With the racing season’s start less than two months away, Wyatt Couch and his father Dave were starting to sweat. The warm glow of glory from winning last August’s Teen Mazda Challenge scholarship race had faded, and now, in late January, it was time to turn their 200,000-mile MX-5 Miata into a Spec MX-5 Challenge racing car.
Fortunately, they had Mazda backing the build and offering assistance where they could, but the looming deadline kept them from ever feeling too comfortable. For weeks, they waited eagerly for parts to arrive.
They did what preparation work they could to ensure the roll cage —the first item shipped — went in as smoothly as possible. If this prep work did anything other than make their future installation simpler, some semblance of productivity soothed their nerves.
Fortunately, the Miatacage.com Spec MX-5 cage is a fairly straightforward thing to install. It’s designed to be easy. The kit comes fully notched, which saves the builder 10 to 12 hours of installation time. It’s also easy to ship. Because it’s built specifically for the NC chassis and to Spec MX-5 regulations, it can be produced in larger numbers at a lower cost.
Additionally, this cage satisfies not only Spec MX-5 Challenge regulations, but NASA ST5 rules as well.
Setting Itself Apart
Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how much thought went into the cage’s design. Sean Hedrick, President of MiataCage.com, began, “What we tried to do with this cage was engineer something that was first as light as possible, but without compromising any strength.” How was that worked into the design? The kit uses 1.5-inch diameter for all required tubes, while non-required tubes use 1.25-inch and 1-inch DOM tubing.
Another aspect that makes this cage just a bit safer than usual is its cleverly placed dash bar. This is concealed and mounted above the factory dash bar so that the driver’s legs cannot come into contact with this bar — a common occurrence in the event of a rollover when the bar is mounted a few inches lower.
More conventional are the door bars. For strength and packaging, they decided to supply this kit with pyramid X-bars as standard instead of horizontal NASCAR-style bars. These X-bars also convey an air of modernity — something that helps with the allure of the NC Miata and sets it apart from previous generations.
The X-bar design is slightly heavier in this instance, but it is generally considered to be a better compromise for a sprint-style car, which is most likely to experience some contact. The cross point — the point where all four bars meet in the center — is reinforced by four “tacos,” which keep the welded sections from coming apart during an impact.
Impressively, they managed to squeeze this entire assembly out into the door frame. Pushing these bars out was done primarily to distance the driver from the point of impact, but, with the larger drivers in mind, they recessed these bars to help avoid banging an elbow on a solid piece of metal. A little more room for their wider drivers with a tendency to flail — quite considerate.
Preparation for a Pleasant Install
Preparation for the cage required more effort than the installation of the cage itself. Before the big box arrived, Wyatt and Dave stripped the car down to the bare tub. To make sure the cage was installed correctly, there couldn’t be anything in the way of the structural plates.
This required they remove a great deal — more than just the carpeting. Rather than using dry ice to loosen the sound deadening, they found heating it would save them time and money. After holding a heat gun to the black, tarry stuff for a duration that made them forget about any time savings, they were relieved to find that the sound deadening chipped off easily. With the shell mostly clean, they began pulling the wiring harness.
That seemed simple enough, but there was one major snag. To remove the entire harness and pull it through the firewall, the engine had to make itself scarce. This wasn’t as frustrating as one might imagine, but it was the first item on their up-to-then short list of irks. At least they were finally ready to begin installing the cage.
Just Follow the Guide
The cage came in a massive box, in 40-odd pieces that were individually wrapped. Despite the sheer number of pieces, a thick guide and a quality-controlled manuafacturing made installation less irritating than some would figure.
“We make fixtures to check the door frame bars and the more complicated bends,” said Hedrick.
Because of a minute amount of variability still possible with these processes, Hedrick maintains this kit requires minimal fabrication skill, but as we learned, it does often go in without many issues. Some of that is due to clear instructions. In the accompanying guide, each piece is marked with a part number that corresponds to the instructions.
“At this stage, what someone gets along with their cage is a tube checklist with basic measurements written out over 25 pages. We’re adding more detail to this guide and soon the updated version should be around 40 pages long,” he added.
The first stage was simple, and everything else followed naturally. The main hoop is the nexus of this cage, and the kit helps ensure it’s located properly.
“We supply two brackets/templates on B-pillars, which locate the main hoop,” Hedrick said. “Once that’s mounted correctly, all the other bars will fall in place.”
“The guide made it so easy to move through this stage,” Couch said. “All we did was follow the instructions, place the structural plates in the locations, and arrange the bars in the order assigned to us.”
And, since Wyatt and Dave prioritize safety, no pieces were omitted. Even if including these extra bars might cost him a tenth or two in lap times, there are some areas where even the most weight-conscious builder simply shouldn’t skimp — just read up on Colin Chapman and lightweight brake pedals to get a better idea.
Cherry on Top
Once the cage was in place, they began wondering whether the then-undelivered hardtop would clear. When the hardtop finally arrived, they were relieved to find there was something like a finger’s width between the cage and this particular top, which, wouldn’t you know it, was built specifically for the Spec MX-5 Challenge.
The two tacked everything into place in about a day, after which they had a local welder come to their garage to finish the job. The welding took only one more day. One weekend was all it took to actually install the spacious cage, and the duo could enjoy a long sigh of relief. Knowing he had a comfortable environment to compete in this season, 6-foot 1-inch Wyatt might have been able to relax the most.
“The biggest hang-up in all of this was waiting on the hardtop,” Wyatt laughed with the indifference that every promising young driver seems to have.
This is the first entry of a four-part series detailing the build of Wyatt Couch’s Spec MX-5 Challenge car. Next up: Penske suspension.