay It Off?
I definitely can’t run it in LeMons, but compared to the overall costs of other, similar race cars, it ain’t bad. NASA’s Jeremy Croiset said that the goal was to “go the fastest, and be the funnest” for the price point.
While the car may be built by Élan—part of the Panoz/DeltaWing group of companies that has been responsible for the IMSA Prototype Lites cars and numerous open-wheel racers over the years—it was designed so that one person could haul it to the track and run it without a full crew if they so desired.
Consumables don’t look too bad for this one, as NASA said that they’re targeting Spec Miata’s run costs of about $1,500-$2,000 for a race weekend when they designed the car.
A full set of its spec 235-40-17 Toyo Proxes RR tires currently runs for $880 a set. They should last for about two to three weekends before they’re toast. The car uses several off-the-shelf components, such as the wheel bearings from the Cadillac CTS-V and hubs from the CTS.
If you have a really terrible weekend, the body consists of 9 pieces of easily removable fiberglass. Several components are the same at all four corners, thus cutting down the costs of making each part and the number of things you need to haul around as spares unless you completely ball up every side of the car.
They’re still working out exact costs for the spares package for the most essential items you’d want to have on hand, but cleverly reusing parts in more than one location should help keep the costs of said package down.
Major components such as the engine and gearbox are sealed to adhere to the series spec and discourage people from finding creative (and costly) ways to cheat the series. Even the ECU is locked down for this series. Competitors won’t be buying engines from multiple builders to see whose is fastest (yes, that’s a real thing that people do). Élan is the only supplier, and has said that they’d like to ensure that there’s less than 1% of a difference in performance from one engine to the others.
While there’s no data to back it up yet, they expect the engine to last two to three seasons (or about 50 race hours) before needing a rebuild. They also expect the gearbox to last about 10,000 km (a little over 6,200 mi) before you really need to touch it. New, the engine comes with a dry sump, fuel system and everything for $12,000, but rebuild costs are expected to be half that: somewhere around $5,500-$6,000.
Don’t expect to be hosed if you nuke an engine during a race weekend, though. Élan is working towards getting someone at the track on NP-class race weekends with a full set of spares to service borked cars.
Cars can be assembled at Élan’s shop in Braselton, Ga., for $8,500 on top of the kit purchase price. The kit for the car itself is currently being offered for an introductory price of $64,995.
After they sell through the next run of 7 cars, they’re expecting to raise the price a bit more, but only by a few thousand. The kit takes about 80-100 hours to build, regardless of who puts it together.
The only things that don’t come with the car are fluids, harnesses, side nets and a seat. Given that the two examples out for the press drive had formula car-style seats that were molded to individual butts, that last one is probably a good thing.
According to NASA, the tallest person who’s taken one for a spin was 6’6”. A 6’7” guy tried, but couldn’t fit. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to use that guy’s seat (I’m over a foot shorter than that!) and he wouldn’t want to use mine.
How fast was it, exactly? The unofficial time folks were murmuring about (clearly not set by me) was a 1:01 on Buttonwillow’s West Loop (clockwise, with the sweeper, and without Phil Hill.) Compare that to whatever, as you may. Full specifications for the car itself can be found on Élan’s website here.
I like the idea of a true spec series, as it takes a lot of the spending arms race out of racing and just lets drivers do their thing. It’s refreshing to see a modern take on the idea, with much of the usual wish list for a car built right in.
The NP01 is a winner. I need to get back out in one, and soon.
Photo credits: Brett Becker (me on track, me in car, me on track again, me getting into car), Will Faules (me giggling), me (all others)