COAL: 1973 Mazda RX-3 — Racing a Daily Driver

First SCCA Driver’s School, late 1981.

My daily driver/autocrossing RX-3 was actually an ideal arrangement, mechanically. I kept the engine room stock, so I could pass the biennial smog check, the car was fun and reliable to drive, and it was quite competitive at quickly going around the cones. The same wheels and tires were used for both the street and the autocross. There was little extra maintenance or additional expense associated with the autocrossing, and my car set-up was more about learning how to drive it, rather than changing everything around mechanically.

But the draw of “real racing” was powerful. I finally decided to go to my first SCCA Driver’s School, and I was immediately dropped into the associated run-around. Health forms, memberships, pre-registrations, safety equipment for the car, and a driver’s suit and gloves. And check-writing. Lots and lots of checks being written. One of the most vexing preps was the requirement to disable the steering wheel lock. Those things are designed to resist tampering…

The trusty “red” RX-3, back at school after the first Driver’s School. “X” after the car number signifies a Driver’s School student.

I frantically prepared the car to get it done in time, including cutting big numbers out of sticky white shelf paper. I would apply them after driving out to the track, along with taping up the lights. Autocross buddy Rick and I threw sleeping bags and food in the car, and headed out in the general direction of the Imperial Valley and Holtville, on a Friday evening in late 1981. We figured we would get to the general area, east of the mountains and into the desert, and follow some other racers to the actual site (no smartphones or GPS). That’s exactly how it worked out, as light trucks and station wagons, towing race cars on flatbed trailers, populated the highway traffic. We got to the airport runway site at Holtville. We did the final preps on the car, wrote some more checks, got a vehicle logbook, and passed vehicle tech after a few tries. After a makeshift dinner, Rick slept in the car, and I slept under the stars. It was very cold, as the WW2 surplus sleeping bag didn’t do much to keep me warm. I was too wound up to sleep much anyway.

The school itself was fun and drama free, though I found myself turning abysmally slow lap times, no matter how hard I tried. I found out that any extra horsepower and handling made a huge difference in road racing, and my preps in those areas were very minimal. Autocrossers could somewhat will their way to faster lap times, in a way that road racers simply could not do.

Two schools done, and I had my regional SCCA license, in the Spring of 1982. My car fitted into the new “Improved Touring A” class, which had just recently been started in the So-Cal SCCA regions, before spreading to the rest of the country. The class allowed older, minimally modified cars to race against each other. SCCA Production and Sedan classes were too “racy”, and the Showroom Stock program required newer cars and allowed no modifications. “I.T.” Was a happy medium for people such as myself.

I quickly learned that club racing/road racing was going to be hard on the car, take a lot of work, and setting up the car was a task much more intensive than what I had done to the car up to then. As a person driving the car to and from the racetrack, there was also the possibility that I might not be able to drive it home one day, should anything go wrong at the racetrack. But the trade-off was that I got to drive a race car at the racetrack. How cool was that?

In the meantime, through both SCCA and the autocrosses, I had been introduced to a fraternity of other racers. There were opportunities for learning car set-ups, for different events to attend, and to buy or sell parts and cars. One of the big elements of my RX-3 COALs, is that the ownership of them is when I learned how to modify a car into what I wanted it to be, instead of just buying and driving, which is what most people do, and is what I had done prior to my RX-3 experiences.

While trying to figure out how to chop up my daily driver/autocross RX-3 into a road racer (Start driving the Mustang again as a daily driver? Buy another cheap daily driver?), an opportunity showed up. A racing friend and mentor had converted his autocross RX-3 into an IMSA “RS” racer. The IMSA “RS” class was a support racing series to the “GT” races, which featured the Datsun Z-cars, Porsche 930/934/935s, and the new RX-7s. The “RS” cars were RX-3s, Datsun 200SXs, the occasional Capri or Alfa Romeo, and the AMC Spirit, of all things. The cool thing about IMSA “RS” was that the local racers could get a shot at the “big guys”, when they came to town to race, which was at Riverside Raceway, in this case.

IMSA “RS” RX-3SP, Roger Mandeville’s #38 car. The local racers would be taking him on.

So racing friend Don, the would-be “RS” racer, took all the parts he pulled from his RX-3 to make it more of a “real” race car, put them on a spare RX-3 shell he found somewhere, and had the core of an “I.T.” Race car put together. I bought it. I was now a one-person, three-car family (this is how it starts, folks).

The red car in the middle is Don’s IMSA “RS” car. My new purchase, #42, is behind him, out at the desert airport racetrack at Holtville, before I had a chance to repaint it.

The “new” race car was identical to my red one, and I painted it white. It got a roll cage instead of a roll bar. Headers and a racing exhaust system, instead of the stock assembly. The belt-driven air pump and other engine pollution controls were removed. Little “race car” things such as window clips and hood pins were added. But I kept the white car registered, and every two years I would put it all back to stock to pass the smog check.

Freshly painted white and ready to go, 1982.

I raced at Holtville and Riverside, every time my pocketbook could afford it. I typically finished mid-pack, but I had a lot of fun doing so. For daily driving, I typically took the “red” car, but while the “white” car was prepped for smog checks, I would drive that one daily for a while as well.

I am sixth out of ten here, typical for me. Esses going into Turn 5 at Riverside.

I did this racing for a couple of years, until the odds and a bad weekend caught up with me. At the airport track in Holtville, we arrived to go racing one weekend, and found a Canadian military C-130 sitting on our racetrack. Somehow, scheduling had booked the Royal Canadian Air Force and the SCCA on the same weekend. A compromise was reached, and the C-130 was moved to an apron adjacent to the active runway, and away from the inactive auxiliary runways that made up our racetrack.

A great thing about racing at Holtville was that there was nothing to run into, if you went off course. It was situated out in the open desert. (It had been built in World War 2 to use as a way station, for the B-24 bombers being built in San Diego and then flown out to points East. They would land at Holtville and change out the engine oil). Unknown to most of us, when the Canadians relocated their C-130, they built a dirt berm between us and them, hiding behind the usual desert sagebrush.

Sure enough, I went wide one lap, off course, and hit that berm, launching through the air like the Dukes in their Dodge Charger. I crushed the lower part of the nose of the RX-3, twisting and shortening the wheelbase by an inch or two on one front corner. I was now stuck in the desert, hours from home, with no car to drive. A fellow racer took pity on me, and towed me home, while he drove his own unregistered race car home behind me.

The white race car, a few hours before the “Oops, oh crap!” Moment.

This gave me pause to rethink everything. I had just gotten a good job at the San Diego Zoo, but they expected me to work every weekend. There would be no time for race cars. I also realized that while daily driving one’s autocross car would work, trying to drive a road racer to the racetrack, compete, and then go home, was a daunting experience. It could be done, but that doesn’t mean it should be done. What to do?