Driving The NASA NP01 Affordable Race Car


NASA NP01 Prototype

The National Auto Sport Association calls itself “race NASA, not space NASA.” Started as an alternative to the sometimes stuffy and overly fussy Sports Car Club Of America, “race NASA” likes to think it offers a less costly way for people get out on track and experience the thrill of competitive racing. That spirit has led to a partnership with Elan Technologies. Together, they have created an entirely new kind of race car, the NP01 Prototype.

The NPo1 looks like a small version of a real Le Mans prototype. Powered by a version of the 4 cylinder MZR engine from the NC series Mazda Miata, the 1,450 pound car has 185 horsepower on tap. That’s 20 more than the stock engine in a chassis that is about a thousand pounds lighter. It won’t outrun a Corvette ZR1, but is has plenty of power for spirited racing. It also has enormous 315 mm brakes from Stoptech to get the car slowed down in plenty of time for the next corner.

Is the phrase “affordable race car” an oxymoron? After all, the most famous phrase in all of racing is “Speed costs money. How fast do you want to spend?” Affordability is in the mind of the beholder. Some people spend cubic dollars racing boats; others cash in the family 401K to climb Mount Everest. Still others ski at St. Moritz or think nothing of dropping $1,000 on a new putter in the pro shop at their favorite country club.

You can buy an NPo1 as a kit car for $64,995. Add $8,500 if you want Elan to put the car together for you at its Braselton, Georgia factory. If you think that sounds like a lot of money, you haven’t priced used race cars recently. Many sell for $100,000 or more. The NP01 uses off the shelf parts whenever possible. The engines are available only from Elan. The engines are sealed and are expected to last for 2-3 seasons New ones are $12,000. A full rebuild should cost no more than half that. A full set of Toyo Proxes RR tires (required race rubber) costs $880 and should last 2 to 3 races.

The standard when designing the car was that an average owner should be able to do a complete race weekend for under $2,000. The corners of the car are identical fiberglass pieces that can be easily replaced in the event an off track excursion causes damage to the bodywork. The cars are designed for ease of maintenance, so the owner can wrangle his own wrenches on a weekend without the need of a pit crew. NASA plans a full set of regional NP01 races when enough cars have been sold to fill out a field.

Recently, amateur driver Stef Schrader tried out an NP01 for a weekend and wrote about her experience for Jalopnik. “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,” she says. The car’s suspension includes lots of adjustability, which is where she thinks the fastest drivers will find their speed advantage. Schrader absolutely fell in love with the car’s 6 speed sequential gearbox, which works very much like the transmission of a motorcycle. It has no traditional gearshift lever that can accidentally find first instead of third at an inopportune moment.

I have done track days with NASA at Watkins Glen, Lime Rock and Thompson Speedway. Track days are the way to get started driving on a real race course, with a certified instructor riding shotgun to help you find the correct line through the corners, choose the proper gear and decide where to begin braking. The organizers and the participants really are more laid back than you might expect. You can do a track day for a few hundred dollars. But be on notice;  the lure of going as fast as you dare on an open track can be addictive. It could even lead to you plunking down almost $75,000 on your very own NPo1 prototype race car. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!



Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.