Jim Bishop: Drive, They Said – Miata Madness Strikes the Valley

Column by Jim Bishop

Twenty-one Mazda Miata convertible sport coupes departed Harrisonburg for “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia” on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 7; twenty returned.

This columnist, who confesses to a four-and-a-half year love affair with his miniaturized motorcar, wondered if anyone would respond to an announcement in the News-Record and other outlets to join a proposed Miata “cruise.”

Some phone and e-mail exchanges followed, and as the time approached, I thought it would be great if 10 to 12 drivers showed up. Several persons said they wanted to participate but had schedule conflicts.

By 1 p.m., 21 Miatas of various colors and vintage – from 1990 to 2001 – had assembled on the Waterman Square parking lot. I gave some welcoming remarks and passed around a legal pad for persons to list their name, address and e-mail or phone contact. Most had come from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, but a few hailed from Fairfax, Manassas, Berryville and Strasburg.

Asked how these persons heard about the trip, the response was: “We have a network. We’ll drive pretty far to get in on something like this.”

Lawrence Yoder of Harrisonburg offered a prayer for safety on the roadways, and we spilled out on to Rt. 33 west for an estimated three-hour trek to Franklin, south on Rt. 220 to Monterey, east on Rt. 250 to Churchville and back to the ‘Burg via Rt. 42.

What a supercharged feeling – top-down Miatas in front of me as far as the eye could see, more Miatas following. It was a hoot to see drivers waiting at intersecting roads along the way, seemingly mesmerized by this brigade of sporty motorcars breezing along the thoroughfare.

Our caravan glided through the beautiful stretch of wooded roadway from Rawley Springs to the base of Shenandoah Mountain and started our ascent when cars ahead of me suddenly hit their brakes.

I came around a blind curve to see a blue Miata sitting in the roadway, smoke rolling from the interior, the front end bashed in, the driver sitting despondently by the wounded vehicle, his head between his knees. Life in the fast lane had come to an abrupt stop.

Jason Saufley, 18, had just graduated from Harrisonburg High School this spring, and owned his 1992 Miata five months. He told us he took the hairpin turn too fast, lost control and hit the mountainside where it meets the road’s edge. The impact spun his car around 180 degrees.

While he had some bruises and was visibly shaken, Jason insisted he would be all right. There was no cell phone service at our location, so someone drove to a spot where a call for assistance could be made.

I am most grateful to Sam and Vi Miller – Vi is a nurse – who offered to stay with Jason until assistance arrived. He took “full responsibility” for what happened. He took the turn too fast, spun out, hit the side of the mountain where it meets the road and did a 180-degree turn to face oncoming traffic.

We pushed the car down the road and off the pavement to an open area where oncoming vehicles could see it. A quick consultation was held; group consensus was to press on.

We stopped at a lookout point at the top of Shenandoah Mountain and prevailed upon an unsuspecting onlooker to snap a group photo with my camera. Just south of Franklin, the entourage pulled into Moe Fatz, a ’50s-style ice cream parlor – my kind of place, with pop culture paraphernalia on the walls, a soda fountain and music of that ebullient era pulsing from speakers. A 1958 Edsel station wagon and a 1959 Buick, both in mint condition, kept silent vigil next to the entrance.

This appeared to be the highlight of the trip for many, as participants purchased cones or sundaes, sat and visited while taking their leisurely licks. The owner, Floyd, thanked us several times for stopping and followed us out on to the parking lot to talk more with group members.

Having lingered at Moe’s longer than anticipated, we decided to keep moving rather than gracing downtown Monterey with our vehicular presence. Rt. 250, with its spiral curves over two mountain ranges, was designed for Miatas. I now drove the lead car and found it difficult to stay within the speed limit on the straightaways.

Some of the group disbursed upon reaching the intersection at Churchville, while others continued on Rt. 42 to Bridgewater or Harrisonburg.

One participant who e-mailed me afterwards, saying how much he enjoyed the trip, echoed my feelings in noting that the accident at the outset of our trip seemed “almost surreal,” like it never really happened.

In a later phone conversation, Jason said his car was declared totaled “because the frame is bent.”

I told Lawrence Yoder later that either he didn’t pray hard enough … or his prayer aided divine intervention in preventing more serious injuries. I believe it was the latter.

Following the trip, participant Joey Zarella of Strasburg pointed me to a Shenandoah Valley Miata web site, http://autos.groups.yahoo.com/group/SVMiataClub, which I promptly bookmarked.

Will we do another cruise? Not right away. But, odds favor planning something again, as I borrow from a 1964 tune by the Hondells:

“First gear, it’s all right

Second gear, lean right,

Third gear, hang on tight.

Fourth gear, out of sight.

Fifth gear, man alive, I’m in overdrive . . .”

(and still minding the speed limit).

Happy motoring, Miata mavens!


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