Mazda Returns to Sharp End of IMSA WeatherTech Championship Prototype Field

Mazda at Rolex 24
Mazda at Rolex 24

Mazda isn’t used to losing, but that’s what has been happening for the past two seasons in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

In 2012, Mazda was third of eight manufacturers in GRAND-AM’s GT series, with two wins and seven podium finishes. In 2011, one win, nine podium finishes on the way to a second-place finish in the championship. In 2010, they dominated GT, winning the championship and six races.

But at the end of 2012, Mazda stopped importing the rotary-powered RX-8, meaning the company had to find another car to race, and quick. In 2013, racing the diesel-powered Mazda 6 sedan in the new GX class, Mazda won the Manufacturer’s Championship in the GRAND-AM Series, the year before GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series merged to form the WeatherTech Championship.

But with the merger, the GX class Mazda was racing in was eliminated, making it a one-and-done class. Once again, Mazda had to find a car to race.

This time they were ready. The manufacturer, in its boldest motorsports move ever, announced that it would field a two-car Prototype team, racing in the top class in the series. After a winter thrash, the cars were ready for the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Well, on the outside, at least. There were the usual teething pains of any new car, but the central problem the Mazda Prototype had was the insistence of the Japanese motorsports executives that the car use a diesel engine. At the time, Mazda was planning to sell diesel-powered Mazda 6s in the U.S.

For two long, long years, Mazda and SpeedSource, their U.S. race shop, struggled to find reliable power in the diesel engines that would allow them to race against, among others, the Chevrolet V-8s. While SpeedSource made progress, it was clear it was never going to happen with the diesels.

Over the off season between 2015 and 2016, the diesels were finally replaced with turbocharged four-cylinder, gasoline-powered engines similar to the ones used in the final years of the American Le Mans Series in the LMP1 Prototype there.

And immediately, Mazda was back in the game. Three races into 2016, Mazda is third in manufacturer points, 12 behind leader Honda, 11 behind Chevrolet. Their newly found power was evident at the Bubba Burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach last weekend when Tom Long qualified the No. 70 car third, and Tristan Nunez qualified fifth in the No. 55. Long was less than 0.7 seconds behind the pole-sitting Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype of Action Express.

This came a few hours after Jonathan Bomarito – for the first time in Mazda’s WeatherTech Championship program – posted the fastest lap of the Friday morning practice session in the No. 55 entry he shares with Nunez. And when the green flag fell in the race, Long shot into second place past the Action Express car, en route to an eventual fourth-place finish for Long and Joel Miller, and a fifth-place finish for Nunez and Bomarito.

“We’re getting so close," Long said. “We’re right there. And it feels great."

Long and the entire Mazda team are especially excited about the next race on the schedule, the Continental Tires Monterey Grand Prix Powered by Mazda, to be held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca April 29-May 1.

As you can tell, this is Mazda’s home race, on its home track, and expectations are high. “Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is really more suited to our car than Long Beach was," Long said. “I’m really optimistic about our chances there. The past two years have been tough on everybody, and now we have what we’ve been working towards so hard – a chance to run at the front."

When Mazda finally gets that podium finish, or a win, expect a very emotional victory lane. And if it happens at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, break out the hankies. Steven Cole Smith, IMSA Wire Service

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