“Laz has enriched my life in ways I didn’t know were possible to come from a car, and for that I’ll always be thankful.”
Meet Lazarus, aka: Laz. This Miata represents bang for the buck; having more fun for less money. It’s a back-to-basics kinda thing. If this story doesn’t inspire you, maybe you should be driving a used Prius.
We’ve all seen 10-page threads where people are debating which $150, JDM timing belt to run on their BPU’d dailies. Working rally service for 10 years, now, I’ve seen used belts and bearings installed in dirt parking lots in 30 minutes or less – on actual race cars.
Flipping back and forth through the Project Lazarus build thread on ClubRoadster.net, I found myself A) wanting a beater Miata, and B) asking myself why I’m not doing more with my $2000 daily driver – an 89 Pajero with a rattle can paint job. I felt inspired. “This is exactly the sort of thing I should be doing these days,” I thought. I felt that spark inside that says, “Let’s play with cars!”
That’s what I hope this conversation will inspire in you. Start digging through used parts bins, enjoying the challenge of making things work.
[bd] Introductions. Tell us a little bit about yourself, sir. Where do you live? What do you do for a living?
[ms] My name is Martin Sarukhanyan. I was born in Yerevan, Armenia, and moved to the United States when I was 6 years old. We moved to Oregon when I was 8 and I have lived in the Portland area ever since. I’m currently in law school at Willamette University and work part time at AR Auto Service in Lake Oswego, Oregon. I have had a passion for cars since the moment my father put me on his lap when I was 5 years old and let me steer his car.
[bd] Let’s get right down to it. Project Lazarus. How would you describe this approaching-4-year journey to gearheads who have never heard of it?
[ms] It has been an epic roller coaster ride. What started out as a beater Miata we could thrash at the track without caring turned into a car that has been supported by the Miata community and grown a personality that far exceeds its humble beginnings. I never thought, four years ago, that I would be driving a Miata that could embarrass M3s and 911s around a track and bring so much joy to people when they see it.
“I think the best aspect of this journey has been the people I have had the pleasure of meeting along the way, whether those be forum members who have donated parts for the project, or local guys who I met and now consider to be some of my closest friends.”
Lazarus has gone from being the underdog that surprised everyone to a car people recognize when it pulls up at the track or at Cars and Coffee. The best feeling in the world is when you pull up next to a car with small children in the back, because they immediately freak out and start yelling “Mommy, Mommy look, a race car!!!”
[bd] Why a Miata? (And why a $625 Miata at that?)
[ms] Four years ago my friend Nial Givens convinced me we should buy a beater Miata together after he did a ChumpCar race in the AR Auto Service Miata. A few weeks later, we had our hands on a $625 Miata.
Up to that point, I had never even driven a Miata – let alone thought about owning one. I had seen them at track days buzzing around like little angry bees, but never had the urge to explore it further. Nial has a very tastefully modified example that I’ve always admired and so we ended up with our own. The first time I test drove the car and the hood flew up and hit me in the head as it bent over the windshield I was sold.
Why $625? Because we were broke college students with cars we were already dumping money into, so this was supposed to be a no frills project built on hand me down parts and chump change. Realistically, I think the starting platform could have been different. Maybe a Civic hatch or an Integra; those could have been viable options, but the fact Nial knew Miatas and the desire to jump into rear wheel drive were a huge factor in the decision to purchase the car. Plus, the price of the car dropped significantly after the hood hit me in the head at 50mph and I almost passed out. At that point, the previous owner didn’t want to take me to the hospital so we were able to negotiate the price of the car down.
[bd] I’ve had a hood fly up and bend itself over the top of the windshield before. Of course, this was in a Galant VR4, so my facepalm was only figurative. What was going through your head on the test drive (beside maybe a hood latch), and just how rough was this roadster when you got home and started tearing into it? Come to think of it, how far into it did you tear right away?
[ms] Well, honestly, the first thought through my head was whether or not I’d be able to drive home that night, I felt pretty dazed. The car was pretty disgusting inside – the top had been leaking for a while and the Pacific Northwest isn’t particularly kind to convertibles that don’t have good tops – so everything was soggy and moldy and smelled quite terrible.
The car had a mom-and-pop exhaust shop Cherry Bomb muffler welded in so it was noisy as hell, but drove reasonably well other than some strange slop in the steering I’ll discuss later. After I test drove it, Nial and I came back the next day to take it home only to not have the car start.
After much desperation, we ended up bump starting the car with the previous owner’s Ford Explorer and Nial drove it home to Portland from Vancouver, Washington. I think we tore into it the following weekend and installed a DDM Works intake – our first ricer mod! – some hand me down plugs and wires from Nial’s Miata, and replaced the main fuse, which was the cause of our inability to start the car. We started pulling things out like the head unit and anything else we could to sell to recoup money for future upgrades, then started the build thread on ClubRoadster.
[bd] You mention Nial having a tastefully modified Miata, and already dumping money into your own vehicle, but didn’t tell us what that vehicle was. I can see Nial being a Miata guy and racing a Chumpcar Miata, and wanting to build another, but considering you’d never driven or even thought about owning one, what were you playing with at the time? Considering how far Lazarus has come, has the plucky race car overtaken your original pride and joy? How do compare the two?
[ms] At the time I had my Mitsubishi Galant, affectionately named Grimace, which I still have today. That car was supposed to stay stock after I parted out my MK3 Supra Turbo right before starting my undergraduate studies at University of Portland. It went from being a stock 4 cylinder, automatic, beige car, to a turbocharged, 5-speed LSD-equipped [saloon], with Brembo brakes, coilovers, race seat, etc. I don’t think I’ve left any aspect of this car stock.
“Frankly, every time I want to get rid of it, I blow the doors of someone in a far more expensive car and realize why I love it so much.”
I still daily drive the car after all these years. It’s a few hundred miles away from 200,000. It’s been in my family since it was new and, frankly, every time I want to get rid of it, I blow the doors of someone in a far more expensive car and realize why I love it so much.
I was tracking the car at the time – and still do so a few times a year – but the cost of consumables on a 330whp Galant are not cheap, considering it eats transmissions annually. The car is still on the stock block, but sports a plethora of Extreme Turbo Systems and English Racing parts, and has been extremely reliable other than the aforementioned steady diet of transmissions.
Lazarus has been a joy to build and drive, but the cars are very different to me. The Galant is so unique, and I love it for that. People often ask me why I didn’t just buy a Lancer Evolution – and frankly I could have. But I can keep up with a similarly prepared Evo around a track with two fewer driven wheels. And there’s something to be said about a big purple sedan hurtling through a corner with flames shooting out the wastegate dump.
There is so much history in the car it can never be overtaken by Lazarus. I would say they are on equal footing. I love them both, but I don’t think I could give one up for the other. The Galant is a street car prepared well enough to hold its own at the racetrack, whereas Lazarus is basically a race car that’s a blast to take out on the street.
[bd] Wait. Turbocharged, 5-speed swapped, LSD Galant? Is this an 8th gen? Why do I want to say I think I’ve seen this “Grimace” on GalantTuners.
[ms] Yep. Purple 8th gen galant, I think it’s the highest horsepower stock block 4g64 out there on the 3G Eclipse/8G Galant platform. The exterior is a tad beat up but she’s my workhorse.
[bd] Nevermind trophies or any of that. There’s a lot riding on race cars in terms of reliability and safety alone. How did you come to pursue a sort of ChumpCar for racing with all the big dollar folks with pretty race cars?
What were you guys thinking in those early days? If you already had nice, trackable cars, why even bother with this one? (It sounds to me like Lazarus is modified beyond what ChumpCar would allow – or what you’d risk in ChumpCar. With this question, I’m curious about whether this all started as a joke/experiment and what your original goals for the project were.)
[ms] The initial idea was to build a ChumpCar eventually, since we really wanted to go racing. After taking a step back and realizing how much a “$500” race car actually costs to run reliably throughout the course [of a season], the main reason for this car was the fact we could drive it at 10/10ths without worrying about crashing it because it was so beat up. There is always that little niggling fear in a nicer car that you might wad it up if you go 10/10ths and that was it.
[bd] A ricer aisle intake, used plugs and wires, I think I even saw some used brake pads mentioned early in the build thread. How long before people started donating their used parts to the build? Why did people start sending you all this stuff? Why do you think the success of your project meant so much to so many others?
[ms] People started donating stuff right away, anything from rubber pedal covers to used brake pads. We also got a huge care package from forum member Stoly with all sorts of little things like timing belt components and suspension bits. Other forum members gave us great price breaks on new parts like the Bilstein shocks that were the basis of our first suspension on the car.
“I think people sent us things because it was the little Miata that could. . . . I think the success of the project means a lot to others because it shows the large amount of fun that can be had on a tiny budget.“
I think people sent us things because it was the little Miata that could. We literally dragged it back from death, and the idea of two broke college kids building a car like this seemed endearing to the community. People really enjoy following builds that are constantly being updated and we have done as best we can to update any progress large or small that has been made on the car since the very beginning with photos and description. I think the success of the project means a lot to others because it shows the large amount of fun that can be had on a tiny budget.
[bd] You’ve already explained the vision for the car in the beginning. How did all these parts donations play into your build plans? How did you ensure your priorities were met without resorting to shelling out for new bling the week before Race Day? Did you ask for specific things at specific time or did it just sort of happen fortuitously?
[ms] Honestly, things just sort of worked out. Laz was pressed into daily driver duty for me when I sent a rod through the side of the original block of the Galant on a hot summer day at Oregon Raceway Park. While sourcing a low mileage stock motor for the Galant, I was angry that I was missing track days. So I took some of Nial’s old brake pads, did a brake bleed, finally realized the steering rack was not firmly attached to the subframe because the bolts holding the clamps were unthreading, and aligned the car. There were a lot of other little things, but for the most part that was it.
We had cobbled together a set of coilovers and done a timing belt and water pump job. Huge, huge, huge shoutout to my dear friend Josh Castaldi, who has been chief engineer on this project since almost the very beginning and has shared his massive wealth of Miata knowledge with me, as well as Eddie Nakato, also a friend, and owner of AR Auto Service in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Eddie graciously donated so many parts from one of his Miatas to Laz in the very beginning and has continued to advise me on the direction to take the car as I have had questions along the way.
First track day happened and the car ran flawlessly the entire time. I had an amazing time and that is when I fell in love with the idea of a Miata track car. Of course, on the way back from the track, the alternator died and promptly stranded me on the side of the freeway. All in all, things kind of just came together thanks to the wonderful people in the PDX Miata community.
[bd] Speaking of specific parts, what kind of things did you get? Could you break it down into percentages – % of parts donated vs. % localled scavenged? What were some of the most surprising items you received? What were some of the more exciting finds? Have any of these proved immediate duds or otherwise failed catastrophically?
[ms] As far as parts, we got all sorts of things. $200 roll bar from Bellingham, Washington. $30 replacement hood we transported on the roof of a VW Jetta TDi wagon while being pursued by a sketchy semi truck in the the sticks of Oregon. We got a set of FM rear top hats, a Racing Beat exhaust, and a Jackson Racing header from Eddie at AR. I got hand me down pads from Nial’s Miata. eBay coilover sleeves were donated by forum members.
People also donated their time, which I think is even more important than the parts. Josh has spent countless hours working on Laz over the past few years, the guys at Option 5 helped us out with the initial tear down after we got the car, and this is just a few of the people. Revlimiter on ClubRoadster.net donated a set of his wonderful gauge faces for Lazarus we still use to this day.
“The PDX Miata community has come together for tech days . . . These guys have been the best and I cannot say enough about it.”
The PDX Miata community has come together for tech days, whether it’s been dropping two transmissions on a cold concrete driveway to swap clutches, or pull a motor, or pull a transmission and install a new clutch three days before a 3-day track weekend. These guys have been the best and I cannot say enough about it.
At the beginning, I would say 50% of the parts we got were donated and the rest we bartered for or bought locally. As time progressed, I started to assume full ownership of the car and started spending more money on it, but at that point a lot of the big players in the Miata community started supporting the project.
Garagestar has been with us since the beginning, Singular Motorsports came aboard recently with some brake ducts, Kazspec Engineering has provided us with driver and passenger seat mounts, FFD Wheels has come aboard as a wheel parter, and again, Eddie at AR Auto Service has provided lift space, expertise, and parts along the way.
[bd] Your story is awesome for a number of reasons, Martin. If the first half is about a couple buddies saving an unloved machine from the scrap heap, the second half is all about how far that little roadster’s come. Can you give us any before and after comparisons? Original dyno numbers and lap times compared to recently? Are you still predominantly upgrading on used parts?
[ms] So the car has become a little bit of a beast at the track. A stock 1.6 Miata generally dynos between 90-100whp. The first time the car hit the dyno was with a gen 1 Megasquirt plug-n-play ECU, header, exhaust, and intake. The car made 115whp. With a set of updated injectors, a wideband and a better intake the car made 124whp. For perspective, a factory fresh 1.6 Miata makes 116 crank horsepower.
First ever track event in Lazarus, my best was a 1:42 around Portland International Raceway (PIR) on cobbled together coilovers and all season tires. Next event, I progressed to a 1:38. Once the Megasquirt went in and we threw on some Spec Miata takeoff tires, I got to a 1:33 – which was on par with front running Spec Miata times around the track.
The next step involved stepping up to Spec Miata takeoff Hoosiers and Motion Control Suspension single adjustable dampers. This is where the build became less budget oriented. In my defense, the opportunity for Laz to get this fabulous suspension came courtesy of Eddie at AR Auto Service. With that suspension and fresh takeoffs I was able to get the car to a 1:30.9 on the 1.6 motor.
Fast forward a little bit and Lazarus got a 225whp/235wtq Mazdaspeed Miata motor with a 6-speed and Torsen LSD, as well as Mazdaspeed front and rear subframes. My best current time to date is a 1:25.7 around PIR – which is pretty damn fast. The only cars faster than Laz [at this point] are pretty much full-on race cars on slicks. The parts used for upgrades are now definitely more on the new side, although I still repurpose things like Evo 8 intercoolers and Lotus Elise front brakes to work on a Miata where I can.
[bd] Pretty sure I saw a new engine being installed toward the end of the build thread (but scavenged intercooler piping). This feels very “next level.” What’s the story behind these mods? Why turbocharge it? How serious is Project Lazarus getting on the track these days? Who/what are you beating these days? Who/what is next on your list?
[ms] The original plan was to rebuild a 1.8 VVT motor from a friend’s car with some bent rods. Right as that motor was rebuilt, my friend Josh purchased a wrecked Mazdaspeed Miata. My boost addiction told me to trade him straight across for the Mazdaspeed bits, and thus Turbo Laz was born.
The car made excellent power with a set of bigger injectors, OEM Evo 8 intercooler and piping, and a catless downpipe. Everything else was OEM Mazdaspeed Miata, which is rated at 178hp crank. We made 225hp wheel. Then blew up the stock 5-speed trans in less than two track events and swapped in the 6-speed.
The car is pretty serious these days. It has a welded-in half cage with door bars and two race seats and harnesses. Shortly after last track season, I upgraded to a gen 2 Megasquirt ECU and then we heard a ticking noise. Did a compression test and sure enough it was down. Turns out three of the (four) rods were badly bent – which was not unexpected, considering how hard the car is driven and the fact we were at the limit of the factory rods.
Over the winter, the motor was rebuilt by Josh with forged rods, upgraded oil pump, new bearings, gaskets and rings, etc. The stock Mazdaspeed turbo bits and Evo 8 bits will remain. I’ve added even bigger Injector Dynamics injectors to it to keep the fueling safe, and we will shoot for a dead reliable 250+whp.
My goal is to get the car to a 1:21 around PIR, which is currently the Miata record in a 350whp car driven by Bob Bundy. That Miata has fat Hoosiers, aero, etc. I want to catch him with less power, tire, weight, and money spent. Time will tell if it happens.
[bd] 5 years ago, this was all just a goofball idea for fun. Today, it’s a car the everyman can get behind. People in the community recognize it. Everybody cheers. The underdog gets a tickertape parade. How do you see this story playing out over the next 5 years?
[ms] I want to continue to develop the car into a track weapon. It has been a blast along the way and I just want to eke out every last tenth of lap time and embarrass cars that cost 100x as much because that’s where the fun is for me.
The car has helped me develop as a driver. It has also brought smiles to countless faces when I drive it on the street, and has served as a daily driver at certain times. I actually plan to drive the car on the street more this year. Laz has been taken out as a date car on several occasions with great reviews thus far. I guess, in 5 years, I just want the smiles to keep coming and the times to keep dropping.
[bd] If Project Lazarus has taught you anything about life and “playing with cars,” what was it?
[ms] You never know what will happen with a project. Whether it’s the amazing people that you bond with along the way, the fond memories you gain, or the immense amount of knowledge that is out there waiting to be absorbed, nothing is immediately expected – and that’s what makes it so fun.
From the waterlogged gravel parking lot to the race track, it really has been an epic journey, and that is what it’s all about. One day the car will be finished in the sense I’ll just be fine tuning things here and there, but everything I learned through playing with Laz will remain. Laz has enriched my life in ways I didn’t know were possible to come from a car, and for that I’ll always be thankful.
[bd] Finally, where can people connect online to learn more?
[ms] I keep two build threads pretty well updated on the project, and I also post a lot of photos on my instagram account. The build threads are both called Lazarus: Making Something Out Of Nothing, and they can be found on MiataTurbo.net and ClubRoadster.net. The one on ClubRoadster is the original and has more detail and photos of the early parts of the project. My instagram name is @greddygalant and I tend to throw a few updates there as well.