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. My shoulders, abs, and arms are aching. No matter how hard I swing, it doesn’t crush the car’s fender like I need it to. Hmm, it’s almost like Mazda never intended anyone to put 28-inch BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires on a Miata. 

I’ve alway been a dirt gal. I’ve raced air-cooled Volkswagens in local desert races and big events like the Baja 1000, when 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 because I saw no better way to combine my love of off-roading with my love for the pint-sized Mazda.

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

I drove Buddy with this set up 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 enduro. 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. Laps are about 100 miles in distance and classes run anywhere from two to four circuits. The vehicles are serious racing rigs, with proper suspension components, tuned engines, and specialty transmissions.

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 something like HooptieX or Gambler 500 rallies. Gambler events are loosely organized point-to-point contests, often with the purpose of cleaning up trash. The cars modified using home-made 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. Instead of driving three laps in Sportsman class, the Gambler group only has to race one lap. Believe me, that’s going to be plenty.

A Ford limousine, Subaru Justy, Mercedes 300SD, and Nissan pickup—plenty of wacky rides will join my little Mazda in this ridiculous quest.

We have to pass tech inspection, first. Safety components like race seats, a fuel cell, a 5-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 its beyond my price range. Facebook Marketplace came through and I found a brand new Jackson Racing CARB-legal supercharger from back in the day. 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 horsepower (about a 30% increase from stock).

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 re-certified. BF Goodrich came through with a set of 215/75R15 KO2 tires. They 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 co-driver during the race. Rugged Radios gifted me a comms system as the final touch.

If you thought the 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. 

Cut to me, back in my garage, late at night, by myself. The Rigid lights were easy to attach to their mount and come with all the hardware I needed. Plus, the wiring is 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 is pretty crowded. Baja Forged welded the spare tire mount and upgraded the rear bumper.

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, hopefully, pass tech inspection.

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