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Pics: Last Weekend - Lola T616 @ Laguna Seca
Submitted by Dan Mazzella on Wednesday, May 5, 2004 - 5:41pm

Few car companies have a commitment to the driving enthusiasts like Mazda does. Thanks to the folks in Mazdaspeed Motorsports Development, who are perhaps the most hard core enthusiasts out there, for putting on events like last weekend at the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. It seems that Mazda is in tune now, full compression on both rotors.

The event last weekend was the first time since 1984 the Lola T616 Mazda ran on the track. What better place to be re-introduced to the public than at Laguna Seca? We have some photos from the event last weekend, click through to see them!











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May 6, 2004 - 9:44am
It’s a long way from Hiroshima to Laguna Seca. Yet by pursuing its own brave course in the Sports Car Revolution, Mazda has not merely survived the journey. It is thriving.

At the famed Monterey Peninsula circuit that now bears its name, Mazda recently assembled some of the race cars and racers that played a role in its revolutionary cause.

No one would mistake this assemblage for the Rennsport Reunion, or the Monterey Historics. Mazda’s lineage does not reach back into the “golden age” of sports car racing, and you’ll find no evocative Jesse Alexander black and whites of Mazda’s heroics at Zandvoort. Nor does its current motorsports program play at a level where Max Mosley is likely to return phone calls from the CEO of Mazda before those of say, the CEO of BMW.

Still, few car companies can match Mazda’s commitment to the ordinary driving enthusiast. Its Mazdaspeed Motorsports Development arm is at the center of the revolt, arming pro racers, club racers and street performers alike with the parts and support to create more powerful, more agile iterations of what are already some seriously fun-to-drive cars. It’s hard to fault a company that gives enthusiasts the exceptional bang for the buck of the Mazda3, the MX-5 Miata, the Mazda6 or the RX-8. With Mazdaspeed, you simply get more bang.

Look closely at the accomplishments of some of the cars on display, and SPEED Channel’s Alain de Cadenet would do well to shoot a “Victory by Design” show featuring Mazdas.

Alain would no doubt be enamored with the pair of BFGoodrich-liveried Mazda Sports Prototypes that finished first and third in the C2 class at the 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours. They made their post-restoration debut during last weekend’s U.S. Sports Car Invitational, a festival of road racing held at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca and sponsored by the good folks from Road & Track. While they didn’t actually race, the demonstration laps the Le Mans duo ran were a reminder of how far Mazda engineers have ultimately taken the revolutionary idea once known as the Wankel.

It’s been a long, steep road.

At Mazda Raceway, Mazda displayed some of its milestone race cars, including this BFGoodrich-liveried sports prototype that captured a class win at Le Mans in 1984 (Rich Conklin photo).

In the 15 years following World War II, the halcyon days of sports car racing in America, Mazda didn’t even make cars. It made three-wheeled trucks.

It wasn’t until May of 1960 that Mazda built its first four-wheeled car, powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled two- cylinder engine. Appropriately named the R360, it was the first muffled shot fired by Mazda’s revolutionaries.

In October of that year, at virtually the same moment when Stirling Moss was winning the Pacific Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in a Lotus 19, Mazda was making the most important move in its history, signing a license agreement with NSU to develop the Wankel engine.

This was uncharted water. Much of what engineers had learned in 80 years of tinkering with reciprocating piston engines didn’t apply to the Wankel.

It was a different operating system, and Mazda’s struggle to create a viable motor from this unorthodox technology helped define its corporate culture. Mazda emerged as the automotive equivalent of Apple Computer, the creative and inventive iconoclast who played by a different set of rules, and never lost its sense of humility.

It’s an attitude that has ultimately served Mazda well. In a marketplace crowded with copycat cars, Mazda continues to surprise, to innovate, and to enthuse. As an example, look no further than the new RX-8, an unconventional sports car in both its packaging and its rotary power source.

Looking back, its seems so unlikely that Mazda would one day put its name atop Laguna Seca, and play host at one of the world’s most historic road racing venues.

The success enjoyed by the track’s SCRAMP caretakers from the early 1960s on, and the silent struggles of Mazda taking place at the exactly the same time, couldn’t form a more stark contrast.

In April 1963, after two years of failing to make the Wankel work, Mazda set up a Rotary Engine Development Division under Kenichi Yamamoto, an engineer who would eventually head Mazda in the late 1980s.

At Laguna Seca in the summer of ’63? The Shelby Cobra won its first United States Road Racing Championship event.

In May of 1967, nearly seven years after licensing the Wankel technology, Mazda finally introduced the first twin-rotor car, the 110S, to an indifferent world. That same month at Laguna Seca? Mark Donohue, driving a Lola T70, lost the USRRC race to Lothar Motschenbacher in a McLaren.

But Mazda’s own motorsports debut, while far from Laguna Seca, was not far off. Recognizing that motorsports success could convince the public of the rotary’s reliability and performance, two racing-trim Mazda 110S Cosmos were baptized at the Nordschleife Nurburgring where the "Marathon de la Route," an 84-hour endurance event, was held in August, 1968. The Cosmo met the grueling test, finishing fourth.

By 1969, Mazda was ready for the big time – the Spa-Francorchamps 24-Hour race. A pair of rotary-powered Mazdas finished in fifth and sixth places behind four Porsche 911s, vehicles that were fundamentally in a different category.

In April of 1970, Mazda quietly introduced itself to America, shipping 60 sedans stateside. That very same month, noisy big bore American iron like Donohue’s AMC Javelin thrilled Trans-Am fans at Laguna Seca.

Amid Detroit’s Pony Car War, Mazda’s brand of performance took off. By September 1974, Mazda had 390 dealers in the U.S., and were selling RX-2, RX-3, RX-4 models along with a rotary-powered pickup. That same year, IMSA came to Laguna Seca for the first time.

Within five years, Mazda would make IMSA history of its own. The recently introduced Mazda RX-7 finished 1-2 in the GTU class at the 1979 Daytona 24 Hours, starting a streak of 10 GTU wins at Daytona over 13 years, making the RX-7 one of the most successful racing cars of all time.

By 1984, they were class winners at Le Mans, an achievement eventually eclipsed by its capture of the ultimate prize: an overall Le Mans win in 1991, with the 4-rotor RX-787B. It was the first outright Le Mans win for any Japanese carmaker.

The timing was perfect. Mazda got its name up there with Jaguar and Aston Martin and Ferrari and Ford and Porsche, just in time to add legitimacy to its latest marketing gambit: an effort to reconnect America with the pure, innocent fun of sports cars, called Miata.

It proved to be an instant hit, but not a flash in the pan. Look at any regional gathering of SCCA or NASA racers. You will see an army of Spec Miatas, and when they take to the track, you will see some of the most entertaining racing this side of 140 horsepower.

So what if it’s piston power? Mazda learned the hard way not to put all its eggs in one basket. It was the piston-powered Mazda GLC that singlehandedly helped the company stave off extinction in the late 1970s, keeping Mazda afloat just long enough for the RX-7 to restart the rotary revolution.

The new RX-8 continues to fight the Sports Car Revolution, Mazda-style (Rich Conklin photo).

With the new RX-8, Mazda looks to have another sports car success on its hands. Sylvain Trembley’s Speedsource team has built five of the RX-8s for Grand Am Cup, and the results are starting to show in Mazda’s favor. Tremblay and David Haskell recently gave the RX-8 its first North American professional race win with their Grand-Am Cup Sports Touring division victory at Phoenix. All four SpeedSource RX-8s finished in the top 10, with the No. 70 Mazda grabbing the win by 27sec over the pole-sitting Turner Motorsports BMW.

The RX-8’s first SCCA National win came this past weekend, when Scott Shelton, Robert Davis, and Nick Esayian swept both T-2 race podiums at the Cal Club Double National at Buttonwillow, just down the coast from Laguna Seca.

The RX-8’s “Renesis” rotary also powers the all-new Pro Formula Mazda, a 240-hp, carbon-fiber chassis, open wheel spec racer that competes as the Star Mazda Series North American Championship presented by Goodyear, a ten-race fight that follows the American Le Mans Series across the United States and Canada.

Mazda claims that on any given weekend, there are more Mazdas racing on the racetracks, dragstrips and parking lots of the America than any other brand of automobile.

Want to join the revolution? The Mazda Rev It Up is the world’s largest performance driving and competition event in one, and it’s coming to a city near you.

It’s a journey worth taking.

Rich Conklin is a Senior Writer for RACER magazine.
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