I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December of 2008. By then, the Great Recession was in full swing, and my new Mechanical Engineering degree didn’t do me a lot of good when it came to finding work.
As I couldn’t find a job, I decided to accelerate my plans and go to grad school and get my MBA. I applied for and got into the U of I’s MBA program, much to the satisfaction of my father, who still clung to the hope that I would someday take over the family laboratory business.
Only one thing, though. He couldn’t have his son, future CEO of the family business and MBA candidate, driving around in a toy car. The 1991 Mazda Miata had to go.
And so my father struck a deal with me. He’d help me buy a respectable car as a graduation gift slash future company car. No more tiny little rusty NA Miata with the absurd steel roll bar on the parcel shelf — it was time for something a proper businessman would drive, like a Lexus.
I didn’t want a Lexus, or any other luxury 4-door sedan. I wanted a sports car. Eventually, my father relented, and I went shopping for a “respectable” sports car.
And what better car to replace a 1991 Mazda Miata than… a brand new Miata? (Okay, technically the NC generation cars were just badged as MX-5s and not Miatas, but I’m going to refer to it as a Miata from here on out.)
These days, I wonder how my life would have been different if I had chosen any other car other than a 2009 Miata. The other two cars I had briefly considered were the Mazda RX-8, which in 2009 was refreshed to resolve many of the issues plaguing the original iteration, and the Honda S2000, which could still be found new but was at the end of its production run. Maybe if I had the Mazda RX-8, I would have gone down a different path in my motorsports journey. Maybe if I got the Honda S2000, I’d have what would eventually be a rising classic car and it would have been competitive for many years in my chosen motorsports venues.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. In the end, I couldn’t resist bringing home a new Miata. The top went down, and it granted me entry to future Miatas at Hallett events. (Thanks to business school, I would end up missing out on the 2009 Miatas at Hallett, but would return for 2010.)
I picked up my new Miata from a dealership in Indianapolis, as they had a selection of Miatas to choose from whereas other dealerships didn’t offer much variety. Even then, the dealership had an overabundance of maroon reds, off whites, and dark blues and blacks. There were no yellow cars and only one bright red car. I chose the bright red car. With just 9 miles on the odometer, she was mine.
Compared to the ’91, the ’09 was ever so slightly bigger in every dimension. After close examination, I realized that a lot of the “bulk” on the new Miata came from the fact that the belt line was nearly two inches taller than the older car, with a much more squared off front and rear. Otherwise, the cars were nearly the same in length and height.
I sold the ’91 and the ’09 became my daily driver and autocross car. As my MBA studies came to a close, I broke my end of the bargain and told my father that I wasn’t going to be taking over the family business. Instead, I had decided to go work in the Motor City for one of the big automakers.
The summer road trip of 2011
I and another U of I MBA grad had accepted jobs at Ford. I elected to start in August, which left me two months of time between graduation and work to do whatever I wanted. One of those things, I decided, would be a solo road trip to California and back. And the Miata was the perfect car for such a trip.
The first stop was Chicago, where I stopped by for a college friend’s birthday party. From there, I headed west, blitzing across the Central Plains until I hit Colorado. After a brief respite in Boulder where I found a local social swing dance to crash, I continued on into the mountains.
Pikes Peak, home of the famous hill climb, was a place I had always wanted to go see for myself, and here I was, with a little sports car. Back then, the road up to the top was still only half paved, so it wasn’t really suitable for enthusiastic driving with a street stock sports car, even if there wasn’t a constant flood of traffic slowly inching up and down the mountain. But the road is one of those where simply going 35-40 mph felt recklessly dangerous, so I took it easy and pulled over frequently to marvel at the views and to take pictures.
Going up and down the mountain made it extra apparent how obnoxious my car’s muffler was. At the time, I had an extremely light weight (read: very loud and super drone-y) exhaust on the car. I decided to rectify the situation by going to the other side of the mountain range and stopping by Flyin’ Miata, a well-known Miata tuner shop in Miata circles.
At the Flyin’ Miata shop, I asked for an oil change and a new muffler to replace the ultra lightweight unit on the car. While one of the techs worked on my car, I got a tour of the shop, checked out all of the project cars, and even got a ride in their supercharged NC Miata. Sure beats wasting away in a dealership waiting room for a service. I left the shop with the ultra lightweight muffler stuffed in the trunk and a new, larger dual exhaust muffler hanging off the back of the car. My ears were very grateful for the change.
Onward I drove in search of the roads that were recommended to me by the Flyin’ Miata staff. I was told to drop off the highway just as one entered Utah, and to take the backroads towards Moab. I briefly got lost trying to find the road, ending up on a rocky gravel path that ran next to the Colorado River. People on the river, probably surprised to see a Miata doing some light offroading, waived from their boats; I waved back. I eventually found the road, and as promised, it was one of the best little roads that I had ever driven. Fortunately for me, it was a weekday and the traffic on the road was extremely light, and I had a ton of fun as I sped towards Arches National Park.
It was late afternoon by the time I got there. I did some hikes and got to see the Delicate Arch from below, as well as some of the easier-to-hike-to arches in the park, as I didn’t have much time to spend. I was hiking one trail loop when the sun went down, and it suddenly became dark.
Very dark. I hadn’t occurred to me until then that there were no lights anywhere in the park. With the help of my cell phone flashlight, I briskly made my way back to the car. It was only when I got back to the Miata that I bothered to look up, where the clear night sky was dotted with more stars than I had ever seen in my life. Wow. I grabbed my camera and tripod and tried to take some nightscape shots, but I had no idea what I was doing, and all the pictures came out terrible. I vowed to myself that I’d come back when I knew what to do and try again.
I continued west. I made a short pit stop at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The salt was wet, so I didn’t try driving my car onto the flats themselves, but I did walk out there and take some pictures.
Moving on, I stopped by Yosemite National Park for a very brief moment. I didn’t have any time to go on any hikes or stay in the park, so I just took pictures from the park road of all that was visible. There was a little bridge that had an excellent view of Half Dome, and it was jam packed with photographers waiting for the sunset. I joined them for a while before continuing on to San Francisco.
In San Francisco, I hung out with some of my fellow recent MBA grads, eating and drinking in cool places and visiting all of the touristy things.
From there, I headed south, following the Pacific Coast Highway. I can’t think of a better place for a Miata than running down Highway 1, top down, ocean breeze in the hair, beautiful vistas for the eyes to devour, and winding roads with which to play on. I stopped in Monterey for lunch, and then headed to Laguna Seca to check out the racetrack. There was an SCCA club race going on, so I went to the spectator area overlooking the Corkscrew and took photos of the Spec Racer Fords out on track. I purchased a souvenir mug from the track shop as a memento of my visit.
I arrived in Los Angeles, staying nights at a family friend’s house and visiting swing dance friends during the daytime. I hiked up the hills to see the Hollywood sign, which ended up being unexciting and a bit underwhelming, and went to the Peterson Automotive Museum, which was freaking amazing and very overwhelming in the best possible way.
Turning east, I followed Route 66 the best I could. I briefly stopped at the rim of the Grand Canyon and took some pictures in the morning dawn. Scattered along Route 66 was a mix of desolate ruins and kitschy roadside attractions, and I delighted in photographing all of the things I came across. I took a picture standin’ on the corner of Winslow, Arizona, spent some time poking around Roy’s Motel, and watched tourists spray paint the Cadillac Ranch.
Finally, I rolled into Saint Louis, Missouri, where I would spend a weekend dancing at what ended up being the last Show Me Blues dance exchange. It was a perfect cap on a perfect summer road trip.
Moving to Michigan
At the end of July, it was time for me to pack up my things and move. Ford offered moving assistance, but I took the cash reimbursement and moved myself. I didn’t have much stuff to move anyway, so I enlisted the Miata to be my moving van.
All I had to bring to Michigan were my two computers, my clothes, and a small collection of tools and parts for the car. All of my personal effects I packed into the Miata, and the tire trailer carried my extra set of wheels and tires, my tools, and anything else I couldn’t fit inside the Miata.
The trick to packing a Miata? Yes, the trunk is the most obvious place to put things, but when the top is up, the parcel shelf behind the driver can hold quite a lot of stuff too. Add in the passenger seat and foot well, and you can carry more than you might think.
I moved myself to Southeast Michigan, first crashing at my fellow MBA grad’s apartment while I looked for a place of my own. I found a condo in Dearborn that was very close to work and had a two car attached garage.
Now that I had space for one more vehicle, my next course of action was to retire the Miata from winter driving duty and buy a daily beater…