Building a Spec Miata Trainer: Part 1 “The Theory”

After racing a 1991 Mazda Miata in the Spec Miata class for the last 3 ½ years, I felt I needed even more seat time than I was getting during my race weekends to become truly “one with the car”, as many pro racing legends claim you must do to achieve automotive nirvana while driving. More seat time is not a problem in Florida, as there are track events and autocrosses going on every weekend of the year in various locations across the state. My problem with getting more seat time was the cost and time involved in participating in these various track events, as hauling a Spec Miata racecar with a Ford F-350 diesel, shelling out the entry fees, lodging, fuel, food, and miscellaneous expenses would most likely cost me the same amount, if not more money than I spend on a typical race weekend. In my opinion, if I am going to spend the same amount of money on a track day as I am a race weekend, I would rather have the competition from a race weekend despite the risk of car damage. So this left me with a question: “How do I get more seat time in a Miata without spending an excessive amount of money and time on non-competitive track days or autocross events?” The answer was quite simple, and it was to buy and daily drive a Miata on the street. I like to call it a “Spec Miata Trainer”, or in other words a Mazda Miata that closely resembles your race Miata in suspension, engine, and seating that you can daily drive so shifting, steering, braking, car dimensions, and power band realization become second nature and comfortable with you when you hop into your racecar. This is by no means a new idea or theory, many Spec Miata drivers out there daily drive Miatas for this very reason. It is obvious that driving the same car on the street as your race car everyday will make you more comfortable in your race car when you jump into it after a month or longer of not racing. This was my biggest issue when I jumped into my racecar after not being in a Miata for sometimes more than a couple of months, I was just plain rusty and not used to the car. So, consequently every race weekend I spent the better part of the first day just getting reacquainted to the Mazda Miata, which resulted in slower lap times and inconsistent car control skills. I was a regular Mustang GT driver for many years before I started racing Miatas, and Mustang GT’s are by no means comparable to a Miata in any way except that they have four wheels and are manual transmission, rear wheel drive cars. I could drive the wheels off of my Mustang, perform perfect heel/toe downshifts at any RPM every shift, control wheelspin in the rain, click off seamless upshifts one after another, and I could honestly say that I was “one with the car” because I drove it so much and knew it so well. So if I could do that in my Mustang, why couldn’t I do that in a Miata and take those skills to the track? The answer was “I could!”

So, my theory is: Driving a Miata everyday on the street for your daily commute to work, school, or whatever reason, WILL make you a better Spec Miata race driver by:

  1. Allowing you to become comfortable with shifting the Miata transmission. This makes you less prone to lap time increasing missed shifts.
  2. Giving you a better idea of how the brakes feel and allowing you to “smooth” out your application. This allows you to threshold brake and trail brake into turns with greater confidence.
  3. Allowing you to practice proper heel/toe downshifting techniques in the same model of car that you race. This helps you to keep the balance of the car when downshifting into turns.
  4. Giving you the ability to become comfortable with the car and its handling characteristics in wet weather or rain conditions. It’s not too often that you get to race in the rain, but when it does you will be light years ahead of the competition because you are already comfortable with a Miata in the rain.
  5. Making you more aware of the dimensions of this smaller than normal car. This will help you with your race craft while passing or being passed. Knowing where the mirrors are allows you to see the cars behind you with your peripheral vision, which does not take your focus off of the track ahead.
  6. Allow you to be more sensitive to the feel and sensitivity of the Miata steering system. This will also help you be smooth on the racetrack, which helps with the balance and traction capabilities of the car.
  7. Give you a greater awareness of where the power band is on a Miata engine and how throttle application affects the balance of the car. This will train your ears to know where to shift to keep the engine in the power band and help you be smoother when applying power on corner exits.
  8. Let you become comfortable with the distance of the controls. With the seat position, distance, and height the same your mind does not have to readjust to the new distances, which will add to the consistency and smoothness of your control operation.

Throughout this series I will explain how to build your own spec miata trainer for the street. There are a lot of cool, different things you can do to your street trainer that you cannot do to your spec miata racer. The addition of various aftermarket parts will help keep the build fun and interesting, as well as more streetable than your racecar would be on the street with its heavy duty parts designed for track use. The path that I will take in building my SM Trainer will be unique as I will try to source most of the parts from the cheapest sources available, such as: Craigslist, ebay, and the used classifieds market on several miata websites. Of course in building your own SM trainer, you can use new parts if desired, but most of the parts needed for the suspension can be found used from racers looking to get rid of some spares. Either way, the journey of building a spec miata trainer for the street will be a fun one, and I hope you find my article series interesting and resourceful.

Next Article: Building a Spec Miata Trainer: Part 2 “Choosing and Finding your Car”