Video: Going Full Spec Miata with Kenton Koch

There aren’t too many ways to get in the door of the racing world. If you’re not swimming in rubles, the reality of the matter is that one will have to take what comes to them, or scrounge together their money to put together a passable racing car. Fret not – this is the way most people go racing, and as a result, there’s a huge network of aspiring racing drivers who cobble together the most rudimentary racers from bits in junkyards, get on the track, learn some racecraft, and most importantly, get their yahoos.

The most common way in, aside from go-kart racing, is club racing in a Spec Miata. There are other options for the low-level, fendered racing car, but finding a busted NA Miata and taking the necessary steps to render it ready for competition use, is one of the best ways forward – for several reasons. Miatas are plentiful, affordable, and have a wide aftermarket. They also handle remarkably well – outcornering comparable spec cars such as the Porsche 944 and the BMW E30 325. Their center of gravity is low, as is their weight, and they lack power.

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Cheap and nimble, the Spec Miata encourages close racing and builds racecraft.

This last trait may not seem like such a great thing. Who would relish the experience driving something that has a hard time spinning one tire in the dry? To chime in as a semi-experienced, arrogant driver, the reality of the matter is that people ought to learn how to conserve momentum before they worry about wheelspin. In other words, a lack of power will force people to carry more speed into the corner, improve their finesse, and learn how to drive smoothly and efficiently.

Therefore, bump drafting, slipstreaming, and a little argy-bargy come into play. They call the category “Spec Pinata” laughingly, and for good reason.

Look at it this way – a Miata boasts a whopping 120 horsepower on a good day. Spec Miata limits engine modifications so nobody is pushing much more than that, at least at the lower levels of the category, and everyone must drive the tires off their car and fight for real estate to win. Therefore, bump drafting, slipstreaming, and a little argy-bargy come into play. They call the category “Spec Piñata” laughingly, and for good reason.

Nevertheless, it’s a field of drivers of varying ages, backgrounds, and competitiveness. The format invites people with a drop of oil in their veins, and because of the accessibility, the enthusiasm is high, as are the emotional rewards.

The best part of it is, as mentioned before, the minimal cost of entry. Junked Miatas are not unicorns, and putting together a decent track car will only cost a few thousand dollars. Of course, running costs add to the tab, but the beauty of driving such a light, simple car is that consumables don’t go through the roof. Stock brakes with better pads, a set of sticky tires like Toyo’s R888, a few suspension modifications and the requisite cage, and the cars are about good to go.

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Once slightly timid, Micah Muzio jumps out of his successful run with obvious confidence.

However, it takes some time to get the proper finesse to get the most out of the short-wheelbased Miata. As Kenton Koch shows KBB host Micah Muzio, there’s more to getting a quick lap out of a gutless, grippy Miata than pitching the car in sideways. Micah, while being capable of drifting the short-wheelbased Mazda, learned quickly from the pro that brake release and a bit of zero-steer on the entry are much more useful than big slides. Every tiny error is corresponds with a notable loss in momentum, and having little power means it’s nigh-impossible to recover from a mistake with the engine alone.

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Turning the former roadcar into a racing car was not an arduous task, and is documented in this nine-part video series.

As Micah progressively comes to terms with the idea of “bending the car” around a corner, augmenting his line to cover less real estate, and picking up the throttle early and delicately to keep the 1.6-liter motor singing in it’s rev range, he’s learning the fundamentals of momentum conservation, and this is a skill that separates the stars from the also-rans, both in qualifying sessions and the races themselves.

When Koch leaves the cockpit and leaves Micah to attempt his first outing in a time trial setting, the atmosphere is slightly tense. Now, with real competition, Micah’s is forced to raise his game to compete against more experienced adversaries in different machines. The process of qualifying a car takes utmost concentration, which the slightly-green Muzio manages to pull out of the bag. Pleased with himself, he carries his confidence to his first race, where he’ll need a bit of self-assurance.

While managing the Miata’s twitchy nature is no cake walk, learning car placement and racecraft is another challenge entirely. The whole appeal of Spec Miata is really the intense competition, and it takes a thick skin and some clever driving to excel here. No power means slipstreaming is all the more difficult, and car placement is placed at a premium. Predictably then, a bit of body damage is just par for the course in this category, though it seems the Micah, by beginner’s luck, manages to avoid some harrowing accidents that take place in his first race. Like something out of an action film, the track is littered with smoking cars when one machine spins and the three following closely are given nowhere to go. Despite the Miata’s friendly appearance, a pack of them running in close quarters can cause carnage in the blink of an eye, which Micah gets a taste of later in the season.

It’s quite incredible how two ambitious young men managed to take a street car, modify it for racing, receive tutelage from a professional racer, enter in a variety of competitive events, place well, and emerge unscathed. Or so it would seem. The barriers to entry are relatively low – as far as racing goes – and if one is willing to invest a few thousand dollars, some sweat and a few sleepless nights, finding club level-success is totally feasible. As an inspiration for other drivers, Muzio shows us just how a little gusto and a bit of finesse, in and out of the car, can go a long way.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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