Driving the NASA / Élan NP01 Budget Spec Racer

By lap seven the muscles in your arms have atrophied from the 1.5gs+ of lateral force. As you close in on lap 10, the only thing that’s keeping your head from popping off from the 2gs of braking force is the Impact Racing Accel head restraint device. Any other lap after that, half of you wants to keep pushing, and the remaining half is waiting for that checkered flag of relief. But it hurts so good.  

During the cool down lap you collect yourself. Once you exit the cockpit of the NASA/Élan NP01 (NASA Prototype 01) budget spec racer your outward appearance is evident; disheveled, sweaty, and sore — perhaps the best one-night stand you can have as a amateur racing fanatic. Budget spec racer you ask? What does it cost for a vehicle that produces this kind of handling insanity? $100k or more? Nope, try $64,995. Yup, exactly.

Affordability After The Sale

The goal was to create a NASA series with a car that’s just as fast but with potentially lower operating expenses – Jeremy Croiset, NASA

The NP01 fills an important void for those looking to do something above a Spec Miata class. “NASA identified an area of the market that was untapped up to that point, and we collaborated with Élan because it’s one of the best, if not the best, car manufacturer in the United States, to see if it was interested in partnering with us on this and moving forward,” explained Jeremy Croiset of NASA. “This particular class is a NASA class. The car is designed to run within NASA, and only within NASA. It was was specifically designed not to fit anyone else’s particular segment because we wanted something unique to the marketplace, and that would be run and operated within NASA.”

Continuing, Croiset said, “It is a decent amount of expense up front, but for a lot of guys jumping into this class it’s along the lines of what they have been spending, but you don’t have the expensive costs of engine rebuilds and transmission rebuilds, and the kinds of expenses you get with a car in the 400 to 500 horsepower range. The goal was to create a NASA series with a car that’s just as fast but with potentially lower operating expenses.”

Top Left: Car 00 nears completion as the build for 01 starts to the right. Top Right: Todd Therkildsen straps on their oil pan and dry sump system. Bottom Left: Élan doesn't screw around. They have their own vacuum chamber to make their composite body panels. Bottom Right: With the MZR prepped with the ACT clutch and Tilton release bearing, the massive Sadev SL75 sequential transmission is installed.

Not only is the NP01 affordable, it was built to be affordably maintained. All four corners of the braking system are the same, suspension pieces are interchangeable between left and right, and it uses the proven Mazda MZR engine platform commonly found in the MX-5 Miata street car. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder is sealed from Élan to ensure (or dramatically reduce the probability) racer’s don’t cheat. Likewise, the AEM Infinity ECU is affixed to the engine harness and will not connect to a PC that isn’t owned by Élan. Don’t worry though, the AiM MXL2 will connect to a PC so racers can download sensor and telemetry data between sessions.

“It’s the same long-block as the previous generation NC MX-5 Miata but we added our own intake manifold, headers, dry sump, and mapped it with an AEM Infinity ECU,” explained Todd Therkildsen engine builder for Élan Motorsports. “We took a similar design approach to the SCCA spec intake manifold. We cut one up, changed the runner lengths, and enlarged the plenum until we created the power band that we wanted. Between the headers and the manifold we were able to achieve the 185 horsepower goal we were shooting for. Peak horsepower is actually achieved at 7,200 rpm but the rev limiter is set at 6,900 rpm. This means the engine never stops pulling and you never feel the end of the power curve — spec racers never want to feel that. This also helps with durability so the motor shouldn’t have to be refreshed more often than two-three seasons.” Therkildsen also mentions that the Sadev SL75 sequential transmission has a similar service interval.

A Variety Of Options 

Like any vehicle ever produced, Élan offers racers a variety of options for the NP01 that ranges from upgraded lighting, air conditioning, defroster, and 60/40 split rear seats … well maybe not that last one. Driver accoutrements can include a cool suit system, helmet cooling kit, and electric cabin fans. We experienced the electric cabin fans and we wouldn’t purchase an NP01 without them. If the AiM MXL2 dash is too boring, additional options for the MXS or MXG line are available.

We drove the NP01 with normal size 12 shoes and the footbox was sized perfectly

An Easy to Assemble Kit Car

The fairly simple NP01 chassis is constructed out of low carbon 1018 mild steel that keeps the build cost lower than going with chromoly or other exotic materials. Side intrusion plates keep drivers from getting stabbed by rouge vehicle debris (or other vehicles) and the integrated roll cage is non-obtrusive to your helmet while sighting your driving line.

In regards to the body’s construction and format, Rob Lindsey of Élan explains, “From the beginning it was going to be a closed-top car, so that sort of set a lot of things in place. We wanted it to be a closed-top sports car with faired wheels and so forth. To start with, I just took the footprint of our DP02 IMSA Lites race car, as in track width and wheelbase, and so that gave me an idea where to begin.” The composite body is easily replaced in individual sections to minimize repair costs.

The office view

The NP01 is an adult’s version Revell scale model, just don’t use glue. The kit can be assembled in a typical garage with hand tools in a matter of 75 to 100 hours. Better than a typical kit car, the NP01 comes with fully terminated wiring harnesses and everything is pre-cut or formed for installation. If you don’t want to assemble the kit yourself, Élan has an $8,500 option for that.

From the Inside

As expected, the cabin layout is all business. The typical prototype/F1 seating arrangement provides you with plenty of layback. Visibility is plentiful with nearly 180 degrees for a wide panorama. The switch panel is in relatively easy reach, but could be a smidgen closer. Sadev’s billet shifter is at perfect reach for quick pulls, when shifting is required. The Momo steering wheel is light and easy to turn under high g loads, but similar to the switch panel, would be comfortable a little closer to the driver.

The Driving Experience 

If you couldn’t tell from the introduction, driving the NP01 is an exciting but exhausting experience. We’ve all seen motoring television hosts get into IndyCars and F1 vehicles. Almost instantly they talk about how the g forces have an affect on the body, and we can vouch that even on a scalable version, it’s totally true. You will need to be physically fit to drive the NP01, which we absolutely weren’t.

The course layout at Buttonwillow was a simple set-up that accentuated the high-speed maneuverability, hard-stopping braking power, and technical agility of the NP01. Starting on the access road that connects the front stretch to Turn 10, you make your way through to 13. Instead of transitioning through Lost Hill (Turn 14) it is bypassed to allow the NP01 to accelerate to more than 130 mph going into Turn 16. A quick, flat-out jog through the Esses and you’re back on the brakes hard at Turn 19 to start the process all over again.

Therkildsen gives us a walk around of the cabin as we get strapped in.

Many readers might say, “But it’s only 185 horsepower.” Yes you’re right, but we can assure you that those brief moments of downtime on the straightaways help with mental clarity on the upcoming turns. The NP01 is so agile that you’re constantly sawing at the wheel due to the increased cornering speeds. Even when you exit a turn, flat-out, a cringe ensues, because a normal car wouldn’t have made it. The brakes are over built on the NP01 which also promises that racers will go through less pads and rotors over a season. A vehicle with a 235mm square tire setup shouldn’t stop that hard.

In conclusion, the NP01 class is destined to be a enormous hit around the country. It boasts P1/P2 cornering forces for a fraction of the cost and needed servicing. Even the Toyo RR tires are a DOT compliant and will last 2-3 races. Also, keep in mind that the $65k price only extends through only the next few introductory cars and will then be adjusted to $70k!

Bravo NASA and Elan, bravo.

Specifications

  • Dry weight: 1,450 lbs. (estimated)
  • Wheelbase: 102 inches
  • Length: 161 inches
  • Height: 43.9 inches
  • Width: 75.4 inches
  • Horsepower: 185
  • Torque: 145 lb-ft
  • Max Track Speed: 155 mph
  • 2015 kit Price: $64,995
  • 2015 Assembled Price: $73,495
  • Lightweight ready-for-paint or vinyl wrap individual composite body panels (fenders, quarters, etc.)
  • 1018 steel-tube frame with integral roll-cage structure
  • ACT clutch and lightweight flywheel
  • AEM Infinity ECU
  • AiM MXL2 dash (upgradeable to MXS or MXG)
  • Burns Stainless exhaust header
  • Electron Speed body and engine wiring harnesses
  • Mazda 185 hp, 2.0-liter MZR four-cylinder engine, tuned and sealed by Élan Power
  • MCS double-adjustable shocks
  • Hypercoil springs
  • OZ series-specific 17-inch x 9-inch wheels
  • Pyrotect fuel cell, 11 gallon
  • Sadev SL75 six-speed sequential transaxle
  • StopTech forged calipers
  • LED tail/brake lights
  • Toyo Proxes RR 235/40/17 tires
  • Wilwood pedals and master cylinders

About the author

Mark Gearhart

In 1995 Mark started photographing drag races at his once local track, Bradenton Motorsports Park. He became hooked and shot virtually every series at the track until 2007 until he moved to California and began working as a writer for Power Automedia. He was the founding editor for its first online magazines, and transitioned into the role of editorial director role in 2014. Retiring from the company in 2016, Mark continues to expand his career as a car builder, automotive enthusiast, and freelance journalist to provide featured content and technical expertise.
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