Photo credit: Flyin Miata

“The answer is always Miata.” It’s one of the most overplayed, overused tropes on the internet. Need a practical sedan for a family of five? Get a Miata. Need a tow vehicle for your race car? Get a Miata. Need to carry five tons of building materials from the store to your job site? Get a Miata. Need a rally car? Get a Miata.

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What’s this? A motorsport that the Miata does NOT completely dominate? As a matter of fact, yes. In RallyAmerica’s rulebook, section 10.1.B reads:

Eligibility is restricted to street licensed, closed-bodied, four-wheeled vehicles. Fabric tops and side panels are prohibited. Vehicles with removable tops (e.g., Mazda Miata, Jeep CJ) are not considered closed-bodied vehicles and are therefore not eligible under these Rules.

Yes, the poor Miata is specifically singled out for exclusion from all RallyAmerica events. And, honestly, I can see why. The hardtop, which would certainly be required, is made not of metal but of Sheet Molding Compound, which is similar to fiberglass. It could break off in a crash, leaving the occupants exposed to the elements and other hazards that wouldn’t be a problem in a fixed roof car. Sure, Spec Miatas use (and crash) these hardtops all the time, but a track is a very different environment from a rally stage, which is less controlled and has many more solid objects to hit.

But a recent clarification on the NASA Rally Sport web site may keep hopes alive for those who want to rally the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything:

Yes, you can rally a Miata. You would need to do the following:

  • Have a fully compliant rally cage installed.
  • On top of the cage, you would need to weld on a metal roof.
  • Helmets have to demonstrate safe clearance from the cage.
  • On top of that, the factory hard top would have to be permanently attached to the car. Not “latched” or “bolted”, but something that was actually permanent, meaning it would have to be destroyed to be removed.

You’ll also need to work with our tech inspectors in advance to make sure this is all done properly.

So a standard rally roll cage is just the starting point, because then you have to weld a big sheet of metal on top of it to make up for what the hardtop lacks (adding a fair bit of weight up high where you don’t want it), then weld or otherwise permanently attach the hardtop to the car. No bolt-on brackets like they use at the track – this top is never coming off again. And beyond all that, you have to fit inside without your helmet whacking the cage or any of this extra stuff. This is a genuine concern. I had trouble fitting below a simple roll bar in my first Miata. Throw all this other stuff in there, and it’s going to be a tight fit.

Although the rules don’t specify, I would imagine that the same standards above and beyond a fixed roof car would apply to a power retractable hardtop NC or the new retractable fastback ND as well as soft top models. Those roofs are not metal, and likely equivalent to the older one-piece hardtops as far as the amount of protection they provide. If anything, they’re probably weaker because they’re multiple pieces.

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So if you limit yourselves to NASA Rally Sport events, the answer to “What car should I rally?” might just be Miata. Now that we have the legality out of the way, how would that actually work in the real world?

Photo credit: Justin Hughes

A few years ago I drove my own 1993 Miata at a New England Region SCCA rallycross. It was a winter event at the relatively smooth Stafford Springs Speedway site in Connecticut. The same qualities that make a Miata so fun to drive on pavement hold true on more slippery surfaces as well. The car’s perfect balance made it a joy to slide around on a mixed, constantly changing surface of snow, ice, and gravel. My snow tires dug in enough to have no problems finding grip. I had no problem putting the power down despite having an open differential. I found myself power sliding through most of my runs, mostly because it was so fun, but also because the car was so easy to control no matter how far I hung the tail out. Rear wheel drive may be the slowest drivetrain, but I believe it’s by far the most fun.

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Though my car was basically stock, including the springs and shocks, the urethane bushings left over from the previous owner’s autocross build bumped it out of stock class into Prepared/RWD. There were three other drivers sharing another Miata in the class, making it a class of four. Much to my surprise, not only did I win the class, I was also the fastest driver in the entire RWD division. Even a basic 1.6 Miata can be a formidable rallycross car.

But stage rally is an entirely different world from rallycross. The only safety equipment I needed for rallycross was a helmet and a hardtop, not the rather strict but fair requirements that NASA Rally Sport has. Aside from the safety issues, the biggest issue I can see is that the Miata doesn’t have a great deal of suspension travel. That’s what helps a car soak up the bumps on a rally stage, which means that a Miata on a relatively stock suspension is going to be hitting and riding on the bump stops a lot. I didn’t notice this much while driving like them Duke boys on the smooth field at Stafford Springs, but this could become a bigger problem with the higher speeds of stage rally, and especially landing from jumps.

Photo credit: Rallye Miata

Still, there are solutions for that. Keith Tanner’s Targa Miata used custom valved AFCO shocks and custom springs. Targa Newfoundland is a tarmac rally, but this setup provides more suspension travel and a comfortable ride for long days of racing. Gravel would still have somewhat similar needs, though perhaps with different shock valving and spring rates. You can choose from a wide variety of off-the-shelf solutions for the popular Subaru Impreza, but since so few rally a Miata you’ll be making it up as you go along. Or you can live with the limitations of a near stock suspension and be prepared to replace parts when, not if, they break.

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The other major issue would be, as George Carlin put it, a place for your stuff. Spec Miatas don’t have co-drivers taking up one side of the passenger compartment. They also don’t have long street transits where the occupants will want to take off their helmets for a while. Where will the helmets go? With a rally spec roll cage in the way, access to the rear shelf may be blocked.

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Then there’s everything else you need to carry – a spare tire (or two), tools to change it, tools for wrenching on the car, first aid kit, safety triangles… Smaller items can be spread throughout the trunk and passenger compartment, but a Miata trunk isn’t exactly roomy. You can fit a stock size wheel in there in a pinch, but that’s the only thing that’ll fit. A more beefy gravel tire may not fit at all. And one of these receiver hitch mounts may not be up to the rigors of rally.

Photo credit: Justin Hughes

A spare tire mount on top of the trunk lid may be a possibility, though the weight of the wheel would cause it to shut on your head. Or maybe it could be mounted to the roof. The hardtop has to be permanently attached anyway, so the mount could go through that and attach to the steel plate on the roll cage. That’s also more weight up high that you may not want, but to rally a Miata some compromises will be necessary.

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Still, between my Miata, my BRZ, and a Mustang, I’ve learned that the traits that make a RWD car fun to drive and perform well on the street carry right over to an unpaved surface. In fact the Miata’s horsepower disadvantage isn’t so bad in the slippery stuff. The only thing extra power will do past the limit of grip is spin the wheels faster and increase the range of your gravel machine gun. I can totally see why someone would want to rally a Miata. The thought has crossed my own mind many times before.

Photo credit: Nameless Performance

But those thoughts have been tempered by practicality. I’ve seen a few rally BRZs out there, and as much as I love Miatas, that’s probably a better starting point. With a fixed roof it’s already legal for both NASA and RallyAmerica. Some say it’s underpowered (I disagree), but like the Miata it isn’t as much of an issue on gravel. There’s more space for your stuff. And though the stock suspension travel is limited like the Miata, you can still pull from the Impreza parts drawer for many components. You don’t have to go as crazy as the Nameless Performance guys, either. I’ve seen a rally BRZ with little more than a cage and a lift. The Scion FR-S is the same car and may be a cheaper way to go. Or, on a tighter budget, look for an E36 BMW. Brakim Racing has been quite successful with their M3.

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I’m a huge Miata fan, but I’m forced to agree with the end of NASA Rally Sport’s page about rallying a Miata.

Miatas are great cars. However they are probably not the best tool for winning a rally, performance-wise.

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