Road hazards can take many forms. Hopefully my experiences might help you to avoid some of them yourself, or at least be prepared for them.
No doubt you’ve had some of those days when nothing seemed to go quite right. Well, I just had one of those weeks. If you saw this in a movie or on a TV show, you’d probably write it off as being unbelievable.
It all began innocently enough. Regular readers of this column know that I am a long-time motorsports participant. I have been autocrossing my various sports (and sporty) cars since 1979. I prefer tail-out (oversteering) rear wheel drive cars, and have finally found another car that seems to both suit my driving style and be reasonably competitive in my SCCA class (C Stock).
Modifying a car from the way it came from the factory is fraught with possible problems. Automobile manufacturers spend an incredible amount of time, resources and money developing their new cars. Individuals cannot hope to match their R&D budgets and expertise. However, the priorities of auto manufacturers might not match yours. Whereas I care a lot about high performance, their goals are probably more aimed towards developing vehicles for daily street use and affordability. By shifting the priority from practical, everyday use to high performance, I was entering the world of the motorsports aftermarket.
So it was that I made the decision to modify my Miata close to the limits of what is allowed in my class. I already had sticky Hoosier autocross tires and a set of light-weight wheels to put them on when I was not doing everyday driving. They helped but could only take me so far.
My fellow competitors who were regularly beating my times had done more to their cars. Specifically, they had replaced the stock shock absorbers with stiffer ones and they had also installed a stiffer front swaybar.
Patiently I waited over a period of several months while I gathered information on the choices that were available to me. I spoke with my fellow competitors, sent emails to others, saw how people with similar modifications performed in autocross competition and tried to check out the plusses and minuses.
Finally I was ready. I ordered my new, stiffer, KONI adjustable shocks and a thicker, stiffer front swaybar.
When the parts came in I had another decision to make: who should I select to install these go-fast parts? I got quotes from a local speed shop, a trusted local repair shop that has a lot of experience working with Miatas and my Mazda dealer’s service department.
I ended up choosing my new car dealer for the installation, even though they were not the least expensive choice, because I figured that they would be the best equipped and most familiar with my relatively new, 2006 car. I took the car there, explained my objectives and eagerly waited to get my new, improved car back in time for the following weekend’s autocross.
When I got the car back from them it seemed to be sitting quite high in the front. I was expecting the new shocks to lower the car somewhat.
I then took the car to my long-time alignment shop for a special autocross alignment. They, in turn, told me that the car was sitting up so high in front that they could not dial in as much negative camber as I wanted. This did not bode well for being able to take turns on the track. Nevertheless, I went to my two-day autocross event, hopeful that all of the money I’d just spent would help me make up the relatively small time difference between me and my regular competitors.
Saturday was a practice autocross event in one of San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium parking lots. It was then and there that I discovered that my car’s on-track handling had gone from being pretty decent in its stock configuration to being absolutely horrible. It wanted to go straight in corners rather than turn. The only way I could make the corners was to slow way down, since I could not even get the rear to rotate.
Worse yet, towards the end of the practice session I discovered that I had just about worn out the outside edge of one of my two front tires.
Undeterred, I drove over to a tire shop to have the two front tires removed from their wheels, turned around and remounted, so that the insides of each tire’s tread would be on the outside, thus extending the life of the nearly worn-out tires enough to hopefully get me through the three or four runs of my Sunday Championship autocross day.
On Sunday I showed up at the autocross, set the front shocks to full soft, the rears to full stiff and took my first run without incident. By softening up the front relative to the rear, I hoped to remove some of the bad understeer that was preventing the car from cornering very well. Then, on my second run, something bad happened. Suddenly I heard a loud clanking coming from the front end of my car whenever I hit a bump. Despite this, it seemed to still be working so I carefully continued on.
After my run I asked a Miata guru for his advice. He thought one of the two rubber bushings on my new front swaybar might be binding but thought I could safely take another run, which I did. The banging continued. Rather than risk damaging my car, I did not take my final run.
A little later he discovered what had happened. The driver’s-side rubber swaybar bushing had come completely out of its bracket. A course worker found it and returned it to me.
Unbelievably, my bad luck continued. I drove back to my pit area, so that I could pack my stuff back into my car. For some reason a small crowd had gathered by my gear. When I got close I saw why. The large swarm of bees that had buzzed our pre-grid area earlier had made a bee-line for my helmet bag and small folding table. It looked like they were about to make a hive there.
I didn’t know what to do. Then, almost as if it had been sent to help me, a fire engine slowly made its way through the parking lot, on its way to some unknown destination beyond. I flagged it down and it stopped.
A fireman came over with a long pole. On its end was a metal hook, which he used to snag my stuff and move it to an area away from people. In the process of doing so, he was able to shake the bees off of my helmet bag but they would not leave the table that it had been on. A large mass of bees seemed to be centered on the table’s cup holder, leading me to think that they had probably smelled the sticky residue from a sweet beverage.
The firemen used a fire hose to shoot water at my table but even that did not help much. They advised me to forget about recovering my table and then continued on their way.
About an hour later some of the bees had left so I decided to make one last try to get my table back. I slowly walked up to it, placed a foot underneath and then launched it way up in the air. I ran the other way as it fell to the ground, dislodging quite a few bees in the process. Amazingly, I was able to continue doing this without getting stung. Then I used my tire sprayer to squirt water at the remaining bees until they were all gone.
On Monday I phoned the manufacturer of the shocks, who confirmed what several competitors had already told me. Especially on a light car like the Miata, it is essential to tighten the suspension bolts with the car resting on its tires, not with the suspension in the air and at full droop. I asked the dealer to do this, and the car ended up lower as a result. I had it realigned on Friday and the shop was able to get the additional negative camber that I need. Also, rather than risk it failing again, the dealer removed the larger front swaybar and reinstalled the stock one. That should also help to cure the understeer. Between the smaller front bar and more negative front camber, I am hopeful that I will finally get the improved handling that I am after. Our next autocross will be in one week.
However, that was not the end of my troubles. On Friday, after leaving the alignment shop, I switched to my everyday car (a Toyota Prius) and headed up to the Los Angeles area to have the image sensor on my professional camera cleaned by Nikon. While driving in the carpool lane, suddenly I saw the car in front of me kick up what looked like a partial sheet of plywood directly in my path. There was a barrier to my left and traffic to my right, so I had no escape route. I hit the plywood head-on as it was flying towards me. It was straight up, like a wall, and I hit it hard.
When it was safe to do so, I pulled to a stop on the right shoulder and assessed the damage. My grille was broken and pushed into a radiator. Scratches covered the bumper. A small piece of plywood was jammed in place.
A tow truck driver stopped to see if I was okay. While there, he told me that earlier a bolt had been kicked up into the windshield of a car. It had gone right through the glass and impaled itself in the driver’s chest! Luckily he was able to maintain control of his car. He stopped and was taken away by paramedics. Be careful out there.
Late update: A few days have passed. Today we had the next autocross that I was telling you about a little earlier in this column. I’m relieved to tell you that the advice I received with regards to having the suspension tightened with the weight of my Miata on its tires, as opposed to tightening everything while the car was still up in the air with the suspension at full droop, seems to be correct. The car’s handling was much better and my times were competitive once again (I placed fourth in class). Now I need to work on adjusting the nut behind the wheel (me). To be continued…
Drive safely and do join me again next time.