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Tony Whitlatch Flips the Switch

His Tesla was great fun on the track, but this driver gets a real charge out of a feisty, low-tech Miata.

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When Tony Whitlatch went shopping for Teslas, he didn’t even know about the long range Model Y, with its 3-second zero-to-60, lowered suspension, and insane 160-plus top speed. But one test drive sold him. At that point he had no idea he’d be taking it to the track.

A long-time hot rod builder, Tony started tricking out his ride with performance upgrades, in anticipation of ProFormance’s One-Day High Performance Driving Experience. He remembers Don [Chief Instructor Don Kitch, Jr.] warning the class: “Be ready – 90 percent of you are going to get hooked.”

Tony Takes the Bait

Tony with his Tesla Performance Model 3

“I got hooked,” Tony admits. He booked track days at ProFormance, and also ran at Tesla events at Laguna Seca, Button Willow, and Sonoma Raceway, among others. He enjoyed the simplicity and reliability of Tesla driving. “You just get in and go. I don’t think I’ve ever concerned myself one second with mechanicals. You get in the car, and when you’re done, you drive home.” 

There are a couple of down sides to performance driving in a Tesla, however. Chief among them, perhaps, is battery life. A full charge might be plenty for a few days of street driving, but on the track it’s  a different story.  “After 10 or 15 minutes of pretty hard driving, your battery goes way down. You can do two 20-minute sessions and it’s close to dead.” Tony admits annoyance at having to leave the track and recharge so soon. That, and the cost of items like brake rotors, drove him to find something more practical for the track.

M.I.A.T.A. Means “Miata Is Always The Answer”

For less than the price of a battery replacement on his Model Y, Tony bought a race-ready 1992 Mazda MX-5 Miata. Unlike the Tesla, it has no traction control, no ABS, or power steering. And of course, it’s a stick shift. All in all, it’s the polar opposite of gee-whiz computer-led Tesla technology.

Pulling the Plug

Tony with his Miata

Adjustments are required to move from a Tesla to a Miata. At 4600 pounds the Tesla is heavy for a performance car. The Miata weighs in at half that. While Tony can lap all day now, he can no longer ignore mechanical  issues: there’s a higher likelihood of engine, rear end, and transmission problems.

On the other hand, “You feel like a racer in the Miata. I’m there in my full fire suit, strapped in with a five-point harness.” In the Tesla you’re driving the family car, but faster. 

How much faster? “I was taking turns at 130 in the Tesla. In the Miata, it’s 105 or 110 if you’re lucky.” Tony had pared his Pacific Raceways lap time in the Tesla to 1:38. On  his first day in the Miata, an Avants track day during which he did no less than eight 30-minute sessions, his best time was 1:46.

It Takes a Village to Race a Car

When Tony  was tracking the Tesla he got a lot of help from the Tesla community. “When I started I didn’t know a lot about racing, and people from the community were reaching out, teaching me things.” He gets the same energy from the Spec Miata crowd. “They’re all super friendly; they  want everyone to have a successful race.” He intends to pass that same generosity forward to new drivers, and give them the same help he received. 

Down the Road: Competition

With his HPDE well behind him, many laps under his belt, and a love affair with his Miata well underway, the next step is obvious. “The Miata people tell me there’s nothing like wheel-to-wheel racing. I’ve signed up for Two-Day Competition Race Licensing course, and hope to race Spec Miata next spring.”

Recently Tony was offered to get a novice racing license sooner with another organization. “That sounds . fine and dandy and all, but I really like Don and Donna [Chief of Operations Donna Porada-Kitch]. They’re the greatest people! I just want to go to the ProFormance class to be part of it.“ For Tony, the ProFormance way of nurturing drivers is the gold standard. “Don is a wizard,” he says. “He’s super safety-oriented, and he tells it like it is. He also cares about you, cares that you learn. He doesn’t talk to the GT-3 guys any different from the Miata guys.”

Finding the Sweet Spot

As a self-confessed “old hot rod guy,” Tony Whitlatch has always wanted to race.  He’s gone from working on Camaros and Firebirds to a Tesla, the pinnacle of computerized auto technology, and back down to a rough-and-ready 30-year-old roadster. And it seems to be the right direction. “To be totally honest, it completely changed my life. Nothing is as exciting as going 135 down the front stretch at Pacific Raceways.”

Whether it’s in an EV or a Miata, if a guy can realize a childhood dream, more power to him.

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