How I prepped my Miata to race 100 miles off-road

Caleb Wallace

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It’s 11:00 p.m. and I’m swinging a sledgehammer at the inner fender wells of my 2001 Mazda Miata. The sledge is unwieldy and I keep hitting the brake rotor by mistake. My garage is a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit. My shoulders, abs, and arms are aching. No matter how hard I swing, the blows doesn’t crush the car’s fender like I need them to.

It’s almost like Mazda never intended anyone to put 28-inch BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires on a Miata.

I’ve always been a dirt gal. I’ve raced air-cooled Volkswagens in local desert races and in big events like the Baja 1000when I can afford it. Out on the tarmac, I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of a rear-wheel-drive, two-seat convertible. So far, I’ve owned five Miatas.

About four years ago, I saw a lifted Miata while scrolling through Instagram. Someone’s homespun creation put hearts in my eyes. Right then and there, I knew I had to have one: I saw no better way to combine my love of off-roading with my love for the pint-sized Mazda.

Off Road Miata racecar rear three quarter 4wd recommended
Emme Hall

Enter Buddy.

Three years ago, I found an off-road Miata of my own. While Buddy—a nickname I immediately gave the ride—was far from perfect, he was an excellent starting point. The car was already outfitted with a three-inch lift kit from Paco Motorsports. Still, I opted to upgrade the springs and shocks to get an additional inch of lift.

I also regeared the differential to handle the larger tires. Stock gearing was at 4.30:1. Substituting a 5.38:1 ring-and-pinion set helped put the power down through the massive tires (for a Miata).

I drove Buddy with this setup for a few years. I was so happy with my lifted Miata that I decided to enter it in the Mint 400, a Nevada-based off-road endurance race. The dirt-caked contest was famously covered by Hunter S. Thompson in 1971 for Rolling Stone magazine in the 23,000-word missive Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

Drivers chasing the dream in 800-horsepower trophy trucks, nimble UTVs, and modified dune buggies converge on the same course to navigate some of Nevada’s toughest terrain. One lap is about 100 miles in distance; classes run anywhere from two to four circuits. The vehicles are serious racing rigs, with proper suspension components, tuned engines, and specialty transmissions.

Off Road Miata racecar front three quarter
Emme Hall

Buddy is not what I would call a real race car. Sure, the Miata has a lift, but its control arms, axles, and transmission are stock.

Buddy is better suited for a rally like HooptieX or Gambler 500. Gambler events are loosely organized point-to-point contests, often with the purpose of cleaning up trash. The cars are modified using homemade or supremely cheap parts and, as a result, can be mechanically unsound.

When some Gambler pals heard about my quest for the Mint, they wanted to play too. Now, the Mint 400 has a Gambler class. Plenty of wacky rides—a Ford limousine, a Subaru Justy, a Mercedes 300SD, and a Nissan pickup—will join my little Mazda in this ridiculous quest. Instead of driving three laps in Sportsman class, the Gambler group only has to race one.

Believe me, that’s going to be plenty.

Off Road Miata racecar netting
Emme Hall

We have to pass tech inspection first. Safety components like race seats, a fuel cell, a five-point harness, window nets, and a roll cage are mandatory.

Knowing I was going to add weight with the cage and new tires, I decided to add a bit more power with a supercharger. However, I wanted to keep Buddy street-legal in my home state of California. Currently, there is only one setup that is CARB legal and it’s beyond my price range. Facebook Marketplace came through and I found a brand-new, CARB-legal supercharger from back in the day, made by Jackson Racing. I purchased a Stage 2 clutch to handle the extra power and my pals at Advanced Engine Dynamics in Corona, California, got me dialed in. Now, Buddy is pushing 135 hp (about a 30 percent increase from stock).

Off Road Miata racecar engine
Emme Hall

Next, I purchased a Spec Miata roll cage. Recaro contributed a pair of race seats and I had an old set of Mastercraft harnesses that I sent out to be recertified. BF Goodrich came through with a set of 215/75R15 KO2 rubber. The tires are a bit bigger than the old set of General Grabbers, hence the hammering.

Buddy never had great lighting, so I was stoked when Rigid Industries offered me a set of four 6-inch LED light pods as well as an amber and blue rear-facing light. In off-road racing, every vehicle must use an amber dust light. Slower classes must also run a blue light. (You know, as an extra warning that the car is really, really slow.)

Finally, I needed a communication system so I could talk to my codriver during the race. Rugged Radios gifted me a comms system as the final touch.

If you thought Buddy’s transformation went smoothly, guess again. I lost a whole month of build time after two shops flaked on me. I didn’t realize that a Spec Miata cage is built for an empty passenger compartment, so we had to do some custom fabricating from the start. The Recaro seats are awesome, but they are pretty big for the little Miata. We had a heck of a time getting them to fit.

The schedule was tight, but the cage, seats, and fuel cell were all mounted in a week. The Rigid lights came with all the hardware I needed and were easy to attach to their mount. Plus, the wiring was in a neat, little package. The Rugged Radios intercom was simple to set up, but getting it to fit in Buddy’s center console required a bit of fabrication work. I had to do some drilling into the seat belt mounts for the crotch latch. With fixed seats and the cage, the cabin was pretty crowded.

Off Road Miata racecar Emme Hall
Emme Hall

Cut to me, back in my garage, late at night, by myself.

There are plenty of performance tweaks I’d like to make, but I just don’t have time. The Mint is rapidly approaching. It would be a good idea to drop the subframe a bit and get my axles at a less-severe angle so they don’t … well … blow up. I’d love to reinforce the shock mounts because I know the whoops are going to be massive. Heck, I’d love to weld the differential, but it’s too much work, too little time.

Aside from the required smashing of the fenders for a better turning radius, my biggest problem is the fuel cell. It’s still not plumbed. Indotech Motorsports is going to help me with that. Then, I’ll load Buddy up on the trailer, haul him to Las Vegas and, fingers crossed, pass tech inspection.

Then, the Mint 400. Hopefully I won’t need that sledgehammer.


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