Above: Jeremy Barnes, Mazda North American Operations public relations director, in the Rx-7 GTO in which Pete Halsmer won the IMSA championship in 1991.
Mazda, the only Japanese manufacturer to conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been celebrating the 25th anniversary of their 1991 victory this year – and continues to do so at this weekend’s SportsCar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) National Championships at Circuit of The Americas. Mazda North American Operations has filed three truly historic entries from what they call their “Heritage Collection.” There are two prototypes, a 1989 Mazda 767B and a 1990 Mazda 787 as well as the 1991 Mazda Rx7 GTO racer. The prototypes are entered in SVRA Group 11 and the RX-7 is in Group 10. They are all in a combined run group.
Of the three at COTA this weekend, probably the most storied is the 767B, chassis 002. Its sister, chassis 001, was famously crumpled at Goodwood during the hill climb competition in 2015. It is restored and in Japan under private ownership. The completely refurbished 002 is dazzling stateside racing aficionados and people who just plain know a great racecar when they see one. Jim Downing, five-time IMSA champion – all with Mazda, restored the 767B at his Downing/Atlanta Racing garage. Driving the car this weekend is Ken Saward, senior design engineer at Mazda North American Operations (MNAO).
What set the 767B (pictured, being driven by Mazda Senior design engineer Ken Saward) apart from previous Mazda entries was that it began to pull into focus the ultimate goal of an overall win at the most important sports car race in the world, Le Mans. Mazda had regularly fielded entries since 1970 when it fit its unconventional rotary engine into a Chevron B16. The arrival of English designer Nigel Stroud, who cooked up a departure from previous entries in the form of a model 757 in 1986, launched a new and more powerful trajectory.
Stroud applied what he learned from his experience with the 757 to introduce the model 767 for the 1988 season. At the heart of the big step up from the 757 was the 767’s engine, a four combustion chamber rotary unit dubbed the 13J. The displacement of the combined chambers was measured at roughly 2.6 liters, or in the tricky world of equivalency formulas, rated at 5.2 liters for a more conventional four-stroke piston pumper. The horsepower rating came in at 630, a sharp bump up of some 200 HP over its predecessor.
The following year the cars reached their potential, reincarnated with evolutionary modifications reflected in a new model number: 767B. With enhancements that addressed some reliability challenges they hit their stride with GTP class wins at Dijon, Brands Hatch, Nurburgring, Spa, Mexico and most importantly Le Mans with drivers David Kennedy, Pierre Dieudonne and Chris Hodgetts. The team also finished seventh overall.
After Downing’s exhaustive two-year restoration effort, the 767B chassis 002 is completely restored to its robust, howling rotary power of racing lore in time for celebrations in 2016. The revitalized wonder was revealed at the August Monterey Motorsports Reunion with Saward at the wheel. In Saturday’s feature race Saward steered the iconic machine to eighth overall in the field of 28 cars and fifth in the GTP3 class.
The 1990 Mazda 787 was not only the next step on Mazda’s ladder from the 767B, but also the immediate precursor to 787B, the car that became the first and only rotary engine racer to score an overall win at Le Mans in 1991. That machine remains in Japan. The 1990 Mazda 787 on hand this weekend, carrying the number 56 and dressed in the team’s traditional white and blue-trim livery, is powered by an engine – the R26B – that was a nice upgrade producing some 70 HP more than the 767B’s 13J.
Designer Nigel Stroud responded to the lighter, shorter power plant with a completely new ground effects chassis. This was Mazda’s first carbon-fiber composite car and it incorporated an advanced telemetry system that helped team engineers monitor, among other things, the all-important fuel consumption. All the advancements of the new racer necessitated extensive testing and the team simply ran short on the priceless commodity of time. The car clearly showed promise but needed more development. The two entries featured star drivers Johnny Herbert in one car and Stefan Johansson in the other, but at Le Mans both were DNFs and classified 39th and 40th.
Above: Robert Davis, senior vice president at Mazda North America Operations, in the Mazda 787 prototype.
The 787 entered at COTA was the essential platform to produce the eventual crown jewel of all Mazda Le Mans history with its derivative Le Mans-winning 787B in 1991. Six-time Le Mans champion Jacky Ickx had been hired to consult the team in 1990 and continued into the next year. Herbert returned with co-drivers Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot and collectively the team proved the winning combination. Robert Davis, senior vice president, U.S. operations group, is driving the 787 this weekend.
Like the other Mazda Heritage Collection drivers, Davis has a strong resume at the wheel and complete respect for the equipment he is entrusted with. He has 26 years of experience, beginning with racing in National Auto Sport Association competition as well as SCCA. Davis has raced up the famous hill climb at Goodwood and “The Mitty” at Road Atlanta. He finished 16th overall in Saturday’s feature and took sixth in GTP3.
“We’ve been running two premiere events each year and this is certainly one of them,” Davis says. “The other, of course, is the Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Finally, the 1991 RX-7 IMSA GTO, powered by the same 13J four-rotor engine developed for the 767 prototype, is here this weekend in the hands of MNAO Public Relations Director Jermey Barnes (pictured), who finished 10th overall Saturday and took home the runner up spot in GT2. The 640 HP machine has significant pedigree. Pete Halsmer won his driver’s championship with the car that year and, with teammate Price Cobb, secured the manufacturer’s championship as well with five victories that season. Halsmer, a Daytona 24 class winner, is also an Indianapolis 500 veteran who has competed in three SVRA Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am races.
“We’re here to make some noise, shoot some flame,” Barnes quips.
The reality is the effort is a bit more serious than that comment may imply. All the Mazda executives agree racing their Heritage Collection says a lot about Mazda because it reflects the culture of the company as well as its history. The first thing a visitor notices is that the drivers – all Mazda executives – are up to their elbows preparing and adjusting the cars for their next track session.
“There’s no free lunch,” says Barnes. “You want to race, you work on the car. Seriously, it’s what we call the Mazda way. We’re one team, one goal, one Mazda. We’re a company of car people who are also business people.”
The executives explain that Mazda is, as car manufacturers go, a small company of less than 900 employees. Barnes says that Mazda sees itself as a grassroots-focused company who is building brand advocates starting with employees and working “inside-out.” John Doonan, the director of Mazda’s North American racing programs, says the history reflected by the Heritage Collection is important to the brand.
“Our heritage activity is a statement of why what we do today is important,” Doonan explains. “We never forget our history. It tells people what we’ve accomplished and demonstrates how we have succeeded in taking the road less traveled, like with the rotary engines. Most important, it builds excitement in our employees and dealers in how they can write that next chapter of our history.”
The Mazda Heritage Collection, established in 2001, is stored in a basement in Irvine, California. That may not sound glamorous, but the fact is Mazda is garnering tons of respect for tuning the beasts to period perfection and unleashing them on legendary tracks like COTA, and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Along with the three beauties described here other treasures of the collection include Patrick Bedard’s 1973 BFGoodrich Radial Challenge RX-2, the MX-6 that won IMSA’s 1989 & 1990 GTU championship and the Rx7-92P IMSA prototype Mazda campaigned for one season with drivers Price Cobb and Halsmer.
Mazda’s Heritage Collection participation this weekend comes on the heels of the company’s recent announcement of its five-race SVRA-sanctioned series, the Mazda Miata Heritage Cup, for 2017. That championship will offer a new entry point for racers to enter vintage racing – and to celebrate the amazing history of the Mazda’s impact on motorsport.