Could the 86 Coupes Replace the Miata as the Answer?

Photography by David S. Wallens

Perhaps this could be the next Spec Miata, muses longtime pro racer Robb Holland. The car is easy to build, easy to drive and easy to race. The chassis is already popular among enthusiasts, whether the decklid reads Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S or Toyota 86.

The BRZ feels like a bigger, more powerful Miata,” Robb says. “It still has the same nimbleness that a Miata has but is a bit more stable at the limit. It’s easy enough to drive for beginners but still a lot of fun for even the way more experienced drivers.”

While racing this chassis is nothing new, this particular car, built by Colorado’s NRG Motorsports, represents a glimpse at a potential future series. Call it a look at what’s possible–a simple, DIY-friendly build, all thanks to a seed planted in Europe. 

Easy to Build

One of my friends over at the Nürburgring was Oliver Kröll, who worked for TMG,” Robb recalls. The year was 2015, he thinks, and TMG stands for Toyota Motorsports Group, the brand’s factory-backed, German-based motorsports department. 

TMG, now known as Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe, ran Toyota’s Formula 1 effort and currently operates the brand’s World Endurance Championship program–you know, the team that finished 1-2 overall at Le Mans last year. 

“TMG was starting the new Toyota GT86 Cup series at the Nürburgring and wanted a bunch of team owners and drivers to come out and test the car and give feedback,” Robb continues. “I could tell right away that it was an amazing package and that it would do incredibly well in the U.S. 

“Even though it didn’t have the power that a lot of other cars racing in the VLN had, its handling was simply amazing. Through the fast, flowing section of the Nordschleife, between the Karussell and Brünnchen, the 86 would leave every other car in its class–and many faster cars–in the dust. It wasn’t the power of the car; it was the handling. You could just float the car into the corners at such high speed for a production car on skinny tires.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing Europe continues to offer GT86 turnkey race cars, with the current lineup featuring one rally-spec machine and a pair of road racers. The CS-Cup car, the quicker of the two track models, has become a staple in Europe’s VLN series–the group that calls the Nürburgring home.

While the SCCA now offers a successful spec autocross series for the Toyota 86 chassis and a group called 86Cup sanctions a one-make West Coast time trial program, the U.S. never got a spec road race series for the car. Robb reports that he nosed around but just couldn’t find the right corporate partner to make the concept a reality–even though Toyota displayed a CS-Cup car in its 2016 SEMA booth and fielded it in Pirelli World Challenge competition the following year for just two races. (Craig Stanton drove that car to third- and fourth-place finishes.)

Aside from an exhaust header and oil cooler, the engine bay remains quite stock. The interior’s big changes all pretty much relate to safety. 

Eight years after the car’s launch, however, Robb argues that it’s still a strong candidate for a spec series. Take those benign track manners and add in the fact that more than 116,000 units have been sold to date in the U.S. 

Aside from the small horsepower and gearing tweaks introduced for the 2017 model year–which, as even our own testing showed, didn’t significantly impact performance–this model has been relatively unchanged since its unveiling for 2012. The only real option has been the transmission: six-speed manual or six-speed automatic.

“It’s been the same car for eight years now,” Robb stresses. “All the parts are stocked by the dealer.” 

And the high production number means there are lots of cars out there that would make perfect starting points for track car builds. “The great thing about these is that they’re coming up on the salvage market for five grand,” Robb adds.

Alex Nelsen, owner of NRG Motorsports, built this one–perhaps that future spec racer–from two such salvage cars. “I bought this car and a ’14 BRZ,” Alex recalls. “$8300 delivered for both.”

The pair had been caught in a flood. The 2016 Scion FR-S, the car shown here, saw the water rise halfway up its doors. The engine wasn’t running at the time, though, so it didn’t ingest any water. That wasn’t the case with the Subaru, though, so it donated the parts needed to convert the FR-S from an automatic transmission to a manual.

“Mechanically, it’s not a big thing at all,” Alex says of the swap. “Or electronically.”

The conversion involves transplanting the major hard parts–transmission, clutch, pedals, driveshaft–plus the engine and dash harnesses. All of the control modules also need to be swapped. “You can switch one module, but if swapping more than one, then you need to start from scratch,” Alex says, as the immobilizer starts to become an issue at that point. 

Since both cars had been flooded, Alex replaced all of the modules. “There’s a pretty solid aftermarket of guys dismantling these cars,” he explains. For about $450, Alex purchased a matching set of control modules with keys. Problem fixed. 

One thing Alex learned during the swap: Keeping it Subaru to Subaru or Scion to Scion makes the process easier. The Subaru starts with a push button, while the Scion uses an old-school key. The harnesses are similar but not identical. 

The actual race prep was fairly simple, with the biggest upgrade being the suspension package found on those Euro-spec 86 Cup series cars: a set of two-way-adjustable Bilstein dampers fitted with threaded body coil-overs and camber plates. That’s about a $6000 setup, Alex notes.

The brakes, engine, gearbox and differential are all still stock. Even the bushings remain original, and the stock anti-roll bars are perfect, Alex says. A 6x18-inch Setrab oil cooler can be found in front of the radiator. 

“We haven’t even tuned our motor,” Robb notes, calling this one of perhaps a few modern cars that can be easily converted from road to track use because its stock electronics don’t get in the way. 

The header was developed in Europe and helps eliminate the torque dip found around 3500 rpm. Alex is looking to having something similar built stateside.  

Then add in the usual race car setup, meaning a gutted interior, full cage and all the safety equipment. The tires are the long-wearing Hankook Ventus R-S4 wrapped around 17x9-inch Enkei wheels–a model found on the Tire Rack website.

The cost of duplicating this car depends on who’s doing the labor, Alex notes. He figures $30,000 to $35,000 to deliver one to a customer; budget less if you do the work yourself. 

In this trim, the car’s power-to-weight ratio lands it in the World Racing League’s GP3 class. “The WRL format, I think, is great for motorsports in general,” Robb says. “It’s some of the most accessible, inexpensive racing that you can do. 

“Their endurance format, with a lower bar to entry, has the ability to draw in people who might not otherwise have an interest in the sport. Additionally, it’s just good, fun racing that mixes some top pros in with the amateurs and gives everyone a ton of seat time.”

Easy to Race

The build was simple, but there’s still one question we haven’t answered: Is it fast? At this June’s World Racing League 14-hour enduro at Daytona International Speedway, Robb qualified with a 2:21. 

Toward the end of the race, while taking it easy to secure a second-place class finish, he ran about a second or so off that pace. “There’s at least a 19 in it,” he says of the car. 

Compare those times to the Miata benchmark: The top SCCA Spec Miatas–which run on the faster, stickier Hoosier SM7.5 tire–can turn a 2:19 at Daytona. Budget at least $30,000 for a turnkey build from a known shop.

The beauty, both Robb and Alex note, is in the 86’s reliability and undemanding maintenance. During the 14-hour Daytona race, the car suffered just one issue: An axle failed as the nearby exhaust pipe got it just a little too hot. 

“It basically burns the grease off,” Robb notes. “You have to run motorsport grease and motorsport boots.” Alex is having some race-spec axles built. He figures they’ll last a season or two.

“The cars are light, so they don’t eat up brakes,” Robb continues. “They don’t eat up tires.” The Daytona tally: 14 hours on one set of Hankooks and just a single set of brake pads. 

The underside is still fairly stock, too, aside from a set of Bilstein coil-overs developed for the Nürburgring. The key to the car’s success: simplicity and good bones. 

Alex’s shop has long campaigned Spec Miatas, and last September he entered the World Racing League’s 24-hour contest at High Plains Raceway with two cars: one of the two 86 coupes in his stable and a 1994 Miata. After the race, he spent just one day servicing the 86. “The Miata, on the other hand, for the same level of prep took five days,” he recalls. “Everything on that car is, for us, 26 years old.”

As Miatas get older, he continues, finding good parts for them becomes tougher. He cites alternators as an example: Today he can only get them from aftermarket suppliers, and they only last for one enduro. In fact, Alex’s data shows them slowly petering out even before that single competition is over. And that lifetime warranty doesn’t help if the unit burns out mid-race, he notes. “We were getting very frustrated with the Miata with the level of maintenance in order to keep the car reliable.”

He compares that to the coupe. “The 86 has been stellar,” he reports. When Alex purchased the Scion, it had about 11,000 miles on the odometer. After four major endurance races to date covering about 4000 miles total, the engine still puts down the same dyno figures–about 165 horsepower at the wheels. Over-revs haven’t hurt the engine, either, he notes. “All we’ve done is change the oil.”

“They’re very elegantly put together,” he continues. “This is like an Asian Porsche as far as its simplicity and elegance.”

Easy to Organize?

In addition to the Pirelli World Challenge held here in the States–the series now known as SRO Motorsports Group America–Robb has raced around the world thanks to time in the British Touring Car Championship, World Touring Car Championship and TCR International Series. He also makes regular appearances at the Nürburgring. 

Get a pack of 30 or 40 of these spec coupes together, he says, and it should be exciting. Plus, it’s a current car still supported by both Subaru and Toyota dealer networks. “It makes too much sense to me.”

Two fans of the simple 86 build: car builder Alex Nelsen (seated) and pro driver Robb Holland (suiting up).

The trick, he says, is finding someone to apply the necessary muscle to develop and support a series. Robb envisions something like the original Spec Miata, where multiple sanctioning bodies adopted a single ruleset. 

He muses that the formula could even be expanded into multiple classes based on prep level: mild, medium and radical. The parts and technical support already exist. 

Robb’s part in this plan, he says, is to simply get the idea off the ground. “I’m just into seeing good racing,” he says. 

“This could be the next Spec Miata,” he continues. “The cars are newer, quicker, better-looking.”

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Comments
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captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) UltimaDork
11/30/20 3:26 p.m.

My question is how many frisbees have been sold to date versus how many NA miatae were sold. That will dictate how far down the depreciation curve they slide, which will make them more appealing as a starting point, it'll also dictate how many are available for spare parts and components. 

 

I love the idea of spec frisbee and spec Miata and feel that both would be excellent at driver development. 

Vajingo
Vajingo Reader
11/30/20 3:27 p.m.

But... but no convertible. 
 

If they stopped production right now, frsbrz prices would soar out of control and it would enter STI/EVO status. 

NOHOME
NOHOME MegaDork
11/30/20 3:50 p.m.

In reply to Vajingo :

I gotta agree with this one. This is the 240Z of today and is going to become legend once it is no longer made. The (relative) rarity will help the cause.

 

I was an early adopter of both the Miata and the FRS so have some idea what the initial market reactions were....I don't see the FRS displacing the Miata because it is a very different owner experience and there were not enough of them made; Everyone knows what a Miata is even if they are just some random hairdreser-non-car-person, the FRS does not get a second look, and few non automotive fans would know what it was.

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
11/30/20 3:54 p.m.
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) said:

My question is how many frisbees have been sold to date versus how many NA miatae were sold. That will dictate how far down the depreciation curve they slide, which will make them more appealing as a starting point, it'll also dictate how many are available for spare parts and components. 

 

I love the idea of spec frisbee and spec Miata and feel that both would be excellent at driver development. 

Between the FR-S, GT86, and BRZ, I think it's in the 100k range. 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
11/30/20 3:59 p.m.
NOHOME said:

In reply to Vajingo :

I gotta agree with this one. This is the 240Z of today and is going to become legend once it is no longer made. The (relative) rarity will help the cause.

 

I was an early adopter of both the Miata and the FRS so have some idea what the initial market reactions were....I don't see the FRS displacing the Miata because it is a very different owner experience and there were not enough of them made; Everyone knows what a Miata is even if they are just some random hairdreser-non-car-person, the FRS does not get a second look, and few non automotive fans would know what it was.

The worst thing Mazda ever did with the Miata was keep making them :) It kept them from reaching iconic status, they were just Miatas.

The article is a little odd - they're saying that the big advantage to the Frisbee is the fact that it's not all shagged out like their old race NAs. Fair point. Trying to keep an old chassis running at peak condition is definitely difficult.  But what about using one of the NC Spec Miatas, how do they compare? Or an ND GCC? Does Subaru/Toyota have the same sort of racer support that Mazda does?

Fueled by Caffeine
Fueled by Caffeine MegaDork
11/30/20 4:05 p.m.

I like the body on the FRS better.  I don't like rag tops, really do like the miata retractable hard tops, but the soft top is a killer for me.  i guess I got that all out of my system when I had jeeps.  I don't like the flat 4.  It needs small turbo inline 4.. 

NOHOME
NOHOME MegaDork
11/30/20 5:00 p.m.
Fueled by Caffeine said:

I like the body on the FRS better.  I don't like rag tops, really do like the miata retractable hard tops, but the soft top is a killer for me.  i guess I got that all out of my system when I had jeeps.  I don't like the flat 4.  It needs small turbo inline 4.. 

Solved the convertible conundrum by building my own Miata station wagon! No more pesky convertible to muss my hair.

I fully agree on the flat 4 thing. I have never warmed up to the Subaru engine. Nothing specific, just prefer a real engine. It should not require four cams and two cylinder heads for a 4 banger.

 

MrChaos
MrChaos SuperDork
11/30/20 5:20 p.m.
NOHOME said:
Fueled by Caffeine said:

I like the body on the FRS better.  I don't like rag tops, really do like the miata retractable hard tops, but the soft top is a killer for me.  i guess I got that all out of my system when I had jeeps.  I don't like the flat 4.  It needs small turbo inline 4.. 

Solved the convertible conundrum by building my own Miata station wagon! No more pesky convertible to muss my hair.

I fully agree on the flat 4 thing. I have never warmed up to the Subaru engine. Nothing specific, just prefer a real engine. It should not require four cams and two cylinder heads for a 4 banger.

 

same, not a flat 4 fan. I am really close to buying another ND in the next 18 month likely a ND2. i am not a big convertible fan but i have owned an NA and a ND RF.

Jesse Ransom (FFS)
Jesse Ransom (FFS) UltimaDork
11/30/20 5:22 p.m.

How much of this really comes down to the 86s not needing to source from a dwindling supply of trackworthy used Miata hardtops?

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
11/30/20 5:28 p.m.

It's not a dwindling source, you can buy one new. 

Comparing availability of parts for a platform that first showed up 31 years ago to one that's still in production is reasonable. It makes sense that TODAY it's easier to get Frisbee parts. Will that be the case in 10 years? Or will it be easier to get the Mazda parts?

The article mentions the difficulty in sourcing alternators that last. Seems to me that this is a solvable problem - underdrive them (if allowed) or have them rebuilt by a local shop. If they used to last 15 years ago, they can last today if you don't just buy the cheapest crap you can find at an auto parts store.

Mazda is fantastic at supporting racers. Serious question, is Toyota/Subaru? What happens when this is a legacy platform, who will be supplying parts? Engines from Subaru (obviously), but will the mixed part bin be a liability?

Tom1200
Tom1200 Dork
11/30/20 5:29 p.m.

No it won't be the answer..............................Heretic.

Jesse Ransom (FFS)
Jesse Ransom (FFS) UltimaDork
11/30/20 5:47 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

It's not a dwindling source, you can buy one new.

That's good to know!

I was under the impression that the new ones weren't as nice and/or not legal for Spec Miata. Which is what I get for taking the gist of discussions on the Internet... Took to heart too many discussions where a reasonably priced Miata was regarded as a steal because the included hardtop was half the value of the car on its own.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner MegaDork
11/30/20 6:07 p.m.

Well, they cost actual money. That's probably why people think they're not available :) But you can get a proper OE unit from Mazda for $2600. It's the cheaper "race only" stuff that's not as nice or legal.

Used hardtops have been about the same price for 25 years, funnily enough.

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
11/30/20 6:16 p.m.

No. Because too many people hate the Subaru flat 4. 

350z247
350z247 New Reader
11/30/20 7:39 p.m.

In reply to Appleseed :

While I don't foresee a passion to restore FA20s in 20 years, the Miata doesn't have an inspiring engine either (current ND excluded); I put them on even ground in the engine category. I think the BRZ is a much better platform for big power engine swaps than the Miata with more weight, wheelbase, and the fixed roof, but that bumps you from a spec series. I would rather start with a coupe than a convertible to build a race car, but that's just one variable.

In reply to NO HOME:

The difference is the 240Z could take on a 911 while the BRZ can't even handle a base Cayman. I don't foresee the BRZ ever reaching the status of the 240Z, especially from a restoration/collectability standpoint.

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
11/30/20 8:15 p.m.
Vajingo said:

But... but no convertible. 

 

You also don't have to find a $1000 hardtop if you want to actually do anything with it, though.

 

MrChaos
MrChaos SuperDork
11/30/20 8:49 p.m.
Pete. (l33t FS) said:
Vajingo said:

But... but no convertible. 

 

You also don't have to find a $1000 hardtop if you want to actually do anything with it, though.

 

$1750-2k or more at least around here

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
12/1/20 3:01 a.m.

In reply to 350z247 :

No one saw the 240Z reaching 240Z status 40 years later. Only time will answer. 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ PowerDork
12/1/20 6:25 a.m.
Keith Tanner said:

Mazda is fantastic at supporting racers. Serious question, is Toyota/Subaru? What happens when this is a legacy platform, who will be supplying parts? Engines from Subaru (obviously), but will the mixed part bin be a liability?

At least in the US rally world, Subaru has the best contingency program in the form of entry fee discounts.  In terms of older platforms, people are still successfully racing plenty of 20+ year old GC Imprezas so assuming parts supply doesn't dry up any faster the Frisbees should still be totally viable in 10 years.  The part bin isn't particularly mixed, almost everything on them is Subaru.

That's not to say the support is or will be as good as Mazda, but it might be better than lots of other popular brands (looking at you BMW) that people still find a way to race.

MrChaos
MrChaos SuperDork
12/1/20 9:19 a.m.

In reply to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ :

and the rear dif is the same rear dif toyota has used since the 3rd gen supra. 

maj75 (Forum Supporter)
maj75 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
12/28/20 9:10 p.m.

Had multiple Miata and FRS.  The FRS will never be the Answer.  Mazda built a classic with the NA.  They just made too many of them.  Given the choice I'd take an NA Miata over a FRS.  Cheaper to mod, great transmission, proper suspension and the sound of a well tuned 1.6 revving sure does it for me.

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
12/28/20 10:47 p.m.
Vajingo said:

But... but no convertible. 
 

If they stopped production right now, frsbrz prices would soar out of control and it would enter STI/EVO status. 

That's funny, I think just the opposite. Miata has never been the answer for me because no fastback (and that targa doesn't count)

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
12/28/20 10:49 p.m.
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ said:
Keith Tanner said:

Mazda is fantastic at supporting racers. Serious question, is Toyota/Subaru? What happens when this is a legacy platform, who will be supplying parts? Engines from Subaru (obviously), but will the mixed part bin be a liability?

At least in the US rally world, Subaru has the best contingency program in the form of entry fee discounts.  In terms of older platforms, people are still successfully racing plenty of 20+ year old GC Imprezas so assuming parts supply doesn't dry up any faster the Frisbees should still be totally viable in 10 years.  The part bin isn't particularly mixed, almost everything on them is Subaru.

That's not to say the support is or will be as good as Mazda, but it might be better than lots of other popular brands (looking at you BMW) that people still find a way to race.

lol, support for BMW????? Certainly no support for old BMWs from BMW itself in terms of motorsports. Thankfully, so many older BMWs are driven and raced over in Europe, I would expect the parts pipeline to remain pretty strong for the foreseeable future. 

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