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The Track Cars - The Miata experiment

Hmmm, what kind of track car do I want to drive? Well which way is the wind blowing? When it comes to track cars, that wind has been ever changing and sometimes it blows really hard. Let’s see – two 944 Turbo’s, a 968, a Cayman S, two Boxster S’s, a Mini GP and a couple of Miata’s. You may notice that it has been pretty much biased towards Porsches. Wow, that is eight track cars over seventeen years of track events. Until now, I never counted them up. Some have been dual purpose cars meaning that they have been daily drivers as well as track warriors. And some have been dedicated track cars that only drive on the road to and from an event or have been transported to the track via truck and trailer. And over the years I have learned some valuable lessons about dedicated track cars and their dual-purpose counterparts.

You would think that they dedicated track cars would be more reliable compared to the dual-purpose cars. You would be wrong. The dedicated cars are edgier, tuned more towards the higher end of the motors power spectrum, the brakes and suspension are more highly tuned and much more highly stressed. Fact is, you just drive these harder, because you know if they brake, you can just put them in the trailer and drive them home. The dual-purpose cars, not so much. They have to make that homeward journey. So, you baby them just a bit more, not drive them at ten 10th’s but maybe at 8.5 10th’s, leaving those last few tenths in your pocket so you can actually make it back to home base.

My current track car is one of the dedicated ones. It lives in a very nice twenty-foot enclosed trailer and only sees the light of day when it is running on the track or needs to have some work or repairs done to it. Which lately has been pretty much all the time, the repairs part that is. The current car is a bright red 1999 Mazda Miata also known as a MX-5. It is also known as a NB, meaning the second generation of Miata’s. This particular car is also known as the “Beast” previously owned by a well-known developer of supercharged kits for all generations of Miata’s. This was the owners personal car and was the NB development platform for over ten years.

After hundreds or maybe even thousands of hours of hard core track usage, the oil pump gave up the ghost this past fall during a Miata event at Hallett Raceway. It puked all the oil out of the motor during my one and only run on the track. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself, let’s rewind back two days. Arriving at the track Thursday evening with a group of fellow Miata racers, we unpacked our trailers and I noticed there was fluid on the trailer floor. But it was not too much, so I unloaded the car, parked it in our garage and cleaned up the small puddle in the trailer.

The next morning, I was greeted with a much larger puddle under the car. Oh-oh! Collectively we had all torn apart and rebuilt countless race cars so we dug in to see what the problem was. And the verdict, the water pump had failed and needed to be replaced. We found one in nearby Sand Springs, OK and I went to fetch while the rest of the gang rolled up their sleeves and started pulling stuff off the car to get to the water pump. While they all ran their various sessions, I did the rest of the R&R (removal and replacement) of the water pump. And during their breaks, they helped out. So we had five guys all wrenching and racing and when the new pump was finally reinstalled, we put everything back together. It was getting late and but we wanted the job done before we left the track for the evening.

Now it was the moment of truth, we put fluids back in the car and started it up. And – all the fluid puked back out. Crap! Now it was late, the sun was setting and we sorely in need of margaritas. What could have gone wrong? We were not sure, but I suspected that someone had not tightened all the bolts down. I mean we were busy working, wrenching, racing, talking and maybe, just maybe someone had gotten distracted and not tightened down those bolts. And that someone would be me.

The next morning, we arrived back at the track and since we are all instructors we would be working with students for the whole day teaching them racing techniques. That left limited time to tear the car back down and get to those bolts. We figured that we just would not have enough time to tackle getting back at the water pump. But amazing (or weird) enough, one of our group had a student that had brought her teenage son to the track and this kid was already a Miata expert, having rebuilt two motors and complete cars by the time he was seventeen. He was totally stoked by the prospect of helping me getting access to the water pump. We turned him loose with a whole batch of tools and away he went.

We did get to the water pump, and sure enough the bolts were all loose. Yep, I had not  tightened them. You know, that is how I roll. Usually I have to do repair jobs twice to correct for my screw ups the first time through. By noon, the job was finished. We put water back into the car and started it up and there were no leaks. Everything held! A cheer when up in our garage. While everyone else had lunch and then gathered on track for a huge group photo of all the Miata’s at the track, I was putting the finishing touches on the car to get it ready to head out onto the track. Yes, I wanted to drive the damn thing.

Finally, the Beast was out on the track. I worked for a lap and a half to get the tires up to temp, to dial in the grip then I started to hit it. But there was no power, no boost, no fun. I had to pull aside to let a faster car pass in a corner and almost parked the car and when I put my foot back into the accelerator, the car snap spun twisting in a very fast 360° spin. What the F…

Pulling back into the pits we were all collectively horrified when we saw the entire underside of the car covered in a sheen of thick oil, with more pouring out of the bottom of the motor. We put some oil back in the car and started it, it ran rough and we immediately killed it. The prognosis, the motor had blown up. Damn. The water pump ordeal, five so-so laps and now this. But it also solved a mystery, when I had pulled aside, my rear tires got covered in enough oil to cause the car to spin. What a terrible day. We pushed the car into the trailer and left the track very late. Arriving at the after-track party, I proceeded to drink a fair amount of bourbon and beer. Yeah, I deserved it. Got an award at the party. One for the least amount of laps turned in the whole two day track weekend – total of five. Yeah it was a terrible weekend.

So that brings me back to the premise, that dedicated track cars are more delicate than their dual purpose counterparts. So now I have the prospect of a new race motor, meaning get ready to open up the check book. But that is another story.

On that exhaust note, see you next time.