Cacophony. That’s the only way to describe the sounds that permeate the cabin as the tach needle sweeps past 4,000RPM. The normally melodious warble of the aftermarket muffler is choked off by the muted drone imposed by the factory airbox. The 1600cc engine wheezes in air as though snorting it through mucus-clogged nostrils. For once, I think to myself, I’ll be looking forward to having my helmet on. 80MPH. Solid as a rock.
This is pre-tech.
On January 9th, some 36 hours before Speed:Sport:Life’s crack team set off for the North American International Auto Show, I shook hands over a Classic Red 1990 MX-5 Miata. It was old; it was tired; it was mine — my new track rat and auto-x toy. No longer would I have to put hard miles on the newer, far more expensive (and still factory-warrantied) vehicles in our stable. Cheap fun awaited, and I’ve been a-waitin’ a long time.
At 210k miles, it’s not what you’d call a spring chicken. A relatively rust-free underbody and exterior (boasting mostly original body panels, no less!) belied a leaky, squeaky engine and what resembled a rusty cheese grater strapped in between the coolant hoses up front. A quick pre-purchase inspection revealed that just about every fluid that could come out of the car was doing so. The axle and pinion seals were spritzing; the high pressure hose in the power steering system was cracked; the front crank seal was vomiting; the cam seals were weeping and the coolant system was releasing fluids and gases in places we couldn’t even identify. The brake and clutch hydraulics were the only (and not unwelcome) bright spot.
In other words, it was perfect. Since purchase, I’ve rectified the above problems, purchased a set of Falken Azenis RT-615s, added a Hard Dog Ace roll bar and cleaned out the rather extensive collection of sheet metal screws that had somehow accumulated in the trunk. The last thing I need is this little roadster’s fetish for all things pointy leaving me with a flat Falken in the middle of nowhere (or the middle of turn 3, for that matter). And after meticulous re-assembly, the car was ready for its first pre-event inspection, or, as we track rats call it, pre-tech.
Normally this is a checklist I go over in my driveway, the Mazdaspeed3 suspended on Rhino Ramps and my girlfriend watching ever-so-patiently from inside the house while I rush to bleed the brakes before the inevitable early summer thunderstorm interrupts my already tardy operation. This time it’s different. Sure, I still have the checklist in one hand and some unopened Speed Bleeders in the other, but for once, it’s all on me.
If the Speed3 throws an axle or eats a piston while I’m barreling down the back straight, I can lay some of the blame on Mazda’s shoulders for under-engineering my brand-new car. Psychologically, I wouldn’t feel as responsible. But with the Miata, that’s not the case. This car is old enough to buy beer and tired enough to be an alcoholic, and like some booze-addled bum that I’ve entered into a marathon, its performance is entirely in my hands. If it can’t hack it, that’s on me. I will have failed the car, not the other way around.
So I check and re-check, torque and re-torque. I fire it up on the jack stands and crawl underneath, looking for droplets of its Vulcan-green blood at every coolant connection. I get a faint whiff of sweet steam and my eyes widen, but it’s just some residual droplets boiling out from under the accessory belt. I check the lights and wipe down the front and rear glass. I’m stalling at this point. I won’t know how this car will do until I get it on the road. Reluctantly, I slide the Falken-clad Rotas onto each corner, lightly torque down the lug nuts, and drop the car off the stands. Torque and re-torque. It’s getting late — time to get on the road.
I absently negotiate the neighborhood streets, making my way out of Annapolis and into the boonies between Davidsonville and Upper Marlboro. This is prime testing area. Trees and tobacco fields are lightly interspersed with mixed-income residential developments and horse farms. The only obstacles I need worry about are slower traffic and cyclists, the latter of whom typically enjoy hiding just past the apex of blind corners, obscured by the thick Mid-Atlantic flora. I’ve been driving these roads for seven years. I know where to look.
I exit from Riva Rd. onto Governor Bridge Rd. and I begin stretching the Miata’s legs. I start with low speeds and low gears, watching the temperature gauge for any sign of creep. I shift later and later, feeling out the Miata’s powerband and listening for any early signs of poor health. The rattle of the loose heat shield on the catalytic converter punctuates each shift, but the car shows no sign of displeasure. I glance over as I pass Travis Pastrana’s playground, remembering the spectacular accident that nearly paralyzed his passenger. I’ll pass by that exact spot on the return trip. I’ll keep it under 100, I think.
I snake my way down Patuxent River Rd., pulling off at a small park to check under the hood. The faint smell still lingers, but there are no droplets. As I turn to leave, a Nissan pickup goes by the entrance. He’s hauling. Good. I won’t have to worry about catching unexpected slow traffic.
I dart out after the pickup and boot it. The Miata willingly complies, slinging me toward Rt. 214 and the Patuxent River lowlands. I start to make up ground on the much more powerful Nissan — a Frontier, as it turns out — as we work our way through some slower residential sections that eventually yield to yet more riverside woods. I start hanging the revs out even more, pushing my shifts closer and closer to redline in defiance of the rock-steady temp gauge. Still no movement. Perfect. A green light greets us at 214 and we blast over the crown of the intersection, the Miata’s tired shocks adding to the already-impressive hang time. We dive toward the first corner and I sneak a side glance at one of my favorite signs, the yellow, squiggly-arrow sign with a rectangular placard underneath it, “Curves next 2.5 miles.”
As the road starts to open up and flatten out along the flood plain, the Nissan’s legs get longer. I’m happy to hang back and do my own thing, but I catch up quickly at the entrance to a 15MPH left-hander. His tires squawk out in protest as he ham-fists his way out of the corner, the VQ40 V6 under his hood barking back at me from a maybe-not-factory exhaust system. I have to bleed off too much speed to keep off his bumper in the turn, and he easily puts a football field worth of open space between us as the road straightens again. I leave him to tend to his ego. I have a pit stop to make.
A few minutes later, I exit Rt. 301 and coast down an access road used only by garbage trucks and employees of 6000 Crain Highway SE. This is the entrance to what’s left of Marlboro Motor Raceway. Every car I’ve owned in the past four years has made a stop here, if only to be able to say as much if it comes up in conversation. I stop for a few minutes to gaze through the padlocked gates. The summer vegetation dashes any hopes of catching a glimpse of the ruined grandstands, but I know they’re still there, a rare, undisturbed tombstone marking the final resting place of Maryland road racing.
I hop back in and point the little red hood toward home, crossing over my outgoing route as I near Davidsonville. Here, I get over half a mile of straight, fresh, farm-adjacent pavement. I crest the hill and dive into the 25MPH-signed stretch at about 60MPH in 3th gear and floor it. Cacophony.