The MX-5 Miata of the Month from

rockoff1.jpg (15815 bytes)September 1999

Bill Rockoff
Atlanta, Georgia

Congratulations to Bill on the selection of his Miata, as our September
Miata of the Month!

Scrap (skrap) n. 1 small bit; fragment; shred 2 discarded material useful only for reprocessing 3 a fight or brawl 4 Bill’s dented ’91 Miata

rockoff2.jpg (20071 bytes)Every month, I check out Miata Net’s "Miata Of The Month" and I wonder if any of these people would consider me a Miata enthusiast. M.O.T.M. winners typically have shiny paint, extravagant stereos, wood interior kits, auxiliary lights. These cars often live the life of an occasional-use toy; they’re kept in garages and only come out in nice weather to play. My ’91 has spent most of its eight years outdoors in hot Georgia summers, sub-freezing New York winters, torrential rain. I have a motorcycle as well, but my Miata is my only car - it sees 20,000 to 25,000 miles a year, and it’s no hangar queen. I sometimes wash my car, and I even waxed it once, but my non-driving car time is dedicated to wrenching. If I wanted a shiny hangar queen, I would’ve gotten a different car. I bought a Miata because I wanted a sports car I could drive.

So, perhaps the Miata Of The Month concept could use a different attitude this month. I present to you "Scrap," my ’91 Classic Red. 150,000 miles of reliability, adventure, questionable responsibility, and fun. Original battery, top, water pump, and paint job. Three out of the four original fenders. No air conditioning, no thousand-dollar stereo, no garage (anymore, darn it....) Big old dent, torn front fascia, cloudy rear window. Cosmetically far worse than a plain ordinary unmodified Miata, Scrap is somehow differently endearing. With an aggressive appearance enhanced by a lowered ride height, a Hard Dog roll bar, fat tires, and cross-drilled brake rotors peeking through 15" Panasport wheels, Scrap makes an eloquent statement of intent.

Scrap is not your average Miata. You can tell from a distance that this ain’t no foo-foo shiny dreamboat for car-polishing posers, this is a SPORTS car, durn it! This car goes around turns hard, sometimes on race tracks, and it’s been doing this for a long time. This car is for having FUN, serious performance-oriented fun, the kind of fun normal people think is scary.

The people who compliment me on my car are not the same group of people who would compliment you on your car. When someone tells me "Nice car!" they don’t mean "nice" in the conventional sense (and nobody calls Scrap "cute" any more.) Some people still periodically leave notes on the windshield asking about the modifications I’ve made to the car (although most of the notes ask where I learned to drive….) Scrap is an honest no-kidding sports car, just like I always wanted - fun to drive, hard to break, and easy to fix. So look past the tattered top and the faded paint, and tell me if you think a car like this deserves a Month of which to be The Miata. To me, Scrap is the Miata Of The Decade.

Pre-history of Scrap

rockoff3.jpg (20909 bytes)I came by this "sports car" idea pretty honestly; my parents had a ’59 Austin-Healy "Bugeye" Sprite when they were first married. As a teenager, I dreamt of the then-new Triumph TR-8 even as I learned to drive in mom’s Chevy wagon and dad’s ’78 Mercury Zephyr automatic. I read what I could on the subject of driving and sports cars and tried to apply what I learned. Did you know you can heel-and-toe to match revs on the downshift from "D" to "2" in a 1978 Mercury automatic? You can. Some people might ask "Why on earth would you do THAT?" The technical answer is that this technique helps the car turn in better upon ENTERING turns and ensures that all 92 horsepower are available upon EXITING turns; this gets you into, through, and out of turns smoothly and (relatively) quickly. The real answer, of course, is "Because it’s FUN." My mom, who had passed her driving test twenty years earlier at the wheel of a Bugeye Sprite, told me "If you ever do that again, it’ll be the last time I let you drive!"

Well, a six-cylinder Zephyr automatic is no sports car, but that won’t stop a teenaged son from trying to drive it like one. Never too reliable to begin with, its condition declined steadily after I smacked it into a tree. The following year, the car caught fire as it idled at the fuel pumps outside Hank’s Texaco. Fortunately, Hank was quick with a fire extinguisher, but this convinced my parents that they needed a different car. They originally planned to junk the Zephyr, but I begged them to hold off until I came home from college for the summer; if I could get it running again, maybe they’d give it to me to keep? They agreed, I figured out how to replace a carburetor, and the "Chariot Of Fire" was back on the road - I was a car owner. To the amazement of my friends and family, I actually kept that car running for nearly five years and over 60,000 miles as I learned about the relationship between driving cars and fixing them - if you drive a car, SOMEBODY is going to have to fix it sooner or later, and other people will usually demand money for fixing your car. This means that when you’re poor and your car needs a water pump, you either learn to replace a water pump or you do without a car. The ability to fix your own car lets you economically keep a car for a long time.

When I got a "real" job after college, I bought a brand-new motorcycle instead of a new car. That summer, the Zephyr finally became too trouble-prone even for me, so I gave it away and bought a very used 1968 Mercedes 230 sedan. While the Mercedes was even slower than the Mercury and not much more reliable, it was a LOT more interesting to drive and fix. The Mercedes earned the nickname "Das Boot" in recognition of its tendency to leak during a rainstorm.

Boy Meets Car

The Mercedes became more and more cantankerous as summer turned to autumn, and by January 1991 it was downright unreliable. One freezing winter morning, it failed to start at all and I rode my motorcycle to work. I was scheduled to leave that weekend for a long-term assignment in New York, and I reasoned that a 23-year-old car that didn’t start in Atlanta on a winter morning was going to be even worse in New York. I had a brand-new reliable motorcycle, but riding a motorcycle through a New York winter would be almost as unpleasant as visiting my parents on said motorcycle. As I shivered on my way to work that morning, it was evident that I needed a new, reliable car.

I was going to be gone for MONTHS without my motorcycle - what car would be reliable AND would keep me from pining for my beloved FJ1200? I saw the newspaper ad promising "NEW MIATAS FROM $12,477!!!" and got a friend to drive me to the dealership after work, checkbook in hand. After haggling over pin-striping (which the salesman called "a mandatory option") and paint sealant (apparently a three-billion-dollar factory in Japan can’t paint a car so it looks good, but this guy could spray some stuff from a can that could fix it) I was outta there for $12,700 plus tax, tag, and title, in a car with no radio, no air conditioning, and no power anything. (I treated myself to the floor mats.)

Maiden Voyage

Sixty hours after leaving the dealership, my brand-new Miata was packed to the brim with my hard hat, work boots, briefcase, and enough clothes to see me through five months of power plant work. The trunk was packed tight, a huge suitcase towered above me in the passenger seat, a duffel bag rested on the rear deck behind the headrests, and a portable tape player sat in the passenger footwell. There was just enough room for me to climb into the driver’s seat as I set out on the thousand-mile maiden voyage, bound for New York with a stopover in the Washington DC area to stay with former college roommate Kevin.

The first part of this drive was the exact opposite of an ideal Miata trip - too much luggage, cold top-up weather, endless interstate. I was used to a spacious, graceful old Mercedes with impeccable highway manners. This time, I was stuffed into a loud, cramped car with twitchy steering and little outward visibility. Wind and road noise drowned out the portable radio plugged into the cigarette lighter, the car pitched over expansion joints in the highway, my luggage blocked my view out of half the windows, and if I blinked the car would flit across two lanes. After about five hours on the highway, I was thinking to myself "For the first time in my life, I have a CAR PAYMENT. What did I get myself into? What was I THINKING?" It looked like it was going to be a long drive to DC that night.

rockoff4.jpg (20336 bytes)Just into Virginia, I hopped off the interstate and got onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, and THEN I understood. Now, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a fun road even in the Zephyr, and it was a treat in the a borrowed Monte Carlo SS or my old Mercedes. However, this was the first time I’d ever driven the Blue Ridge Parkway in a sports car. For over 300 miles, I delighted in the curves of the road. The non-power steering that felt twitchy and busy on the interstate was suddenly PERFECT, telling me exactly how much grip I was using and how much remained. The cornering, the shifter action, the clutch take-up, the throttle response, the brakes…. It was like dancing. It was delightful, even though the suitcase in the passenger seat fell over on me during hard right turns. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along mountain ridges above the Shenandoah Valley, and in winter the bare trees allow a tremendous view as you drive. (Unless your view is partially obscured by a big suitcase.) In winter, there are almost no tourists driving the Parkway and you have this gorgeous, perfect road nearly to yourself. I drove the entire afternoon along the Blue Ridge Parkway, getting acquainted with my brand-new light, agile, responsive sports car (and that darn suitcase.)

By the time I reached the outskirts of Washington DC, I had spent over six hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway but I was ready to turn around and drive it again the other way. The Miata had won me over, and I was hooked. I reached Kevin’s apartment and unloaded my luggage, and Kevin and I and took turns driving around suburban Washington in my new Miata and his new Wrangler (also without a/c - Kevin and I truly are birds of a feather.) The following evening, I pulled up in front of my parents’ house and spent the evening letting my mom, dad, and sister drive it (my sister drove it better than I did) and giving my visiting grandmother a ride. My brother was away at college, but he wasn’t too interested in learning to drive a stickshift anyway - his Miata driving was limited to a couple of first-gear laps of his dorm parking lot later that spring.

All that winter and spring, my new Miata faithfully transported me throughout New York and New England. My parents watched in amusement as I disassembled the interior of my month-old car to install a pull-out stereo and speakers, and that was the extent of my car modifications for the time being - the rest of the time was spent driving (except for the 80 hours a week I was at work.) I played cat-and-mouse with a co-worker’s Z24 along the Sprain Brook Parkway on our way home at 4:00 am, I took my brother and sister out joy-riding with the top down, I took my fiancée to a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. As spring arrived in suburban New York, I did more and more of my driving with the top down, arriving at work at 8:00 PM with the smell of honeysuckle everywhere, leaving work at daybreak with the rising sun on my face.

This assignment ended in July of ’91 and my new fiancée flew to DC to join me for the drive back to Atlanta. We drove country roads the entire way back to Atlanta, and every inch of driving was top-down. In direct contrast to my trip north, this trip back south was exactly the ideal Miata trip. Every drive in a Miata has a certain element of adventure and romance, but this extemporaneous drive home together was three days of nothing else.

Initial Modifications, First Track Day

For the next couple of years, the Miata stayed essentially stock; the upgrade money was instead spent on an engagement ring, a new ’92 Sentra SE-R, a honeymoon, and a house. For most of 1992, all the upgrades were made to the house instead of the Miata and I only replaced Miata things when they wore out. I talked my then-wife into letting me spend $30 on a K&N drop-in filter, and eventually into letting me mail-order a set of 15" Panasport wheels shod with 205/15 Comp-T/A-3 tires. This did wonderful things to the car’s looks and cornering power; gradually, the car became more unique and less like every other red Miata. One unusual modification that year was the addition of an infant seat; my new son (and future Formula One champion) got his first top-down ride in the Miata when he was seven months old.

Later mods included cross-drilled brake rotors, stainless lines, and Hawk pads. Thus configured, I did my first-ever autocross. (Well, I ran the autocross without the infant seat.) I probably completed the course faster on foot during the walk-through than I did in the car, but it was fun to get out and actually do a sport with my sports car.

rockoff5.jpg (13032 bytes)The following couple of years saw a number of changes. Most significant (to my car, my son, and to me) was a change in marital status. I became single again, and my car became an outdoor car again. The silver lining to this particular cloud is that spending my money is no longer a committee decision, so when I decided to replace my factory shocks at 95,000 miles (only 65,000 miles later than recommended!) there was nobody to argue with me about it. I replaced the factory springs, shocks, and sway bars with Eibach springs, Tokico HP shocks, and Jackson Racing sway bars. I did the installation with the help of my car-fanatic friend Jeff, whose day job included doing some of the shock absorber R&D for the Dodge Viper GTS-R that ran at Le Mans a couple of years ago. Jeff’s expertise, experience, and comprehensive home garage (including pneumatic tools) made the installation quick and painless. The aftermarket suspension made a night-and-day difference in cornering capability, and even the ride improved dramatically - it felt like I’d bought a new car. (Not a bad result for $700.) With the lower ride height, flatter cornering, and new Pirelli P700’s, the car felt invincible on twisty roads.

Late that autumn, I began to get involved with the Peachtree Miata Club. Some of the members are very active in motorsports, and one of them convinced me to do a Track Day at Road Atlanta. Well, those of you who have gotten out on a racetrack know exactly how that felt. For those of you who haven’t, I can only say "You paid thousands of dollars for a sports car - for goodness sake, spend another hundred or so and do a SPORT with it! It’s FUN, and it’s safer than driving to work!" If you think it’s fun to drive your Miata on an empty, twisty road, imagine driving your Miata on an empty, twisty road that’s there for the sole purpose of letting you drive it fast, over and over again.

Since I was a newcomer to racetrack driving and since my Miata had no roll bar or racing harnesses, I signed up for the Touring Group; each driver had an instructor, no passing was allowed, and a pace car limited speeds to 70 mph. It’s easy to scoff at the thought of limiting yourself to 70 mph on a racetrack; after all, many of us drive faster than this on the highway. However, there are parts of Road Atlanta where 70 mph is faster than a street-legal car can go.

My instructor for this event was none other than Rob Ebersol, who recently made a name for himself racing HIS Miata in Showroom Stock. He drove me around Road Atlanta in his Showroom Stock Miata racer for a couple of laps, and I probably learned more from those five minutes than I did in any other given year. We were FLYING, going impossibly fast through turns and using the entire width of the track as the tires struggled to grip, but Rob himself didn’t appear to be hurrying. His steering and shifting were smooth and unhurried - all his control motions were calm and deliberate as he explained to me what he was doing and why he was doing it that way. I remember reading once that "the car can hurry, but the driver never should," and here was an example of that ideal put into practice. Those precise and unhurried control motions have become my template; I’ve tried to mimic them every time I’ve driven since then, both on the street and on racetracks.

A Tough (And Expensive) Couple Of Years

In January of 1997, I began taking night MBA classes at Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. For two years, I was a full-time engineer, a full-time graduate student, and a part-time single dad - my motto was "I can do everything if I just sleep a little less and drive a little faster." I was continuously tired and in a hurry, and my car paid a heavy price. I paid a heavy price as well. Fortunately, my damage was all financial and not physical, but I got VERY familiar with the KA - CHING! cash-register sound.

On the way home from my FIRST NIGHT of classes in January 1997, I was exhausted and my attention wandered as I rolled up to a stoplight in town. The car was doing maybe 15 mph when the right wheel snagged the curb and pulled the car to the right. The wheel itself hit a telephone pole; that’s what stopped the car. The fender crushed in, which set off the airbag - POW!!! It felt like a punch in the face. The phone pole crushed that fender and the wheel, and bent the upper and lower control arms, the tie rod, and the axle. The right front wheel had about 45 degrees of toe-out, it was about six inches further back than it was supposed to be, and it was no longer round. I had the car towed back to my apartment and I rented a car the following day so I could ferry my 3-year-old through the cold and rain and fetch Miata parts.

I bought new (used) control arms, a tie rod, and an axle at Mazmart, and ordered a replacement Panasport from Paul Spruell Alfa Romeo, and spent the following weekend replacing bent parts. I eventually got tired of driving around with the lights raised, so I beat the crushed fender bracketry with a hammer and a pipe wrench until I could lower the headlights again. Weeks later, I replaced the crushed fender with one from Mazmart that was only a little bit bent; this fender is the shiny one on the right front of the car. Also, the whole car got tweaked a tiny bit; the top isn’t as snug on the right side as on the left anymore, and the passenger door doesn’t seal perfectly against the windshield header. No rain comes in, but there’s more wind noise…. Interestingly enough, NONE of the lights broke from this impact, but fixing this damage cost me (KA - CHING!) about 10% what I paid for the car new.

I questioned the wisdom of throwing that kind of money into a six-year-old car with over 110,000 miles on it, but my decision was vindicated when I participated in Peachtree Miata Club’s Spring 1997 Talladega Gran Prix event. Twice a year, PMC rents a small roadrace track in Talladega, Alabama, and thirty or so of us get full use of the track, six or seven at a time. I had so much fun at Talladega that I made a commitment to myself right there and then - I would ALWAYS have this car, and I would do more racetrack events.

In recognition of this commitment, I bought and installed a Hard Dog Hard Core roll bar and a set of AutoPro six-point racing harnesses so I could drive in more advanced groups during Road Atlanta track days. I also found a used exhaust system for sale, consisting of 2-1/2 inch pipe with a FlowMaster muffler. The car was noticeably more responsive this way, but a LOT louder; conversation was impossible at highway speeds, and the exhaust note would trigger car alarms in parking decks. With the lowered ride height, wider wheels and tires, cross-braced roll bar with wide racing harnesses, and yowling exhaust, my car no longer blended into traffic the way most Miatas do. And in autumn of 1997, I’m sure I was the only Miata running around Atlanta with a roll bar and a baby seat. Uniqueness has its price, though. In this case, it was (KA - CHING!) about 5% what the car cost new.

That October, my differential began shedding gear oil and small pieces of gears. It had seen 123,000 miles of abuse, and it was time to replace it. Mazmart had the larger, stronger differential from a 1.8 liter Miata, along with corresponding driveshaft and axle shafts, so I spent a rainy weekend in my apartment parking lot changing out the differential, the drive shaft, and the axles. It took me hours to remove my rusty, corroded parts, and even then I couldn’t remove one of the bolts holding my broken diff to the Power Plant Frame; I had to wait until Mazmart opened Monday morning, ride there on my motorcycle, and ride home with the PPF strapped to the back of my motorcycle, sticking out three feet behind me with a little red flag tied onto the back. Total cost of this project was (KA - CHING!) another 5% of the purchase price…. I finished putting the car back together in time to pick up my son at day care that Monday. On the way home he asked me "Dad, can we have a friend come over and play some time?" I told him, "Of COURSE we can, sweetie." He looked around the interior of the Miata and asked me, "But where would they ride?" Sigh….

In December, the stock catalytic converter finally died at 125,000 miles - it was so plugged up that the car couldn’t maintain 60 mph on the highway. Fortunately, Brainstorm’s Stone Mountain location was a few miles from my office, and they had a high-performance catalytic converter in stock. Since my old one was rusted pretty solidly to the exhaust manifold, I knew it would be difficult to remove, so I decided to replace the exhaust manifold and the catalytic converter at the same time with a Brainstorm 4-into-1 exhaust header and a free-flow catalytic converter. (KA - CHING! Another 4% of the car’s price.) This complemented the free-flowing exhaust system I’d installed earlier that fall. With the full exhaust system, this car was FAST. Loud, but fast. It was SO fast, I drove it to Brainstorm the next morning and let everyone drive it so they could marvel at how fast it is. They all agreed - "it’s FAST."

On the way home, it was warm for December and I had the top down. I decided it was a nice day to take a "spirited" (read: "FAST") run along a twisty road through the Atlanta suburbs. I got very sideways and slid off the road backwards - FAST - and slammed over a storm drain cover. Damage included the radiator, the front left upper & lower control arms, and every part of the front suspension that moves when you turn the steering wheel (wheels, tires, axles, tie rods, tie rod ends….) The sewer cover ripped the front suspension and radiator out through the front fascia. Another tow truck ride, another week of rent-a-car, and (KA - CHING!) another 13% of the car’s purchase price, 2/3 of it at Mazmart. Rennsport in Roswell fixed one of the Panasports, but I held off on the others. I spent Christmas Day 1997 fixing the car in the freezing cold. This was a nice change of pace because most of my OTHER car fixing was done after dark in the freezing cold.

Early the next month, about a week after I finished repairing the suspension (again) I was in stop-and-go traffic in the pouring rain; a police cruiser had hit a phone pole, blocking a lane. I had just told my brother "My goal for 1998 is not to wreck the Miata!" Everyone was taking turns merging to go around the accident scene, but the plumber in the van next to me didn’t want to take turns; he drove around me as I edged over into his lane. Everyone was stopped, so I backed up, drove forward in my lane, and went back around HIM, putting the nose of my car between him and the car ahead of him. "Hah!" I told my brother, "He didn’t want to let me in, but I’m in anyway. He can either let me the rest of the way in, or hit me." You guessed it - he hit me. SCRAPE, CRUNCH. He got out of the van and smiled at me, saying "Wow, I didn’t see you!" I got the ticket - improper lane change. It was a moving violation, even though I wasn’t moving at the time. (I WAS, however, being a jerk - why couldn’t I have gotten over a few cars BEHIND this guy instead?) The ticket was dismissed in court, but the fender is still bent…… This added the final touch that inspired the car’s name.

The rest of 1998 was comparatively uneventful for Scrap. I did a few driving events with the Peachtree Miata Club, replaced brake pads, and replaced my loud muffler with the factory muffler. And then switched back to the loud muffler. And back to the factory muffler again. I also finished grad school, which should leave more time for PMC activities, motorsports, and maintenance/repair work. In fact, in January ’99 I have had three wheels straightened at Rennsport, purchased another front axle at Mazmart, and bought a set of Koni shocks to replace the worn-out Tokicos. Scrap has turned 150,000 miles, and I might even wash him this weekend after I finish installing the Koni shocks.

So - you think you love your car? Would you still love it if the paint faded? Heck, ANYONE can enjoy driving a shiny car with 10,000 miles on it - that's not love, that's infatuation. Now, when your car has 125,000 miles on it and you're out in the rain all weekend replacing its differential, when you wake up Christmas morning and eagerly rush downstairs to open.... your TOOLBOX so you can replace the suspension and radiator you broke last week, when you've spent more money upgrading your car than it would cost to buy a second car just like yours - now THAT's more than just infatuation, THAT’s a commitment. I’ve had my car for eight years and 150,000 miles, and I like my car more than ever.

Dare I say it? My goal for 1999 is not to wreck the Miata…..

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