Farewell Mazda. Thank you.
With only ten minutes remaining in the 2016 IMSA Petit LeMans, disaster struck the Mazda prototype. A podium spot disappeared in flames after nine hours and fifty minutes of a ten hour race. The car beneath driver Joel Miller had enough and broke a fuel injector. With the rear of his car alight in flame, Miller pulled his car into the Road Atlanta pit lane, rolled down the hill and stopped in front of emergency vehicles. Quick deployment of a fire extinguisher prevented the car from burning to the ground.
The sister car retired earlier with engine issues. The fire signaled not only the end of the race for Mazda, but also the season and the chassis/engine combination. A brand-new platform arrived in 2017.
I had positioned myself to get a shot of the checkered flag waving above the winners as they passed across the start/finish line. I was not standing across from pit entry expecting to watch the end of the race for Miller and his Mazda.
The current Mazda prototype project began in 2014. The underdog pushed through mechanical failures and organizational changes. Mazda remained faithful to the premise of connecting its engine to the road car product. A diesel Lola gave way to a purpose-built Mulitmatic car with an inline four cylinder engine in 2017. Flashes of speed and promise were cruelly rewarded with setbacks. R&D on a public stage. Two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, two steps back. Repeat.
Jade Gurss was Mazda's PR media contact for several of the difficult years. While companies typically don't highlight their products being consumed by fire, I showed it to him in 2017 thinking it could be used as a contrast when happier days arrived just around the corner. After all, sometimes a reminder of the path and hurdles overcome to find success is warranted. Turns out, I was optimistic.
At every step, fans appreciated the attitude of manufacturer, team leadership, crews and drivers. The Mazda space in the IMSA paddock was always friendly, pulling in the ropes and bringing fans as close as possible without getting underfoot.
However, Mazda wasn't content with being a popular loser. Joest Racing pushed the program forward in 2019 and 2020. Finally, Mazda was more consistently in the conversation for podiums and wins. Finally, the discussion shifted from "when will the Mazda break?" to fast laps and race strategy. Finally, Mazda became a threat.
The overall 12 Hours of Sebring winner's trophy now is part of the Mazda trophy cabinet. Likewise for podiums at the Daytona 24 in 2020 and 2021. Wins and podiums elsewhere on the IMSA schedule came as well.
In February 2021, Mazda announced an end to the IMSA prototype program. With a coming change of regulations, the time was right. The universe saw fit to show the program out on a high note when Mazda Motorsports won its final outing at the Petit LeMans in October. Harry Tincknell, Jonathan Bomarito and Oliver Jarvis came from three laps down to take the win - five years after the 2016 fire.
While the popular Mazda top-tier prototype program is ending, Mazda continues to be a major backbone of grassroots amateur racing in the United States. Resources that would have otherwise gone towards factory-backed racing will go to support weekend warriors. While IMSA fans will miss seeing Mazda trackside, this is truly a case of being thankful what was and what will be rather than sad that it is no more.
To all associated with Mazda and Mazda Motorsports in all capacities and all times, thank you. Best wishes to all who race Mazda machines across parking lots and road courses on the weekends. In the absence of Mazda factory-backed prototype racing, those looking for good stories to get behind shouldn't have far to look. Some of the best racing in the country can be found among the Teen Mazda Challenge, MX-5 Cup, SCCA classes, NASA events and more... #ZoomZoom indeed.