As we pass by race mile-marker 87, I start to feel a bit giddy. I only have seven more miles to go. The class that I’m competing in requires one lap around the 94-mile course. So far, I’ve been ready for anything the Nevada desert could throw my way. Rocks, sand, whoops, ruts–I’ve anticipated it all. Well, except one thing.
I never expected to actually win The Mint 400 in a Miata.
Now, to be clear, I didn’t take first place in The Great American Off-road Race. That would be impossible in a little Miata, lifted or not. I won the Gambler class—a ragtag group of low-budget cars with high cool factor. My class included a Mercedes-Benz 300SD, a Nissan Hardbody, a compact Subaru Justy, and, I’m not joking here, a four-wheel-drive limousine.
Still, a win is a win. More importantly, I got a roadster around one of the toughest race courses in America.
“The Gambler / Hooptie Class embodies the original run-what-you-brung spirit of The Mint,” said Mint 400 CEO Matt Martelli. “We didn’t start with purpose-built race cars. We started with jeeps, sedans, and motorcycles.”
He added: “You picked one of the most ridiculous vehicle platforms, a Mazda Miata, and still made it to the finish line that class. Still not sure how you did it. I wouldn’t believe it unless I saw it with my own eyes!”
It was an adventure all the way, though, beginning with a bunch of pre-race mods to prepare the Miata for action. By the time “Buddy” (my nickname for the off-road Mazda) rolled to the starting line, it was equipped with a supercharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, 5.38 gears in the differential to rotate the bigger tires and give me a bit more grunt at lower engine revs, and a four-inch lift.
Luckily, this wasn’t my first Mint. I’ve raced air-cooled Volkswagens in previous races. However, I’ve never belted myself into a lifted Miata to tackle some of the toughest desert Nevada has to offer.
Hours before the race I had major butterflies in my tummy. What if I broke the car beyond repair? What if I got stuck and was hit by an oncoming race car?
I was still questioning my life choices as I donned my helmet and squeezed myself into the car. With the roll cage and window net latch, it was tough to get my 5’9″ frame into the driver’s seat. There was barely enough headroom under the aluminum roof. Once the five-point harness was secured I couldn’t even reach the dash to grab my gloves.
I always thought that you wore a Miata, but Buddy turns that to 11.
I hedged that a broken axle might be in our future, so we carried a spare and the tools needed to change it. In addition to the axle-repair kit, we had a tow strap, some survival supplies, a spare tire, a scissor jack (welded onto a metal base), and a breaker bar.
Little Buddy was loaded down and ready to tackle the desert. I just felt like I had to go to the bathroom.
All the nerves disappeared once my co-driver James Hayward and I took the green flag. Now it was just us and Buddy against the Mint 400 race course. We started with the diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz, but once we were out of beginning stages, we had left him in our rearview mirror.
“This race isn’t won in the first mile,” James said to me over the crystal-clear Rugged Radios intercom.
“Yep,” I agreed. “Our goal is to JFF. Just [redacted] finish.”
Once we hit the open desert section of the course, James and I both realized that we didn’t have nearly enough ground clearance. Even with the four-inch lift, the ruts were so deep that all I could do was just plow rocks and sand. At first, every hit of a rock would cause me to yelp in empathetic pain to co-driver James over our intercom system. After a while, the gravel slurry across the undercarriage was hardly noticeable. White noise à la desert.
Staying on top of the ruts was nearly impossible. Buddy has skid plates over the radiator, engine, and transmission, but the differential is unprotected. When the choice came down to hitting a rock with the skid plates, differential, or the tires, I always chose the tires. I knew the BFGoodrich KO2 rubber could take the abuse—I wasn’t as confident about Buddy’s belly.
Fortunately the old-school Jackson Racing supercharger provided enough power to keep momentum despite all the plowing. Steep hill climbs were no problem either. With both the supercharger and the lower gearing, Buddy just clambered to the top of every incline like no big deal. Water temp: bang-on, even over the steep incline of Beer Bottle Pass.
I’m not sure we could have been successful at the Mint 400 without adding some forced induction, and throughout the whole race I thanked myself for the foresight. I called her “Past Emme.”
“Past Emme” also added the Recaro seats. Sure, they’re probably too big for the car but I was super comfortable the whole time. Some folks might want more lumbar support, but I loved how they snugged me into the bottom of the seat and hugged my hips.
“Past Emme” might not have been ready for the giant rock that nearly cost us the race. We were right in the middle of the course, when Buddy became high-sided on a massive rock. It was right in a blind corner, too, so it was pretty sketchy when James got out to dig. All I could picture was a big truck coming around the corner and squashing him flat.
Fortunately, help arrived in the form of Uncle Sam—literally. One of the military vehicles entered in the race came up behind us and winched Buddy off the rock in about two seconds. James gave them a hearty “thank you for your service” and we were off. I didn’t get the rig’s number, but this is my public salute to you, Military Man!
As the race went on, we heard more and more rattles, but Buddy was still moving forward and I didn’t feel anything strange from behind the wheel. The throttle hung once for about 20 seconds, but then it cleared itself. Still, it was enough to spike my heart rate. I thought to myself, “I will drive this thing until it stops moving.”
My pals from BFGoodrich Racing, Erin and Kristen Flaherty, were available at the two remote pit stops, but they just gave the wheels a shake, handed us some water, and sent us on our way.
While other teams were wrenching and welding in the pits we toddled along, rolling with each hit as it came, driving smart, and taking care of the car. We were slow, averaging about 22 miles per hour. That pace kept the car together, though, and we didn’t suffer a flat tire.
We crossed the finish line in four hours and 19 minutes amid cheers of respect from both spectators and fellow racers. We were over an hour ahead of the second-place car.
Still, we were pretty darn turtle-like and were passed by everyone not running in our super-slow class. We were equipped with a mandatory blue light (sourced from Rigid Industries) to signify that we were slower than most. Trucks, UTVs, and buggies stormed by cleanly, with a few codrivers even giving us the thumbs up out of their window nets as they passed by.
I haven’t had a chance to make a comprehensive pass through Buddy yet, but a cursory inspection shows some bent bracing pieces underneath the car. One skid plate is halfway off and it’s obvious some rocks hit the differential, though nothing was damaged.
The front hoop, where the skid plate is attached, will need to be re-welded and the radiator mount needs to be bent back into place. The engine is still running great, though, when we loaded it on the trailer, the check engine light came on.
That’s okay—you earned it, Little Buddy.
I will remove all the stock control arms and have them magnafluxed for cracks. They held up during the race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some hairline cracks that I can’t see. The Koni shocks were up to the task in the desert, but I’d like to retire them for a set of Fox shocks that are better suited to desert terrain.
As for Buddy’s next race, it likely won’t be until the end of the year at the Southern Nevada Off-Road Enthusiast “Rage at the River” in Laughlin, Nevada. This two-day event is more of a short course race which will involve multiple laps on a tighter circuit. It can get rough, but it’s nowhere near as crazy as an open desert race like the Mint.
I’m stoked that I won the class, and building the first Miata to race in the Mint 400 is something nobody can ever take away from me. But I likely won’t take on another dance in the desert any time soon. I’m not sure I want to go through that gauntlet again.
I’ll have to ask Buddy and see what he thinks.
Despite our success, his answer might not be “Miata.”