David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/6/09 3:31 p.m.

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 Challenge

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.

The Dogs Aren’t a Fluke

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.

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