Introducing Project CrossTime: $1,000 1996 Mazda Miata

I’ve wanted to go racing for a while now — ok, my whole life — but it had gotten really bad lately. I have dabbled in it here and there, but never with a dedicated track car. I just never had the money, and still don’t. I’d love to go door-to-door racing, but you’ve got to have a lot of money to be competitive. We already established I don’t have money, and who’s going to sponsor a 47-year-old rookie? So my idea for Project CrossTime was born — a car that I could go have fun with in autocross and time-trial events — on a budget.

In early March, I started looking in earnest for something cheap and thought I’d found “the one” in an ‘03 BMW 330ci that my wife’s boss was selling for $1,500 because Reverse had gone out. My thought was “we don’t need Reverse to go racing!” My friend Chris and I were going to buy it, but unfortunately, the boss sold it to the first person who called on it. Well, that stoked something in Chris and he went searching Craigslist, finding a decent deal that night on a 187,000-mile 1996 first-generation (NA) Mazda Miata that was being sold by a teacher now plying her trade in Malaysia. The asking price? $2,000.

Project CrossTime just after we bought it. Other than a blown clutch slave cylinder it was good to go.

I hadn’t really thought of a Miata — I come from the hot rod world — I wanted something with power! The more I thought about it though, the more I thought about the time I drove an LS-swapped S2000 on an autocross course and got my butt kicked by a stock Miata with sticky tires. Plus, the Miata is the probably the most-road-raced car in the world, so you know that many people can’t be wrong, and what better car to pick for a TURNology project car? On top of that, I figured there will be many people out there who would be interested in seeing a virtually stock car transform into a racecar without emptying their entire wallet.

I gave Chris the go-ahead to make the call. Before he hung up the phone, he had already talked the guy down to $1,500 because the clutch slave cylinder was out. Even better I thought; I’m only out $750. We were set to go see it the next night.

As we hopped in the truck (with trailer attached), Chris called to verify directions and the guy said he forgot to mention there was a tick in the engine and would sell it as-is for $1,200. This news concerned me, thinking we were getting a Craigslist dud, but we already had the trailer hooked up, so we decided to make the trip from Memphis to nearby Senatobia, Mississippi, to at least look at it.

On the way there, Chris Google’d “tick in Miata engine” and found that it seemed to be a normal complaint, but nothing to worry about. That put my mind at ease figuring I’d only be out $600 with hopefully a good solid foundation at the very least. With the bad slave cylinder we weren’t able to drive it, but we started it and listened to the tick. It was loud, but settled down after a few minutes.

On a gorgeous, cloudless evening, we bought this little Miata for $1,000.

Chris used his master negotiating skills and got the guy to knock another $200 off the price. So we were both in it for only $500! At that point, even if we blew the motor the first outing, our wives wouldn’t divorce us. As Chris finalized the deal, I kept looking the car over and found that someone had run it at the track at some point before the teacher bought it. It had a stainless header and Boss Frog frame rails — a good starting point indeed!

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We paid the man and loaded it up, stopping at O’Reilly’s on the way home to get a replacement slave cylinder. Ten minutes later we had it on, and ten minutes after that, we were up and running! We were ecstatic — and the tick in the engine had gone away. Score! I found out the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) had a high-performance driving event (HPDE) the following weekend, so we set about checking things over during the week with the goal of making it.

As far as we could tell, the only thing we lacked was a rollbar. Luckily, in speaking to Shawn Taylor, the director of the NASA Mid-South chapter here in Memphis, he happened to have an M1 Hard Core rollbar from Track Dog Racing he bought for a project he hadn’t started yet and let us borrow it. The only thing we had to do was install it.

Here is the Hard Dog M1 Hard Core rollbar Shawn Taylor loaned us for our exploits.

It was at this point we figured out there had already been a rollbar installed at some point (somebody had been beating on this thing before the teacher purchased it, I wonder if she knew). Evidently it was a slightly different bar, as we had to do a little bit of cutting to the package tray area before we could bolt it in, but the lower mounts matched perfectly. So, a couple of hours making sure to get it right, and boom, the next thing you know, we were off to the races — literally! 

It was tight quarters cutting the package tray to fit the rollbar. We didn't want to cut too much, so we ended up taking the rollbar in and out of the car quite a few times, but the final product came out pretty well. CrossTime got to make its first (and probably only) trip to the parts store that night.

 

The Future

So that catches you up on where CrossTime stands, but where do I plan to go with it you ask? The answer is . . . I’m not entirely sure how far it will go, but as you can tell from the photo below, we have already started driving it hard (three events as of this writing). 

CrossTime at the Summer in February (if by summer, they meant rain) NASA Mid-South event at Memphis International Raceway. Prior to this we had about 20 minutes of seat time. The car did great running on 400 treadwear tires!

After the first event, I went crazy with the DA sander on the peeling clearcoat — it was driving me nuts, and I’d rather have a car that looks like a cow than have clearcoat peeling off, so off it came. We also went to work on ripping out the interior. For now I have kept the seats, center console and dashboard. I may or may not leave them in, but the door panels and carpet had seen better days, so they are gone now.

That peeling clearcoat was driving me crazy, so I got to work a little early on the bodywork. It will look bad for a while, but at least it looks like I’m working on it instead of totally neglecting it.

 

What’s On Tap?

I have put together an outline of things I want and/or need to do on CrossTime. This is heading for racecar status, so this timeline could obviously change if parts break or something proves to be more important, but here is what I have so far. Much of it will depend on if the car holds together, how much time I have to devote to it, and how much money I can afford to burn on it.

Safety

First on the list are things to ensure my safety — I’m a rookie after all. Safety is probably one of the most expensive things I will spend money on for this car, but hey, I’m worth it. Of course, I already got the borrowed rollbar, but eventually as the speed increases I will want to get a full cage in the car. 

I had previously run autocross with a DOT motorcycle helmet, not a certified Snell-rated helmet. It was a kickass helmet painted by my friend Aaron Beliew, but this was the first thing I changed when hitting the big-boy track. On the autocross, the lower speeds meant less risk to me, but that is not really the case. At higher speeds motorcycle helmets are not made for the same type of impact (many people don’t know that). Look for a tech story on TURNology from Rob Krider on that subject soon, but to be safe, I went out and bought a Snell 2015 SA-rated RaceQuip Vesta15 helmet which should be good for 10 years if I don’t need to “use” it.

Although the DOT motorcycle helmet had a cool paintjob from my friend Aaron Beliew, the RaceQuip Vesta 15 helmet is Snell-certified, and that is most important. As you can see from the rear view, the RaceQuip helmet can accept the bolts for a HANS device, where the old helmet could not.

The rest of the safety stuff I still need to get:  fire suit, gloves, shoes, and fire extinguisher in the short term, then when I get a racing seat, I will need a 5-point harness and a head and neck restraint. (Another little side note to think about here: if you are driving your car on the street with shoulder harnesses — stop doing it! Yes, they look all cool and racy and everything, but if you are in an accident with no HANS, you have a much better chance of snapping your neck.)

Though it can be thought of as a safety device — because of the airbag — replacing the steering wheel is high on my list for two reasons: 1) the outer material (rubber I think) has come loose from the inner core, which allows the wheel to twist in my hands quite a bit, and 2) when I get the racing seat/harnesses installed, the airbag just becomes a cannon, instead of a life-saving device, because my face won’t be in it at the proper time. I have remedied the twisting wheel with a grip cover for now, but it has to go!

The steering wheel needs to go ASAP! The outer material has separated from the inner core, allowing it to twist in my hands. I put this wrap on there as a temporary fix.

 

Tires

The first performance modification I was able to make was tires, but they are old take-offs. The Miata has been sporting some 185/60R14 Douglas (never even heard of them) tires with a 380 treadwear rating. We had those things screaming for mercy at the track and they were definitely the limiting factor. Luckily, Chris got an extra set of wheels when he bought his Miata that were 15-inch from Dynamic Racing with some very used (but better than street) Toyo RA1 tires. I got to use these at NCM Motorsports Park and the difference is crazy— I can only imagine what it will do with fresh stickies.

This is how CrossTime looked before the second event – the SCCA Mid-South autocross event in the Mid-South Coliseum parking lot. Sanded down paint with “new” wheels and tires. I sprayed the nose with some peel-off paint, just to see how it worked and if it was an option. It took two full cans for just that nose, so I doubt it!

 

Brakes

Hot on the heels of tires (possibly even the same time), I hope to do a brake upgrade. With stickier tires comes higher speeds, and I am going to be leaning on the brakes much harder getting into the corners. Rotors and pads are going to be needed to keep up with the newfound speed. 

Suspension

Next, we will move on to suspension. Springs, shocks, and swaybars will be the order of the day. We have to get the car down, it sits like a 4×4 right now, and based on the condition of the boots (or lack thereof), it probably sports the original shocks. We’ll most likely need some shock-tower braces also to help with any movement from the extra grip. After this change is when it will start to look (and feel) like a real racecar. To help further plant the car after sticky tires and suspension mods, we’ll throw some adjustable control arms on it so we can really dial in the caster and camber.

Suspension is needed in the near future. “Grant’s Tomb” is a sweeper at MIR that gives you a good idea of the bodyroll. The tires were screaming for mercy at this point!

 

Clutch

Somewhere in the near future there will need to be a new clutch. My guess is that the original clutch is still somehow surviving in the car. I can tell you it probably isn’t long until it gives up the ghost though. As soon as it gets a little heat into it, it chatters like a bird on a wire.

Aero

The aero may need some upgrades as well as our speed increases. Miatas are known for being snappy if you lift off the throttle at the wrong time, so some aero improvements will help here. We will throw on a front airdam and a spoiler or wing. Prepping for the future, some fender flares (for larger tires) and a rear diffuser will make this thing stick like glue.

Paint

I am going to paint the car — economically — at home, in my driveway. This is a racecar, not a showcar, so it doesn’t have to be perfect and is a great way to show how a complete novice can tackle paint, even if it won’t be perfect. It’s not rocket science, so why not, right?

Dreams

Ok, the final step may get into pipe dream territory. It might be considered more of a bonus (and beyond the reach of the Average Joe’s price range), but I would really like to throw an LS engine under the bonnet once I’ve mastered the car with lower horsepower. It won’t be anything crazy, but it doesn’t have to be with the weight of this little roadster. If you go too far, then the car just becomes a cartoon of itself, so I’d like to just put a decent powerplant under the hood and connect it to a 6-speed trans. For good measure, I will probably end up with a 8.8-inch IRS from a new Mustang. These mods are down the road a bit, if at all, so I still have some research to do on the feasibility of it all.

So there you have it, Project CrossTime in a nutshell. Taking a $1,000 Craigslist buy and making it into a monster on the autocross and time-trial circuit. I hope you will follow along on the build and give input along the way. I am a novice at building a racecar and welcome whatever constructive criticism I receive. Either way, I know I’m going to have a blast building it!

About the author

Shawn Brereton

Shawn is a lifelong car enthusiast who appreciates all things automotive. He is the proud owner of a blown '55 Chevy, a daily-driven '66 Fairlane with an '09 GT500 drivetrain, and a '96 Miata track car.
Read My Articles

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