Miata is the answer for this GM designer

Staff
By Staff Writer
Oct 20, 2021 | Mazda, Miata, NB, Aerodynamics | Posted in Features | From the Oct. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Tara Hurlin

Story by Tara Hurlin

Darby Jean refers to the aero design work on her Miata track car as CAD: cardboard-aided design. “First I draw it in Photoshop, then make cardboard stencils,” she explains. “Then I make everything out of Alumilite and Alupanel.” 

Custom brackets then attach everything to the car. “The splitter was the most involved,” she continues. “It needed a lot of mounting points and bracing, especially because of the Professional Awesome splitter tunnels.”

Darby has always loved cars. “There was never a specific moment or person that got me into them,” she says. “I’ve had a passion for them for as long as I can remember. I love the way they sound, the way they look, the freedom I feel when driving, and the adrenaline pulsing through my veins when racing.”

Her day job involves cars, too: She’s a creative designer for General Motors. “Being a designer for GM was my dream job ever since I learned that car design was a career,” she explains. “I had a phenomenal high school art teacher, Diane Heath, who noticed my love for cars and helped me pursue my passion. I always had a natural talent in drawing, and she pointed me toward a career that paired drawing with cars.” 

Darby graduated from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in 2015 with a BFA in automotive design. Her career with GM began in 2016, and she has since worked in multiple studios, including Chevy truck, Advanced Design, and the company’s Performance Studio. “Being a part of an organization that shapes the future of the automotive world is incredibly exciting and rewarding,” she adds.

The automotive industry can be very competitive, especially exterior design,” she continues. “As a competitive person, I challenge myself in every aspect to make sure I always put forth my best effort and best work. This resulted in many all-nighters through school; one time it was three days straight, but my passion and determination always kept me focused.”

Forgoing the Company Line

But Darby’s track car isn’t a Camaro, a Corvette or a Chevelle. In 2014, she picked up her 1999 Mazda Miata. At the time, it was bone stock. 

“I learned how to drive a manual when I drove it home, stalling at every light,” she blushes. “I didn’t know anything about it, except that I wanted a fun stick-shift car.”

After her first track day in 2014 at Waterford Hills in Clarkston, Michigan, she was hooked. “I wanted to race as much as I could. I’ve always been a competitive person, so when I started driving during track days, I constantly looked for the next step to improve the car’s handling and performance and, in turn, my driving skills.”

[Classic Cool: NB-chassis Mazda Miata]

Her passion and excitement for improvement made her build what it is today. Her aero work includes the front splitter, front fender extractors, mini dam, side skirts, canards and rear wing end plates. Then she vinyl-wrapped it in its eye-pleasing livery that–you guessed it–she designed.

The hardtop came from CCP Fabrication. “It took around five or six weeks for me to receive it,” she says. “It was something I’ve been wanting for years.”

She built the turbo setup, too. “It’s mainly pieced together with parts that I thought would be the best, the main jewel being the BorgWarner EFR 6758,” she explains. “The intercooler piping I made. Got to practice my aluminum TIG welding.”

Now that Darby has sorted the chassis and engine, her recent work has focused on driver comfort. Her onboard ChillOut Systems driver cooling system weighs just under 11 pounds and gets down to 35 degrees, allowing her to focus on driving even during the hottest of days. 

Darby Jean learned how to drive stick shift in this Miata. Since then, it has become her track car. She designed and built the aero, the turbo setup, the graphics package and more. The fastback hardtop comes from CCP Fabrication. 

But her plans for the car don’t end there. “I’m considering a custom fiberglass wide-body for it with extended control arms,” she ponders. “If I move it up a class to Track Mod, I can beef up the aero, too.”

Darby admits that it’s impossible to track the hours she’s devoted to the build, but it’s easily into the multi-thousands and counting. She does most of the work on offseason weekends when she’s off the clock. 

[Comparing Miata race cars from all four generations]

During the summer months, assuming all is running smoothly, the car might require just a couple of hours for maintenance. Most of the heavy building and redesigning happens over the long Michigan winters. 

Photograph Courtesy Darby Jean

Like most race car builds, this one has had its challenges: Failure of brand-new parts has cost her two engines. The car is currently on its fifth one. 

Her most memorable smaller challenge occurred during Speed Ring 2018, when her throttle cable bracket snapped in half on track; after a quick welding repair, it broke again the next day.

Since then, she’s added strength via a thicker metal plate. “I try to overbuild everything to limit breakage, but the unpredictable often happens when you race a car as hard as it can go,” she says. “That’s racing.”

Dancing on the Edge

Today, Darby tracks her Miata as often as her schedule allows at casual track days, Gridlife time attack competitions and the occasional autocross. “What I love most about heading to the track is showing up–usually late–the night before to have a drink with my friends, and then waking up trackside the next morning to the sound of Adam Jabaay on the PA.” 

So far, her best time at the GingerMan Raceway is a 1:38, and her highest placement came in Gridlife’s Street Mod class when she crossed the checker in fifth for her group. 

“I love this car and how I made it uniquely my own,” she reflects. “I spent countless hours designing my aero, which visually sets the car apart from others. I love that I can turn it into whatever I dream up, right down to designing and wrapping my own liveries. And those turbo sounds. And how it forces me into the seat at full-throttle.

“Driving my Miata is exhilarating. It has a great balance in suspension, aero and power that lets us dance on the edge of grip with confidence. When I’m on the track, there’s nothing else in the world but me, the car and the contact patch of rubber trying its best to hold us to the ground.”

As Darby admits, this Miata project has been an adventure. It’s currently on engine No. 5.

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Comments
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Shaun
Shaun GRM+ Memberand Dork
8/19/21 8:46 a.m.

Cool!!

f1carguy
f1carguy New Reader
8/19/21 11:40 a.m.

I wish my two girls would do more hands on car stuff but my Lisa likes to help and sweep the work area. Mom gave them to many dolls! I tried and I gave my daughter a slot car set for her Christmas! She sat in the middle and tried to grab the cars as they whizzed by. It didn't help. 

paddygarcia
paddygarcia GRM+ Memberand Reader
8/19/21 8:05 p.m.

Kids find their thing. Sometimes it lines up with what we think, and it's been great doing car things with my kids as they grew up, but it's also great watching and supporting them to do the things they find that they love.

calteg
calteg Dork
8/20/21 9:10 a.m.

That CCP hardtop is absolutely gorgeous. If this new company hires me on, I might spring for one this year

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