Certain events are bound to make the headlines—for instance, “Man Bites Dog” will grab more ink than “Dog Bites Man.” But when the topic is “Grown Men Think They’re Dogs and Build Really Cool Cars in the Process,” well, then we’re talking major magazine coverage.
Okay, maybe these guys don’t really believe that they’re dogs, but Pennsylvania’s Mongrel Motorsports—Scott Loercher, Dennis Crabill, Chad Brodbeck, Jamie Redcay and Joel Barnett—seem to have a knack for building winning “mutt” cars from a host of makes and models. And they do it all within a pretty restrictive set of rules, as displayed by their back-to-back GRM Challenge overall wins.
The idea behind the Grassroots Motorsports/Kumho $2003 (presented by CRC) Challenge is simple, really: Entrants must buy, build, race and show off a car that is capable of excelling in autocross, drag race and concours events—and they must do it for no more than $2003 out of pocket. See, we told you it was simple. There are, however, some rules involved.
In order to keep the budget in check, competitors are allowed to sell unneeded parts until a car’s purchase price is recouped. For example, if an entrant bought a $500 car and then sold the seats, trim and other goodies for $500, then the car is essentially free as far as the Challenge budget is concerned. A Challenger can sell more from the car if desired, but a car can never become better than free.
Although it may sound like a lot of budgetary sophistry, this particular portion of the rules was actually designed to allow the Challenge competitors to behave more like their counterparts in the real world. Cash-strapped folks who build cars on the cheap will often purchase entire parts cars, instead of going the more expensive a la carte route for their spare parts, then sell the stripped cars once they’ve taken the parts they need to put a little cash back in the kitty. It’s a win-win proposition if you’re willing to put in the extra time to buy and sell.
Mongrel Motorsports have become masters at this part of the game. Their 1990 Mazda Miata Challenge car initially set them back $2600, delivery included. Once stripped of anything unnecessary for the event, the extra bits went up for auction on eBay and sold for a total of $3725.86. Yeah, these guys get how to play the game. Although their Miata’s value only went to zero, not minus $1125.86, as per the rules, the dogs did pocket a cool grand and change.
Mongrel Motorsports had already proven their ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse at the $2002 Challenge, where they took the overall win with a stunning supercharged BMW 2002. That car had also proven their talent for reading the rules—and inspiring controversy—by claiming the top spot thanks to its top concours score, rather than its on-track performance. It seems that the mathematical formula used to calculate the overall scores at the $2002 and previous Challenges rewarded beauty over brawn by weighting the concours equal to the two speed events, and the dogs were sharp enough to catch it.
Soon after the $2003 Challenge was announced—with new rules that weighted the concours and speed events differently—the Mongrels made it clear that they’d be back, but not with their show-stopping BMW. “No one had ever won back-to-back with different cars,” team member Dennis Crabill says. “We wanted to be the first.” So they took a different approach.
“I wasn’t happy with the performance of the BMW,” Scott adds. “I thought it—and we—could do better. It didn’t win on performance, which I thought it had more of, and I didn’t want to be remembered as only building trailer queens.”
Jamie also wanted to build something faster. “After some discussion about the platform and approach, the decision came down to a car that needed to go fast and handle. That means it had to be small, light, nimble and produce cheap horsepower. I think what came to mind was a V8 MG or Shelby Cobra.”
As Scott explains, the Miata’s strong aftermarket support, racing history and rear-drive layout all helped influence the final decision. It’s also a convertible, he points out, one with a strong club following.
Starting with the right donor car also helped. Where the BMW project originated with a rusted tub—one that needed 4000 man-hours of work in order to look presentable—the Mongrels began with a much cleaner car this time around.
By buying right, the team was able to find a Miata that was relatively straight and didn’t need paint, leaving time and money for their small-block Ford swap. This move also saved their sanity, they explain, as well as their day jobs.
You see, this winning team isn’t made up of men who work in a race shop all day. Scott, Chad and Dennis, the three remaining members from last year’s team, all work together as an architect, draftsman and engineer, respectively; Jamie is a newspaper graphics guy. Joel, well, Joel is a machinist.
Once they paid $2500 for the Miata plus an extra $100 for delivery from New York to their Pennsylvania home, their new best friends became local swap meets, fellow racers and eBay. The dogs needed to reduce their budget down to zero in order to free up the money for their planned V8 swap.
Included in the more than $3700 the team recouped were fairly inexpensive items like the trunk carpet ($36.01), sun visors ($21.00), hood latch and its release cable ($16.20), and driver-side arm rest ($23.53). Some of the “big-ticket” items included the power windows ($222.50), ECU ($103.00), convertible boot cover ($167.50), and limited-slip differential ($122.50). The team found that more money could be earned by selling items individually rather than in pairs—headlights and assemblies are a good example of this plan.
Good, old-fashioned bartering also helped the team. They were able to trade away parts they didn’t need in return for their somewhat new suspension parts. The Miata flywheel, shifter and powerplant frame were traded for one new KYB AGX rear shock absorber, while the four used shocks were swapped for another rear KYB.
The front end also needed new shock absorbers, so the Miata’s long block was traded for two more KYBs. The Miata front springs were moved to the rear, while the transmission netted the team a pair of new Flyin’ Miata sport springs for the front.
Stock bushings on a 13-year-old car are generally more than worn out, so the team needed replacements. The budget didn’t allow for all new bushings, however, so the team made 26 of them from Delrin on a lathe, reusing the stock metal inserts. Front and rear anti-roll bars were also added for a little more roll control to the tune of $20.
As the dogs would be encountering some seriously quick machinery at the Challenge, more trading and work lay ahead of them.
Choosing a powerplant for the team was easy: A V8 would provide the motivation.
Thanks to his drag racing experience, Dennis was already familiar with V8s. Additionally, the Mongrels wanted the reliability of a small-block Ford and knew it would be a lighter choice over a Chevy.
“We did the supercharger thing last year,” Scott explains, “but spent so much time troubleshooting and it still didn’t work 100 percent at the event. Small-block Ford stuff is cheap.”
Dennis seconds that idea. “You get more bang for the buck with a V8,” he says. “With a tight budget, the reliability of a naturally aspired V8 is far better than a boosted/frosted four cylinder.”
The team started the engine hunt by buying a Ford 351 “Clevor”—a Windsor block with Cleveland heads—plus a set of fender-well headers. They sold the headers and traded the 351 and $100 for a Ford 302 engine, wiring harness, ECU, camshaft, flywheel, fuel injectors and SFI-rated bell housing. After some wheeling and dealing, the heads and bell housing were sold, putting the final engine price at $75.
Work soon began on the engine, and a set of Windsor Jr. heads replaced the stock set that had been sold from the 302. An aftermarket camshaft, lifters, roller rockers and pushrod were purchased together for $200, and the cam was sold for the initial purchase price, allowing the lifters and roller rockers to be added to the engine for no money out of pocket. Lighter steel valve covers were used in place of an aluminum set. Dennis also modified a truck intake to fit the engine, which was itself held in place with custom mounts.
Having a running small-block Ford is one thing, but making it fit inside a Miata is an entirely different story. The team needed to make enough room for the engine, so they had to relocate the section of the firewall located between the frame rails. They wanted to set the engine back as far as possible, behind the factory steering rack, thus allowing use of the stock fans and radiator—a nod to keeping the budget in check. Another benefit for placing the engine far back was better weight distribution, as the 302 added about 180 pounds to the car’s total.
“As reluctant as Scott and I were to ruin a Miata with a Mustang engine, it ended up being a pretty good match to the little silver car,” Chad says.
Along with the engine bay modifications, the transmission tunnel also needed widening in order to accommodate the T-5 gearbox as well as the SFI-approved bell housing, which would be required for all cars running the quarter mile in 11.99 seconds and under at the drag race. The final installation saw the engine location moved 12 inches toward the rear of the car; the shift lever was pushed back about eight inches compared to the stock location.
A center section from the rear of a 1999 Mustang Cobra—one of the IRS-equipped cars—helped round out the driveline. The unit, which was already fitted with a limited-slip differential, was found at swap meet for $80. The limited-slip differential was sold, while a Torsen was added from another swap meet rear, making the center section a $16 expense.
Modified Cougar axles were joined to that center section, as custom fabricated axles would have broken the budget. However, an axle failed during a test day, so a new one was sourced from Panache Engineering, a firm that builds V8-powered Miatas. The Mongrels had to drop their nitrous-oxide system in order to make enough room in the budget for that purchase.
Just in case any driveline repairs would be needed at the event, the team ran the exhaust out the sides of the car to allow for easy access. They used 2.5-inch tubing up to the frame rails, switching to 3.0-inch pipe for the remainder of the system. Bullet-type mufflers capped the exhaust work.
After all the swapping and selling had been done to refill the budget, the team was forced to build a new center console to house the electronics. The turn signals, headlights, wiper controls, horn, water pump, fans and hazards are housed on the custom console. An MSD 6A ignition box was also added.
Wheels and tires were sourced from a couple of different brands. For the autocross and show portions of the event, used 14-inch Kumho tires ($200) were mounted on powder-coated stock Miata wheels. Drag tires were mounted on 13-inch BMW wheels for the quarter-mile work.
Once the car was able to move under its own power, it was time for Jamie to get to work making the car look nice for the judges. Since some of the ideas in the original planning stages used more classic machinery, the question was whether to keep the car modern or make it look like a classic. “We debated for a while,” Jamie explains, “and decided that it would keep its modern styling, but we would add subtle, classic details.” The classic-looking mirrors and wing windows are two such touches the team added.
Purchasing a clean car paid off here, since the team didn’t have to deal with rusted panels and rotten floors. A broken rear wing from a Ford Probe was modified and added to the car, while the team devised a clever solution for the dents left by a front license plate bracket: 1972 Ford Torino headlights were countersunk into the bumper cover, yielding a neo-classic look. For more details on the project, check out www.v8miata.homestead.com.
The months leading up the the Challenge see a steady buildup of pre-event chatter on the GRM message board. However, while most competitors were spreading the word about their progress, the Mongrels kept their car mostly a secret.
This led to a good deal of anticipation, made evident by the crowd that gathered around the Mongrels’ trailer at the event, all waiting to see the beast unleashed. Once the car was started, that unmistakable V8 growl gave the competition some idea of what was in store for them that weekend. Although teammates Jamie and Joel could not make the trip to Florida, Chad, Scott and Dennis were ready for a fight.
Friday’s racing consisted of the drag competition, and first place went to a car not too unlike what the Mongrels had built. Erik Lawson’s V8-powered, nitrous-fed Nissan 280ZX posted an 11.486-second pass to take top honors, followed by two other cars running sub-12.5-second times. The Mongrels recorded a still-respectable 12.564-second time.
“I hate getting outrun by a second,” quipped Dennis, adding that he would have liked to have retained the nitrous they had originally installed on the Miata.
Concours judging was spread throughout both days, and once again, the top scorer was not the Mongrel team. Instead, a V8-powered 1969 Datsun 510 walked away with that trophy, while the dogs placed second. Although both cars featured engine swaps, the Datsun team had come up with a different solution for the firewall and pedal interference problems: They mounted the engine to the right of the stock driveshaft tunnel, with most of the powerplant intruding upon the passenger compartment.
The Saturday autocross found yet another winner in the top spot, as a 1988 Mazda 323 GTX took the fastest time of the day with a 48.825-second run. Mongrel Motorsports nabbed second with a 48.913-second lap, an effort no doubt helped by their guest driver, four-time SCCA D Street Prepared Solo II National Champion Steve Hoelscher.
Once scoring was tallied, the Mongrels came out ahead in the overall points race. Their strong finishes in all three events helped them make Challenge history by winning two years in a row with two different cars.
Once the team got the Miata back home, it received even more attention. “The car definitely needed a better cooling system, which it got compliments of Scott and Denny when we returned from the Challenge,” Chad explains. “Other than that, the car is pretty reliable and very streetable in everyday driving.”
It’s a good thing, too, as today the car can be found racing at Cecil County Dragway, autocrossing with the Appalachian Sports Car Club and on the road for fun. According to its members, the team is very happy with their creation. “It’s a blast to drive,” Dennis says.
“It looks classy,” Scott adds. “The silver Miata is the perfect start for the classic look.”
Plans for the $2004 Challenge have just been announced, and once again the Mongrels have inspired another rethinking of the rules. The dogs have won the last two events through their own gargantuan efforts as much as their talent for building cars that explore the limits of the rules, but next year’s event will see a restructuring of the parts-selling provision. For the $2004 Challenge, the total amount of money that can be recouped from all parts car or “parts box” sales cannot exceed $1002. Will the Mongrels return? While the team has made no plans, Dennis teases when asked if they’ll compete again: “Not sure yet—stay tuned.”
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