March 2021

All I needed was a flat concrete floor.

The SCCA VIR Time Trials were just a week and a half away, and I was debating whether or not I wanted to throw my new suspension on the car and realign everything, or if I was just going to do another alignment on the current suspension setup. Aligning the car at home meant putting the car on the most level slab in my garage, which itself wasn’t very level, resulting in a 3-hour leveling exercise the last time I aligned the car.

Steve proposed that I bring the car over to his garage and work on it there. I wouldn’t be able to use his lift, but the garage was heated, he had some Quickjacks, and one section of his garage was level enough that I could just put the car on my alignment stands and get to work. Sure, why not?

Before I brought the Miata over, I brought my new-to-me MR2 Spyder over to Steve’s house last Wednesday so he could check it out. We drove it out to get dinner only to realize that one of the rear brake calipers was stuck, and had been stuck for so long that it nearly wore through to the backing plates on the brake pads. The MR2 ended up in Steve’s garage, and I borrowed his RX8 for the drive back home.

Steve and a buddy of his went ahead and replaced the rear brake caliper on the MR2 and adjusted the parking brake. The MR2 was driveable on Friday.

On Saturday, the cascade of problems began. I brought the Miata over to the garage and began working on it. Over the course of five hours, I had the old suspension off the car and three of the four new coilovers on the car. I took the spring off the remaining coilover so I could test wheel and tire fitment, discovering that the 255 width Falken that I had mounted on my 17×10 didn’t fit underneath the rear fenders.

Meanwhile, Steve had dragged home a needy 60s Cadillac back home with another friend, and jokes started flying around that because the Miata was in the garage taking up space, Steve couldn’t use his own garage to wrench on the Caddy if needed. Mindful of this dilemma, I quickly threw the remaining corner of the Miata back together and bolted on the street wheels and tires, which would allow the car to at least be moved into the driveway if the garage was needed for wrenching on the Cadillac.

I drove the MR2 back home with the plan of returning on Sunday to test fit the 255 Bridgestone I was planning to use for the VIR Time Trials on the Miata before finalizing my alignment.

Sunday morning, I decided I’d take the RX8 back up to Steve’s. I couldn’t get the engine to turn over. I left the RX8 parked in the street and hopped in the Fiesta ST instead, bringing my 255 Bridgestone in the hatch.

I spent another eight hours in Steve’s garage on Sunday. The Bridgestone fit — it turned out to be narrower than the 245 Yoko and the 255 Falken mounted on the same 17×10 inch wheel — and I continued on with the ride heights and the alignment. It took me forever to get the ride heights adjusted to where I wanted them, and I quickly threw together the new alignment and tightened everything down.

As the sun set, I drove the Miata back to my house. I tried jumping the RX8 with my jump box, but was unable to get it to start. I hopped back in the MR2 and drove it back to Steve’s house, dropping it off and bringing my Fiesta ST back home. With the drive between our houses sitting neatly at 45 minutes one way, I ended up spending 3 hours just shuffling cars back and forth on Sunday.

I had jumper cables in the Fiesta ST, so I jumped the RX8 and moved it off the street into my driveway for my neighborhood’s Monday trash pickup day.

Monday afternoon, I tried starting the RX8, and it refused to start. I jumped the car one more time and drove it straight to Steve’s house, swapping it for my MR2 and bringing it back home.

Today, Steve finally pinpointed the issue with the RX8: the terminal connections on the battery were iffy and needed cleaning. Still, he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to drive the MR2 this week, as our informal agreement was that he’d get to drive the MR2 around while I hung on to the RX8 for a bit. Instead, I delivered a malfunctioning RX8 right back to him because I didn’t want the thing to live immobile in my driveway or in front of the house.

Long story short: Steve fixed my MR2, let me use his garage to wrench on and align the Miata, preventing him from wrenching on his Cadillac in the comfort of his own garage, and all I did was give him back an RX8 that wasn’t working correctly that he then had to scramble to fix. He gave me a ton of shit over the course of the weekend, and all of the hand wringing I got was definitely justified.

And while we talked on the phone today and he assures me that we’re all cool now, I don’t believe him one bit. All throughout the weekend, there was an exasperation in his voice, sharp in his comments while I was working on the Miata, a white noise of disparagement on my wrenching speed, the way I positioned the car in his garage, and the way I left the garage as my burned out mind struggled to pack the Miata and the Fiesta ST.

The tone of voice persisted in today’s phone conversation. It is clear that, between the use of his garage and the troubles that beset his RX8 while it was under my watch, I’ve incurred an unforgivable indebtedness that will never go away. In my quest for ease and convenience — which turned out to not be all that convenient in the end — I hung a Sword of Damocles over my friendship, and I now wish that I had had the foresight to prevent the past five days from ever happening in the first place. All of the work should have been done in my own garage, where the inconveniences imposed are imposed only on myself and not on others.

So ends my tale of woe. Borrowing a friend’s garage for lengthy wrenching sessions falls in line with the likes of borrowing money from friends and family. DON’T DO IT. Just don’t.

I Am The Asshole. And as a result, I’ve permanently scarred a friendship that I had valued so much.

I had a 2003 Honda Civic coupe, and it was a reliable but boring daily driver. I replaced it with a 2016 Ford Fiesta ST, which is a lot of fun, but has required the most work I’ve ever had to do for a daily driver.

I’ll cut to the chase: outside of maybe the front axles, my Fiesta ST no longer has anything in the drivetrain that it originally left the factory with.

Replacing the trans, clutch, and flywheel.

As I paid my shop over 3 grand to replace the transmission and all of the engine mounts, I caught myself wondering how I had gotten to that point. Why was spending so much money to keep this car around when it would make a lot more sense to simply dump the thing and move on to something else? I kept telling myself that the car was so worthless that I might as well keep it around, but was that really the case?

It’s been nearly two months since the car returned to the fleet. I’ve only put a few tanks of gas through the car since — I’m still working from home during the pandemic, so I don’t drive the car much — but the few times I’ve driven it around have only reaffirmed my affinity for this car.

In fact, I concluded that the Fiesta ST may very well be one of my favorite cars, ever.

Yes, you can hardly call a car that has had so much stuff under the hood replaced reliable. Yes, if you catch the car off boost (like starting from a near stop in second gear), the car is agonizingly slow. Yes, the car is very prone to two-wheeling — I managed to get the car so far over twice over a 20 minute period — basically on back-to-back autocross runs! — that the car shut itself down and dialed 9-1-1 each time.

So the car is definitely flawed. Very flawed.

Still, I like it, and like it a lot. Maybe even love it.

I had a Focus ST before but didn’t love it in the same way that I do its little brother. I’ve driven other sport compact cars — the VW GTI, the Honda Civic Si, both cars that would be competitive in Solo competition — but always came away uninspired.

The Fiesta ST is spunky in a way the bigger sport compact cars aren’t. It’s the first word that comes to mind when describing this car. It’s playful. It’s easy to rotate. And the little motor, once it gets going, fills my heart with glee, like a pack of puppies chasing after a thrown ball. The car is so much more fun than the Focus ST I had before it, despite the similarities between the two.

I’m certain the size and weight of the Fiesta ST plays an important part. It’s only about 300 pounds heavier than my NC Miata, and occupies about the same footprint, except that it can carry a full set of tires (and then some), something the Miata could never dream of doing.

And while we’re at it, if we’re comparing stock to stock, the Fiesta ST is way better and way more fun in stock form than the NC Miata. Dare I say I like the Fiesta ST better than a stock ND Miata.

It occurs to me that this bite size fun came in many forms in the past and was also lauded back then: the early VW GTIs, the ensuing hot hatch wars of the 80s, extending into the sport compact scene in the 90s. These cars sold in huge numbers back in the day.

And now… good condition examples 80s and 90s fun size greatness is hard to find. Which leads me to the other, perhaps darker half of the equation.

I realized that half of the joy I derive from my Fiesta ST lies in the fact that it is disposable.

It’s a cheap car. While the price of the average car these days approaches 35 grand, this car cost me 20. If I completely destroy my car, I can replace it with an equivalent used example for 12 grand. There’s a freedom that comes with cheap cars that don’t come with more expensive ones. It invites the prospect of using every ounce of utility out of a car because it’s comparatively easy to replace.

And so it is with this car. I’ve taken this Fiesta ST to autocrosses and run it on race tracks, which outside of cooked brakes doesn’t really inflict serious wear and tear. What does inflict serious wear and tear is all of the rallycrossing I’ve been doing with the car.

I love rallycrossing this car. The car feels like a little supercar in the dirt. Running in Detroit Region rallycrosses in Stock Front, I’m usually the car packing the most horsepower in the class, competing against lower horsepower (but lighter weight) older cars for bragging rights. The car is easy to slide, and there’s enough power on tap to quickly achieve ill-advised speeds on loose surfaces but no so much as to be useless in putting down power when over eagerness gets the best of me and I floor the accelerator pedal.

It also helps that, after a decade of really sucking at driving on loose surfaces, I now sorta know what I’m doing and can at least look fast, even as I know full well that the top folks in Detroit Region could hand me my ass any day of the week.

But it does make the “great cars need to be preserved” side of me uneasy. How do you reconcile that you will completely use up — kill, basically — a car that you love?

The other side of me says it’s better to have a life well lived than to have never lived a life to the fullest. The ultimate value that little hot hatches like the Fiesta ST (and the 80s and 90s Hondas and Volkwagens that preceded it) lie in the experiences they give, not in their longevity.

In the end, I realized that I was willing to dump money into keeping my Fiesta ST alive because the only reasonable replacement for the car was another Fiesta ST.

It’s not a great autocross car. It’s not a great track car. But it’s a damn good daily driver, and makes my drive to work or to the grocery store a pleasurable experience instead of a drag, and more pleasurable than a lot of cars aimed at enthusiasts’ hearts. The Fiesta ST is currently the longest standing member of the fleet, which for someone who used to routinely get bored of my daily drivers and swap them out every two years, hitting the 4-year mark of ownership is really something.

So yeah, I love this car. I’d take my Fiesta ST over a stock ND Miata, and over a stock C5 Z06 Corvette. It’s better than the Focus ST, the VW GTI, and the Honda Civic Si. I think, in 20 years, history will look back on this car and realize it was one of the greatest little cars to ever appear in the 2010s. It’ll just be too bad that the Fiesta ST will be nearly extinct by then, much in the same way that the great hot hatches of the 80s and 90s are nearly extinct now.

I fell into a long-winded back-and-forth in one of my Facebook chats where we discussed whether or not it was possible for mere mortals to challenge the driving gods. One friend took the stance that innate talent is what separated the driving aliens from the rest of us, while I argued that it was hard work and focused practice that led to their amazing driving skills.

Obviously, the truth falls somewhere in between those two extremes. But I’d like to present my case, in long form, for speed being 95% hard work.

This friend is a car enthusiast and enjoys watching motorsports, but doesn’t participate in motorsports himself. I can totally understand his point of view, as it appears that the fast drivers are doing the impossible.

I, on the other hand, do participate in motorsports, and from my perspective, the fast drivers aren’t doing the impossible. What I see is that I could do what they did… if I knew what they knew and prepared in the same manner they prepared.

Perhaps this perspective comes from spending years in intense competition. Most of my time has been spent in National Solo (autocross) competition, but I’ve observed similar patterns and am inclined to believe that these ideas hold true, no matter what motorsports discipline you’re looking at. If you want to be a truly fast driver, you have to dive headfirst into the deep end of competition. Your reward: a better understanding of your true skill as a driver than someone who has never attempted to compare oneself against the best.

Racers are naturally optimistic, can-do types — you wouldn’t be competing if you didn’t think you could beat someone else! — but when pride and arrogance tries to blind oneself from the truth, the cold hard facts of racing make perfectly clear where things stand. A stopwatch will tell you exactly how much slower you were than the fastest driver. Your finishing position tells you exactly how well you ran a race.

When you’re really far behind the leaders, it may look like at first that you’ll never be able to catch up with them.

But a funny thing happens when you stick with it and “get serious.” You get faster.

I’ve talked to a lot of the fast people in National Solo scene and asked them how they got so fast. I never heard, “oh, it just came to me.” Their speed origin story was always very long and always very interesting.

One driver was adamant that he really sucked when he first started out, but after putting together dozens of practice events that took place immediately after local autocross competitions, he and several other folks became very fast simply by running many hours of what were essentially driving practice drills — the automotive equivalent of practicing scales on a musical instrument. Another driver that I thought was naturally fast in fact honed his driving skills by working at a karting place and racing karts whenever he was off the clock. Another extremely fast driver spent hours practicing outside of the car using driving simulators.

All of those folks are National Champions.

Just like how entrepreneurs and creatives joke about the 10 years it takes to become an “overnight success,” so it is with driving ability too.

I can see this in myself. I started autocrossing in college, and like a lot of young drivers, I thought I knew it all. All of the folks who were faster than me must have had some sort of deal with the devil — it was the only explanation! Not surprisingly, I was very slow.

Gradually, I started getting deeper and deeper into Solo. By the time I moved to Michigan, I had started competing in National Solo events, and eventually started making the trip out to Lincoln for Solo Nationals. I ate a lot of humble pie for the first several years of National competition. It’s hard to tell yourself you’re hot shit when you’re firmly midpack in a murderously deep class like Street Touring Roadster.

While I haven’t improved as much as I would have liked to over the past decade (though I’m sure every driver wishes they get better faster!), there’s no denying now that I’m a very different driver than the college me over a decade ago. I don’t feel like I’m a great driver at all, but that’s likely because I’m now comparing myself to the folks who would travel across the US to prove themselves the best in the entire nation. I have long since matched or surpassed my earlier benchmarks, and have kept moving the goal posts to tackle harder and harder challenges.

If I were to go back in time and give my younger self a ride along on an autocross run, he would think of me as an alien and assume I made a pact with the devil to get magically faster, while the older me knows just how many hours of seat time he spent to get to his current level of skill.

And with the magic of data and video analysis, it’s no mystery as to why the fast drivers are faster. A driver beat me because she took a better line through a single element and carried more speed out of it. Or maybe the data shows that my car doesn’t have enough power to chase the time trials leader down the back straight of Road Atlanta. I can be faster, if I know what they know and prepared in the same manner they prepared.

So how does talent play into all this? I do not deny that someone who has more innate talen will win if all other conditions are equal. I suggest that this difference really only comes into play at the very extremes.

It’s a riff on the Paradox of Skill, which says that as the competitors become more skilled with less of a gap between the best and the worst, luck begins to play a more important role in determining the winner. If hard work, dedicated practice, and careful set up is 95% of a person’s success, I’d like to propose the rest is made up of 3% luck and 2% innate talent. If two drivers are well matched with identically prepared cars, then it’s a near toss up between talent and luck in determining the winner of a contest.

We’ve all seen this play out both ways. Sometimes the talented driver wins the contest. Sometimes other guy gets really lucky and manages to finish first.

The good news is that nearly anyone can get to that high level of performance, it’s just a matter of putting in the work. Are you improving the Driver Mod? Are you setting up your car to give yourself the best chance of success?

The bad news is that you have to put in the work. It’s okay if you don’t — not everyone is geared to make a run at the pointy end of the pack — but don’t kid yourself otherwise that talent can make up for a missing work ethic.

So while you may not be able to be the fastest person ever, you can get 95-98% of the way there, which is pretty damn good. It may be a bit demoralizing when 2% slower means you’re seconds behind the top driver, which feels like an eternity in motorsports, but be kind to yourself and remember that being just a little bit behind the fastest drivers means you’re already among the driving 1%.