If you work for a large corporation that offers perks to its top performers, you can probably expect them to go to a sun-soaked island for some tropical down time, lounging beneath palm trees, sipping umbrella drinks and playing golf.
If you work for Mazda, or sell its products as an authorized dealer, things are a bit different. There are no palm trees, tiki bars or golf clubs. There is bitter cold, ever-present adversity and hours of stress and racing.
At this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Mazda North American Operations fielded three Mazda6 diesels, and pitted its dealers in two of them against the factory guys in the third car.
The idea of dealers vs. factory guys surfaced at Mazda’s U.S. dealer meeting last summer. After kicking the idea around a bit, Barnes sat down with President and CEO James O’Sullivan and Senior Vice President Robert Davis to find something suitable for the 25-hour endurance race. The answer was simple: Mazda6 diesels with six-speed manual transmissions. Diesels, you ask? But they’re not even available in the United States yet.
“One of the nice things about having the word ‘Mazda’ on the side of your building is that you have access to things that not everyone does,” said Jeremy Barnes, MNAO director of public relations. “Through our Japanese colleagues, we were able to order three European specification 6 diesels and have them shipped to the United States.”
However, by the time they had a plan, time was running short. The three cars arrived at the port of San Diego about nine weeks before the green flag would drop at Thunderhill. On the way from San Diego to MNAO’s headquarters in Irvine, Calif., they dropped one car at Anthony Woodford Racing to have the car gutted and a cage installed. They brought the other two to Irvine where the Mazda factory guys started gutting the cars for race preparation.
It was an all-volunteer effort, working nights and weekends, Barnes said. They toiled after work till 9 or 10 o’clock at night and all day Saturdays, and Sundays. As each cage was finished, they rotated the cars between Irvine and AWR, and kept working.
Using the Mazda6 pace car from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as a benchmark, they farmed out work they couldn’t do, with ProParts USA in Canoga Park, Calif., helping with suspension setup and modifications. The stock 6 has no rear sway bar, which wouldn’t work at Thunderhill, because it would be too hard on the right front tire without one, so ProParts made one.
StopTech fitted big brakes and BFGoodrich sent tires and two engineers along with the team to the race. The clock ticking, the team pressed on.
“It’s really pretty incredible to think how much we got done in the time we had,” Barnes said. “It’s a testament to the passion and enthusiasm to the people here at Mazda.”
Other than the safety equipment, suspension and brakes, the powertrains were essentially stock. They added custom Wavetrac limited slip differentials and a straight exhaust pipe from the particulate filter all the way out the back of the car, but that was it. In race trim, the engines made 170 horsepower and just more than 300 pound feet of torque, a flat power curve from 2,200 to ignition kill at 5,200 rpm.
“There was essentially no mufflers in the system, and even then you could barely tell the cars were running,” said Barnes, who drove Robert Davis Racing’s RX-8, but not the 6 diesels. “The biggest challenge in driving the cars was that changing gears at 4,500 rpm takes some getting used to. There’s a fair amount of reliance on the shift lights, and that was absolutely key to not doing anything silly, quite frankly, because you just can’t hear the engine.”
During the race, they could go about an hour and 40 minutes between fuel stops, about the same fuel-burn rate as a 1.6-liter Spec Miata, and this in a 3,100 pound car. The team faced small problems like strut tower bolts and rear toe adjusters that loosened up, but mechanical issues were all minor and essentially due to a lack of testing. All three cars ran “brilliantly” all race long, Barnes said. In the end, the cars came in third, fifth and sixth in E1. Oh, and the dealers won, by the way, a bragging right not lost on Barnes.
“It’s going to take us a long time to get over that one,” he said. “And they’re not going to let us forget it.”
So what’s to become of the cars? Barnes said they’re not entirely sure, but they intend to run at least one of the cars in as many of the Western Endurance Racing Championship races this year to further its development, then return to Thunderhill with more than one car to try to win it.
“It’s not just another dealer-incentive trip where they go play golf or sit on some Hawaiian island,” Barnes said. “They were passionate, but then when something went wrong, they jumped in to help. They didn’t just stand there looking around, wondering who was going to fix it. Everybody rolled their sleeves up. It’s one of the things I find so incredibly magical about the company, about working at Mazda, is that it truly is a car company full of car people.”