Photo courtesy of Mazda

Jeffrey Fazio crosses the starting line in a Mazda MX-5 Miata at the Performance Challenge during Mazda's Zoom-Zoom Live event Nov. 6 at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.

Mazda earns A+ on test drive event

By Jeffrey Fazio
DriveTime Columnist

If you are in the market to buy a performance vehicle, how great would it be to walk into a dealership, have them hand over the keys to a brand new sports car and insist that you go drive it as fast as you possibly can? To make this task even better, they go through the trouble of setting up an actual autocross course for you complete with a timing system so you compare your times to everyone else.

What could possibly be better than that?

What if they also gave you a free hot dog, T-shirt and a digital-photo of yourself leaving the starting line? What if they made prizes available if you were the fastest driver? What if, in addition to the autocross course, they offered three other driving challenges for you to participate in during this test drive?

Oh, I almost forgot. Wouldn't this be even more fun if you could bring your friends along and they could all play with the brand new sports car as well?

Certainly all of that would be an awesome test-drive experience, but what automobile manufacturer in its right mind would allow such an experience?

On Nov. 5 and 6, Mazda held it's Zoom-Zoom Live event at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J. They hold this event at 11 different cities around the country. In the past this event was called "Rev It Up" and there was a fee to participate. This year it was completely free. Free as in "can you believe there is anything that is truly free?" This was.

One of my fellow hillclimb competitors, Joe Foering, invited me along this year. He has done this event the last two years and was on the invitation list for this year.

The event consisted of four different driver challenges. You could enter each event as many times as you felt like waiting in line for it. However, they only counted your first two attempts in a given challenge toward your overall points for prizes.

The Performance Challenge consisted of a short autocross course that took the good drivers around 30 seconds to complete. There was a row of six or seven brand new Mazda MX-5 Miatas for everyone to take turns racing through the course. I only took one shot at the course and the Miata was truly awesome. It was incredibly responsive and the brakes were amazing.

Unfortunately there was a big discrepancy in the time the finish line worker told me I achieved and what was actually recorded on the official results. Regardless, I was no where near the fastest drivers which was not a surprise considering my lack of experience with the car.

The next event was the Match Time Gymkhana. This was basically set up like an autocross course but the goal was not to go as fast as possible. The goal was to traverse the course in exactly 29 seconds. If you tried to drive fast through this course you would easily surpass the mark. They described the challenge as driving as if a police officer was following you -- we didn't want to hold him up, but we also wouldn't want to get pulled over.

For this event they had a variety of new Mazdas to choose from: MX-5 Miata, Mazda3, Mazda5 and Mazda6. Joe and I actually attempted this c hallenge twice. The first time we chose the Mazda5 which seems to be the combination of a minivan and a sport-utility vehicle. I was extremely impressed by how nimble this vehicle was for it's size. Taking a spunky run through the course netted me a mid-28 second run which put me just about a half second too fast for the goal.

On our second trip through the Gymkhana course we jumped into the Miata which was automatic, but had a manual over ride. In my haste to stay with the pace of the event I inadvertentl y put the Miata into the manual over ride which plopped the transmission into first gear.

Needless to say that as soon as I started the course I realized the error as the transmission refused to shift on it\rquote s own and I was not exactly in a position to "learn" how to do this while avoiding the bright orange pylons. So my brain kicked in and said I did not need to be going that fast for this course anyway so I relaxed and let the thing rev high while I scooted around the course in 1st gear. Right before the finish I was concerned that I was going too fast so I let off the gas and coasted across the finish line just over 29 seconds from when I started.

The third event was by far the most entertaining for me. This was the Jinba Ittai Experience: an extremely short autocross course with a target time of 20 seconds. The goal was to go as fast as possible, but the catch was how they forced you to be smooth.

This event was done with a variety of Miatas that were specially outfitted with two bowls mounted inside of each other on top of the hood. The largest bowl looked like a clear, extra large salad bowl. Mounted inside of that bowl and slightly raised up was a smaller clear plastic bowl containing three white golf balls. For every golf ball that rolled out of the small bowl into the large bowl there was a time penalty.

I managed to only lose one ball throughout most of the course as I snuck through a 20.1 second run. As life would have it, right at the finish I took one last tug on the steering and jerked the last t wo golf balls out of the small bowl. The finish line worker promptly exclaimed, "Great time, but you lost all of your balls."

Such is life.

The last event was the School of Zoom. Unfortunately we did not have time to take part in this. This was a brief high performance school that was taken in two parts. The first part was class room instruction and the second part took place on a higher spee d course with an instructor. They were using the new RX8s for that course. As much as we would have loved to thrash an RX8 around the course, the lines were just too long.

My only real critique of the event was the long lines. It seems to me that it would have made more sense to allow each driver to take both of their two scored runs at the same time since they were already seated in the car instead of forcing everyone to w ait in the same lines twice. I would further suggest limiting people to only two runs as it appeared that some people were obsessing on one particular course which made the lines longer than necessary.

For more information on this event and to keep an eye on future events, check out: