Kageisen Racing / Nogami Project Mazda Roadster

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I have a theory: the success of the Mazda Miata killed the rotary engine…at least as far as enthusiast cars go.

You can disagree, and that's fine. But I think that what's amazing about the Miata is that it's a successful car—even though it's never really had a gem of an engine in it.

Contrast that to the rotary engine, that (with a few exceptions) always seemed to be put into cars that weren't quite perfect for it. For instance, a sports car in the vein of a Lotus Elise would be a great place to put a rotary engine.

As much as I adore the RX-8, it's not an Elise.

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Similarly, if you search Google for "Rotary-powered Miata" there are 28,000 results returned—clearly a few people took to the internet to talk about how awesome that would be. 

And every few years in the buff books they'll run a story claiming that a source near a source says that a different source says there's definitely maybe a new rotary-powered RX-something or that Mazda's close to making a rotary-powered Miata.

A few people have built rotary-powered Miatas, which is awesome. But a team in the Japanese Grand Touring Championship (JGTC) actually raced one!

And showed that—just maybe—a rotary-powered Miata is a bad idea.

What you need to understand about racing in Japan is that because the automotive aftermarket is so massive, often speed shops and parts suppliers will collaborate on special projects in order to promote their wares. Race on Sunday, sell on Monday, right?

In the late-1990s, the JGTC was also incredibly popular, so you had cars ranging from silhouette-style factory-supported Toyota Supras racing against Porsche 911s, Nissan Silvias, Toyota MR-2s, Ferrari F355s, a Lamborghini Diablo (that fellow Gran Turismo players will recognize)…and a Miata with a rotary engine.

Nogami Project is also known as NOPRO, one of the largest specialty Mazda Miata shops in Japan. They built and sold the aero parts you see on this car, as well as have a number of period photos of this car on their website—a highly modified Miata with a 13B rotary engine under the hood.

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Its first race was at Fuji Speedway, in the 1997 "Special GT Cup." Competing in the lower-tier GT300 class against other sports car-based competition, it didn't finish due to engine trouble. Its best race lap was two seconds slower than a Toyota Cavalier race car. (No, not making it up!)

Its second race was at Sportsland Sugo, where it did not finish because of an oil cooler. Its best lap was now five seconds slower than the Cavalier and about on par with a RenaultSport Spider. (It was a strange series in those days!)

In 1998 at Suzuka it overheated. In the Special GT Cup in 1998 it also DNF'd, but was not the slowest car on track. 

And that was it. The car—and team—were gone from the JGTC.

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But wait: it did live on—sort of—as the hero car in a Manga-based anime called éX-Driver. The car featured heavily in a prologue to the éX-Driver anime, called "Nina & Rei Danger Zone."

Bringing things full circle, what's the éX-Driver series about? A not-too distant future where transportation is entirely computer-controlled, with AI-based machines running amok.

Humanity's only hope? Drivers who could operate simple, quick manual transmission-equipped vehicles like the Lancia Stratos and Lotus Europa—the leader of the group drives a Caterham Super Seven!

I'll end Mazda week on that note—a future where enthusiasts around the world form teams to protect humanity from computers gone wild.

Tomorrow, Car of the Day will be going a little bit Over the Top.

Sources / Recommended reading