Don’t ruin your favorite street car

Once upon a time, a young kid was told to get rid of his 1991 Mazda Miata. It was not a car fit for someone going to business school, his father said. You need something newer and more respectable.

So the kid bought a brand new 2009 Mazda Miata.

That was me, many years ago. That car has stayed within my orbit pretty much ever since. Except for a two year stint where I sold the car to Shane (with the condition that he give me first right of refusal when he was done banging his head against the wall running that 2009 NC Miata against the new ND Miatas), that car has been mine.

It went from a C Stock autocross car to a Street Touring Roadster (STR) autocross car and finally to its current form, a track rat that falls into the Tuner 4 SCCA Time Trials class. I have spent years wringing the stock motor to 8,000 rpm (and it hasn’t fallen apart, knock on wood!) and competed in hundreds of autocross events and maybe two dozen track events. If there’s any car that I’m probably most associated with, it’s probably this one, air horns and all.

But I’ve gone too far. So far that perhaps the only reasonable thing to do at this point is hit the reset button.

From new car to a wreck

I wonder what younger me would think of me now. The younger me, who washed and waxed this car twice a year and thought that he was going to keep this car nice forever, what would he think of a car with a replaced rear quarter panel with badly orange peeled paint and different color bumper covers and side sills?

It was always my intention to try and keep this car looking nice. As the years passed by, the car suffered at the hands of my insufficient driving skills, hence the constant replacement of bumpers and other plastics as I routinely crushed cones at high speed. I was able to keep up appearances by judicious use of Plasti Dip; I camouflaged my silver junkyard body parts with silver Plasti Dip stripes, giving the car a couple different liveries towards the end of its days as my STR car.

However, the entropy really accelerated when I bought the car back from Shane and turned the car into a track car.

The Miata had a really exciting 2021. It got put into the wall at two different race tracks by two different drivers.

The first wall hit was at the Virginia International Raceway (VIR) Time Trials. My codriver for the event, Matt Eddy, lost the car in Hog Pen and spun the car into the wall.

Miata after hitting the wall at VIR
Miata after hitting the wall at VIR.

Luckily for us, the damage on the car didn’t extend to the frame or the suspension. I decided that we’d try and rescue our weekend by getting the car fixed for the last day of competition on Sunday. I stopped by Krugspeed Racing’s shop right there next to the VIR and they were gracious enough to sell me one of their spare radiators. Pat LaMontagne and Christie Johnston contributed extra sets of hands to help us swap the radiator, bang out the bodywork, and put everything back together again. Brian Salo contributed the case of water that refilled the cooling system. We finished out the weekend.

Repaired Miata ready for Day 2 of the VIR Time Trials
Repaired Miata ready for Day 2 of the VIR Time Trials.

Matt and I rushed to repair the Miata before the SCCA Time Trials Nationals event at National Corvette Museum (NCM) Motorsports Park in May. I sourced another silver bumper cover from another Mazda racer, a red door from a nearby junkyard, and another fender from Mazdaspeed Motorsports. We threw everything together and took the car to Time Trials Nationals, where it performed splendidly.

Making the trip out to the 2021 SCCA Time Trials Nationals
Making the trip out to the 2021 SCCA Time Trials Nationals.

Unfortunately, the car would kiss the wall again in 2021, this time at the hands of Pat at PittRace in August.

Damage at the 2021 PittRace Time Trials
Damage at the 2021 PittRace Time Trials.

The damage was more severe with this hit. The car was completely undrivable, with bent or broken suspension arms on both the drivers front and drivers rear suspension. The rear quarter panel was also hit, which was a bummer — fixing that would not be as simple as unbolting the damaged sheet metal and bolting a new panel on.

I had track insurance for the car, but in the end I decided not to use it. In hindsight, I should have used it and eaten the $3500 deductible. But Pat was willing to try to fix it all up for less than the deductible, and I was willing to give him that opportunity. My only condition was that I didn’t want to do any work on the car, as I was sick and tired of the thrash I had just done earlier in the year to get the car back together after the off at VIR.

I told Pat that the car just had to look good enough at speed from a distance. After all, it’s just a track car, right?

It wasn’t until this year that I got the Miata back. Things happened between then and now: I had just bought a Mustang Mach 1 and was driving that, and Pat was building a B-Spec race car for the 2023 race season.

Pat had replaced all of the broken suspension arms and the broken tie rod end, sourced another fender, and welded and painted another rear quarter panel taken from another junk yard car.

The Miata at the start of summer 2023
The Miata at the start of summer 2023

Unfortunately, the car wasn’t quite ready to go. I discovered that the steering rack was jacked; the car wouldn’t turn to the right, and upon removal of the steering rack, I discovered a bunch of swarf that was jamming up the teeth.

I had hoped to get the Miata ready for the Gingerman Time Trials, but I missed it. Then the goal was to take the Miata to the PittRace time trials, but it wasn’t ready by then and I took the Fiesta ST instead. Then the goal was to take the Miata to Time Trials Nationals at NCM Motorsports Park, and then the Road Atlanta Time Trials, but I ended up taking the Mustang Mach 1 to both those events instead.

The scope of preparations was expanding, pushing the debut of the car back on track further and further back. I had decided that while I was in there replacing the steering rack, I’d finally put the 5-point harness that I had bought years ago in the car to go with the race bucket.

To get the harness in the car, I needed to swap the roll bar out. The roll bars that keep the top intact do not span the full width of the cockpit, resulting in a main hoop tube that occupies the same space where the left shoulder harness needs to go.

That meant ripping the top out of the car and finally installing a full-width roll bar so I could have a usable harness bar. The Miata would become a permanent hard top car.

After struggling to install the Blackbird Fabworx GT3 roll bar into the car over the course of two weeks of intermittent work in a borrowed garage, I finally had it bolted in the car. (Fuck that roll bar. It’s pretty but the install is unnecessarily awful.) After all that, it’s never, ever coming back out of the car.

Installing the roll bar meant that all of the interior plastics had to be removed behind the rear seat, along with all of the insulation. I took the car for a quick drive after the roll bar install and was dismayed to discover that it was really noisy inside the car now, not only in NVH and exhaust noise, but also in the sound of rocks pinging off the inside rear fenders from the sticky tires, making a drive around the parking lot sound like being on the inside of a large steel maraca.

Installing the roll bar in the Miata
Installing the roll bar in the Miata.

Over the winter, I will be adding back some rear trim, cut up of course to fit around the roll bar, and I’ll be adding some carpet and insulation back there to dampen the sound coming through the sheet metal.

But that doesn’t resolve the fact that while the car is undeniably safer and more fit for track use, I’ve finally ruined the “top down” aspect of the car that had attracted me to the car in the first place.

Getting another roadster

It has been two years since I’ve had a roadster in the fleet. I knew that I would eventually be taking the top off the Miata and as a result, I had started looking for a cheap roadster to give me my top down thrills.

I started off with the usual suspects: little British sports cars and NA Miatas. I test drove several MGs and Triumphs, but they simply weren’t as nice to drive as Miatas, and furthermore, finding a non-project added a degree of difficulty as I currently don’t have easy access to my own garage. I took a look at several NA Miatas, but all of the nice ones now cost a fortune. The days of really nice, sub-$5k Miatas appear to be long gone.

Shopping for NA and NC Miatas
Shopping for NA and NC Miatas.

What I really wanted all along was my red NC back as a street car. I know that the NCs are the least popular Miatas, but for me, it’s the Goldilocks car: still small but big enough for road tripping and modern enough but without the modern curses of electric power steering and touchscreens that can’t be touched while the car is in motion.

Unfortunately, NC Miatas had also experienced price inflation too. The original premise for tracking my red NC — that if I wrecked the car, I could easily find a beater replacement chassis for under 10 grand — no longer seemed to be true. Folks in the north were asking anywhere from $15k to $20k for an NC2 or NC3. Yes, it had to be one of the later cars; I much preferred the “happy” face front bumpers and the cup-holders-that-don’t-poke-out-into-your-legs door panels of the later cars.

As luck would have it, two months ago, someone on Facebook posted a car in the NC Miata Buy/Sell groups a car that got little attention: a silver 2009 NC Miata that wore the plate NOCONES on the rear bumper. It was, obviously, an STR car built by someone down in North Carolina, and it was a spitting image of my car. It had the nearly the same full exhaust, a similarly stiff coilover suspension, and even the same replacement steering wheel and shift knob. But unlike my car, it still had a top and the stock drivers seat. And I guess it was silver too.

I hurriedly messaged the seller and we got to talking. The car was rust free, it had less than 55k miles, and most importantly, the seller was asking far less than stock Miatas of similar condition up here in the Rust Belt.

Just before my birthday, I reached a deal and I bought the car. I would have to wait a couple of weeks for the lien to be released on the title, but when it did, I drove down with a borrowed truck and a U-Haul trailer to pick up my new street car.

I’m going to replace the torn vinyl top with the replacement canvas top that I just removed from the red NC, and replace the gunmetal grey Konig wheels on this car with the red NC’s silver Bullitt wheels with the Continental summer tires.

The loud muffler on the exhaust will be replaced with a quieter one; if it’s not enough to quiet down the car, I’ll swap the header and midpipe out for the OEM pieces and return the tune back to stock.

The suspension will be removed from the car and replaced with Koni Yellows and the Progress springs. The 2006 MS-R cars that kicked my ass when I was competing in C Stock had the right amount of “doesn’t suck at the limit” and “OEM soft,” so I’m going to replicate that here.

The only thing that I’ve yet to warm up to is the color of the car. I definitely have a preference for brightly colored cars, and this car unfortunately sits on the grayscale of the color spectrum. I may end up wrapping the car so I get something brighter and more eye-searing for a hue.

Two cars for two different purposes

The purpose of this silver NC is to be a nice street cruiser that Lily and I can drive on our way to the cider mill during a beautiful fall day. It doesn’t need stiff springs. It doesn’t need to be any lower. It doesn’t need to be louder. It doesn’t need to sacrifice any comfort at the altar of speed.

The red NC is the opposite.

For the longest time, I was against having two Miatas in the fleet. Wouldn’t it be kind of redundant to have two of the same car?

Well, I fixed that conundrum. Sure, they are both 2009 Mazda Miata Tourings, but they will end up being two very different cars.