The Spec Miata Master: Multi-Time National Champion — Jim Drago

Spec Miata is one of the most competitive classes in motorsports. If you have ever seen a Spec Miata race, it is a constant door-to-door, nose-to-tail, dog fight from the green flag to the checker.

Many professional drivers got their start in Spec Miata (SM) and since it is a spec class, meaning all the cars are virtually the same, the competition is extremely fierce. What this all adds up to is if you see the person who won any Spec Miata race — be it in the SCCA or NASA — give that driver a nod of respect. They are a serious wheelman.

And, a person who has won a National Championship, or multiple championships, in the Spec Miata series is obviously one bad-ass driver. Well, there is a guy from Memphis, Tennessee, named Jim Drago, who is a Miata Master!

Spec Miata can be a really cold slap in the face, it is a reality check. There is so much talent in Spec Miata right now. — Jim Drago

2019 NASA Spec Miata National Champion Jim Drago stands on the top step at Mid-Ohio after winning what he described as, “One of the toughest championships to win.”

The Racer

Jim has not only won a NASA Spec Miata National Championship, but he has also won two SCCA National Championships at the Runoffs in 2012 and 2013. Drago is the only person on the planet who has two SCCA Spec Miata National Championships. Looking through his impressive racing resume, he has essentially won everything possible in Spec Miata from regional races and championships, divisional championships to national points championships:

2019 NASA National Champion
2012 and 2013 SCCA National Champion
2013, 2017, and 2019 National Points Champion
2006, 2007, and 2008 SCCA Division Champion
2007, 2009, 2011, and 2018 SCCA June Sprints Winner

These are just a few of the many trophies Jim Drago has earned during his Spec Miata career. Besides too many race wins to keep count, Jim has earned regional championships, divisional championships, and national championships in multiple sanctioning bodies.

We have already established Spec Miata is a competitive class, but there are a ton of these competitive cars out on the track you have to beat in order to win a race. Spec Miata fields are consistently the largest car counts at any race weekend. Obviously, anyone who wins an SM race deserves to spray some champagne. Looking at his record, Jim Drago has won them all over a number of years.

The two cars in this photo are by no means in the same class of racing, with the BMW more than doubling the horsepower of the little Miata. But, Jim Drago is able to carry enough speed through corners to close on the bigger horsepower cars — a talent that has won him many Spec Miata races.

When you talk to him about racing, the interesting thing about Jim is he is extremely humble about his long list of victories. He is actually more excited to talk about other drivers who have won Spec Miata races in a car he built at his shop, East Street Racing (ESR), than he is to discuss his own wins. The reason I refer to Jim as The Miata Master is he not only wins Spec Miata races but he and his team hand-build the fastest Spec Miata cars in the world.

At the front of many Spec Miata grids, you will see a familiar ESR logo on the cars. That is Jim Drago’s race shop, East Street Racing, which has built and prepped those cars to be on the front of the grid.

The Car Builder

Jim runs the website which is a one-stop-shop for all things Spec Miata from setup tips, parts, forums, you name it — it’s there. His racing shop, East Street Racing, is attached to his salvage yard, East Street Automotive, which has an abundance of (you guessed it) Mazda Miatas to score parts from. One of the advantages of East Street Racing is its ability to source any Miata part quickly to build the best Spec Miata racecar possible.

If people see me win in one of our cars, or anyone else in an ESR car win, that is good for business. People want to buy what is winning, and they buy parts from us because of it. — Jim Drago

Jim Drago’s race shop, East Street Racing, in Memphis, Tennessee, is attached to East Street Automotive, a large salvage yard that purchases approximately 100-150 Mazda Miatas a year.

East Street Automotive isn’t just a backlot behind a race shop filled with junked Miatas. The salvage yard is a professional, computer inventoried, well-organized yard supplying parts to people all over the country. If you need a part, they will find it for you, even if they don’t have it on site. “I usually purchase around 150 Miatas every year for the salvage yard,” said Jim.

Need a Miata starter? How about an alternator? How about anything that ever came on a Miata? Jim’s shop has everything Miata (as well as other makes) and it is all extremely organized and computer inventoried.

At ESR, Jim builds the entire aspect of a Spec Miata racecar so he can control every component of the car. The cage, the engine, the paint, suspension, dyno, alignment, all of it is done through his shop, East Street Racing. He not only builds Spec Miatas but maintains customer cars and provides trackside support. Jim has a big-rig hauler that will take five racecars to events and provides setup and alignment at the track using toe plates and a laser level.

East Street Racing is a one-stop-shop where every aspect of a professional Spec Miata build is done in-house, including engine builds. Jim Drago’s engines consistently put up excellent (and Spec Miata legal) numbers on a dyno.

According to Jim, ESR also manufactures parts and sells engines to racers, “Engines, race-built trannys, front hubs, rear knuckles, CV axles, fabrication pieces, and a floor drop-pan for easy mounting of race seats.” He said they also sell, “Mirror brackets, radiators, dyno-tested exhaust systems, and remanufactured brake calipers with a disabled rear emergency brake feature.”

Over the years, Jim has learned a thing or two about what parts need maintenance on a Mazda Miata. He sells those parts to his customers with all of that knowledge built-in. For example, for a front wheel bearing, Jim only uses OEM case-hardened bearings because he has seen the aftermarket bearings fail. He replaces the balls, ensuring they are spec size, re-greases them, and ships them to his customers.

Only after you strip a car down to its bare bones can you know if it is truly a straight tub. This Miata will soon be on the rotisserie for a full chassis restoration to be transformed into an East Street Racing (ESR) Spec Miata.

“We do rotisserie builds here,” said Jim, referring to ESR. “Everything is disassembled, painted, and then reassembled.” Jim says his shop is the only one who builds the entire Spec Miata in-house; “Every bolt on the car is built there.” Currently, he has four cars running under the East Street Racing banner, maintaining the cars, prepping them, and getting them to the track.

The team travels to most parts of the SCCA Super Tour Series on the East Coast — essentially anything east of the Mississippi: Sebring, Road Atlanta, Hallet, VIR, Road America, Mid-Ohio, and Watkins Glen. They also travel to the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). He also has rental cars available if somebody wants to rent an ESR Spec Miata.

Plenty of race shops will weld a cage in your car and port a cylinder head for more power. But, few of them will put in the kind of attention to detail as we see here under the hood of this Miata: everything removed and then the engine bay painted, absolutely beautiful work for a racecar.

The Coach

Like I mentioned before, Jim seems to be more proud of the people who win races in ESR cars than he is of his own Spec Miata victories. “Preston Pardus who raced in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2019 went zero for 33 major SCCA races with no wins and no podiums,” said Jim. “In 2017, he rented our car at the SCCA National Runoffs at Indy and won. It felt great to see him win.”

Jim is extremely proud of the cars his shop builds, and their win record is second to none. “Todd Buras, a longtime friend of mine, who was super successful in all kinds of cars, won the 2019 Runoffs in one of my cars at VIR. In fact, during that race, ESR cars qualified 1, 2, and 3 for the Runoffs. The finish of the race had Todd Buras in First, Preston Pardus Second, Brian Henderson Fourth (in a brand new car when it arrived at the track), and me in Sixth — all in ESR cars,” said Jim.

Todd Buras (right) and Preston Pardus (left) are all smiles with their SCCA Runoffs trophies, thanks to great Spec Miata race cars built by Jim Drago’s shop, East Street Racing (ESR).

The Legacy

ESR is certainly successful in the Spec Miata world, and Drago agrees that winning races is smart for customer business. “If people see me win in one of our cars, or anyone else in an ESR car win, that is good for business. People want to buy what is winning, and they buy parts from us because of it.”

But race wins didn’t come immediately, Jim has been at this game for a long time now, earning his racing license in the Fall of 2003 when he attended driver’s school in a 1994 NA Mazda Miata. His first non-school race was at Sebring in 2004.

The interior of this Spec Miata racecar is a testament to the craftsmanship and attention to detail at Drago’s shop, East Street Racing, clean, simple, and purposeful.

Humble Beginnings

“Before I went to race school and then actually entered a Spec Miata race, I thought I was Michael Schumacher,” admitted Jim. “I attended driving events and track days with the Porsche Club of America, and I was blowing by everybody. A friend of mine said my lap times were 3-seconds off a Spec Miata lap. I said, you mean three-tenths? He said, no three-zero, you are 3-seconds slower.

“I thought he was wrong. But, it turned out, he was right! I was 2.5- to 3-seconds behind the guys in the front. Spec Miata can be a really cold slap in the face, it is a reality check. If you can get within a second by the end of your first year, you possess real talent and ability. There is so much talent in Spec Miata right now.”

A lot of champion Spec Miata cars have laid their rear wheels on the drum of this DynoJet chassis dyno. One of the most important tools for a spec-series car builder is a chassis dyno, and Jim Drago has one in his shop.

Jim started in Spec Miata and has stayed in Spec Miata. He began with the SCCA running regional classes, then major/super tour regionals and won a mid-division championship. Then he attended the Nationals in 2006. He has run every single SCCA Runoffs except 2008 and 2018. He won twice, 2012 and 2013, at Road America. He has also won numerous June Sprints at Road America, as well as lots of Divisional and Regional titles. All that was left to do was to win the NASA Spec Miata crown.

This fresh new clean build from East Street Racing is ready for its vinyl livery and then its time to head to the track to win some races.

NASA was the final thing to win, and he had been trying since 2007. He almost had it in 2017 but lost a gear while leading. “I was getting hit from behind while on a pace lap with the car in gear, and it pushed against the wrong side of the gear,” said Jim.

The gearbox ultimately failed during the race, taking away his final Spec Miata achievement. But, Jim Drago is no quitter and he finally got it done in 2019 during the NASA National Championships at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “NASA Spec Miata was hard to win.”

The green livery and the number 2 on the door are the signs this is Jim Drago’s personal race car as indicated by the numerous SCCA Majors Tour victory decals on the car.

As you can see, Jim Drago is definitively The Miata Master. He builds them, he has a wrecking yard filled with them, he races them, and he has won everything there is to win in one. All of it together proves East Street Racing is the premier Spec Miata racing company, and he is the guy to beat. So, if you have a hankering to go play with a Miata, go over to Jim’s site and learn from the man himself.

Photos by Shawn Brereton and Pepper Bowe.

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About the author

Rob Krider

Rob Krider will race absolutely anything. He is a multi-national champion racing driver and is also the author of the novel, Cadet Blues.
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