If you want to see Ferrari’s most significant racecars, you’ll need a passport and a ticket to Maranello, Italy. If you want to see BMW’s most important racecars, you’ll need to go to Munich, Germany. Porsche or Mercedes-Benz? Fly to Stuttgart.
To see racecars critical to Mazda’s motorsports heritage, look for them on a racetrack at nostalgic and vintage events across the United States, in Europe and Japan. And not just displayed in a tent. On the track, racing.
Mazda North American Operations keeps its most significant concept cars and racecars tucked away in the basement of its R&D headquarters in Irvine, Calif. A few times a year, Mazda loads those cars onto a tractor trailer and takes them to the track, where a cadre of dedicated Mazda employees volunteer their time to keep these cars running and out on track where fans and enthusiasts can appreciate them.
The appeal of Mazda’s Heritage Collection centers on its rotary engines, a technology that no other car company has been able to master and mass market. Beginning with the Cosmo 110S in 1967 to the RX-8, which ceased production in 2012, Mazda produced nearly 2 million rotary-powered cars, and has made rotary engines a key part of its motorsports effort. From production vehicles to factory racecars with three- and four-rotor power plants, the rotary engine, and the accompanying wail of its exhaust note, is unmistakable — and unmistakably Mazda.
“The rotary engine has such a hardcore cult following,” said Dean Case, communications officer for Mazdazpeed Motorsports. “We’ve seen people who have rotor tattoos. That’s brand commitment that we cannot ask for. You can’t pay someone to do that. They did that out of true passion. So when we pull those cars out, there’s huge love for these. They’re the most distinctive-sounding cars on the track. You do not miss when the rotaries are on track, so it’s fantastic. We have amazing fans.”
A visit to Mazda’s basement reveals a collection of racecars in various states of repair, from basket case to race-ready. The cars range in status from relatively unknown except to hardcore enthusiasts to wildly famous to anyone with a passing interest in sports car racing.
For example, there’s the 1973 RX-2 driven by Car & Driver editor Patrick Bedard in the 1973 BFGoodrich Radial Challenge, a semiprofessional series sanctioned by the International Motorsports Association. This diminutive little racer delivered Mazda its first wins in professional roadracing outside Japan. This car is the genesis of Mazda’s racing efforts in North America.
Across the aisle, there is the 1989 MX-6 GTU car driven by John Finger and Lance Stewart. This is the car that won three IMSA GTU races in 1989 and took the manufacturers championship for Mazda. In 1990, this car won five IMSA GTU races, taking the second manufacturers championship and securing the drivers championship and the most-improved driver award for Lance Stewart. Far from production spec, the MX-6 features a two-rotor engine up front and a Hewland transaxle mounted in the rear. The only production parts on the car are the tail lamps.
The notoriety of the MX-6 is overshadowed by the 1991 RX-7 IMSA GTO powered by a four-rotor engine originally developed for the Mazda’s 767 Group C Le Mans car. Generating some 600-plus horsepower, this car is a crowd favorite on track, spewing flames and screaming from corner to corner, emitting a wail that echoes a mile away. Driver Pete Hallsmer wheeled this car to a drivers and a manufacturers title in 1991. In 1994, the car raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished second in class before being retired to Mazda’s Heritage Collection.
“This is no shrinking violet of a racecar. Either you’re in charge, or it is. The car doesn’t really mind being told what to do, but it’s equally happy telling you what it’s going to do next,” said Jeremy Barnes, Mazda’s director of public relations and brand experience, who also races a Spec Miata with NASA. “I was a corner worker in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and remember watching this car race at Del Mar. It is one of the reasons I’m such a fan today, and one of the reasons I started racing back in the late ‘90s. It’s a pleasure and an honor to drive it every time the opportunity comes up.”
Several cars from Mazda’s Heritage Collection recently made the trip from Irvine to Monterey, Calif., for the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where the company maintains a huge presence. In addition to being the namesake manufacturer of the raceway, Mazda provides pace cars that take to the track during lunches and intermissions to keep fans engaged and to keep Mazda cars in front of them. At the PreReunion, a Mazda 6, RX-8 and an MX-5 ran laps while drivers of the vintage cars enjoyed a lunch break.
One of the biggest attractions under the Mazda tent at this year’s Reunion was the debut of the newly restored 1989 767B Group C car. A derivation of the 1988 767, this 767B scored two GTP class victories in 1989 in the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship and finished ninth overall at Le Mans that year. The all-Japanese driver lineup included Yojiro Terada, who first raced for Mazda at Le Mans in 1974.
Now driven by Mazda design manager Ken Saward, who also races Spec Miata with NASA SoCal, the restored 767B wears the Renown Charge livery similar to the most famous Mazda racecar of all time: the 787B that won Le Mans in 1991. That car stays in Japan and usually in the Mazda Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, but Mazda still takes it out and runs it on racetracks around the world, including Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Le Mans in 2011 for the 20th anniversary of its victory in La Sarthe. Mazda was the first and — to this day — only Asian car company to win overall at Le Mans. The 787B also was the first car to win Le Mans with carbon brakes and a carbon clutch.
“For 17 years, we went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most grueling endurance race in the world, to try to prove the rotary engine technology over and over and over until ultimately we won in 1991,” said John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations.
The 787B triumphed at LeMans due in no small part to the cars that preceded it as Mazda tilted at the windmills of victory at Le Mans. One such car, which also is a big draw when it hits the track is the 1990 787 Group C prototype, which competed at Le Mans in 1990. Powered by the four-rotor 26B engine producing 720 horsepower, this 787 did not finish at Le Mans in 1990 due to an electrical failure.
Mazda entered the car again in 1991 with two of the 787B cars, the year they won. In fact, all three cars finished in the top 10, in first and fifth for the 787B cars, and eighth for the 787. That year, car Nos. 55, 56 and 18 — and the iconic Renown Charge livery — were enshrined as part of Mazda’s racing history.
“There was a survey last year or the year before,” Case said. “It was one of the 10 fan-favorite cars in the entire history of Le Mans. The car is beloved, and it’s kept on a short leash. It’s back at Mazda headquarters in Japan. It’s taken out periodically. They run it just like we run our cars. It gets to go back to Le Mans periodically for reunions. It has been to Goodwood. It is taken out probably less frequently than ours, so it’s an even rarer treat to see that one run. Now, since this is the 25th anniversary of that win, we might see it later this year. My fingers are crossed on that.”
After Mazda’s victory at Le Mans in 1991, the Federation International du Sport Automobile, adopted new rules that effectively banned the rotary engine from competition at Le Mans. Mazda continued development of the four-rotor. In 1992 and 1993, it campaigned the RX-792P GTP car in IMSA competition. This car only saw two seasons due to a lack of funding, the demise of the GTP series and the state of the Japanese economy, which was teetering on the brink of recession.
As part of Mazda’s Heritage Collection, the RX-792P represents the pinnacle of development of the 26B engine, which produces 750 horsepower. That’s impressive for a naturally aspirated engine with a displacement of roughly 160 cubic inches. This car, too, emits the iconic scream and belches fire on downshifts just like Mazda’s Le Mans-winning cars. Mazda North American Operations senior vice president of operations Robert Davis races this car regularly at vintage races and historics events. Robert Davis Racing also is a regular at NASA races in Southern California and at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
That’s another interesting thing about how Mazda structures its Heritage program. The people who drive these cars on tracks around the country work for Mazda. They’re employees who have racing licenses, giving of their own time — often vacation time — and energy to be part of the Heritage program.
“Journalists like the fact that it’s Mazda employees driving, the fact that we have a senior vice president, director of communications, guys in R&D who get to drive these cars and they’re skilled at doing it,” Case said. “It’s not that we went out and hired somebody. Occasionally we’ll put in a pro who raced it back in the day. We’ll put a Pete Halsmer in back in his old car or something, but I think it’s really a testament to the character of Mazda that we have so many employees who have competition licenses, who spend their own money to race on the weekends.”
Walk the halls of Mazda and you’ll see cubicles adorned with racing posters and clear evidence of a passion for motorsports. The culture of racing is corporate culture throughout Mazda, not just in the dank confines of the basement where the Heritage cars are kept.
As broad as the commitment to motorsports is at Mazda, there is one man in charge of maintaining the Heritage Collection. Randy Miller cares for all of the cars in Mazda’s basement.
“We’ve had this collection of a few cars down here in Mazda’s heritage collection and nobody was really dedicated to taking care of them,” Miller said. “Everybody volunteered their time to taking care of them here and there, so I started taking care of them more and more, getting them ready for events, and then eventually they created this position for me to start taking care of all these cars on a full-time basis.”
There are roughly 70 cars to look after, most of which are concept, show and production vehicles. A few of the cars raced before Miller was even born. The racecars require the most attention, particularly in the run-up to events where they will be out on track running laps. A Spec Miata racer in NASA’s SoCal Region, Miller has a responsibilities that transcend more than just cars.
“It’s a very unique challenge. We put our executives in these cars. We’ve got to make sure they’re going to stay in one piece 25 years after they were built,” Miller said. “Being able to work on these cars, it’s tricky, I mean, there’s no Chilton manual, there’s no Haynes manual. You can’t just go down to Pep Boys and get parts for them.”
In 2015, Mazda was the featured marque at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Miller and a group of volunteers prepped the 767B, the 787, RX-7 GTO and the RX-792 GTP and transported them to the England for the festival. The Le Mans-winning 787B and other significant Mazda racecars also made the trip from Japan and Europe for the festival.
“Getting the cars to Goodwood was a logistical nightmare,” Miller said. “We put two cars inside the containers, strap them down, screw the wood to the floor and make sure they’re not going anywhere. Then that container gets put on a train from Irvine to Texas. It then got put on a boat and they had a couple-week-long journey on the boat to England.”
The UK-based Jota Sport racing team housed the cars for Mazda until they could arrive to prep them for Goodwood. The Le Mans winner and the concept LM55 created for Playstation’s Gran Turismo 6 racing simulation game were displayed on the 36-meter-high sculpture in front of the Goodwood House. Cars from Mazda North American Operations’ Heritage Collection, the 767B, 787, RX-7 GTO and RX-792 GTP, all took part in the hill-climb at Goodwood.
Being the featured marque at Goodwood is an honor, but like the Heritage Collection, it comes with a price. It takes a budget to maintain and campaign these cars, and the return on investment can be difficult to measure.
“The question is frequently asked by our management, ‘Why do you do this? How do you justify the spend on these vehicles? How do you justify the risk of putting these vehicles essentially in harm’s way?’” Barnes said. “It’s very simple. We measure it in smiles. There’s something that’s very, very special when you’re standing at the racetrack with one of these incredible heritage vehicles and somebody comes up and says, ‘I was there. I was at Del Mar in 1991. I saw that RX-7 win. I was so impressed I went out and bought one back then and I’ve been a Mazda fan ever since. That’s how you measure it, in memories. The reality is these cars have won every trophy and every championship they’re ever going to win. My job as being entrusted to drive this 1991 RX-7 is just to go out and make noise, shoot flame, remind people what makes a Mazda so very, very unique.”
Mazda’s director of public relations and brand experience Jeremy Barnes talks about the Mazda Heritage Collection.
Mazdaspeed Motorsports communication officer Dean Case talks about the iconic 787 Group C car that won Le Mans in 1991.
Mazda Motorsports engineer Randy Miller talks about his job in caring for and preparing the Heritage Collection.