Becoming a professional racing driver — it’s the holy grail to many of you who toil long hours to fund, prepare and race cars at the amateur level. You watch the pros on television, read about them in magazines and maybe even know a person or two who does it for a living. But is a pro racing ride, let alone a career, really attainable for the club racing driver who didn’t start in karts at age 7, or who didn’t have the financial resources to transition to formula cars at 16?

Mazda certainly believes so, and since 2007 the company has continued to refine a ladder system that creates opportunities for amateur racing drivers to make the jump to pro ranks. Access to the top rung of that ladder, a pro drive in the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup, is through the annual Mazda Club Racer Shootout. The winner of the shootout is awarded a prize fund valued at more than $75,000 to be used to fund a full season of professional racing.

For 2013, NASA Teen Mazda Challenge West champion Joey Bickers came out on top as the winner of the Mazda Club Racer Shootout. After only one season of karting and a single season of auto racing, Bickers’ driving, PR and business skills were judged to be the best overall package to enable him to succeed as a professional racer. Bickers demonstrated chart-topping speed, and according to pro drivers and judges Charles Espenlaub and Eric Foss, he provided the best feedback of what the car was doing. He also demonstrated tremendous poise for such a young and inexperienced driver.

So as a NASA racer, what does it take to join the esteemed Mazda Club Racer Shootout alumni and have a chance to grab the richest prize in club racing? Fortunately, the diligent driver training and high level of competition available within the NASA system has proven its worth. Case in point, three out of the last four Mazda Shootout winners have been NASA racers. And lest you think that this is an opportunity solely for the youngsters, note that the 2010 shootout winner was 40-year-old Performance Touring driver Scott Shelton – and he won the big prize in his second attempt.

But to get to the shootout, you must first qualify, and the criteria are pretty straightforward. To become a semifinalist for the Shootout in 2013, NASA drivers had to have won a recognized NASA National Championship in a Mazda or Mazda-powered vehicle, or a NASA Teen Mazda Challenge Spec Miata Championship, over a minimum number of competitors. And several did just that, with NASA drivers occupying seven of the 18 eligible semifinalist slots this year.

After a team of marketing executives from diverse business backgrounds reviewed formal written business proposals submitted by each semifinalist (although not all semifinalists chose to submit proposals), two of NASA’s up-and-coming young drivers, Joey Bickers and Zachary Munro, were among the five talented drivers selected as finalists to attend the Mazda Club Racer Shootout.

Shootout finalists, from left: TJ Fischer, Zachary Munro, Joey Bickers, Michael Whelden and Cal Vandaalen.
Shootout finalists, from left: TJ Fischer, Zachary Munro, Joey Bickers, Michael Whelden and Cal Vandaalen.

Looking ahead to 2014, NASA will have two championship events, with one event on each coast. Once again, Mazda drivers who win either the Eastern States Championship at Road Atlanta in August or the Western States Championship at Sonoma Raceway in November will qualify as semifinalists should they defeat a minimum number of competitors. But in an unprecedented new twist, championship-winning drivers of any make vehicle will be eligible to earn an invitation to compete in the newly created Mazda Race of NASA Champions, and the Grand Champion of that race will automatically become a finalist for the 2014 Mazda Club Racer Shootout.

The Mazda Race of NASA Champions will occur during a professional race weekend, using identically prepared Mazda MX-5 race cars. Details related to the event, including costs, will be announced at a later date.

Assuming you’ve made the cut to become a finalist, what can you expect at the Shootout itself? So that we could provide a better account of how the Shootout operates and what it takes to win, Mazda was kind enough to invite us to Buttonwillow Raceway Park to see the events of the day unfold for ourselves.

Driver activities during the shootout included:

Business Meeting – Drivers presented their business proposals to the judges and took questions from the panel.

Familiarization Laps – Drivers were given an opportunity to get a feel for the MX-5 Cup car and Buttonwillow’s East Loop.

On-Track Evaluation – Drivers were given two sessions to post a time and impress the judges.

AiM Data Review – Drivers were provided an analysis of their data and given recommendations for improvement.

Tech/PR Meeting – Drivers were asked technical questions and presented with media relations scenarios.

Judging the competition was a panel of seasoned veterans of the racing and business worlds, representing organizations such as BF Goodrich, Swift Engineering, World Challenge, Cal Poly and ABC Television, as well as professional racing drivers and a previous Shootout winner. This group represented decades of professional motorsports experience and they possessed a keen ability to identify all the important attributes necessary for a driver to succeed in today’s professional racing environment, including the business and media relations skills that can make or break a racing career.

With a fear of public speaking widely acknowledged as a top phobia for most people, it’s no surprise that each of the drivers found the business presentation to be the most daunting aspect of the competition. It didn’t help that the business meeting was the first official interaction between the drivers and the panel of judges. Although the business meeting accounted for a relatively small percentage of the overall score, first impressions count, and this was an early opportunity for the finalists to demonstrate their commitment, confidence and charisma.

As we observed the presentations and the rigorous questioning from the panel of judges, it became clear which drivers had a natural ability in this environment, who had practiced their presentations, and who had a good command of business principles and the content of their proposals. Beyond the presentations and proposals, online and social media footprints, as well as their collections of prior media exposure, were evaluated and discussed. Demonstrating exceptional business and promotional skills were key to a good showing at the Shootout, and they serve any driver hoping to secure financial support for racing.

Moving to the driving portion of the shootout was a big relief for these young drivers, and their first opportunity behind the wheel was a 15-minute familiarization session driving the Tri-Point Engineering prepared MX-5 Cup car. A baseline setup, including target tire pressures, was established by Eric Foss and used by all of the drivers. No changes were permitted to the car, so drivers had to adapt to what was provided. For the familiarization laps, all five drivers shared the same set of BF Goodrich tires, but for the two timed evaluation sessions later in the day, drivers were provided their own set of tires to use and care for. That meant that flat spots early in the first timed session could prove costly throughout the day.

For the familiarization laps, drivers shared the same set of BF Goodrich tires, but for the two timed evaluation sessions later in the day, drivers were provided their own set of tires.
For the familiarization laps, drivers shared the same set of BF Goodrich tires, but for the two timed evaluation sessions later in the day, drivers were provided their own set of tires.

While lap times in the familiarization session weren’t part of the evaluation, how each driver approached this warm-up opportunity was noted and discussed by the judges. Overdriving right out of the gate was not the approach that would lead to success.

Once the timed evaluation sessions began, drivers not only faced the pressure of performing well on track, but they were also subject to interviews from video crews and journalists in attendance, providing a useful simulation of how they might be scrutinized during a pro racing weekend.

Drivers competed for fast laps at the Shootout in an MX-5 Cup Car Mazda provided. Each driver was given time to become acclimated to the car before competing for time.
Drivers competed for fast laps at the Shootout in an MX-5 Cup Car Mazda provided. Each driver was given time to become acclimated to the car before competing for time.

Upon returning to the garage after the first evaluation laps, each driver spent time with Foss to review data collected during the session. In addition to discussing each driver’s performance on track and offering tips for improvement, Foss noted prior data experience, how receptive each driver was to using data, and how well they applied the lessons learned in the final evaluation session. All of this information, in addition to lap times and driving consistency, was discussed by the panel during the final selection process.

Judges observed the finalists’ driving from corner worker stations around the east loop of Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
Judges observed the finalists’ driving from corner worker stations around the east loop of Buttonwillow Raceway Park.

After completion of the on-track evaluation, drivers once again were brought before the panel for a final meeting with the judges. During this meeting the finalists were asked a series of technical questions related to vehicle dynamics and car setup, as well as asked to simulate a mock media interview. Upon completion of this meeting, it was up to the judges to deliberate and make the life-changing $75,000 decision.

The final judging and selection process goes on until well after dark.
The final judging and selection process goes on until well after dark.

“Wow, what a day! I am so excited to be chosen as the winner of the 2013 Mazda Club Racer Shootout!,” Bickers said when he was told he had won. “Thank you to Mazda and the NASA Teen Mazda Challenge West for the opportunity to race in the Mazda MX-5 Cup. Thank you to my family for providing me a start in racing, and to everyone else who has helped me get to this point. I can’t wait for 2014 to begin.”

2013 Mazda Club Racer Shootout winner Joey Bickers hails from Moorpark, Calif.
2013 Mazda Club Racer Shootout winner Joey Bickers hails from Moorpark, Calif.

Deliberations proceeded swiftly, given how well Bickers excelled at every aspect of the competition. He is a great example of how a relatively inexperienced but talented NASA driver can achieve success through careful planning and hard work. Bickers specifically chose the NASA Teen Mazda Challenge because of the opportunity to enter the Shootout, and his commitment to developing the skills necessary to impress the judges and succeed at professional racing is a roadmap for other NASA drivers hoping to achieve similar success.

If a professional road racing career is your ambition, there’s never been a better time to pursue that goal through the NASA system, given the expansion of eligibility created by the dual NASA Championships and the Mazda Race of NASA Champions. Choose your car and class wisely and spend time mastering your business and media relations skills, and you just might find yourself at the 2014 Mazda Club Racer Shootout.

Kelley Blue Book posted a great video on YouTube that takes you through the day at the 2013 Mazda Club Racer Shootout.

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Image courtesy of Mike Ditz/Mazda