The one stipulation I had for selling my 2009 Miata was that I was to get the first right of refusal when it went back on sale. Shane had taken the car off my hands, replaced the transmission, retuned the rear differential, and set up the car with a new suspension, and went to Nationals in Street Touring Roadster (STR) against Honda S2000s and brand new ND Mazda Miatas, and managed to place way better than I thought he would with a car with a clear expiration date.
This was when the 2016 Mazda Miata was brand new on the scene, and folks were still working out the best STR setup for the car. Shane did damn well with the 2009, all things considered, taking the car to two consecutive 11th place trophies in 2016 and 2017 (out of 70+ and 60+ cars, respectively). By 2017, the writing was clearly on the wall: the new ND Miata could fit the same amount of tire as its older NC Miata sibling, had nearly the same power after tuning, and was some 200 pounds lighter, and was putting the previously dominant car, the Honda S2000, out to pasture in National competition.
So Shane decided that it was time to move on to another competition car. And as we had agreed, he called me first. Did I want my car back? Hell yes I did.
Before I sold the car to Shane, I was thinking about getting more involved in track stuff — track days, time trials, and perhaps a little bit of wheel-to-wheel racing. I actually bought a roll bar for the Miata thinking that I would install it and take it to the track for track days, but as I was still trying to compete Nationally, the last thing I wanted to do was add unnecessary weight to my autocross car.
I sold the car to Shane before I got to the point of dedicating the Miata as my track toy. But I kept the roll bar in my basement. When the car was finally rendered uncompetitive in STR, I bought the car back and dedicated to it to track duty.
My first track day with the 2009 Miata wasn’t actually after I bought it back; in fact, I had taken the car to Miatas at Hallett back when the car was first prepared for STR. You may remember that Miatas at Hallett was the first track event I ever did, driving my 1991 Mazda Miata. I bought my 2009 Miata with the intention of still being able to go to Miatas at Hallett — an admittedly shallow reason to pick a brand new car.
I took the 2009 to Miatas at Hallett for a single year, and didn’t take the car back to the track until much, much later.
Miatas at Hallett had this rule where if a car was running street tires, you could get away without running a roll bar. I took full advantage of that, running a tuned car with mild suspension modifications and steamroller best-of-the-best summer street tires. That was my first lap out, and I nearly yeeted the car into the trees — with my friend and codriver for the weekend in the passenger seat!
I eventually calmed down and started putting out decent laps.
My next track event with the car had to have some basic safety equipment installed. As it turns out, I’ve yet to return to Hallett.
Track day prep
I’ve joked that what I did was lend Shane my car for two years, and get it back paying him a discounted rate on labor and parts. Shane fixed all of my setup mistakes and fixed all of the mechanical maladies I had incurred on the car.
The biggest change was in the suspension. I had learned the hard way that stiffer was not always better. Shane tossed my spring rates out the window when he changed the suspension, and went with the Washington DC Region STR Miata setup: relatively soft springs, but an aggressive rear roll stiffness relative to the front. Add in an OS Giken clutch diff that was specially rebuilt and tuned — it turned out that my shop had been too generous with the silicone when sealing up the diff carrier, resulting in goo gumming up the clutch diff to the point where even breathing on the throttle instantly locked up the diff, resulting in a serious drift machine — to Shane’s driving style, and the car transformed from being a handful to being a perfect dance partner.
Once that was done, ride heights were set for a perfect crossweight with the weight of the driver in the driver’s seat. Then the car was aligned, once again with the driver’s weight in the driver’s seat.
Outside of minor tweaks to the shock settings or an adjustment to the rear sway bar to account for different tires or different track conditions, I’ve never had to make any wholesale changes to the suspension. I hope it stays that way.
Shane also installed a fixed back race seat in the car, mounting it on a set of OEM seat sliders so that it was adjustable.
All I did to make the car truly track ready was to install the roll bar that I had bought years ago.
Running time trials events with the Miata
Luckily for me, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was debuting a new time trials program around the time I bought my car back. It was instantly appealing to me for a simple reason: I could compete in time trials as a complete novice, no racing school necessary or HPDE ladder to climb first.
The very first ever new SCCA Time Trials event took place at Gingerman Raceway, on the west side of my state of Michigan. I took the Miata to the event and was instantly hooked. Lots of track time, great competition, and a friendly party atmosphere that felt a lot like partying in the paddock at Solo Nationals.
It was also the start of new phase of driver development. I am not a naturally gifted driver, and most of the time, improvements in my driving came in very small dribbles. But I can look back at the past three years and see real improvement in my driving, and it motivates me to keep going through the inevitable low points of maintaining and running a now-aging track rat. The video you see above is a side-by-side comparison of me driving Gingerman in 2018 in my Miata verus me driving Gingerman in 2016 in my Corvette Z06. I was nearly as fast around Gingerman in a Miata as I was as a complete novice in a Corvette! I did a 1:48 in the Corvette, and managed a 1:49 in the Miata.
And now, two years later, I returned to Gingerman with the Miata and ran the Gridlife Gingerman event, and got a personal best of 1:45! Present me in a Miata is faster than former me in a Corvette!
I’ve taken the Miata to many SCCA Time Trials events and a couple of track days, and the car never misses a beat. No turbos means no worries about cooking the motor on track, 17″ tires have tons of grip and are much cheaper than 18″ or larger tires that a lot of newer cars now must run, and the car’s easy on tires and brakes.
Luckily, I haven’t seen too much in the way of failures. There was a period of time where I was still running the Miata at National Solo events before committing it full time to time trials, and I broke my clutch diff at the New Jersey Pro Solo. I concluded that I’m simply too dim to keep a clutch diff happy and alive, so I swapped the OEM limited slip diff back into the car.
The car also ate through wheel bearings. At the first ever SCCA Time Trials Nationals at National Corvette Museum (NCM) Motorsports Park, I had a front wheel bearing go on me, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. Dallas, a driver of an extremely stripped out and winged up RX8, had a spare RX8 hub that I could use, allowing me to finish the event. Once I got home, I put new RX8 hubs on the front axle (the NC MX5 and RX8 are platform cousins with a lot of parts interchangeability) and had my shop install new Mazda wheel bearings in the rear knuckles.
After a rear wheel bearing failure at a time trial at Carolina Motorsports Park, and another rear wheel bearing failure at a Gingerman Raceway Gridlife time attack, I decided to nip my rear wheel bearing issues in the bud and put RX8 rear wheel bearings on the rear axle of my Miata. That necessitated sourcing a pair of rear RX8 knuckles and the outer CVs from an automatic RX8 to create a hybrid Miata/RX8 axle to bolt everything together.
Which brings us to the current day. Due to work, Detroit Region SCCA Solo Director duties, and a hectic summer thanks to the pandemic, I didn’t have time to complete the rear knuckle swap and axle build until a week out from this year’s Time Trials Nationals. I had the car back together at 11pm on Tuesday night, installed my brand new OEM Mazda hardtop on Wednesday morning, went to pick up my codriver for the weekend in the afternoon, arriving in Bowling Green, Kentucky late in the night, staying on site and finishing the very last prep on the car the morning of Thursday practice. But the car got to NCM, and so far has been putting down trouble free laps.
By the time you read this, it will be Sunday of Time Trials Nationals, and I’ll be competing in my final time trials sessions. If all goes well, the car will complete the weekend in one piece, and will be able to make the 7 hour drive back home without drama.
A car destined to die by my own hand?
At familiar tracks, I’ve been pushing the car and myself pretty hard, searching for those elusive seconds on the clock. As a result, I’ve had a couple of close calls: nearly spinning out the first time I took The Kink at Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP) flat out, spinning off track at Turn 9 at Gingerman and nearly hitting the corner station there, and several off course excursions at the butt puckering fast right sweepers at NCM. So far, the car has escaped without body damage or powertrain damage.
I feel like it’s a matter of when, not if, I do something really stupid and stuff the car into a wall or blow a hole through the engine block.
And yet, it’s strangely reassuring that I can absolutely destroy this car and easily walk away from it. The car was long ago paid off, and NC Miatas are old enough and depreciated enough that finding a replacement would hardly sink my finances. It’s liberating to be able to run the car to the absolute ragged edge and not care if the car survives for tomorrow.
And so, the Miata moves into its final stage of life under my ownership. Either I will destroy the car myself, or it will survive long enough to be passed on to someone else to continue living as a track rat. As I look at it now — with its junkyard silver bumpers and side sill, with a Plasti-dip swoosh attempting to hide the mismatched bodywork — I wonder what younger me would say now if he saw his brand new NC Miata reduced to this.
In any case, you can’t say that I didn’t use the car.