David Meditz, Rotarynews contributor and Rotorhead extraordinaire shared his experience with us at this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, where Mazda was celebrating the 20th Anniversary of its victory at the 24 Heures du Mans. Enjoy the read!
August 19-21 Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca hosted the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. The featured marque this year was Jaguar, but Mazda upstaged them again. Twenty years ago Mazda assaulted the senses and establishment taking the overall victory at LeMans with the 4 rotor 787B. This story has been told many times but who finished second, that would be Jaguar. On this weekend Mazda again took to the track with their famed 787B. Finishing up its US tour the 787B gave us the rare glimpse of rotary greatness. If this was only about the 787B shrilly screaming around Mazda Raceway it would be enough to excite most rotary fanatics but it isn’t.
Mazda sponsored by Mother’s Car Polishes set up their own heritage display, though it didn’t eclipse Jaguar’s it was significant. Mazda brought out 4 race cars; the winning Renown 1991 #55 787B, 1991 #56 787, 1992 #77 Rx-792p and the 1991 #62 Rx-7 GTO, also in the Mazda tent were a 1968 Cosmo Sport and a Hydrogen Hybrid Rx-8. The Mazda contingent was boosted by privateers John Davis and Ralph Borelli with their pair of Mazda powered 1984 BF Goodrich Lola T616s, they came out in full force with team hauler, crew and spares. The team in their BF Goodrich livery looked as if they stepped right from 1984.
Friday morning Mazda was represented during practice with the792p, 787, and the Lola T-616s. Practice went well with fast lap setting the running order for the afternoon qualifying race. The new restored 787 seemed not to be able get up to speed Robert Davis later stated that the car was very tight. Through a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill this did not hamper their efforts.
At lunch time Mazda took to the track with demo laps from the 787B, 787 and the 792p. After a parade lap the 3 cars were unleashed for some flying laps. Driving the #55 787B was none other than factory driver Yojiro Terada, one of the original drivers for the #56 787 and holds the record for 29 consecutive LeMans starts. Driving the #56 787 was Robert Davis, Mazda North America’s Senior Vice President of U.S. operations. Driving the #77 792p was John Doonan the Director of Mazda Motorsports. While Terada and Davis would drive their cars throughout the weekend this would be Doonan’s only opportunity as he was soon off to oversee Mazda Motorsport Racing that weekend.
That afternoon Mazda took part in the group 6B (1981-89 FIA Manufacturer’s Championship and IMSA GTP Cars) qualifying race, Weldon Munsey now piloting the 792p. Starting in fourth Weldon quickly moved to third. After a slight bobble he dropped to ninth, but a late race caution seemed to be his savior. Restarting in the 7th position he charged forward aggressively, too much so for the Jaguar camp, taking 2nd and was challenging for the lead when the oil pressure sending unit failed. Rather than potentially damaging the motor he brought her into the pits. Recovering nicely from the mornings tight condition Robert Davis brought the 787 home in 6th, also in the race were the Lolas of John Davis and Ralph Borelli. Although underpowered with 2 rotor 13Bs the Lolas were competitive right up till Ralph’s quit running. Luckily the problem wasn’t terminal just lack of fuel.
While not racing Saturday it would not be an idle day for Mazda. It started mid afternoon when all 4 of the 4 rotor cars were moved out of the tent and warmed up. On track was historic racing but the crowd was gathered about the Mazdas with the shrill brapping of 3 of the 4 rotors cars being warmed at the same time. I savored the moment thinking this must have been how it felt at LeMans 20 years ago. With anticipation the crowd gathered around the bright orange and green 787B as it was allowed to warm up solo with pops and backfires as the lead Mazda engineer adjusted the timing between 6k rpm blasts. The drivers suited up preparing to deliver their rotary surprise, all 4 of the cars on the track at one time. As the drivers are posing for group photos the unmistakable crescendo of an angry peripheral port rotary builds in the background, ear shattering throttle blasts work well parting the crowd and allowing the BF Goodrich Lolas to join the party. A quick assembly for a now larger group photo and the cars are moved to grid. We move to the track side of pit lane and I can’t believe that I am going to see, hear and feel these cars from less than 10 feet away. The cars inch out on the track following the CX9 pace vehicle for a parade and photo lap. Down through the corkscrew their throttles barely held in check, until at last the pace car pulls off into the pits and pure rotary fury is unleashed. Down the front straight the unmistakable rotary whine clawing for higher rpm and the snick, snick, snick of rapid gear changes as the cars go flying into the hairpin. Through the hairpin and headed for turn 3 it becomes obvious that even though the 787B isn’t geared for the tight twists and turns Terada has no intention of letting go of P1. The cars shoot through the next series of corners and climb the hill to the famed corkscrew. From the pit lane our view is blocked but that rotary sound cuts through the still evening air. The cars reappear out of the turn 9 downhill sweeper, Terada still in the lead. Into the final left hander and on to the straight they come roaring by the start finish line and starting another lap. In the end we are treated to 4 flying laps and that wonderful melody of full throttle rotary engines each time. For this display the taming of the GTO Rx7 was in the very capable hands of Jeremy Barnes, Mazda North America’s Director of Communication and National Events.
Saturday evening I was privileged to spend some time with racing legend, Arie Luyendyk. He shared this rotary racing story. At the 24 hours of Daytona, a few years back, he had just finished an early night driving stint. While trying to sleep, his motor home parked in the infield he couldn’t get away from that awful screaming of Jim Downing’s rotary. He prayed all night lap after lap that it would break so he could finally get some sleep but it never happened.
Following Saturday, Sunday’s events were anticlimactic. The Mazdas took the field for the official Group 6B race. The 792p finished 3rd and the 787 finished 6th. Looking back at the weekend there is a message, Mazda is alive, well and proud of their heritage. Seeing these cars on the track at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca has left me with some final thoughts. I challenge you to find a car company whose senior executives more personally embody and live the spirit of Zoom Zoom. You might think Mazda would be cautious with these historic cars but they were topping 145mph at start finish line, for perspective the event top speeds were from Can-Am and Formula 1 cars at 151mph. This just proves the Mazda tag line; "We believe if it's not worth driving, it's not worth building. We build Mazdas."