Our race weekend at New Jersey Motorsports park was months in the making and the MX-5 Cup car known as Marylin finally felt solid. We arrived late, so the plan was to pull the car off the trailer, complete an ABS calibration, and then head back to the hotel to get a little rest before the afternoon qualifying session.
The MX-5 had other plans and started steaming from the back of the cylinder head after the ABS test.
The qualifying session was just a few hours away and the leak appeared to be coming from an unreachable spot between the cowl and transmission bellhousing. Online diagrams showed an O-ring at the joint that was leaking but the closest Mazda dealership had none in stock. If we were home in North Carolina, the move would be to go to the sole local mom-and-pop store and raid their case full of various o-rings until we found the right one, but a quick Google search showed that all we had around us were national parts chains.
These stores had no such case and their computer system showed no rear water outlet o-ring for the MX-5. Time was running out. We had to qualify. We put the car back together and sent it out on track. When it came back, the bit of steam had turned into a waterfall coming down over the bellhousing and our race weekend looked like it had come to an end.
We decided to start tearing it down and sent various people out to find universal o-rings, cleaners, and sealants. Luckily, Mazda added a removable panel in the middle of the cowl, which increased our access from about half an inch to three inches. We were able to get to the part in question after a few hours and found it had been previously installed at an angle causing the o-ring to be pinched. We had sealant but I decided to try my hand at finding a replacement o-ring. Danger Girl was on top of picking up all the parts so far and was familiar with the local parts stores, so I joined her to go searching for a better o-ring.
My first choice was NAPA as it still has some old-school service parts but it was closed for the day. We visited Advance Auto Parts and I asked the clerk behind the counter to show me their o-rings but, disappointingly, all he had to show us was a couple of boxes of injector o-rings. We decided to search on our own and found some distributor o-rings on another aisle and one appeared to be a close match to what we needed. We paid for the box and decided to head to AutoZone to see if there was something better.
We found the same exact boxes of imported injector and distributor o-rings there, but the fellow behind the counter was much more helpful. He was a breath of fresh air compared to the other clerk, who had as much part knowledge as a Starbucks barista. He checked his computer first. After he couldn’t find the part there, he offered to take me back to the their gasket and o-ring cabinet. We spent a few minutes looking through it but were unable to find anything that matched, and headed back to the track.
While we were riding back to the track, I reminisced about the disappearing mom-and-pop parts stores that had cases of o-rings and drawers full of bolts, which have been replaced by national chains selling discount oil and Chinese replacement parts. These stores had rows of catalogs and clerks that could tell the difference between an o-ring and a metal donut gasket. Their first move wasn’t to ask for year, make, and model but to ask what you were working on and help you find the right part.
I can’t help but feel partially guilty for the disappearance of these stores since most of my parts purchases happen online. Online shopping has changed the landscape for buying parts since almost everything can be found on sites like RockAuto and Amazon. I buy parts on RockAuto if I’m not in a hurry and order through Amazon Prime if I need it quickly. RockAuto usually has a choice for any given part, ranging from an economy Chinese product to a top of the line part made in the USA or Japan. The ease of clicking on a part has spoiled me and caused me to neglect the local mom-and-pop store unless I need something quickly. This usually turns out to be something like this o-ring, which usually runs for less than a dollar. A business cannot survive selling o-rings and the occasional bolt.
All of this could have caused us to end a race that had lots riding on it but we got lucky this time. There was a distributor o-ring from a Lexus LX in the assortment that was just about the right size for our water neck. We installed it, slathered on some WaterWeld for good measure, and kept bolting the car together until just after midnight. The next morning we refilled the cooling system and prayed it would hold. The car didn’t leak and we went on to have a successful day of racing and take first place in our class. We got lucky this time and found something that worked at the chain store, but we may not be so lucky when the next o-ring or bolt fails.
[Images: Bozi Tatarevic, Mazda, Matt Farah, Josh Howard]