PRUETT: Lessons learned in a barn

PRUETT: Lessons learned in a barn

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Lessons learned in a barn

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One of my favorite aspects of motor racing has always been the epiphanies that can come from endless hours of manual labor and personal sacrifice.

Spend enough time working on someone’s car or wrenching on your own, and you’ll inevitably find yourself asking if it’s worth it – if you’ve made the right decisions in life – while you’re bleary-eyed and chewing coffee beans to stay awake.

I was reminded of one epiphany this week when Mazda announced its brand-new Global MX-5 Cup car (BELOW) that will debut in 2016. As usual, there was a cartoon anvil involved.

I took part in the inaugural MX-5 Cup season as an entrant in 2006 with my friend/driver Larry Webster, procured a pre-production third-gen MX-5, and went about building the car with very little time to spare before the first race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Armed with help from my friend Tony Silva (who went on to become an excellent MX-5 Cup team manager) and Matt Cross (who was an absolute beast of a Spec Miata driver), we thrashed to turn an innocent MX-5 into an MX-5 Cup car in a matter of days, and while fighting off freezing temperatures.

And we did this…in Tony’s barn…on a farm…on the outskirts of Sacramento. To hell with priceless barn finds; this was a barn build.

The project came together rather late, obviously, which made finding a shop and resources to conduct the build in a normal manner a luxury I could not afford. Tony and Matt were up for the challenge. Matt would do the testing prior to Larry flying out from Michigan for the first race, and with the clock winding down to the first event, getting the car to Tony’s barn and all of the conversion parts up to Sacramento became my life’s priority.

I packed my old Volvo wagon inside and out with the contents of two complete pallets of MX-5 Cup parts that went to Oakland (for reasons I’ve never fully understood), rocketed north and completed the 2.5-hour drive with the roll cage strapped to the Volvo’s roof. I can only assume those who saw me driving figured I misunderstood the part about the roll cages working most effectively inside the car…

Once there, and with the fine scent of horse and cow droppings wafting through the frigid, hilly landscape, we emptied the Volvo and embarked on an all-nighter. Jack the car up, put it on stands, take the wheels off, replace the shocks and sway bars. Remove the doors to make it easier to work within the interior, remove the seats, yank the seat belts, strip all of the unnecessary panels and brackets…

If we weren’t unbolting items and throwing them into the “never to be used again” pile, we were pulling production items off the car and replacing them with upgraded competition parts. That’s the easy part.

The ugly part comes when you start to look for additional weight savings with things that can’t be removed with a wrench or ratchet. Armed with a heat gun and a chisel, I was into my second hour of scraping and hammering sealant and sound deadening goo from the cockpit of the MX-5. It was well past midnight, I was more than two hours away from home, and – keep in mind I still had a regular job at the time – I had to be at work by eight in the morning.

I’d left my career in racing at the end of the 2001 IndyCar season, was trying to lead a normal life, yet started working my way back in 2006 when I picked up a side job with as a sports car reporter. The 9-to-5 job would be gone later in the year, but at the time, building and running an MX-5 Cup car with Larry was purely an extracurricular activity.

So with my real-world obligations in mind, I sat shivering in a barn, heating up the hardest, nastiest, stickiest substance known to man, was pounding away at the sealant like a rabid monkey once the heat gun turned it from rock-solid to maybe three percent less than rock-solid, and found myself asking, once again, if this absurd scene was the right one for me.

Funnily enough, it was right where I wanted to be (please don’t tell my wife). Between burning my fingers on hot sealant and trying to pull the caked sealant off my hands, sanity was nowhere to be found. There was a racecar to build, very little time to waste, and laughing away with a group of friends in a barn on the Northside of nowhere felt like home.

The rest of the morning was a blur, and at some point, I recall leaving, finding a truck stop on the way from Sacramento to the bay area, inhaling some coffee, and showing up to work where, I assume, I was the least productive person in my department.

It’s the same kind of scenario I’d been in a dozen times before with a variety of cars, and the same situation thousands of other racers have embraced since the beginning of motorized competition. Whether it’s scraping sealant and sound deadening from a car to save weight or one of countless other tasks that can hardly be described as fun, it’s all part of the allure. For Larry (BELOW, with yours truly), who was an excellent SCCA Club racer who spent every penny he had to test his mettle in Mazda’s brand-new SCCA Pro Racing series, the sacrifices – and little epiphanies – continued throughout the year.

A lot of other MX-5 Cup cars were built in a similar hurry, and with the collective spirit that took place in shops, driveways and yes, even a barn, 19 cars took the start for the championship opener in Monterey.

I mentioned the appearance of a cartoon anvil at the beginning of my story, and with almost a decade gone by, I’m finally able to laugh at the situation. After compressing a week of work into less than two days, and with the car nearly ready to go, I got a call from my MX-5 Cup contact at Mazda. The voicemail went something like this: “Hey Marshall, give me a ring ASAP…there’s a problem with your car.”

If the sore hands, aching feet, lack of sleep and empty bank account didn’t already have me on edge, the news I was about to receive had me flirting with a nervous breakdown.

“We just got word from Japan that there’s an importation issue with your MX-5,” he said. “Because it’s a pre-production car, there’s a bunch of paperwork that has to be completed for it to be used for anything other than testing, and…you can’t use it to race until we get the paperwork problems resolved.”

With that cartoon anvil hitting me upside the head, all the other stuff about the brotherhood of racers was quickly forgotten. The insane ordeal of building a car to make the first MX-5 Cup was all a waste of time. Were the burned fingers and frozen extremities all part of a fruitless excercise? Thankfully, no–something else was brewing in the background.

Once my blood pressure came back down to triple digits, the good folks at Mazda called and had a short-term solution: P1 Motorsports, a team with a spare car, would let us use it at no expense. With our plight in mind, two more good friends – Jason Hoover and James Mulcahey – volunteered to help me run the car, and my earlier panic quickly turned into a state of great calm. 

Our barn-related efforts were not in vain, Larry would soon be driving the car we built, and in the meantime, he jumped in P1’s loaner, shrugged off a tough qualifying session at Monterey, and stormed from 10th to fourth by the end of the 25-lap race. They won’t admit it, but I’m fairly certain that while the P1 car was free for us to use, Mazda paid P1 to make it available. We even took home $1,000 in prize money, and it spoke volumes about the people at Mazda.

Thinking back to 2006 makes me realize how far the MX-5 Cup series has progressed in a relatively short amount of time. The 2016 cars (BELOW) will be built for racing by a single source and that alone will bring a level of quality control that surpasses anything we managed among the hay bales and cow patties on Tony’s farm. 

So count me among those who can’t wait to see how the next exciting phase – the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup – looks when it goes green in 2016. 

• For more details on the 2016 Global Mazda MX-5 Cup, click here.

• For reactions to the Global 2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup, click here.

• For a full gallery of the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, click here.

• To watch the MX-5 Cup reveal on Mazda USA YouTube channel, click here.

• Looking for more? Visit not only for news about Mazda and Mazda club and pro racing, but also new parts ideas, how-tos, technical ideas and racecraft tips from recognized experts. It’s the stuff that’s useful for any racer, not just Mazda racers.