Why I bought a race car, er, car to race… an MX-5
Richard Bosselman has bought a race car. Actually, he’s bought an old MX-5 to race. Same thing, yeah?
BECAUSE RACE CAR. The meme of the moment is potentially enough of a reason. But there are so many more.
Because the mate who has been involved for the past year swears it is the epitome of minimal cost, maximum fun motorsport. Because it bases at Manfeild: Circuit Chris Amon, 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, I’ve bought a 1990 Mazda MX-5, with express intention to enter into a club level circuit category that centres at my local track, Manfeild Circuit Chris Amon.
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 0-100km/h in 8.7 seconds and topped out at 185km/h and I seriously doubt mine has become any 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 up there as a Eunos and arrived here, without paperwork (as is the norm) 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. From hanging around with Conrod, the youngest gun appears to be a middle-aged bloke. Age aside, we’re all pretty much 50-plus sad bastards looking for a way to get back on track without busting the bank (or bones). There’s not only nothing to prove, but nothing much to win beyond a chocolate fish or maybe the occasional oil pack. 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.
I’m keen to steer clear of accidents but at least I know that, despite the series is purely for the first-born NA, the pop-up headlamp model of 1989-1997, 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, either. We’ve 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, Trev 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 0- the senior of the two spanners – reckoned they’d make a world of difference. They probably will, but what a mission removing the rubber originals! Heavy duty hammers, fire and plenty of profanity came with that job. But it’s done now. However, this was a turning point – we’d always hoped to keep the car road-registered, but even though the bushes aren’t illegal, the suspension is now too firm to be road-friendly. So, a rego that was on hold will stay that way. 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 roll cages to clamber through – still gets a Sunday fun car.
So, it’s all been a good fit. Almost. 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 [but that just makes you jolly, right? – Ed].
The weight issue is being addressed by treadmill time. 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 ror 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 say my helmeted head has to be 50mm clear of the side bars – which I achieve – and below the cage top. Which I don’t. By just a fraction. Not even with the seat padding removed.
There were 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. Fortunately, 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.’
Jobs still to come. Get a race exhaust (straight pipe with a Kobe on the end) and sort the electrics. I’ve got specialists undertaking those jobs. The original ignition cannot be used, but that’s okay because I never had one. 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’ve also got to bung on stripes and stickers to acknowledge my supporters. And I’m hoping Santa will buy me a car trailer for Xmas.
One other thing. I have to get a new race licence. I used to hold one but let it lapse because the number always annoyed. I’m not superstitious, but come on … ‘1313’, are you kidding me?
So, I reckon we’ll have our first track test in a week or two. The proper series runs in the winter, but there are hill climbs and club events I can do first. Not sure how I’ll go, but I feel enthusiastic.