MX-5 racing: One small step, one giant leap

I’ve bought a race car. More correctly, I’ve bought an old MX-5 to race. Same thing, yeah?

WERE this a missive from a Formula One team, it’s be tailored along the lines of suggesting my opening effort was, on review, one that provided high value data acquisition.

I might even chance a line like: “On this occasion, we were not concentrating on results, though we believed these would likely come in time.”

But enough of that BS.

To give it to you straight … basically, my virgin outing in my new race car, also my first competition, as in ‘points-gathering’, effort for at least 20 years, was … not brilliant. Much less that, in fact. I sucked.

The fact that, in two out of three races, no-one ever really got near it was because it’s hard to do so when the car in question is running at the back of the field.

The reason why I also achieved a third in the final outing of the day was due to this being a handicap event, in which I had 12 seconds’ head start … good enough to ensure the field only caught me on the final half of the final lap. Is it important to mention that the race was shortened, due to time constraint, by one lap, from six to five. Had that not happened… well, you do the math.

Okay, so I expected this was going to be tough. But, honestly, I didn’t think I’d get such a walloping. I mean, single make competition for basically still-standard cars suggests relative eqaulity, right?

Fat chance. Thought that, at the very least, I’d manage to stay with the pack was smashed from the first lap of the first race.

All I can hope is that things will improve. Having paid up for the whole series in advance (yup, I was THAT optimistic) I can say I put my money on it being better.

Anyway, I’m going to keep going no matter what in the Mazda MX-5 club racing series at my home circuit, Manfeild: Circuit Chris Amon. That’s because, despite my poor start, I loved every moment of that June 4 race. Huge fun. I was totally elated. Still am.

So why go here? Well, because, as a motorsport fan, I’d finally decided it was more fun being on the track than beside it. Because the mate who has been involved for the past year swears the MX-5 category is the epitome of minimal cost, maximum fun motorsport. Because it bases at my home track. Because a car became available at a price that even made the financial controller happy. Because that mate, Conrad (or ‘Conrod’ as he prefers when in race driver mode) who competes has also, because he lives a lot further way, been stowing his car in my garage for all this year (so, you know, it’s been in my face EVERY day). Because it’s time. If I don’t do it now …

So, anyway, Seven months ago I bought a 1990 Mazda MX-5 with express intention of thrashing the living daylights out of it on the best track in the country. So far, mission achieved. I’ve just got to thrash it harder.

Cool huh? If you’ve experienced this epochal roadster in its original and ongoing format you’ll know. MX-5s are a massive buzz. Not fast – when new, the NA managed 0-100kmh in 8.7 seconds and topped out at 185kmh and I know now, from having dyno-tested it, that mine hasn’t become any stronger or faster after almost four decades and 200,000kms. Yet even after those years, it’s still an impressive immersion into the process and physics of driving in its most natural state.

So there’s that. Then there’s the happy situation of these cars being cheap and plentiful here. You’ll know why. Most MX-5s here are, in fact, ex-Japan imports. Mine started life in Japan as a Eunos and arrived here 10 years on from birth. From what I can tell, badging aside the model created for Mazda’s short-lived luxury division is identical to any MX-5 sold here new. It’s just a lot cheaper. Again, a great perfect storm condition for a low-cost competition, right?

For sure, the series for these cars is not a category from which a future Van Gisbergen, Dixon or Hartley will emerge. The age range spans from 20-somethings to 50-plus sad bastards like me looking for a way to get back on track without busting the bank (or bones).

We’ve nothing to prove and nothing much to win, beyond a chocolate fish. Since I don’t much like marshmallow, that’s hardly an attraction. The sense that it’s all more social than serious seems to keep everything relatively seemly when the flag drops. I’ve seen a few bingles, but no helmet-throwing tantrums.

The series is purely for the first-born NA, the pop-up headlamp model of 1989-1997, but despite their age – mine, you’ll have worked out, is a venerable 27-years old - there are plenty of available parts. You can buy new engines for these cars for under a grand and land a whole car for maybe three to four times that.

They’re not as geriatric as they seem. Having had my car down to the bare bones and I’ve been impressed by how well everything has lasted. I guess it’s testimony to the skillset of the original engineering team that the most common reported problems are generally cosmetic - weather-worn soft-tops and interiors and the like. Which is neither here nor there since all that stuff ends up in boxes or the bin anyway.

I should have enjoyed a head start in taking over a car that was 80 percent through conversion.

It was a lucky find; I just knew a guy who knew a guy who had reluctantly decided to park his racing dream to follow another ideal - starting up a sheep-milking operation (agree, you could not make THAT up). A mechanic turned used car salesman at a Mazda dealership, Trevor had already sorted the roll cage, race suspension, brand new wheels and tyres (the series mandates Toyo RE 888 rubber) and so on and also splurged on a heap of yet to be installed bits, from a new gearknob to a shiny alloy Fenix radiator, a pair of spanking new race seats and harnesses.

This is mainly a winter series and just as well, because the over-summer prep quickly progressed from being a quick bolt-together to, erm, quite the opposite. Under advice from two other friends who have a wealth of expertise from the days when they were race mechanics in the US (both have also raced Formula Ford here), more bits have been coming off than going on. It’s become less a refresh and something of a wheels-up refurb but, given the hammering it’s in for, that’s possibly not such a bad idea.

If you’ve had a race car, you’ll be familiar with the process. For instance, we were always going to undertake the usual oil and filter changes. Given that, it seemed silly not to fit the new radiator. Since we were going to do, why not replace all the hoses, too? The brakes looked okay, but Trev had given me a set of spanking new rotors. No point leaving those in their boxes. New discs meant new pads and, hey, why not some nice braided brake lines as well?

That last idea became something bigger. The lines came out of the US, sourced via a brilliant website (Flyin Miata) which I’ve discovered is The Place. It was here where I found how cheap polyurethane suspension bushes are in America. These are allowable, and Rob (the senior of my two tame spanners) reckoned they’d a world of difference.

That certainly seems to be the case – the car feels really tight and honed -  but what a mission removing the rubber originals! Heavy duty hammers, fire and plenty of profanity came with that job. Sorry I was unable to help, boys, but well done.

We’d always hoped to keep the car road-registered, but the suspension made it too firm to be road-friendly. Not a problem, really, because I’ve since bought another cheap MX-5 that will remain in road tune, so the missus – who was never keen about the idea of zipping about town in a roofless roadster with a roll cage to clamber through - still has a Sunday fun car.

If you looked at me, you’d wonder why I’m undertaking this project. It’s a small car. I’m a big guy. A big, slightly chubby guy, actually.

The weight issue is on the ‘things to do’ list. The height thing has been a challenge; stripping out the interior (you can ditch everything but the dash, essentially) makes it less tight, but we’re still snug. The race seat sits a lot lower than the standard chair, which actually makes for a better driving position, but I hadn’t taken into account that the roll cage was basically purpose-built for Trevor, whose head comes up to my shoulders.

The rules said my helmeted head had to be 50mm clear of the side bars – which I achieved – and below the cage top. Which I didn’t. By just a fraction. But even that’s too much for to be safe. So what to do?

Two solutions. Create a new roll cage – a bitch of a job whose cost of around $2500 was not in the budget – or ask for dispensation from the national motorsport body to modify what was there. We went for option two and officialdom smiled. The cage has a wee jungle gym on top. It looks a bit awkward, but safety first, right? We’re going to call it the ‘Birdcage Mazda.’

Also done:  A race exhaust (straight pipe with a Kobe on the end) and getting rid of the roadcar ignition. It now has keyless start. Just a switch flick and a button push. The reason why this car ended up off the road and with Trev was because it was a insurance write-off, having been nicked by a guy who used a screwdriver to access the car (cutting the roof) but and also start it.

I also had to get a new race licence, because while I used to hold one, I purposely let it lapse because the number always annoyed. I’m not superstitious, but come on … ‘1313’, are you kidding?

So, with all that sorted, and the car having passed scrutineering pretty much intact (I just need to get another strap on the fire extinguisher), I was good to race.

Until I did, Then I was crap. But the video tells all.