By the time he returned home from Watkins Glen on Monday, Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan had more than 600 messages on his phone awaiting his attention. His email inbox was also filled, topped by congratulations from Roger Penske, whose Acura ARX-05s were beaten handily by Mazda Team Joest’s RT24-Ps.
Five years, five months, and five days after Mazda went racing with the marque’s first IMSA Prototype program at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Doonan finally received the gift he’d been seeking since January of 2014 when the No. 55 RT24-P drove into Victory Lane.
The enormous reaction, signaled by the outpouring of hundreds upon hundreds of inbound texts and other forms of contact, was similar to what a new Indy 500 winner receives. All this, however, for a man who runs a racing program in IMSA.
As a man of immense faith, Doonan’s unwavering belief in the small Japanese manufacturer—a “challenger brand”, as he likes to call it—left him as the lone evangelist at times when others questioned his sanity.
When Mazda’s critics said it was foolish to stick with a small-displacement four-cylinder turbo made by the equally small specialist firm Advanced Engine Research, Doonan remained faithful. The same is true with Multimatic, whose chassis, in its original RT24-P configuration from 2017, looked stunning, but couldn’t match the faster DPis built by Dallara and Ligier.
On more than one occasion, Mazda’s prototype drivers have shown small deficiencies when pitted against world champion-caliber rivals. Rather than thank them for their service and send them to the unemployment line, Doonan found ways to keep them on the payroll, in other capacities, or in different series, out of a sense of brotherhood and duty. With most manufacturer programs, those drivers would have been dropped in an instant.
Doonan’s faith was tested on personal and professional levels with former Grand-Am and IMSA partner SpeedSource, whose Florida-based team led Mazda to great success in touring car and GT competition.
Tasked with bringing the brand back to prototype racing with Mazda’s SkyActiv diesel power plants, SpeedSource owner Sylvain Tremblay received significant investment from the manufacturer to expand its resources to include diesel engine development, along with greater tools for design and simulation.
Doonan’s decision to take SpeedSource from Grand-Am’s Rolex GT category to the heights of IMSA’s new Prototype category was another loyalty-based move. And despite intense efforts to make the cars competitive and reliable, the Multimatic-built Lola LMP2s carrying the four-cylinder turbodiesels were everything but successful.
The struggles continued when the diesels were abandoned as reliability, mechanical mistakes, and poor strategy calls kept the faster Mazda prototypes from finding Victory Lane. A last chance was given to SpeedSource at the onset of the new DPi formula.
Overmatched by the development teams responsible for Cadillac’s DPi-V.R and the Nissan Onroak DPi, Doonan made the hardest call of his career. Rather than take the easy way out and place a call to Tremblay, he boarded a plane from Chicago and flew to meet with the man whose company relied on Mazda’s annual budget to exist.
While it would be inaccurate to portray the meeting as happy or positive, Tremblay was not surprised by Doonan’s decision to halt the RT24-P program halfway into its debut season and place the team in the hands of Joest Racing going forward. There was a palpable sense of having not only disappointed Mazda, but Doonan as well.
The tearful but necessary divorce with SpeedSource was handled with dignity by both sides. To the surprise of no-one, Tremblay was among those who contacted Doonan after Sunday’s Watkins Glen win to offer congratulations.
In this odd circumstance where a man in charge of a manufacturer’s racing program is being treated like a rock star for achieving the victory he willed the brand to receive, it is the little gestures that have inspired the giant reaction to the Watkins Glen success.
It’s helping a young journalist from his home state to buy his first car, a sporty Mazda sedan, at a healthy discount. It’s seeing a Mazda Road To Indy champion – the product of the open-wheel ladder system Doonan created – fall short of funds to make his IndyCar debut, and making an impromptu trip to Florida to find the sponsorship that placed the driver on the grid using a rival brand’s engine. It’s making sizable donations to the wives and families of fallen racers. It’s commissioning and presenting a painting to honor the Gurney family whose car held the lap record at Daytona until Mazda’s RT24-P set the new standard in January. It’s donating race-used Mazda firesuits to SCCA corner workers as prizes for their volunteerism. It’s investing in people, teams, and even media outlets, to ensure racing’s financial ecosphere remains healthy at a time when sponsorship and advertising dollars are frighteningly thin.
It’s setting the example for the rest of us to follow. Be the best citizen possible, help whenever and however you can, and lives will be changed.
If there’s a prime example of Doonan’s impact through loyalty, faith, and benevolence, it’s ALMS Prototype champion Marino Franchitti. The Scot’s name has adorned factory Mazda RX-8 Rolex GT entries, Dyson Racing’s factory Mazda prototypes, and both SpeedSource and Joest-run Mazdas in IMSA.
“It’s funny, 10 years on, we were in a similar situation in 2009,” he said on Monday. “With Dyson, we had speed, but just needed to put a whole race together and we managed to do that in Lime Rock. To get the home victory for the team was one thing, but I’ll never forget seeing John’s reaction after the race. He lives for this. You can’t imagine the blood and tears he puts into his program and the release he gets, the joy he gets, from success seems to be more extreme, and it’s completely infectious.
“We’ve been friends since soon after I started racing in the States, but after our year working together in ’09, it was at a different level. He’s famous in my family for coming to the UK for 24 hours, in the middle of a very busy period for him, when Holly and I got married. That’s the kind of friend John is.”
A proven commodity, even with his full-time driving career on hold, Franchitti has become Doonan’s go-to solution when speed and experience is needed. All based off the skills and character first demonstrated a decade ago in a defunct series.
“Throughout the years we’ve always tried to work together, whether that be one-offs like Daytona 24, or the long races in IMSA,” Franchitti says. “We were very close to being back together full time a few years ago, but for one reason or another, it didn’t come together.
“Last year is a prime example of John’s belief in people. He wanted to put me in for Petit Le Mans to fill in for [Mazda driver] Harry Tincknell, who had a conflict to drive for Ford in Japan. And between him and the guys at Multimatic, they put together a test and sim program that meant that when I turned up at Petit, though I hadn’t raced for 18 months, I was as prepared as I could be.
“The joy I got from doing the job for him there, to be running up front and get a podium was something else. We had the speed to win, we had the fastest car out there, but we just didn’t execute and it cost us, but it was another step closer to the win with our double podium.”
Being part of the extended Mazda Motorsports family, and Doonan’s in particular, has kept Franchitti glued to the team’s performances this year. Considering the number of near-wins that have been lost, maybe it was something as simple as a good-luck charm that helped get Mazda to the finish line first.
“I’ve watched all the races and they’ve been there in the hunt, like we were at Petit, and it was great to see the whole team come together and get that win, I’m so happy for them all, but I’m especially happy for John, the Multimatic guys, and the drivers.
“We had breakfast recently when he was over in the UK, and I gave John some socks in the famous Mazda 787B Le Mans-winning colors and jokingly told him that they were the missing piece of the puzzle. To see him riding the car into Victory Lane on Sunday and see he was wearing the socks made me chuckle…”
Speaking for the countless numbers of friends and racers who’ve led enriched lives once Doonan arrived, Franchitti can’t wait for the next chance for the pair to share a garage.
“I’ve got no doubt that he and I will work together again soon,” he says. “There’s nothing better than being on John’s team.”