There’s a small off-road gathering that takes place every year in the dry lakebeds of central Oregon USA. By small, we mean 5,000 people driving 2,500 cars of the most unlikely designs, conquering lake beds in Oregon's high desert. It’s called the Gambler 500, and could be the pinnacle of fish-out-of-water automotive events in the entire world. Case-in-point is this first-generation Mazda MX-5, which was built specifically for this celebration of dirt, desert, and inexpensive automotive tomfoolery. It’s also a very special vehicle in one particular way, which we’ll talk more about in a bit.
This blue bomber is owned by Tate Morgan, and it’s seen places a typical MX-5 would never reach. It’s not because of the monster powerplant under the bonnet – in fact, the 1.6-litre engine has over 250,000 miles and is tragically stock. As this clip from Hoonigan AutoFocus shows, the aged mill spends more time running on two cylinders instead of four. The clip also shows that it doesn’t take big power to have some big time fun. That’s where the suspension comes in.
According to Morgan, it wasn’t difficult to recast this Mazda as a desert-clawing machine. All the suspension mounting points are stock MX-5, though there are obviously ungraded upper and lower control arms. The coil-over suspension offers decent ride height and travel, and the extra width required a set of custom axles for the rear. Tie rod extensions are also used upfront, allowing the 14-inch wire wheels with skinny off-road tyres to turn without any issue.
Gallery: Mazda MX-5 Baja conversion
Inside there’s obviously a custom roll cage for safety, and the spare tyre on the boot is a requisite item for any Baja-themed build. Skid plates protect the underpinnings, and the blue exterior is properly sketchy with the car’s original red colour showing through in several spots. It might also look familiar to many of you, as it was featured on Jessi Combs' old show called The List. Combs drove the car in one episode; she was also quite fond of the Gambler 500 and participated in numerous events. Or, course, the world lost Combs last year in a land speed record attempt, so Morgan considers the MX-5 to be extremely special. Rightfully so.
It’s low-budget, campy, and brilliant in ways we can’t describe. And when the 2020 iteration of the Gambler 500 lands this June in Oregon, it will almost certainly be zipping through the sand with thousands of other crazy cars in a quest to simply have a good time. Isn’t that what life is all about?