NutDriver Racing   Carl

Lefty's Miata Saga

1. Introduction

Well, I've wanted a Mazda Miata for quite some time now. At one point Righty, and I discussed building or buying a Spec Miata for SCCA competition. Then we watched a few Spec Miata races at Road Atlanta. SM is certainly the right abbreviation. Lots of mechanical sadomasochism going on out there. Sort of the WWE of the road racing set. Like SRF used to be. So we got over the Spec Miata thing, but we both like the Miata, and we've been casually looking around for one for a year or so.

Then, I recently had to trade in my '99 Mustang GT daily driver to get a more reliable tow vehicle (see The Weekend From Hell). This was around the time that I named my previous tow vehicle, which was generically known as NutHauler I. The new name was "Ed". It's short for "Elephant Dung", because it's a big gray pile of um, well, uh, dung.

Ed actually let me down twice. First as mentioned in The Weekend From Hell, and again, a month or so later, when we worked corners at a race at Road Atlanta. The second happened about two months later when I used Ed to go back to Road Atlanta to work corners for a race.

Now I'm generally a pretty tolerant fellow, automotively speaking, but two letdowns is just too much where a hauler is concerned. I just can't abide a hauler that's going to let me down, especially on the way to an event I'd paid mucho dollars in entry fees to attend. Not to mention losing out on hotel room funds for not being able to cancel early enough. And the racing! So, “Ed” went to charity. Since I couldn't afford two car payments, the Mustang got traded in for a 2000 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck.

Well, that meant much higher fuel costs than the Mustang, as well as the difficulties of the larger vehicle, like parking and tight traffic. So, I was without a daily driver. “Daily Driver Hunting” began in earnest. I was looking at a variety of possibilities for a replacement daily driver, but required that it be cheap enough to buy for cash. I still can't afford two car payments, you see. It also had to get decent to good fuel mileage and be fun to drive. Well, what do you know. A 1990 Miata popped up on an Internet message board I frequent for about $2k. It had some damage from being rear-ended by a drunk, but the seller would throw in the repair parts for a little more cash.

2. Saturday

2.1. Closing the Deal

The seller and I chatted via email a bit and he sent me some pictures of the car, including the damage, and we agreed to terms. In the end, I flew to his home city one Saturday morning to close the deal. The return trip was about 775 miles, and I planned to drive it back home Saturday and Sunday.

The car looked and sounded good, except for the damaged rear, but I had the parts to fix it. We bolted and bungeed the replacement trunk lid since it wouldn't fit inside. The seller had already installed the right rear light bucket and all of the signals were working. We installed the windshield wiper arms and blades. Unfortunately, the zipper on the rear window was sprung. As a quick fix, I taped it up with racer's tape and hoped for the best.

2.2. Starting Out

I'm almost ready to hit the road, at this point. The seller warned me the battery wasn't holding a charge, so I thought I ought to get a new battery before setting out on the open road. I should've done more research on that one, though. It turns out that the Miata battery is very special, apparently, and no one in this large eastern metro area could put their hands on one at three on a Saturday afternoon.

First, I visited the AutoZone near the seller's house. They could order one, but didn't normally stock them. So I asked them who in the area would be likely to stock one. The only thing they could come up with was Sears. "OK," I asked, "where's the nearest Sears, and can you give me a jump start?" They told me the nearest Sears was at a local mall, and jump started the Miata, and I was on my way.

I get to the mall without difficulty, and start looking for Sears. It appears that every moron for eight states around picked that day to shop at that mall. I spent about an hour looking for the Sears, mainly sitting in one or another aisle of the parking lot waiting for some nimrod to make a turn while eighty-seven other nimrods went out of their way not to allow the first nimrod into traffic.

As I'm sitting, and occasionally “driving”, around this parking lot looking for Sears, I notice the water temp is getting a bit high. It doesn't boil over, but it looks like it's headed in that direction.

Finally, I find Sears and shut down the car right by the entrance to their auto repair center, knowing it's not going to start again. They search their computer, no battery. They don't even carry a battery for the Miata, ever! They try to tell me that it's so special only Mazda dealers can get it. I don't tell them that the AutoZone guy said he could order one. The service manager, does, however, spend about twenty minutes calling around trying to find one for me. All in vain, however.

So, I buy a "bump box" so I'll be able to get the car restarted. After the "bump box" has been charged, that is. Since it's not, the nice folks at the Sears auto shop gave me a jump start. So, I start out, hoping it doesn't boil over and hoping I won't have to turn it off until I get as far as I can get Saturday night. Or, if I do, that I can find a convenient hill and park on top of it. The Miata may be light, but I'm not going to be able to push it far uphill alone.

2.3. Oh, My!

I head for the exit from the mall parking lot, and it's a serious pain, but not nearly as bad as getting in was. So, I sit there for a cycle of the lights. Now I'm first in line. Almost headed for the glorious Interstate, my pathway to home and a better life. I can hear the freedom of the open road beckoning. I'm waiting for the light to turn green, watching the green light for the cross direction. The light goes yellow, so I know my green is coming.

I shift my gaze from the light for the cross-direction to the one for my direction, press the clutch and put it in first, and blip the throttle a couple of times. Just enjoying myself and agonizing over the battery and hoping the alternator is going to be able to put a little umph into it and getting used to a new car.


WTF?! Holy cow! There's just been a serious accident right in front of me! I didn't even see it! I was looking up at the traffic lights. So now I'm sitting here, with my left turn signal still blinking, roughly in time with my now dumbfounded eyes. There's a line of cars behind me that reaches somewhere into the next county. I'm blocked by curbs on both sides.

The guy behind me jams the steering wheel over and goes out the right turn lane. I watch for a couple of seconds, and, thank heavens, the next guy after him doesn't move. So I throw it into reverse, back up a few feet, unblocking myself from the curbs, and follow the first guy out the right turn lane.

I'm not out of the woods yet, though. I'm still in a city I don't know, following a tenuous set of directions. Well, I was following a tenuous set of directions until I made that right turn to get away from the wreck rather than a left to get to the Interstate.

Holy Cow! In an unexpected stroke of luck, there's another entrance to the Interstate right in front of me! A half mile later, I zoom up an entrance ramp and I'm finally on my way.

2.4. Here I Go?

Well, sort of off. Traffic is crawling. Luckily, I get enough chances to get a little speed up that the water temp isn't a big issue. But it's still running high whenever I'm not moving over maybe ten MPH. Traffic crawls for ten or fifteen miles to the main Interstate for the next part of my voyage. When I finally make the transition, traffic thins out a little and the speeds get up to the speed limit and the water temp isn't a problem.

2.5. Misery

About this time, I realize that I've left my sunglasses and hat in Atlanta. This is going to be more painful than expected purely to my own boneheadedness.

When I'm about ten miles further along, the racing tape fix to the rear window fails. Note To Self: racer's tape doesn't stick to cold stuff. Now I've got a serious draft around my head and shoulders whenever I open the window. It's not too bad when the window is closed. My hands are freezing off, but I, happily, kept my coat on. Note to self: racing tape doesn't stick to cold stuff.

I'm worried about the electrical situation so I don't turn on the heater. Ambient temperature is several degrees below freezing. I have no ashtray. Every time I open the window to flick my ashes out, the sixty MPH draft kills another little part of me. This is really beginning to suck.

Somewhere on a bypass around a major city, the fuel tank finally starts getting dry. Well, it's down to less than a quarter tank left, anyway. Since I don't know the car well, I'm not prepared to trust the gas gauge much closer than that. So I stop at some rinky dink gas station. I can't turn the car off because I don't think it will restart if I do. And I can't go pee for the same reason. I've now needed to pee for about an hour. I'm amazed when the tank only takes about eight gallons. At this point I don't realize that the tank only holds about ten gallons, total.

Back on the highway, I'm freezing my butt off. I finally remember that I can open the vent with heat selected on the temperature scale. OOOOHHHH! Relief! This is almost bearable! However, I've still got to pee. And I still can't turn off the car, because the "bump box" still isn't charged and I'm not really confident of the battery. Now I've needed to pee for about two hours.

As I pass through one fair-to-middlin' city, the weather is cold, but it's not raining or anything. I can't see the sky through the light pollution so I can't tell if it's overcast. We're at three and a half hours on the “pee watch”.

Ninety minutes or two hours later, freezing rain and sleet start to come down. I press on but am forced to stop about ninety miles before planned, at around eleven p.m. As soon as I turn off the car, I try to start it again, just to see if the charging system has had any effect on the battery. It starts up, but doesn't sound like it's going to be able to start the car again in the morning.

I find a hotel room at the first place I try, thank goodness, and hole up for the night. Pee watch: over five hours. The relief is almost unbearable. I get the “bump box” hooked up and charging and cover the car's trunk and rear window with a sheet of plastic to keep out the rain, etc.

Up in the room, I check the Weather Channel and local news broadcasts. The weather situation is not looking good. That fair-to-middlin' city I passed a while ago now has three inches of snow on the ground. The forecast for the next day shows a line of sleet and freezing rain that tracks my intended route almost exactly.

I figure I'll call Righty and check the forecast down there. Crap! I can't find my cell phone. I call him on the room's phone, hoping the rates aren't too bad. He's not home. I'm so tired, I'm not hungry even though I haven't eaten since Friday night. Thinking “screw it”, I crash.

3. Sunday

I get up about 7:30 Sunday morning, hoping for the best. The weather isn't looking any better and their radar coverage of most of my route is out. I get a shower and nibble a little breakfast at the hotel's buffet. The plastic has kept the water out of the car, so I dry some of it off and try to seal up the rear window. Note To Self: Racer's tape doesn't stick to things that even were wet a few minutes ago.

I go back up to the room to check the weather again. Not looking any better and coverage of my route is still out. It's now about 9:30 a.m.. I search the hotel room and car again for my cell phone, but it's really lost. So I use the hotel phone again to call Righty. This time he's there, but he's in bed. He checks the weather reports on television, but they don't give much information on my path. Oh well. I hang another hour or two, waiting in vain for weather information. Finally, I just start out and hope that the daily high temperatures along my route will keep the stuff from being frozen as I get to it.

Just for giggles, I try to start the car normally, and I was right last night. The battery is dead as a hammer from all you can tell from the ignition. The “bump box” has been charging all night, however, and has no trouble at all getting the Miata going. I don't think to check the coolant level at this point.

After pouring in another eight or so gallons of fuel, I get started with sleet and freezing rain falling lightly. After about twenty miles, the bottom of the plastic sheet pulls out of the rear window, and I'm in a draft again. I pull over to the shoulder of the Interstate and resecure the tape and weight the bottom of the plastic sheet with the replacement rear finish panel. I drive the rest of the day through varying levels of sleet and freezing rain.

Want to know what Hell is? Are you a fan of The Andy Griffith Show? Do you remember the “Ernest T. Bass” character? Do you remember the episode where he'd set his romantic sights on Miss Wiley? Well, shortly after reentering the Interstate, I saw something with the name “Wiley” on it. This stuck the following sentence from that episode in my head: How do you do Misses Wiiiiiiley!. It was stuck there for over FIVE HOURS! That's Hell.

On a happier note, the latest repair to the plastic sheet held for the rest of the day. I'm spared the wetness and ice, but have to endure the constant rattling of the plastic sheet. I'm also able to keep the speed up to reasonable levels, and the overheating tendency doesn't cause any problem.

I watch the “ice beards” on the roadside signs to judge how likely I was to hit ice in the near future. They wax and wane in length, but I'm fortunate enough not to hit any actual ice. I am forced to go much slower than normal highway speeds, though, so it seems to take forever to eat up any road.

I eventually get to Righty's house, and I'm bushed. I've been cold all day, that damned plastic rattling has been driving me up a wall, and I've been “white knuckling” it the whole way. So, I decide, discretion being the better part of valor, to extend the trip by a day and hole up right there.

I finally check the coolant and it's at about half the level it should be. I top off the radiator and put some coolant into the overflow reservoir. That should take care of the overheating tendency. Check the oil again and all is well on that front. Brakes and fluid look OK, too. I retape the rear window, this time with real duct tape instead of racer's tape.

After a small meal, I crash, and sleep like the dead.

4. Monday

I have to get up with the birds Monday morning, because Righty has to get to work. While he's getting ready for work, I go out and get the car warmed up. It's still cold, but at least it's clear, and there's no rain in the forecast for my route.

While there, I try to tighten up and secure the plastic over the rear window. All I succeed in doing is pulling it loose. All attempts at repair are fruitless. Note To Self: Duct tape doesn't hold when cold, either.

I get back on the road about 8:00 a.m., after putting another eight or so gallons of fuel in. The overheating tendency is not evident during the street drive to the gas station. Excellent.

I've only got about two and a half hours of trip ahead of me, under normal circumstances, but I'm starting out in the morning rush hour. As it turns out, the rush hour is no concern, and I make good time. The temperature is up, and I've got an ashtray now, so I'm not having to open the driver's side window. Quite bearable.

I finally get about four miles from my exit, and there's a backup in traffic. It turns out that the highway department is pruning some trees along the side of the Interstate, and they've got a lane closed. Add in some rubbernecking and you've got a solid backup for about half a mile, even in light traffic.

After I got through that backup, I zoom-zoomed straight home in good time. My truck is still at the MARTA station parking lot, so, after a shower and a change of clothes, I use the “bump box” to get the Miata going again and head to work.

5. Dénouement

Once I got home, I called the local Autozone, and they have the battery in stock. So the next day I pick one up and replace the dead WestCo. With the new battery the Miata is running fine.

I also tried to fix the rear window by “re-springing” the zipper, but it just pulled loose about twenty minutes after I put the top back up. So it looks like I'll have to replace the top. I also got a radio and speakers and they're ready to install, after I replace a couple of the connectors in the dash.

It's now titled to me and tagged, and it passed emissions inspection with flying colors. I've been driving it whenever the weather was dry and not frigid and it's doing great. I really like the tight handling response, even with the harshness of ride caused by the stiffness of the suspension settings.

Now that the holidays are over, I'm hoping to get some more work done on it. It won't come fast, though, since Righty and I will be doing SCCA Driver's School in February, so we'll be pretty busy preparing the RX-7 and Celica track cars. Looks like the Miata will have to wait until early March.

Copyright (C) 2002-2011 Revised 4 October 2011