COAL: Learning To Wrench On a Rust Belt Car, Or How I learned Not To Fear the Cutting Wheel

My 1991 Mazda Miata was purchased from Gurnee, Illinois, one of the many suburbs ringing the city of Chicago. It was a relatively high mileage car that was originally equipped with a factory hard top, making it a perfect all-weather driver, and the previous owners had obviously driven the car through the salt and the slush. When I bought the car, I had done only a very cursory glance at the underside of the car before paying $2500 to bring it home. In hindsight, I had paid way too much for the car.

Chalk that up as a lesson learned in “what to pay attention to” when checking out an old car for sale in the Midwest.

Tom, my wrenching mentor

When I was looking for a small little sports car to replace the Audi A4, Tom pulled me aside at an autocross and insisted that I go buy a Miata. “You can join us at Miatas at Hallett. It’ll be the most fun you’ve ever had,” he said. As the owner of “Maggie,” a white 2003 Mazda Miata with a turbocharger and a roll bar, he and his friends road tripped to the race track every year to run with the Arkansas Miata Club at this Miatas-only track event.

I ended up with my ’91, and I immediately made plans to get my little car ready for the race track.

First things first, I would need safety equipment. I got a free roll bar from someone who was converting their street Miata into a Spec Miata race car, and the roll bar install was the first major wrenching project I attempted on the Miata.

It went… mostly well. I bought new hardware for the roll bar instead of reusing the old hardware, and downloaded the roll bar installation instructions off the internet. Armed with a mechanics tool set I bought from Sears and my parents’ cordless drill, I went about the gut-wrenching process of drilling holes in my car and fitting the roll bar in.

Inevitably, I got the holes drilled almost in the right place but not quite. It was ever just so slightly off, and some of the bolts didn’t slip right in.

I called Tom in a panic. He swung by my parents’ house, as I was doing this job in their garage and not on the school campus, and with a little bit of muscle got all of the hardware in, either by rocking the roll bar to wiggle a bolt in, or simply jamming the bolt into the hole with the palm of his hand.

Roll bar installed in the Miata.


I remembered being amazed that Tom made it look so easy. Of course, now I know better — there’s nothing wrong with using a little persuasion to fitting (some) things together.

The next thing I wanted to do was refresh the suspension. I ordered some cheap KYB shocks — they were red, and had this big honking dial on the shock body with numbers 1 through 8, which gave me the illusions that they were racing shocks — and an aftermarket front sway bar, which would keep my car legal for the E Stock autocross class.

After ordering the parts, I really looked underneath the car for the very first time.

Crustiness on the rear suspension components.


Oh no. I was stopped dead in my tracks by the tiniest amount of rust when I tried to change the control arms on my Audi A4, and they looked nothing like this.

Two inch hole in the passenger side frame stiffening rail.


Oh shit. In the passenger side frame stiffening rail, right next to the transmission, was a gaping hole about 2 inches long. I simply didn’t notice this when I was buying the car. I never even thought to look that far underneath the car, just checking out the rockers and assuming that if the rockers looked okay, that was good enough.

The car wasn’t quite the deal I thought I had gotten.

In a panic, I called Tom and asked him for advice. He told me to calm down and simply bring the Miata down to his buddy’s shop. We’d work on the car together and get it ready for Miatas at Hallett.

And so I did just that. Tom’s buddy Jerry had a shop south of Champaign, and I trekked down there one weekend with my suspension parts for a wrenching session. One that proved to be one of the most important learning experiences of my life.

Wrenching on the car with Tom in his buddy’s shop.


Tom and I put the car on a lift and went to work on the front suspension. The replacement of the front shocks was pretty straightforward, but I was having some trouble with the removal of the shock and the control arms.

I asked Tom for help. He handed me a hammer and told me to go to town with it.

After watching me gingerly tap the lower shock bolt with a punch for half a minute, he politely took the hammer from my hand, and with one heavy, solid “thwack!” punched the stubborn bolt out. He handed the hammer back to me.

Okay, got it. Sometimes you just have to apply force. Sometimes lots of it.

The front sway bar was giving me fits. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get the nuts on the sway bar end link off, as they were rusted solid.

I asked Tom for help. First we tried PB Blaster. Didn’t help. Tom looked at me and asked, “You’ve got new sway bar end links with your new sway bar, right?” I nodded my head.

Out came the cutting wheel. I watched the sparks fly as Tom carefully cut the nut and stud of the sway bar end link off the mounting point on the control arm. After about two minutes of careful work, the sway bar was out. I had spent 15 minutes and going futilely trying to preserve an end link that was going to end up being replaced anyway. He handed me a front sway bar covered with flaky scale, with the still-attached end links flopping about like the ears of a Basset Hound.

The front sway bar went on with the new end links, and we moved on to the rear shocks. Now that I had an idea of what to do, the rear shock replacement went relatively easy.

I started the day worrying that my car was a delicate little flower, and that hammering on the car, using a torch, or a cutting wheel would result in my car disappearing in a shower of sparkles and pixie dust. I ended the day learning that a car is an assembly of metal, and that using force and heat (and the occasional cutting wheel) is simply a fact of life for mechanics, especially those of us working on cars exposed to salt.

And I learned to appreciate hammers. It really is the credit card of garage tools — incredibly useful as long as you don’t incur (compounding) wrenching debts.

Making it to Miatas at Hallett

In September, I finally made it out to Tulsa, Oklahoma, joining Tom and several friends at Miatas at Hallett.

My car and my friend Adrian’s Miata at Hallett.


I had a wonderful instructor by the name of George. An older gentlemen with snow white hair and a soft voice, he was there at the event not with a Miata, but with a Miata-engined Lotus 7 replica. He had owned all generations of Miata, and had a few in his garage, along with a classic Mustang. He seemed to me to be the coolest dude.

With George sitting shotgun in the passenger seat, he guided me around the race track for my very first experience with high speed driving.

The Miata proved to be the perfect car to start track driving with. Here, “high speed” meant being ecstatic that my car could break the century mark at the end of the front straight. Everywhere else, speeds were entirely reasonable, especially for a young driver who quite frankly had no idea what he was doing yet still confident that he was a better driver than he really was.


It was tremendous fun. I had only done autocross up to this point and had never done anything on a race track. I was instantly hooked. Unfortunately, track time is a lot more expensive than autocross time.

On a student budget, track days would have to be the very — very — occasional indulgence.

But the die was set. I loved my time at Miatas at Hallett, and by the end-of-weekend dinner party, Tom asked me if I was going to be coming back next year. Hell yes, I was going to come back next year!

Then in 2009, I sold the Miata. Would I be back for the running of the 2009 Miatas at Hallett event?

Me and the Miata at the end of the weekend.