On-track performance was just part of the criteria (Richard S. James photo)
The thing about amateur racing is that there’s no prize money. Racers race purely for the fun of it, and perhaps a little contingency money to help with the expenses. And winning at the club level isn’t the ticket to a professional racing career that it once was.
Unless the right people are watching. When Joey Bickers won the National Auto Sport Association (N.A.S.A.) Teen Mazda Challenge, the people at Mazda Motorsports were watching and, as they do with all their amateur racing champions, invited him to participate in their Club Racer Shootout. They and their cadre of judges from various areas of motorsport were watching on Monday when Bickers, along with TJ Fischer, Zachary Munro, Cal Vandaalen and Michael Whelden, went through the gauntlet of driving tests, presentations and grilling in an effort to win the prize of a fully funded season in the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup. Bickers came out on top.
?I’m excited to give my best effort in my rookie season in Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup,? said Bickers shortly after learning he’d been selected for the scholarship. ?I saw at the Shootout, by meeting everyone and seeing how everyone works, I think Mazda and myself will be a really good pair and it will be a longstanding relationship. That’s what really excites me about being chosen.?
To say Bickers (RIGHT, photo courtesy of Mazda) is a rising star in racing would be an understatement. Although he started in motocross at age 12, the 21-year old from Moorpark, Calif., is only wrapping up his first full year of racing cars after a single full season in karts last year. In addition to running the Teen Mazda Challenge West ” a series of races within N.A.S.A. Spec Miata races ” he ran the Pacific F1600 championship with PR1 motorsports, finishing second to Colton Herta. That got him noticed by the Team USA Scholarship, and he was chosen to race with Jake Eidson in the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy races in the UK last month.
Doing and learning so much in a short period of time was one of the things that impressed the Mazda Club Racer Shootout judges.
Left to right: Fischer, Bickers, Vandaalen, Whelden and Munro, with judges behind. (photo courtesy of Mazda)
?The numbers were really close, and one judge’s numbers were a little higher here, and another’s were a little higher there, and it came down to pretty much how we do it every year: We have to sit there and discuss what stood out in our minds and what aspects of that participant makes them a winner,? said Charles Espenlaub, a longtime Mazda racer and the head judge. ?It’s not super clear cut; it’s margins and details and little specifics. Joey impressed us more so than the other participants due to the fact that he’s really showing a lot of talent for not much time in racing. I think he had the least amount of experience, and yet had the maturity and discipline to move forward.?
Bickers credits going through the Team USA Scholarship program with some of that maturity, due to some similar challenges. The fact that he’s a business major at Moorpark College ” and understanding the business of racing is a key component of the Shootout ” probably didn’t hurt either. But without the talent behind the wheel, the rest of it is moot.
?I think if you chose aspects of the competition that I stood out in, I think it might have been the driving, the consistency. I don’t have much experience with presentation skills, but I think I was able to stay pretty composed during the business meeting. I was really focused on staying professional the whole day,? Bickers said.
RIGHT: Richard S. James photo
Now in its eighth year, the Mazda Club Racer Shootout gives Mazda champions from various amateur racing venues, including SCCA, N.A.S.A., Formula Car Challenge and Canadian championships, the opportunity to compete for the MX-5 Cup drive, which also includes tires from BFGoodrich and entry fees from SCCA Pro Racing. Each champion is invited to submit a fictional business proposal for sponsorship, and the top five are then invited to the shootout at Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
During the one-day Shootout, they are grilled over their proposal by the panel of judges, observed and timed on track, with data, and evaluated on their technical feedback and knowledge. It’s not only a competition, but a valuable educational tool as well.
?The thing I learned as a contestant ” twice ” are things I still apply today when I put a helmet on,? said Scott Shelton, the 2010 Shootout winner and now a judge. ?I become more and more appreciative of how thorough and unique this opportunity is. I’m not aware of any other opportunity where you can help craft your story to not only become a better racer, but a better businessman and better technically in terms of feedback and learning how to make your car go faster. It’s like a one-day master’s class in how to become a better motorsports professional.?
Shootout contender TJ Fischer, who earned his spot by winning the Formula Car Challenge Formula Mazda championship, agrees: ?I have a new outlook on it and it pushed me to new limits on the business side of it. I definitely feel like I have more confidence. If I have an idea and want to go into some company with a proposal, I can go ahead and do it. That’s the kind of thing they put you through. To be in front of 10 judges, all proven in the racing world, critiquing every word you say?it doesn’t get much harder than that. The whole program challenged me and it’s a great learning experience.?
Bickers will have the opportunity to use the lessons he learned in the Shootout with a full season of Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup competition. His next step is to test with interested teams before signing with one for 2014.