One of the single biggest conversations among Spec Miata drivers, fans, and random people on the internet is How much does a Spec Miata COST?
There seems to be a pretty wide spread assumption that every decent Spec Miata out there is $30-40,000… Thankfully, that is not completely true. These cars certainly exist, but they are neither required nor are they the norm for most competitors… The majority of cars are much more affordable.
A Spec Miata can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $65,000
The real answer: A Spec Miata can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $65,000 (and probably higher if you tried). There are Spec Miatas around for every type of Budget: So how much do you really need to spend to get into SM?
Spec classes are known as “Driver’s classes” because tight rules with minimal allowed modifications keep cars closely performing. If all the cars are similar, the driver is what matters. This works quite well, but with 20 years of incredible popularity the class has evolved to a point where the top cars are VERY developed. Tiny openings and gray areas in the rules are exploited, many factory parts are optimized, blueprinted, or purposely bent.
A more simple question could be: “What do most good Spec Miatas sell for? The average car seems to sell in the $10-$20k range.
**11/2021 update: As we all know, the current car market is insane. Spec Miata prices don’t seem to have gone up as much as street cars, but there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of Spec Miatas for sale. Cars that do come up for sale seem to be selling in hours. If you’re looking, be ready to move quickly.
How much do you need to spend to be competitive?
The tight rulebook does work in that it minimizes the performance advantage of a top prepped car, but it certainly doesn’t eliminate it. A great driver in a good car will usually beat a good driver in a great car… but a tenth of a second lap advantage between two great drivers can be a significant delta.
Before we say “You need X in car prep to be competitive” one thing must first be made very clear: There are MANY places where you can race Spec Miata. Each tier, club, and even region will have a different level of prep if you want to be at the front.
There are MANY places where you can race Spec Miata. Each tier, club, and even region will have a different level of prep if you want to be at the front.
If you are a regional racer who hopes to be competitive in the local NASA or SCCA regional races? In many places (Including my NASA Northeast Home Region), a sub $10,000 car should be plenty to get you in the midpack mix, if you can drive it. If you like bells and whistles, a pretty car, and/or a fresh built motor, you’re looking at $15,000 and up. At the local club racing level the difference in driver skill usually outweighs most advantages or disadvantages of a specific car.
If you are a seasoned racer and you wish to compete with the best of the SCCA majors tour, it will take a VERY serious effort to uproot some of the drivers and shops who have dedicated the better part of 20 years to winning. They bring a LOT of cash and even more hard earned Knowledge to every race. Expect to spend at least $20,000 on a (used) car remotely capable of running near the front of club racing’s crown jewel.
If you are new to racing, don’t think that buying a $40k car will land you an automatic podium spot; winning a Spec Miata race takes real driving skill. At the same time, don’t expect to be able to podium at a National Championship event in a $10,000 car, no matter how well you drive. The good thing is: Even if you end up stuck in a car that can’t win, you usually still have plenty of action elsewhere in the pack, be it the middle, or even the back of the field.
This post is not meant to be a definitive buyers guide, really just to help you figure out where to start. Your best bet is to talk to your local Spec Miata racers, local club Tech Inspector, or even Miata Prep Shop. Don’t rely solely on free advice from the internet. Find out what real people near you say to look for and if/how they can help you on a search for a car. A local “known” car with an active annual inspection and current logbook is often a good sign that a car is safe and legal, but it is NOT a guarantee. The most important part of a cheap Spec Miata is the Rollcage, and is the single biggest driver of cost. Some old cars that haven’t been raced in 10 years have funky cage designs that won’t pass modern tech inspection without big updates.
When buying a car, I always suggest that you come up with a conservative budget and buy the best car within it… Keeping in mind that most cars have some items to change/fix: Avoid going “house poor” by overspending on your initial purchase. Save money for small repairs, consumables, and entry fees.
Here is the incredibly simplified Value Guide. Prices obviously vary by individual listing, region, etc: Mileage may vary.
The Sub $5,000 “Crapshoot”.
Spec Miatas in the Sub $5,000 category are typically ultra-basic cars with basic cages, basic safety items, junkyard drivetrains, and spec suspension… but not much more. Many are old builds, banged up and in need of repairs.
Some people are able to fit relatively comfortably in cars with cheap, old cages, but fitting comfortably and egress is often significantly harder… especially if you are anything over 5’ 8”.
One good indicator of an old or “cheap cage” is one where bars come down in front of (not through) the dashboard. This compromises egress as well as protection. Sometimes these may be a bolt-in cage vs a welded-in cage.
When I bought my car it was in this range (quite a bit below $5,000). It had a bolt-in cage that was sleeved and welded in place. I had hoped it would work, but after one track day with banging my head anytime I touched a curb on track… I knew the cage wouldn’t work. I ended up cutting it out and starting from scratch.
Does this mean you should avoid the ~$5,000 Spec Miata? Not necessarily, if you comfortably fit in the car it could be a great starting point. If you get it cheap enough, it may also be a good platform to rebuild as you go, especially if you like tinkering. One thing is for sure… It’s tough to lose money on a $5,000 Spec Miata.
The $6-10k “regional car”
This range is where you will start to find the cheapest truly competition-ready cars. These cars may not always be pretty. They may have an older style cage, a junkyard or older built engine, and they will likely have older Bilstein dampers… but they are usually solid cars ready to run midpack at a regional race. This range can be perfect for someone new to racing as they can get their “feet wet” with the car and slowly upgrade parts and drivetrain as their skills develop and budget allow. Similar to the sub $5k cars, there isn’t really any depreciation. You can turn around and sell it for the same price and start over if you want (unless you stuff the car into a wall).
When you first got your driver’s license you didn’t start with a pristine new car, did you? You were likely to bang it up and wear it out. The same school of thought applies well to race cars.
The $10-20k “regional winner”
Now we’re starting to break into the “nice” cars. $10-20k is a wide range, but the features you get in these cars will also range greatly. A $10-20k car may have a very nice custom cage, painted interior, a built (though older) drivetrain, Penskes, Some sort of pedigree (results with regional race wins), etc. You may get full data systems, cool suits, hardwired radio systems, etc. The closer to $20k you get the more goodies are usually there… Often, the biggest difference between a $15k and a $20k car is cosmetic.
If you’re spending in this area, make sure you like the cage as it is still a big portion of what you’re paying for. The rest is your preference. Do you value a freshly painted interior? Do you want a fresh motor, or a data system?
The $20-30k “regional killer/national competitor
Once you get into this range you should be getting pretty much everything: painted tubs, beautiful custom cages, data systems, fresh(er) built motors.
You may have some older bodywork on the car, but it should be battle scars from some championship race. If you show up to a regional race in this car and don’t win, you can’t blame the car. You can usually take one of these cars (especially at the top of the price range) and get a respectable finish at a majors tour event or championship race.
The $30k+ “pedigreed national frontrunner”
At this point, you better be a damn good driver or else you are just flexing your budget. The few used cars out there in the $30-40k+ range should be cars with national-level race wins and/or multiple strong finishes. These are the best of the best Spec Miatas ever built. I’m not saying these cars don’t have the labor, tricks, and tech to be worth every dollar of the asking price, they do… but unless you are a top 5% driver, you’re likely going overboard. With the right driver, you can win the Runoffs or National Championship in these cars. These cars should be drool-worthy, pristine, almost able to pass off as a new factory-built Racecar.
Some people are dead-set on a fresh car. In some scenarios it can make sense, especially if you already possess a great donor car and have a personal connection to it. For the purposes of these prices I’m assuming you need to buy a car as well.
$10-15k diy build
There is a rule in the budget conscious community: Never ever build a fresh racecar. No matter your projections, it always ends up costing more to build a car vs buy, even without giving any value to your time.
That said, there is certainly fun and a special pride you can get from building your own car. (I won’t mention the late nights and busted knuckles). To go from an empty garage bay to a bare-bones Spec Miata is usually going to cost you $10-15,000. Car values are high and seem to be rising. Hardtops alone are fetching well over $1000. Suspension, cage, seat, nets, killswitch, etc. Even though Spec Miata is a relatively cheap race car to build, I still recommend buying a used, completed car vs building yourself.
$20k “buddy owns a shop”
An alternative to countless hours cursing in the garage is to find a local shop to build you a car. If you’ve got a buddy who would be okay with doing some work after hours to give you a break on labor costs, you should be able to get a nice, fresh car around $20k. Not a bad plan, but the same money may also get a very serious car on the used market.
$25-30k “shop under the radar”
There are some racing shops out there running a bit “under the radar” whether purposely or inadvertently. They aren’t super well known but can still build you a damn good car capable of winning almost anywhere. If you want a pretty car that goes like hell but may not have all the top-prep tweaks, this may be your place to look. Ask around your region for the best local car builders.
$40-50k “big name shop car”
There are a handful of shops who have made real names for themselves in Spec Miata. Most of these operations have been around for most the life of the class in some form or other… when you go to them you are not only getting a beautiful, well-crafted racecar but it will likely have every conceivable trick and tweak allowed (even if barely) under the rulebook. These shops have been tweaking their cars for their entire existence (sometimes tweaking the rulebook too) and each fresh car is usually better than the last.
$60k+ “all the bells and whistles”
Top prep shops build a hell of a car for $40,000… but there are still some a la carte options that can quickly add up. Don’t be surprised if you can continue to tick the boxes up and over $60,000. Is it necessary? Not really. Would I get one if I had an unlimited budget? Hell yeah.
These shops are run by true competitors. While many operate with a strong mutual respect, some of the inter-shop rivalries carry reality-show levels of drama… If you ask each shop who builds the best car it will certainly be their own shop, by a mile. (As is expected from competitors both on and off the track)
Ask around locally and see what kind of experiences other racers have had. Some shops are known to be underrated, others overrated. What you hear in the paddock often differs from the online world. I won’t attempt to guess or boast who actually builds the best car: I don’t operate in a realm of driver skill or budget anywhere near having them build me a car. A look at big event results may be a good place to start such research.
Costs Across generations: NA 1.6 (90-93), NA 1.8 (94-97) and NB (99-05) Miatas can compete in Spec Miata (All except Mazdaspeed turbo cars). The rulebook has some differences between the years to balance performance between the older and newer models, primarily through engine restrictor plates and minimum weight differences. While it is true that the majority of high-dollar premium builds are later NB cars, the earlier NA cars are still competitive, especially at the local level. I wouldn’t discount a car just because it is a 1.6 (90-93), especially if searching on a budget. However, the lower minimum race weight of 1.6 cars (2275) may not be reachable for heftier drivers.
Cage design: At the risk of being redundant, I want to mention cages again. While $20k+ cars should all have fantastic cages, cars below that should all get extra scrutiny for cage design. Cage builders are continuing to improve how these cages both protect the driver and fit into such a small car. In general: The newer the cage, the better it will fit and “tuck up” into the interior with minimal invasiveness to the driver. This doesn’t mean a brand new bolt-in cage will fit well based on age alone… but with a custom cage, newer is usually (though certainly not always) better. With rules allowing the main hoop to land on the package tray, and the allowed drop-floors (see below) drivers well over 6′ tall can fit comfortably into a SM.
Beware the “Buddy good with a welder who once built a cage for a dirt car in 1980”. Tech inspection scrutiny of cage design and build quality is extreme… as it should be. Similarly, A cage isn’t a great place to learn to weld. Such an important feature of a car is one place where even my cheap self will suggest you spend for a skilled, experienced builder.
“Drop Floors” are a relatively new allowed modification where the driver floor pan is cut out and a new floor is welded in, about 2” lower. This helps significantly with seat and belt fitting and gains valuable head space. It is a labor intensive and expensive process: a car with a floor drop already completed is a big plus for a larger driver.
Shocks: Most cheaper cars will have the older Bilstein Shocks vs the newly updated Penske Shocks (A ~$1200 upgrade). While the legality of running the old Bilsteins can be somewhat hazy, if you aren’t jumping in and winning national races, you won’t get trouble for still running Bilsteins. The Penskes are certainly better, but 95% of people won’t be winning or losing races based solely on them.
Engines may be the biggest “bang for the buck” laptime improver on a Spec Miata, up there with a good alignment and tires. A good engine is not cheap, a top motor will fall in the $6-8,000 range. Contrary to popular belief, top Spec Miata engines aren’t built to be “strung out” and prone to catastrophic failure, but they do lose power over time. A fresh engine is a nice selling point and can add real value to a used car.
The gains from custom built/blueprinted transmissions/diffs/axles/etc can add up to a noticeable, though minor effect. The combined advantage is still much less than that of a good motor. Fresh blueprinted stuff may help with longevity and ease of working on the car, but to most they are more luxury than necessity.
Generic Racecar purchasing notes:
Spares: Most racers amass a significant spare parts pile, especially in Spec Miata with the frequency of cheap street car “partouts”. Carrying a nice pile of mechanical parts and “crash spares” can turn an otherwise weekend-ending incident into a small hiccup. Extra sets of wheels are also important so you can quickly switch between race, practice, and rain rubber at the track. Spares can add some real value.
Transponders: Transponders are one of the more annoying purchases to go racing. Used (non-subscription) transponders usually sell in the $500 range. AMB’s new transponders now follow a (not cheap) subscription model. I keep hoping the “transponder bubble” will pop with some new, simple timing technology but it hasn’t happened yet. If you can find a car with a non-subscription transponder that can add some good value.
Damage: Most racecars have at least some sort of damage. If an older car is still pristine that usually means it wasn’t competitive or hasn’t been run hard (Though they theoretically could have just been very lucky). Racecars have a different threshold of acceptable damage from a street car. Mild to moderate cosmetic damage is relatively acceptable, as is questionable bodywork (as many people see a racecar as a good place to learn how to sling mud and shoot paint vs paying body shop rates). Don’t let some wrinkles scare you off, but keep an eye out for significant structural repairs that were not done well. While a car with battle scars may be fine, you may not want a crooked car that can’t take an alignment.
Are there racecars out there with a lower initial buy-in cost than Spec Miata? Not many, but yes there’s a few, But… A) What sort of competition do those other classes have? Is a really cool sub $15k vintage tube frame car really a good choice if you’ll be racing in a class of 1, or are getting smoked in a catch-all class where the car isn’t competitive? And B) What are the running costs to race those cars? Are parts super cheap and readily available? Are they reliable? Can a set of brake pads last half a season? Is the paddock full of people with spares? Be reminded, M.I.A.T.A. – Miata Is Always The Answer.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for a future post with a snapshot of the budget it takes to sustain a Spec Miata racing program – From grassroots privateer scraping by to top level operation.
In the meantime, check out other posts by No Money Motorsports.