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I find myself discussing motorsports with a variety of people three to four times a week. Regardless of their age, gender, background, or specific interests, they’re typically in awe of people who manage to get out on track and manage to hang the tail out. In other words, their admiration for racers borders on adulation, and despite their best efforts, they always seem slightly awestruck when I recount stories about trading paint. Racing is never inexpensive, but for men and women of modest means, getting behind the wheel is not impossible.

A financial investment, sure, but the majority of racing fans on this planet know full-well that their funds are not sufficient to get to the pro level – so where does their urge to dice with other like-minded racers manifest? There are plenty of outlets for real, bumper-to-bumper racing to satisfy this need. Where can they turn? Karting, of course, fulfills some of that urge, and low-level, open-wheeled cars do too, but many would rather get into a category where the vehicles are more relatable, and more accessible as well.

Jumping behind the wheel of a fendered car that closely resembles a road-going sports car fits this box. Some of this is due to the fact that a production car looks more approachable, but also because it accommodates the taller and heavier drivers better than karts or open-wheel cars. Whereas a lowered, stripped production car looks like a wild Sunday afternoon, an open-wheel car looks to many like a trip to the morgue.

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With half a million E30s in the world, a racing version isn’t as far removed as an open-wheeler.

Additionally, that road-going vehicle is much more easily built if that’s an important part of the racing process. As these machines can be found rusting away in a junkyard, a few hundred dollars, some steel wool and a trailer are all that is needed to get the ball rolling. Perhaps there’s a little more to it – but you get the idea. Of course, preparing a racing car is typically more expensive than buying one pre-built, but if one wants to understand their machine intimately and get themselves acquainted with some of the processes they’ll no doubt go through later in the year, building a car is not a foolish route to take.

In fact, there’s no wrong route to go, but there’s another fork in the road that determines a bit about one’s character. Going left takes one down the road of the Mazda Miata – a nimble, little car that requires precision and aggression to do well with, and going right leads one to the BMW E30 – a car that rewards quick hands and a sensitive right foot. Either platform offers plenty of amusement, and are both easy to comprehend. Much of the time, choosing comes down to aesthetics and engine note, but for those interested in the finer points of driving, the two cars’ characters are quite different.

Vehicle Overviews

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Spec Miata: Light, nimble, and in the right hands, very fast.

Much has been written about the Mazda Miata. Lauded for its incisive cornering, forgiving nature, and affordability, the Miata offers more racing potential than the run-of-the-mill sports car. Because the Miata is exceptionally light, easy to work on, and plentiful, it makes ownership simple. Consumables aren’t much of an issue, and the slender frame means remarkable cornering speeds. On a set of sticky tires like Toyo’s R888 which are de rigeur in Spec Miata, the ability to take high-speed corners absolutely flat is absolutely awe-inspiring, and will immediately silence any naysayers who have ever accused the Miata as being a wimp’s ride. As they clear the white foam from the corners of their mouth, they’ll regret ever criticizing it.

By contrast, the Spec E30 is a shade heavier, and a touch wilder, which could lead to someone describing it as more of a “man’s car,” if that’s a major concern for them. The car is not quite the surgical tool a Miata could be described as being – its center of gravity is higher, and it has far more weight over the front axle with its longer engine. Naturally then, there’s a little more understeer, and it takes a little more effort to drag the nose into the apex. Additionally, its rear suspension design has one major flaw: it toes out under compression. This tends to send the E30 into a twitch at speed, and requires a quick set of hands to dial in opposite lock at the last minute.

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Spec E30: brawny and teutonic.

However, it benefits from added torque from the 2.5-liter engine and this changes the driving experience dramatically. That low-end grunt means an added aid while slipstreaming, It’s not so powerful to easily overwhelm the rear tires – Spec E30s wear 205-section rear tires as a rule – but in conjunction with the inherent tail-happiness, the car is a bit of a drifter, and requires some care when applying the throttle.

Making Them Raceworthy

While it’s easy to pick up a Miata from a junker’s yard, lowball a friend for a rusted shell, or guilt trip your aunt into giving you hers as a graduation present, turning the Corky Romano machine into a racing car takes a bit of work. Most of the modifications are for safety, and therefore shouldn’t ever be disputed, but the performance goodies aren’t too numerous and can be found for a reasonable price.

Getting the Miata race-ready depends largely on the state of the donor car, but generally speaking, a slew of tweaks here and there are required, since the typical NA Miata is well over twenty years old. Assuming the engine, bearings, wiring, exhaust, and brakes are alright, the capable Spec Miata needs to be made sturdy and resilient for the inevitable wheel banging that happens on the track.

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Spartan and purposeful – the Spec Miata’s minimalism allows for outrageous cornering speeds.

The first step to getting the Miata track-ready means a thorough gutting of the interior. This means removing the carpeting, air conditioning, power steering, cruise control, airbag, insulation, and whatever trim items that are superfluous. Then, one must add a fire suppression system, a full roll cage, roll bar padding, window nets, and while hardtops aren’t always a necessity, the Miata’s ability to go airborne means it should be strongly considered. One problem with the Miata’s limited cabin space is the ability to fit a fully-grown, helmeted driver inside a hard-topped car. Often times, people will remove some of the floor to mount the seats lower to allow drivers much over six feet to sit without feeling sandwiched.  

The 1.6-liter Miata will also need a limited-slip differential. The suspension setup mandated for Spec Miata consists of Bilstein shocks, Ground Control springs and spring perches and Eibach sway bars. A performance differential is available from Mazda Motorsports, and the drivers are allowed to open up the intake and the exhaust, but that’s it – power adders are not encouraged here, as the emphasis remains on driving skill. At this point, a new set of OEM bushings and swaybar endlinks are added, as this will ensure safety in the faster corners and make the car far more communicative, ensuring the driver can get the most out of it.

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To facilitate things, the Spec Miata suspension can be purchased as a package.

The brakes do not need much in the way of improvement to make them raceworthy, which is unusual for most street cars. The light weight of the Miata means the brakes aren’t put under much strain, and all that’s needed are stainless, braided lines and aftermarket pads – Hawk Blues or PFC #97s work flawlessly on track. With no ABS, no downforce, and relatively narrow tires, these brakes will teach the driver the finer points of threshold braking.

All in all, building a decent Spec Miata will set one back roughly ten grand. It can be done for cheaper if they do the labor themselves, and certain performance goodies like a differential and exhaust can be postponed to meet a budget. Like everything racing, buying a pre-built car saves time and money, but crafting a racing car from a junked Miata can give an owner a sense of parental pride and an intimate understanding of the machinery.

With the E30, there’s a similar list of modifications one has to make. There are a few models within the E30 family, but the ideal version is the 325is. This particular variant came with a limited-slip differential from the factory, and the most available power within the family, barring the M3, which is not allowed for obvious reasons. While many entrants use the 325e as a donor car, the M20 motor is mandated and needs to be swapped in to be legal.  

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The Spec E30’s suspension is relatively soft, allowing for some roll and predictability.

Getting the car to handle comes down to outfitting the car with lighter wheels, a set of sticky tires, anti-roll bars, and shocks. All of these are strictly regulated to ensure close competition, and can be had for a relatively little. When it comes to wheels, the most popular are the hubcentric, 15-inch Team Dynamics wheels which wear Toyo’s RA1 and RR tire in the 205/50/15 size. When conjoined with required Bilstein shocks, H&R springs, and Suspension Techniques front swaybar kit, the aging, boxy Beemer is quite handy in the corners.

There is some room for camber and toe adjustment to remove some of the benign handling traits the street car was fitted with, and while the rear sway bar can be adjusted, the front must remain fixed. Essentially, the suspension setup is kept intentionally simple to place an emphasis on driver involvement, not chassis tweaking.

Fortunately, the BMW is a fairly robust car, and stands up well to the abuse thrown at it on-track. The M20 can suffer from oil starvation issues, so the minimal preventative treatment is a crank scraper. Once the fluids have been replaced with synthetics, the car is capable of running without a hiccup, though a lack of cool air caused by drafting can elevate engine temperatures slightly.

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The M20 is plentiful and can be found in many wrecking yards.

Building either to race-ready specification will cost roughly $10,000. It’s not an inconsiderable amount of money, but the tight rules and emphasis on budget racing means that success is not wholly dependent on budget. Both these two are great entry-level platforms because of these traits, but also because they encourage dicing, momentum conservation, and precision. In short, their categories are ones that reward driving skill.

Getting the Most of the Two on Track

The short wheelbase of the Miata can make it twitchy on the limit, but it also allows for a level of precision in cornering that most road cars simply don’t offer. To flirt with the limit and get the Miata to operate in that narrow window between slip and grip, the car requires very subtle inputs and allows an early direction change. This means getting the car’s attitude adjusted early in the corner, controlling a slight drift or “yaw,” and this is done with a smooth and precise release of the brake pedal, or a momentary lift to unload the rear.

Without much torque, getting on the power as soon as possible is all-important. Spec Miata racer, driving coach, and Simraceway Instructor, Gregory Evans, remarks, “I always trailed just enough brake to make it turn, and once it turned with solid rotation, I got to the gas – often way before the apex!” That minimal amount of power won’t ever overwhelm the rear tires, unless the track is absolutely soaking, and therefore, a driver is given the opportunity to dedicate their focus almost entirely to entry speed, smoothness, and that mild form of yaw, or “zero steer,” as it’s often called, that will lay the foundation for the driver to flourish.

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Running in close quarters is all part of what makes Spec Miata so exhilarating.

Once the driver has acquainted themselves with the Miata and its handling characteristics, they’re ready to mix it up among a pack of ambitious, bloodthirsty, and occasionally reckless Spec Miata competitors. As MX-5 Cup Shootout winner Elliot Skeer suggests, “Get out of the ‘kill zone.’ From about mid-pack to almost the bottom, there’s chaos everywhere.” Words of wisdom from a man who has endured a crumpled bumper or two in his Miata campaigns. “If you qualify in the top half, usually, you’ll be clear of that” he adds. Evans chimes in with a bit of humor: “It’s got a lot of beginners too, so that increases the carnage.” In other words, some fender-crunching is expected, if not quietly encouraged, and there’s a reason why it’s mockingly called “Spec Piñata.”

Driving a Spec E30 is a different experience entirely. It’s a heavier, longer car, and it’s engine boasts more torque. While the BMW is very much a momentum car like the Miata, it’s easier to upset the rear end with a prod of the throttle, and it’s not quite as wieldy mid-corner. Robert Grace, 2015 Mid-Atlantic Spec E30 champion, suggests “having a little more torque helps with rotation.” Therefore, the cornering sequences are quite different to those of the Miata. In the case of the BMW, Grace adds “In my opinion, they require more finesse during the mid-corner phase as well as during throttle application.” Though the M20 engine is no powerhouse, it is able to overwhelm the rear tires and the driver must use the throttle to help turn the car.

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Six-cylinder torque makes for spectacular racing.

Once on track and dicing wheel-to-wheel, the group is tightly-packed, but slightly less venomous. The pack generally stays within striking distance of one another, especially the front few, but “no one really runs away with it in Spec E30,” remarks Grace. In order to win, one must take advantage of the draft, which “is crucial,” and learn to carefully position themselves behind an adversary, time their run through a corner preceding a straight, and then pull out of the slipstream at the right moment. With a little torque available, this will aid the move, and teach a driver just how take advantage of aerodynamics in close quarters.

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After a few races, one will become comfortable running nose-to-tail.

No Longer a Fantasy

Finding a route into the world of motorsport isn’t like stumbling upon a unicorn. It is, however, like chasing the dragon if taken too seriously. Yet, the simple fact is that both these relatively relaxed series have been designed to appeal to the everyman with a need for speed. Such are the rules that running costs can be kept to a minimum, with tires lasting several weekends and both machines reliable enough to allow for their owner to focus their efforts on racing, not wrenching.

With a conservative estimate of $7,000 for a season of racing, not including crash damage, it’s certainly not peanuts, but then again, racing never is. Yet, for the cost of a used Civic, one might be able to experience what it’s like to trade paint in a safe environment, develop their racing skills, and establish some camaraderie – Spec E30 racers are typically the friendliest on the grid. From the exhilaration that’s visible from a mile away whenever a driver emerges from their first outing in either of these machines, it’s safe to say that they’re worth the expense.

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For the equivalent of a pre-owned economy car, this could be you.

For further consultation on either category, please contact:

Gregory Evans at //www.gregoryevans.net/

and Robert Grace at //www.robertgraceracing.com/