It was both one of the most rewarding and most frustrating periods of my life. I had never originally intended to end up as one of the Serious Business types, but fate makes fools of us all, and I somehow ended up in perhaps the smallest and nerdiest minority of car enthusiasts possible: competitive drivers.
Somehow, my 2009 Miata slowly morphed from “fun car I play with occasionally in autocrosses” to a nearly fully prepared competition car. As I frequently joked as things got serious, what I did was take a $15,000 car and throw $15,000 in parts on it to end up with a $15,000 car.
The six years of National competition I did with the car exposed all of the bad ideas I had for what they were, taught me what fast truly was, and how far I had to go even to get to quick.
Competing with a stock Miata
I thought that preparing my 2009 Miata would be similar to the Stock class prep I did for my 1991 Miata: add a front sway bar, slap on a set of Koni Yellows, and mount a set of race tires to a set of lightweight stock-sized wheels.
With the help of Tom, the man who helped me wrench on my ’91, I installed a large front sway bar and a set of Konis on the car. For tires, I grabbed a set of Kumho V710s and mounted them on a set of lightweight 17×7″ wheels.
It wasn’t my intention to try competing at a National Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocross, but some of my friends in the local Central Illinois car club decided that they’d try leaving the small pond of local competition and see how they stacked up against the big guns at a big event. Four cars and five drivers ended up going to the Peru Tour in July of 2010: David with his 2002 Honda S2000 and Clark with his 2002 BMW Z3M, both cars prepared for Street Touring Roadster (STR); Nick with his 2005 Mazda RX8, prepared for Street Touring Xtreme (STX); and myself and Emanuel, codriving my Miata in C Stock (CS).
Peru was the first time I had bolted my sticky race tires to the car. For all of the previous local events, I had only ever run the stock street tires, and to my inexperienced self the car seemed perfectly fine. However, with the race tires bolted on the car, it only seemed to want to push in corners. I was confused. This is a Miata — it’s not supposed to be an understeering pig!
Emanuel, in an attempt to make the car a little more willing to rotate, dialed in 1/2″ of toe out on the rear wheels. 1/8″ of an inch of toe out is a lot of toe out, and we turned the dial straight to 11!
Even then, the car still pushed like crazy. Nick, who had brought along a camera, showed me pictures of my car out on course. I was lifting the inside wheel some 2-3 inches off the ground. What does this mean? It means that Mazda tuned the NC Miata for serious understeer; the rear is simply way too soft.
What’s frustrating is that Mazda definitely knew how to make an NC handle. The top three finishers in CS at Peru were all 2007 MS-R Miatas.
Wait, I hear you say, I’ve never heard of the MS-R. There’s a good reason for that — the car doesn’t exist in the wild. It was a trunk kit that Mazda put together for Showroom Stock road racers which somehow got approved for autocross, but only for 2007 model year Miatas. The biggest benefit of the trunk kit was that you got stiffer rear springs and different sway bars, increasing the roll resistance in the rear to the point where the car was perfectly balanced.
(Rounding out the top 5 in CS were two drivers sharing a 2007 Pontiac Solstice, also equipped with a trunk kit, the Z0K package.)
Now to be fair, the real reason that Emanuel and I finished down on the standings was that we simply weren’t very experienced drivers. Of our small group, only Nick managed to snag a trophy; Dave and Clark finished at the bottom of their class much in the same way much in the same way Emanuel and I finished at the bottom of ours.
I quickly lost my desire to continue autocrossing the Miata. Who wants to drive a small RWD roadster that has to be eased around the course like its a FWD car? I retreated from autocross for a while, taking the Miata on a long cross-country road trip before my move to Michigan.
Modifying my Miata
Once in Michigan, I stopped worrying about the competitiveness of my car and simply focused on making my car fun to drive.
I took the stock springs off the car and replaced them with Flyin’ Miata springs. I matched the front aftermarket sway bar with a rear aftermarket sway bar. Now the car had a good balance between the front and the rear, and no longer drove like a FWD car.
These changes put my Miata in STR. I didn’t worry about it and started enjoying the car again at autocrosses, this time competing at local Detroit Region SCCA events.
I told myself that I wasn’t going to get super competitive, but it ended up happening anyway. I blame that on the fact that Detroit Region is a huge region with a lot of National caliber drivers, and I couldn’t help but begin comparing my own results to theirs.
Months later, when I found someone selling a used STR Miata suspension setup on a car forum, I decided to bite the bullet and jump into the deep end. At nearly two grand, the Koni 3011s with 2.5″ springs was the most money I’d ever spent on suspension up to that point.
I installed the suspension on the car and sold my old suspension setup. I also went off and bought two sets of 17×9″ wheels, and rolled the fenders to get the wheels and tires to fit under the car.
It didn’t take long for me to dive further in the deep end. I bought a long tube header with a cat that was specifically designed to comply with STR rules, which was almost as expensive as my used suspension purchase. I bought an EcuTek cable and license and had a remote tune done for my car.
At this point, the car was 9/10ths of a full tilt STR build. Now, all I had to do was learn how to drive the car…
“If your hands aren’t shaking…”
Pro Solo quickly became my favorite flavor of autocross. In Pro Solo, you have two mirrored courses side-by-side, with two cars staging at a Christmas Tree and starting their course runs as soon as the lights dropped to green. Your final finishing position was decided by your best combined left and right side runs. I loved the excitement of staging and timing the lights, and the way that the event was run meant that I could totally mess up on Saturday and still have a chance to place well on Sunday.
After my first taste of Pro Solo at the 2012 Toledo Pro, I made a point of going to as many Pro Solos as I could in 2013.
The first Pro of 2013 was the DC Pro Solo, which took place at FedEx Field in the Washington DC Region. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got a message from one of the best drivers in the sport. Mike “Junior” Johnson, the one who headed the Evolution Performance Driving School, a dedicated autocross driving school, wanted to codrive my car. But why me? For one, I had taken one of his Evo driving schools back in Central Illinois, and I was a single driver with an NC Miata prepared for STR.
As it turned out, Junior’s wife, Kandy, wanted to do the “learn how to drive a slow car fast” thing first before moving on to the “driving a fast car fast” bit. So instead of dropping Kandy in one of his 500+ horsepower race tire shod Corvettes, Junior bought an NC Miata to prep for STR. His car wasn’t ready in time for the DC Pro, so he found my name on the entry list and thought it was worth an ask if he and Kandy could drive my car.
Of course, I was not going to turn this opportunity down. We worked out a deal where we’d use Junior’s wheels and tires for the weekend in exchange for the codrives.
The entry list for STR was ridiculously deep. We had 29 cars in the class and, if I’m not mistaken, were the largest class in the entire event. And competing in this class were several National champions and several more folks who would go on to win championships.
Junior was the first one to drive my car in competition.
“Hey John, do you mind if I do a burnout in your car?” he asked.
“They’re your tires,” I replied. “Go ahead.” In the back of my mind, I thought he was nuts.
Junior pulls up with the first group of cars into the staging lanes for the Pro. Once in the burnout box, he pulled off a solid 10 second burnout with my car. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Ah, that must be Junior pulling up to the start line, said the announcer over the loudspeakers.
I was inspired from that point on to do a long burnout in the Miata whenever I first staged for a Pro Solo. I’m willing to bet good money that this very Miata probably has done more burnouts than any other stock engined NC Miata out there. The two transmissions and two rear diffs I’ve grenaded in this car can bear witness to my claim.
Not surprisingly, Junior was fast. Kandy and I were… not.
I remember Kandy pulling into the paddock after one of her heats, disappointment in her voice as she got out of the car at her lack of speed.
“Show me your hands,” Junior said.
Kandy presented her hands. They floated in mid air, still.
“If your hands aren’t shaking,” Junior continued, “that means you’re not driving hard enough.” He presented his own hands and started shaking them as if he had suddenly had ingested a dozen cups of coffee. “Your hands should look like this,” he said. “That’s when you know you’re going fast enough.”
That snippet of conversation really stuck with me. I didn’t quite understand what Junior was getting at the time, but now with several years of competition against really fast drivers under my belt, I do. It’s a play on the old Andretti quote, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Because in order to be truly fast, you have to be on the absolute edge of tire grip, and that’s an uncomfortable place to be, even for experienced drivers. For relatively new drivers like myself, it was absolutely terrifying. It was so much easier to drive at 95% than to inch our way to 99%.
That weekend, Junior placed second in my own car, 0.6 seconds out of first place. Myself? I finished 3 seconds off of Junior’s pace, an eternity in autocross, finishing in 22nd place. Nothing like someone definitively showing you that your problem is not the car, but you and your driving alone.
It would take me a long time to even approach at-the-limit driving nirvana.
How not to set up a car, or how stiffer isn’t always better
In 2014 and 2015, I started experimenting with car setup. My friend Josh codrove with me in 2014, and together we continued developing the Miata.
I also spent a lot of money on new clutch type limited slip differential. My inexperience with keeping the diff in good operating condition led me to buy two of them, so I could have one to put in the car if I had to take one out for rebuilding or tuning.
The 2014 season was a bit of a mixed bag. The Miata seemed too loose and too pushy at the same time, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what to do to make it better.
For the 2015 season, I decided to start playing around with the spring rates. After having the shocks rebuilt, I started increasing the spring rates under the misguided assumption that a stiffer car is always a better car. Also, having had no experience with setting up shocks, I cranked the compression on my double adjustables, also under the foolish notion that stiffer was better.
I ended up with a terrible driving car. My friendly “evil twin” Tim, who drove an NC Miata similarly prepared to mine, codrove my car at the Wilmington Tour and remarked that my car behaved very differently from his. My car was super bouncy and hard to keep pointed straight under throttle. We compared notes, and it turned out that my compression settings were about triple what he had on his car. Oops.
When I took the car to Solo Nationals, I discovered that the setup I had put together at a local Test and Tune was simply too loose for Lincoln. Naturally, I had only packed higher rate springs with me and neglected to bring my lower rate springs. After a disastrous Pro Finale, I replaced the springs on the car with the setup it started the year with; I thought I had wisely spent months of time setting up the car for my liking, only to end up tossing all of that work in favor of the original good but not great setup.
I ended up midpack at the 2015 Solo Nationals, just like I did the year before. It was extremely frustrating, as it had seemed like all that time and effort I had spent effectively amounted to nothing. (Meanwhile, Clark, the one who finished at the bottom of STR years ago at Peru, finished in the top 5 of F Street at Nationals with his BMW M3! At least some of my friends were making good progress…)
It would take me another few years to finally wrap my head around how to set up a car. The agony I had with the Miata, in retrospect, was important in teaching me that there are no shortcuts to setting up a car. I would eventually learn how to analyze transitional behavior for setup changes, and to test, test, and test some more to verify that my changes actually did what I wanted them to do.
Moving on to a different competition car
As the East Coast was such a hot bed of STR competition over the years, I made a lot of friends from there, starting with my very first DC Pro Solo back in 2013. One such pair of friends also drove an NC Miata in STR, James and Shane, both codriving James’ 2006 Miata.
Shane was one of the best drivers in the NC, and one of the true believers in the chassis. As other drivers eventually abandoned the NC Miata for AP2 Honda S2000s, Shane stuck with it, codriving with James and helping with the development of the car.
The two of them would show up to Nationals, and they’d have the worst luck. A mechanical failure would strike and Shane would scramble to salvage his week with an impromptu codrive or a desperate paddock fix.
At the awards banquet for the 2015 Solo Nationals, I was sitting with a bunch of the DC Region STR guys when I mentioned that I was thinking of moving on from my car onto something else. All eyes immediately fell onto Shane. I’ll offer you a good deal, I told him: $9k for the car with three sets of wheels and tires and all of my spares. We were egging him on to do it, but he didn’t make a decision that night.
I ended up buying the Miata’s replacement on a whim shortly after Nationals, which meant that the Miata suddenly had to go.
My friend Danny, another autocrosser from the DC Region, hit me up. Danny had just sold his NC Miata, also prepared for STR, to fellow DC Region autocrosser and mutual friend Alan, and wanted to buy my car. Why, I asked, when Danny just had a car like mine? Danny decided shortly after selling his STR car that he still needed a lightweight RWD toy, and that my car could fit the bill. Um, okay, sure. We agreed on $9k plus all the spares, just like what I had offered Shane.
Danny PayPal’d me $5k, and I delivered all of my spare parts to his house, with the delivery of the car to take place at a local autocross event in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
I was working on my Mustang, getting it ready for a cross country road trip, when my cell phone rang. It was Shane, and he wanted to know more information about my car. But why?
As it turned out, Shane tried to buy Danny’s Miata, but Danny sold that car to Alan. Then Danny suggested that Shane buy my car, despite the fact that Danny was already in the middle of buying it. Weird, but okay.
Shane sent me the remainder of the balance due for the car, and I wrote out a new bill of sale.
I took the Miata out to the autocross in Hershey, where Shane and I codrove the car for the event. Go figure, I did poorly, ending up near the bottom of the class standings, while Shane, the alien that he is, nearly set Fastest Time of the Day in the very same car.
We finished the weekend with a photo op, a ceremonial handing over of the keys to Shane. If you thought that my buying a dozen cars in a decade was excessive (I plead 100% guilty), then Danny’s car ADD antics are on a whole ‘nother level. Who, outside desperate flippers, “sells” a car before they even take possession? (And naturally, Danny ended up buying and selling two more NC Miatas in the time since I sold mine.)
There was one condition to the deals I made with Danny and Shane. When it came time to sell the car, I had to get first right of refusal. As I handed over the keys to Shane, I repeated this. He agreed.
I flew back home without my NC Miata. Fortunately (spoiler!), I had another Miata waiting for me at home…