Even at a young age, Mike Kuhn knew he wanted a badass race car. And now he’s all grown-up, that first car, his Mazda RX-8 grown up with him…
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and try to clearly visualise your first car. Picture its curves, its angles, the condition of the bodywork, the cleanliness and reliability of the mechanicals, the way it smelled, its registration number, the way it felt when you thunked that lever into gear, the swish of the wipers, the angle of lean as you cornered… is this bringing back happy memories of a shouty and sylph-like sports car or, like me, are you shuddering slightly at the grotbox bag-of-nails that your motoring adventure necessarily began with?
Me, I’m picturing a £200 1.0-litre Nova with irretrievably rusty arches and insufficient power to trouble the skin of any rice puddings that happened to be lurking nearby. But not everyone within these pages had such a questionable start; indeed, superstar photographer and regular contributor Mike Kuhn is able to boast a tuned Mazda RX-8 as his sweet first-timer. And no, he’s not a fresh-faced seventeen year old any more; he bought this car a decade ago, and he’s been fettling, honing and refining it ever since.
“Being seventeen, I wanted something sporty that had good handling,” Mike reasons. “I attended a BMW Racing School when I was sixteen and I knew I wanted something I could throw around on the track. So it was really between an RX-8 and an E46 BMW 330i. At the time, the RX-8 had a lower resale value and I thought it looked much better and more interesting than your average 3 Series Beemer. So after a few months of looking I found the perfect one – it had 40,000 miles on the clock and was totally bone stock. I learned everything I know about working on cars from friends and RX-8 forums, and I’ve been learning from this car since the very start.”
Ominously, Mike made his portentous purchase on Friday the 13th, way back in July 2007, and a gentler soul may well have taken this to be harbinger of terror… used Mazdas with rotary engines can have an unfortunate habit of teaching unsuspecting buyers harsh, sudden and expensive lessons about engine rebuilds and rotor tip carnage – but thankfully, our man bought well. “It was a joy to drive from the very start,” he grins. And that was very good news indeed – not just for the obvious reasons, but for the fact that Mike wasn’t only going to be using the car on the road as a daily driver. The plan from the off was to give the thing death on track, and that’s precisely what he set about doing.
“Within a few months of owning the car, I’d already ordered sway bars, some cheap aftermarket wheels and tyres, and a Borla exhaust,” he recalls. “I took it to my first SCCA Autocross at the age of eighteen, and from then on I was hooked! Most of my future mods were chosen with the express aim of making the car faster for autocross and track days.” Mike’s next move was to try out a set of Megan Racing coilovers, which were then swapped out for Stance GR+ items, which he raced along with a set of Enkei RPF1s for a year. Perceptions shifted slightly in 2010 when he partook in his first SCCA National event, running against people who’d spent four times as much as he had on their suspension, with names like Penske, Moton and Öhlins demonstrating that you do get what you pay for. And so, ever eager to grasp a learning opportunity with both hands, Mike decided to bite the bullet and trick out his Rex with some bona fide Moton suspension, from the appropriately-titled Small Fortune Racing.
“That completely changed the car,” he laughs. “In my next National event I finished 3rd in class, and started winning my class shortly after that. The car was built to look good during the week, and be a national level race-winning RX-8 on the weekends! For the first four years I ran a street tyre class, won multiple national tours, and trophied three times at the National Championships. In 2014 I switched to a race tyre class and added more aero, bigger tyres, and a few other mods that made the car much faster. In the new class I’ve already won four national tours and finished 2nd last year at the National Championships!”
This is all very impressive stuff, and as much testament to Mike’s keenness to learn and adapt as to his driving prowess, but it’s also important to pay attention to one key statement you might have passed over just now: ‘The car was built to look good’. You’ll spot from the tech box that Mike’s currently rocking three entirely different wheel/tyre setups – one for racing, one for tearing up mountain runs, and one for shows. And his interior, while logically functional and uncluttered, isn’t the filthy, pared-back mess that so many pure race cars are – he’s taken a more holistic view, paid attention to the details. Elegantly chosen upgrades, fitted with care and finesse. “I did most of the work to the car myself,” he says, “with some of the bigger installs going to a local shop that sponsored me called Motion Lab Tuning.”
What’s arguably most impressive is just how much use the car gets on the road – while it wears the two disparate hats of being both a race car and a show car, it also sees a fair amount of tarmac. Mike’s daily is an E36 that he’s slammed over some tasty BBS rims, but the temptation to take a few traffic light scalps in the Mazda is always strong. “I do drive the RX-8 to photoshoots a few days a week; I take it to shows on the weekends on my WORK Meisters, or if I have a race I’ll switch to the Volk CE28NRTs with Hoosiers.”
He elaborates. “I race probably twenty-five weekends out of the year between March and November, and when I drive around the city it breaks necks everywhere – the combination of looking and sounding like a race car in the city, people just aren’t used to it and I always get good reactions. I always get comments about how clean the car looks in person as well, considering how much I race it. Keeping it in the garage and detailed with the full line of Adams Polishes is key to a flawless finish! At the races people seem to love watching me run too – I’m leading the pro-class points championship so far this year, so maybe my competitors don’t always like it when I show up, but it is good healthy competition!”
The tale of Mike’s RX-8 is one of perseverance, determination, and kinship. It’s been a steep learning curve at times, but the faithful old Mazda has always proved willing and eager, and has taught him untold lessons about how oily things interact. It’s proof of the logic of buying the car you want rather than just grabbing what’s there.
My own first car lasted about four months before I blew it up and threw it away. Mike’s rotary odyssey has been a decade-long love affair – and we get the feeling that this story has a fair few more chapters to go. The car’s already at Rotorsports Racing in North Carolina to get some more power out of it, and we’ve heard Mike whispering about a single-turbo 13B-REW swap. Don’t worry, you’ll definitely be seeing this thing around for a while…
Tech spec Mazda RX-8
Mazdaspeed front bumper, Mazdaspeed sideskirts, Seibon carbon-fibre bonnet, APR GTC-200 wing with 2.5″ risers and Gurney flap, Evo R eyelids.
2x654cc 13B-MSP Renesis rotary engine, Adaptronic ECU, BHR ignition upgrade, Racing Brake intake and air duct, lightweight Deka 11lb battery, Moroso catch can, HKS Hi-Power exhaust system, custom 3″ catless mid-pipe with vibrant resonator, 220whp, 170lb.ft, OS Giken Super Lock 1.5 LSD.
Show wheels: 9×18” +22 with 15mm spacer (front) and 10×18” +22 (rear) WORK Meister S1 3P with 255/35 (f) and 265/35 (r) Toyo R1-R tyres, Track wheels: 10×17” +45 Volk CE28NRT with 295/35 Hoosier A7 slicks, Mountain run wheels: 9.5×18” +35 Volk TE37SL with 265/35 Toyo R888-R tyres, ARP extended wheel studs, Moton Clubsport double-adjustable race shocks, 750F/600R Hyperco springs, Progress Technology front anti-roll bar, Racing Beat rear anti-roll bar, Agency Power end links, Racing Brake 4-pot BBK with 2-piece discs.
Corbeau FX1 Pro driver seat, Bride Low Max passenger seat, custom seat rails, Sparco 383 steering wheel, custom red footwell LED lights.
“I would like to thank my girlfriend Sami for always supporting me with the car and at my races, as well as my dad whose been going to the races with me to support since I started ten years ago.”