The eighth annual Mazda Club Racer Shootout had a distinct bias toward NASA competitors this year. With an enlarged group of eight — winnowed from an exceptional 22-driver semifinalist list — there were five NASA drivers in the running to gain a $75,000 scholarship to assist in garnering the 2015 Battery Tender MX-5 Cup Presented by BF Goodrich Tires championship.
The five champion drivers representing NASA in this shootout were Ben Anderson of Minneapolis, (NASA Eastern States PTE Champion); Santa Barbara, California’s Joey Jordan (NASA Teen Mazda Challenge West Champion); Kyle Loustaunau, Vacaville, Calif., (NASA Western States Spec Miata Champion); Zachary Munro of Granby, Colo., (NASA Teen Mazda Challenge Rocky Mountain Champion) and Orlando, Florida’s Eric Powell, winner of the NASA Western States Championships in PTD.
The other three drivers were Sam Adams of Hubertus, Wisc., winner of the Skip Barber Racing School Summer Series and, for the first time, two iRacing virtual champions: Steven Diem of Kailua, Hawaii, (iRacing MX-5 Cup season three winner) and Evan Mailliard of Nesles La Vallee, France, winner of the iRacing MX-5 Cup from season two. The iRacing duo were the first challengers from outside the contiguous 48 United States.
The logistics of bringing eight drivers to a Shootout that normally has between three and five entries meant many changes for Mazda and its motorsports manager Steve Sanders, who developed and has nurtured the Shootout all eight years.
The event took place at two separate venues: the Doubletree Hotel in Bakersfield, Calif., and Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Buttonwillow, Calif. On the first day, a six-person judging panel interviewed each driver individually. Drivers discussed their business plans for this scholarship (after writing a presentation that was part of the semifinal round) and their ideologies on the business side of the sport.
This was followed by a group dinner that included Mazda personnel and the judging panel amid discussions on the warnings that yes, despite the worst drought California has seen in ages, it was going to rain on the day the octet were scheduled to take to the track in a pair of MX-5 Cup racecars.
Changing and wet-weather conditions throughout the test day definitely distinguished the eight drivers from one another. There were some “offs” throughout and stoppages to retrieve one or the other car from the mud. There were times of intense rain, but the eight kept on in their open MX-5 Cup cars as they challenged themselves and the elements.
After a full day of running, the six judges had quite a chore on their hands and it took more than a couple of hours for them to make a decision. Two days after the Mazda Club Racer Shootout, a teleconference reunited all parties for the decision.
Kyle Loustaunau, 26, was declared the winner. As Mazda Motorsports publicist Dean Case told all eight competitors the morning of their track shootout: “The fastest guy may not win but the most consistent guy will.” Loustaunau took that comment to heart, he said, and used all his skills to maintain consistency each time he drove on the ever-changing circuit.
“The first time I ever raced on a track in the rain was my drivers school in 2008,” Loustaunau said. And that was also his most recent wet drive before attending the Shootout. “I had to really, really concentrate and give everything I had to keep the car on the track. My focus was not to be the guy that went off and I had about five close calls,” he admitted with a laugh.
His NASA experience was key to being able to handle the stress of the competition. He said he’s “always been an underdog whose car isn’t as well prepped as my competitors,” Loustaunau said. He’s struggled to make races, working two jobs to keep his racing career going. “It took a lot of people to get here. I didn’t do it all by myself. Everyone’s been willing to help me.”
Journalist judge Jeremy Shaw, who is responsible for the Team USA Scholarship and a member of the Road Racing Drivers Club (RRDC), gave his perspective on Loustaunau.
“For me, Kyle showed a level of determination that stood out from the rest,” Shaw said. “He was polished, made no real mistakes in the car, which wasn’t easy given the constantly changing weather conditions, and I loved the fact that he was working two separate jobs in an attempt to make his dream a reality. I’ll always remember Roger Penske’s motto: ‘Effort Equals Results’. It applied to Kyle.”
Mazda Motorsport’s manager of business development, David Cook had his own view of this year’s winner.
“Entering the Shootout, we knew Kyle and the other finalists were quick on the track. They all won championships,” Cook said. “Even with the changing conditions, Kyle proved consistently fast all day, always at or toward the top of the charts with data review to support his talent. For his business presentation, he shined by having more than just good ideas. He carefully mapped out his 12-month social media and marketing plan and even presented his local newspaper’s article to highlight his most recent successes.
“The judges and Mazda gained immediate confidence in Kyle getting the job done on and off the track and having a good shot at continuing to climb the Mazda sports car ladder,” Cook concluded.
Loustaunau’s plans for his 2015 Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BF Goodrich Tires season are set, but he couldn’t talk about them until the team — one of three that contacted him within hours of his declared victory — was ready to make its own announcement.
“I’m looking forward to being able to go to the track with the team and show my passion for this sport,” he said.