Dream Car for the Budget Racer

If you’re visiting this website and reading this article, you’re probably a car nut like me. You read about cars, watch videos and TV shows about cars, and stare at them incessantly when you’re out and about, making your significant other jealous. I’m particularly guilty of the last one. But how often do you make time to actually enjoy cars yourself, instead of just watching and reading about other people enjoying them? How often do you push a car (legally) to its limit with white knuckles and get out with your hands still shaking? If you answered never, why aren’t you autocrossing?  We’ve given you some basics, but now it’s time to find a car!

There are a lot of easy excuses of course: it will wear out my car, the cars are too expensive, the upgrades are too expensive, and any cheap cars wouldn’t be competitive anyway, right? Well, because of a grinning little car released all the way back in 1990, I’m happy to say you’re  wrong! There is a car that allows the budget conscious enthusiast to be a race car driver!

The Answer is Always Miata!

The Mazda Miata can be your ticket to first hand enjoyment of driving at the limit, without it costing you an arm and a leg. It’s the most competitive and most accessible autocross car ever released and is a cheap point of entry for both the gear heads who want to have some fun racing their friends and those who want to compete for SCCA Solo National Championships!

STEP 1: Select a Car

Miata Cheat Sheet
NA 1990-1997
NB 1999-2005
NC 2006-2015
ND 2016

There are many great things to say about Miatas, but the greatest of all, for us budget conscious enthusiasts, is that there is no need to buy the latest and greatest model to have a fun and competitive autocross car. First and second generation Miatas are winning just as many trophies as the third and fourth. In fact, they’re winning more.

The first step is to find one on the cheap, and where else to go but the most trustworthy car buying source on the internet, Craigslist? A quick search in just the Northern Virginia area turns up some encouraging results: 23 first generation (NA) and 9 second generation (NB) Miatas for under $5 grand each. Plus, this is Craigslist, you know you’re going to lowball the seller by at least a grand anyway!

NB Mazda Miata
Love at First Site!
Checking out my recent Craigslist buy of a ’99 Miata for the first time

Now, I know what you’re thinking, $4-$5K isn’t chump change if you’re purchasing a “fun” car and keeping your daily driver. But, don’t forget that Miatas can pull double duty and be your daily driver and your autocross car because Miatas, like diamonds, last forever. You can find many examples running strong for well over 200,000 miles. So, if you’re willing to buy one with mileage a little over 100,000, keeping in mind that it is relatively young, you’ll find 15 of those NAs and 4 NBs for under $3 grand! If you’re really on a budget, get one old enough for “Historic” or “Antique” tags and save on your insurance, as well!

The point is, you can find these cars incredibly cheap and the “smiles per dollar” ratio on them is through the roof!

STEP 2: Mods

Now that you’ve found a Miata, you’ll want to make it your own. You’re not taking autocross, or even yourself too seriously quite yet because, let’s face it, you’re driving a Miata. You’re just having fun driving in your first autocross and you’re enjoying the compliments from the other drivers on the eyeballs you added to your pop up headlights and the teeth you added to your gleefully grinning grill.

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But you’ve also quickly learned that drifting isn’t actually fast and you want to go a little faster. What Mods do you need to make? You start imagining turbos, coilovers, maybe a spoiler..those add horsepower, right? But then you remember your budget and realize you need to prioritize. What mods do you actually need to have fun and be competitive?

Just one. Tires. A set of extreme performance summer tires like the Bridgestone RE-71Rs will make you fairly competitive at your local autocross and, oh yeah, you’ll have a blast!

Miata vs Corvette tires
Size Matters!
Miata tire on the left, Corvette tire on the right

Let’s calculate the total for your autocross adventure so far. You wanted a daily driver so, let’s say you bought an NB with 90,000 miles for $3,500, after calling Mazda with the VIN number to make sure it had a limited slip differential, of course. You probably could have talked the sweet old lady who sold it to you a little lower, but you felt bad, so you caved. You slapped on a good set of Bridgestone rubber for $460, so you’ve spent a grand total of $3,960 and you have a fun car that you can drive every day and still be competitive at autocrosses on the weekend. Talk about budget friendly!

For comparison’s sake, just those tires on a 2002 C5 Corvette Z06 are around $1,200. Everything is smaller on the Miata, which is part of what makes entry into a sport like autocross so much more affordable. With less weight wearing on everything, tires last longer and brakes last longer, and when these parts do wear out, they’re cheap to replace.

After having a blast in your budget racer for a season or two, you decide you want to take the next step.

STEP 3: Solo National Championships?

When I first started autocrossing four years ago in my 2012 Dodge Avenger (don’t judge, we’ve all made mistakes), I was skeptical of the Miata. It looked fun, but how could a car with such a small engine be competitive at anything other than small local events? Surely you had to go buy a Z06, or a Porsche 911 to actually win on a national stage, right? How wrong I was. While those cars are fast and fun, they’re incredibly expensive and they routinely post slower times than Miatas. After driving an NB for the first time during the “fun runs” at a local autocross, my Avenger was gone within a year, replaced with a Miata.

To find out just how competitive each generation of the Miata is, just look at the numbers from the 2016 SCCA Solo National Championships in September, the results will surprise you! Miatas trophied in 9 different classes, taking home 4 national championships. More importantly, it isn’t the new Miata doing all the winning. The NA trophied in 5 different classes, the NB won national championships in three classes, the NC trophied in four classes, and the ND trophied in two, also taking home a national championship.

Trophies by Class
NA E-Street, Street Touring S, C-Street Prepared, Super Street Mod
NB E-Street (1st Place), B Street Prepared (1st Place), C-Street Prepared (1st Place)
NC C-Street, Street Touring R, X-Prepared, D-Prepared
ND C-Street (1st Place), Street Touring R

No matter which one you pick on your Craigslist search, you have a chance to be competitive.

But wait! You’re on a budget and you’ve only bought tires so far, so how much do these trophy winning Miatas cost? That will depend on the class you choose, how much you’re willing to spend, and how fast you want to go, but the NB you bought is already on the way to being an E-Street prepared car.

NB Mazda Miata
Street Class!
Chicago Region’s Michael Ron drove his NB to 3rd place at Nationals in 2016

SCCA Street classes have limitations on the modifications you can make to your car, which keeps the cost of being competitive low. All you can change are shocks, tires, sway bar, and your exhaust from the cat back. Your Craigslist NB already has the tires. A competitive set up with all the other components can be bought in a discount suspension package from Goodwin Racing for $1,000, which includes Koni shocks, a Racing Beat front sway bar, a RoadsterSport 3 muffler, and a K&N air filter. Adding the suspension package to the price for the car and the tires, you have a nationally competitive NB for about $5,000, which you can also trust driving to work every day. How is that for a budget racer? With all of your leftover money you can enroll in some driving classes so you have a shot at nationals once you get there.. or you can pay rent, its up to you.

ND Mazda Miata
Black Beauty!
DC Region’s Brian Karwan took home the 2016 championship in the region’s STR class with his 2016 Miata

What about next year?

With the addition of the very popular 2016 ND Miata to the line up, Mazda has cemented this car’s place in the fabric of autocross. No matter which generation you buy, the Miata is so popular and so well made, that it will always be classed competitively. That means you can buy one with the confidence that when your driving improves to a nationally competitive level, there will still be a class you can compete in. This can’t be said for most cars in autocross which are in one year and out the next. So, stop watching other people having fun in cars on youtube; go buy a Miata for yourself and start autocrossing. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!