Reviews

Elan NP01 Race Car Review

NASA commissions a sexy race car for the masses.

The Élan NP01 race car sits in the sweet spot between a sleeper and a poseur. Shaped like a Le Mans prototype crossed with a Daytona Prototype with a Formula 1 nose, the car — designed to compete in National Auto Sport Association road races — looks like a sexy million-dollar rocket ship filled with high-tech wizardry and parts made of unobtainium. In fact, the NP01 is fashioned out of old-school fiberglass and steel tubing, and it runs on production-car hubs and street-legal R-compound tires.

Because NASA designed the car from the ground up to compete in a spec series, ultimate lap times weren’t as important as minimizing the purchase price and running costs. By using off-the-shelf equipment, Élan Motorsports Technologies — the race-car manufacturing company owned by Don Panoz — is able to sell the NP01 for a mere $69,995 in kit form, or $78,495 fully built. Better still, it shouldn’t cost much more to maintain than a LeMons crapcan.

“We wanted to give people the experience of driving an LMP car at Le Mans,” says Jeremy Croiset, NASA’s director of business development and, not coincidentally, the owner of Chassis 001. “But at the same time, we wanted the car to be inexpensive, easy to maintain, and a robust workhorse that can run and run and run. I’ve been involved with projects where you had to work on the car all the time. The idea was to bring the fun back to racing.”

The NP01 is a closed-cockpit, single-seat prototype weighing a meager 1,450 pounds, less fluids and driver. Fitted with a sealed 2.0-liter Mazda four-cylinder engine making 185 horsepower and a slick-shifting six-speed sequential gearbox, the car ought to turn lap times quicker than a Corvette Z06. More to the point, because the NP01 is a purpose-built thoroughbred, it will provide a completely different driving experience than seat time in a production-based race car. As such, it represents a fresh approach to reviving interest in club racing.
Spec series aren’t new to the road-racing world. The Sports Car Club of America commissioned construction of a purpose-built spec racer known as the Sports Renault way back in 1984, and 850-plus chassis later, the tube-frame ugly duckling, now known the Spec Racer Ford, continues to thrive. Meanwhile, Spec Miata is the most successful class in American road-racing history. Case in point: No fewer than 62 of them competed under the lights at the most recent SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Daytona International Speedway.

Although NASA has positioned itself as the anti-SCCA, it’s embraced the spec-series model even more enthusiastically than its principal rival for club-racing supremacy. Besides Spec Miata, NASA has classes for BMW E30s, E36s, and E46s as well as Porsche 944s and Boxsters. It’s easy to understand the appeal of these one-size-fits-all classes. By spec-ing parts such as dampers and tires and minimizing modifications to engines and transmissions, the rules limit costs, and the similarity of the cars rewards driving skill more than cubic dollars.

The concept is especially attractive to performance-car manufacturers. Besides selling customers brand-new street cars, with hefty surcharges for racetrack mods, automakers also use spec series to burnish brand image, foster marque loyalty, and serve as a tidy profit center for their aftermarket parts businesses. So it should come as no surprise that Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mase-rati, Lotus, and Mazda have gotten with the spec-racing program in a big way.

But even as spec-racing cars have skyrocketed in popularity, they’re plagued by a dirty little secret. Production-based cars are frustratingly hard to work on and ridiculously expensive to repair. Most damning of all, since they’re based on street cars, which is to say designed with attributes that don’t translate into speed on the track, production-based race cars don’t offer much bang for the buck.

Talk to a professional racer, and he’ll tell you that the least expensive and most efficient way to build a stellar race car is to start from scratch with a bunch of steel tubing. Decide how you’re going to orient the cockpit and the drivetrain, sort out the suspension geometry, situate the ancillary components where you can adjust and replace them without any painful contortions, and voilà! You, too, can call yourself a race-car constructor.

Of course, this presupposes that you’ve got the engineering moxie to design your own chassis and the fabrication chops to build it. Most people don’t, and that includes the vast majority of professional racers on the planet. Which is why, when NASA decided to commission its first bespoke race car, it partnered with Élan Motorports to create a machine that aspires to do nothing less than resurrect club racing’s sex appeal.

Based a stone’s throw from Road Atlanta, Élan is one of the premier race-car constructors in the country. Its credits include the sterling DP01 Champ Car chassis and the DP02 currently racing with IMSA in the Prototype Lites class. Both cars feature carbon-fiber monocoques and other cost-no-object parts designed with professional racers in mind. NASA, on the other hand, aimed its new car at amateurs on tight budgets.

“Our customers don’t usually show up with five crew guys,” says NASA national chairman Ryan Flaherty. “If a class is too expensive or too much of a hassle, they’re gone. So our concept was to come up with a professionally designed, purpose-built race car with the same running costs as a Spec Miata.”

Élan started with the rough dimensions and mid-engine layout of the DP02. But keeping the budget down meant forgoing the carbon-fiber tub and bodywork in favor of a tube-frame chassis built of 1,018 mild steel and nine fiberglass body panels that can be replaced individually (after a crash, for instance) without taking out a second mortgage. NASA also insisted on a closed cockpit roomy enough to fit middle-aged racers who don’t spend half their lives in the gym, and a rollcage stout enough to survive a hit from a 3,350-pound Mustang.

The suspension features wishbones, control arms, and pushrods, with identical uprights all the way around to minimize the number of spares. The double-adjustable shocks are from MCS, the four-piston brake calipers from StopTech, the pads from Hawk Performance, a built-in radio from Sampson Racing Communications — all well-known names in the high-performance world.

But NASA held the line on price by using street-car pieces wherever possible. Besides the engine, the hubs come from a Cadillac CTS, for example, and the wheel bearings from a CTS-V. The OZ Racing wheels, 17 by 9 inches, are shod not with slicks but 235/40-R17 DOT-legal Toyo Proxes RRs, which will last at least one weekend and as long as two or three, depending on how frugal the owner is.

In kit form, the pieces come in two hefty crates, one weighing 2,000 pounds and the other 600 pounds. The price is $69,995 plus a $1,250 crating fee and shipping. The car supposedly can be assembled in 80 to 100 hours, with no welding or fabrication required. Alternatively, Élan will build the car for $8,500. (Customers have to pour their own foam seats and install the seat belts and window and interior nets.) So figure something like $80K all in for a purpose-built race car, compared with $53,000 for the all-new Mazda MX-5 Cup car or roughly $250,000 for a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car — essentially street machines kitted out with safety gear and mild performance upgrades.

Frankly, the NP01 looks so good on paper that it seems too good to be true. Which is why I’ve made the trek to Buttonwillow Raceway Park to see how the car fares on the track. NASA and Élan have brought two cars, the test mule used for development and Croiset’s car, the first production chassis. They make an impressive tandem as they sit in the paddock, showing off their knife-edged styling and badass rear wings.

After the fuel pump primes the engine, the MZR starts effortlessly. The clutch is used only to leave the pits (and shift, if necessary, into neutral and reverse). The transaxle engages first gear with a satisfying clunk, and the car wheels onto the circuit with no drama. The shifter is a long, hefty lever. Pull back to shift up; push forward to go down a gear. It does exactly what you tell it to do, but unlike steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifts, you have to tell it forcefully, and I leave the car hanging in gear a few times when I’m tentative with my inputs.

My fault on that front. But I’m just an innocent bystander when it comes to the steering, which is brutally heavy. I’m not sure if this is a function of the downforce generated by the front splitter and rear wing, the width of the front tires or something screwy with the caster, but anybody planning to do ultra-long stints might want to consider CrossFit training. Even though the Esses are easy flat, I find myself short-shifting just so I’ll have both hands on the steering wheel coming out of the last left-hander.

Power is good rather than mind-blowing. The car is geared to top out at 155 mph, and I see 130 mph on the dragstrip portion of the racetrack, but 145 lb-ft of torque is 145 lb-ft of torque no matter how light the car is, so I’m never pinned back in the seat while accelerating. Then again, the NP01 performs best while cornering and braking. With the aero working, the car has excellent stick in the fast stuff, and in slower turns, the forgiving Toyos will seem familiar to anybody accustomed to R-compound street tires.

Though the car exposes bumps in the road that I’d never noticed before, it’s surprisingly comfortable and compliant, and it’s especially impressive on the brakes. Since the clutch isn’t neces-sary on downshift, left-foot braking is the way to go, with the right foot reserved for minimal throttle blips. To call the car “easy to drive” is sort of pointless until getting closer to the limit. But the NP01 has no obvious vices, and it inspired enough confidence that I’d relish the opportunity to race it for real.

When I lever myself out of the cockpit after my second brief stint, I find my head sock, Nomex undershirt, and my gloves drenched with sweat. I also notice a silly grin on my face. Maybe, I think, some more weight training ought to be on my agenda. But that seems like a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the pleasure of driving a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, purpose-built race car that’s exponentially more honest, elemental, and visceral than a street car modified for the track.

NASA has sold 23 cars so far. Assuming enough orders are placed, Élan is committed to delivering at least 50 kits by the end of 2016. The NP01 seems to be a perfect weapon for endurance racing. Earlier this month, two of them raced in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, NASA’s premier event. Although one broke early, the other clocked the 11th-fastest lap while finishing 32nd of 57 starters. But the ultimate goal is a spec series filled with nothing but NP01s. As Croiset says: “We want full fields of cars so people can enjoy the experience of driving them in big packs.”

If that happens, I expect Élan to do a lively business replacing pranged fiberglass bodywork. And to see a lot of NP01 owners with silly grins on their faces.

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