The Miata of the Month from

December 2009

Rand Swanson and his 1999 Challenge Miata

Congratulations to Rand on the selection of his $1977.67 1999 as the December Miata of the Month!

Each year in early October, Grassroots Motorsports Magazine holds its annual $200X challenge. This is an automotive triathlon where competitors must compete in an autocross, a drag race and a concourse, with the car with best cumulative score being named the winner. The limiting factor is that each car must be completed for a total budget of just $1.00 per year for the current calendar year, this year was the $2009 Challenge.

My journey to the Challenge started in 2002 when I happened on an article in Car and Driver which talked about the Grassroots Challenge. It caught my attention and I decided that I wanted to give it a try. In 2004 Paul Slebodnik - my partner in all things automotive - and I built our first Challenge car, a 1988 Mazda RX-7 with a 350 cubic inch Chevy motor. We finished 24th out of 75 cars and we were hooked.

With my automotive affections firmly entrenched in my love for everything Miatae, this year’s choice of car was obvious. Paul and I were already about half way through the construction the most ambitious project that we have attempted (a Porsche 944 with a Chevrolet LT1 engine and a rear mounted turbo dubbed the “Porvette”) when I stumbled into the Miata which would become my $2009 Challenge car. While Paul is our chief engineer and fabricator, I am our scrounger and procurement specialist. I enjoy searching through Ebay and Craigslist looking for that automotive bargain that I just can’t live without, and it was on one of those searches that I discovered my 1999 Miata.

I should preface this by saying that the ’99 is my fourth Miata, 3 of which I currently own, all of which are black. It isn’t that I particularly like black, it is just that I seem to find deals on black cars. I was looking for parts to repair my newly purchased ’97 when I found an ad on Craigslist for a 1999 Miata in Willard, Ohio for only $1800. The ad said that it had minor damage and that the engine could be repaired. I was skeptical, but I had to see the car for myself. It turned out that the car was in better shape that I had hoped, and I bought the car on the spot for the asking price. The car was completely intact but had minor damage to the hood, passenger side fender and bumper cover. The radiator had also been broken and the previous owner apparently drove the car without coolant until the head gasket blew. His loss was my gain! He decided to quit making payments and the bank repossessed the car.

The car fulfilled the first criteria of the $200X Challenge in that the car must be purchased for less than $200X. The rules also allow you to sell parts from the car or from other parts purchases up to half the total budget. This year you were allowed $1004.50 in total sales. My next stroke of good fortune was two weeks later when I found a complete motor for a ’99 Miata listed again on Craigslist for the princely sum of $100. This was a motor that had experienced the #4 bearing failure, but had a good top end and came complete from intake to exhaust manifolds and included all sensors, throttle body and clutch. This purchase gave me enough spare parts to sell off to enable me to repair the car and free up valuable budget room. The seats were sold for $150, the stock wheels with new tires were sold for $200, and the leftover engine parts were sold for $425.

The conventional wisdom on the Grassroots Motorsports online forum is that a bone stock Miata will be competitive in the autocross right out of the box. I decided to test that premise with the build up of this car. I bought a used radiator and race tires and wheels from North Coast Miata club members and rebuilt the car. Fixing the body damage was my first attempt at any serious bodywork. I was able to hammer and dolly the fender and hood close enough to be finished with Bondo, and a heat gun and a cold wet rag took care of the damage to the bumper cover. The entire front end of the car was painted using rattle can spray paint. The color coat was purchased online and is the proper paint code, while the clear coat was Duplicolor paint bought at local auto parts stores. It took a lot of time, patience and elbow grease, but the results were surprisingly good.

The stock Miata might be competitive in the autocross, but the drag race portion would be a different story. For this I decided that the easiest way to “more power” was through the wonders of nitrous oxide. I purchased a used Wet Nitrous kit, again found on Craigslist for $250, and I had the immediate ability to bolt on an additional 75 horsepower. The total budget for the project came in at $1977.67, which has to be verified by meticulous keeping of receipts.

So… you are probably wondering whether a stock Miata with race tires is competitive versus turbocharged Hondas and various cars with V8 swaps. Well, it turns out that it is! Challenge rules permit the use of “pro” drivers, and as expected expert driver Danny Shields piloted the 99 Miata to 12th place in the autocross in the mid 90 degree heat. A solid showing in the concourse and a Nitrous assisted drag pass of 14.89 at 93 MPH, put the car in 13th place overall out of 55 total cars. I was extremely pleased and a little surprised by the showing. My build was very simple compared to the majority of the entrants. To paraphrase the common wisdom on the Grassroots Forum, when it comes to car questions, “the answer is always Miata”!

Previous Miata of the Month Winners

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