If you have ever planned a party, you know how difficult it can be to get people together in one place at one time. Now imagine trying to get 20 racers from across the country together for one event. Then imagine the difficulty of bringing in 20-plus cars for each of those racers to drive.

But that’s not even the half of it. Imagine trying to stage this event with cooperation from Mazda, Tudor United Sports Car Challenge, Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge, the SCCA Pro Racing Mazda Battery Tender MX-5 Cup and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge.

“It took a tremendous amount of work involving a number of other partners to put this amazing opportunity together for our Champions to compete against one another in a single event competition weekend to find out who really is the best of the best!” said NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty.

Once you get all the permissions in place, you have to equalize all the cars in terms of power and setup. Oh, and you have to ship all those cars from the East Coast to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

“It took us 18 months, nearly two years to get through all the planning,” said John Doonan, Director of Motorsports at Mazda North American Operations. “The MX-5s that were brought here were prepared by Skip Barber. We had an ultimate pool of over 50 potential drivers, so they had to prepare well toward that number of MX-5s to be ready, not only for the drivers that ultimately signed up for the event, but for the potential for damage to individual cars. Those cars were all prepared in Atlanta, Ga., and brought all the way across the United States on transporters. When you roll in here to Mazda Raceway, and see transporter upon transporter bringing MX-5s into the paddock to get ready for this event, you realize it was no easy task. Thousands of man-hours went into it, just getting the cars themselves ready.”

Flaherty proposed the idea for the Mazda Race of NASA Champions to Doonan a couple of years ago. Each of them knew it would take a metric ton of work and coordination to pull off, but it was such a cool idea, they agreed to do it and went for it.

“Clearly, we’ve had a terrific relationship with NASA over the years, and NASA leadership, Ryan Flaherty, Jeremy Croiset came to us with the idea of taking not only the Mazda champions from the NASA Championship events across the country, but taking all their champions and putting them into a pool and giving each of them the opportunity to come for one winner-take-all NASA race of champions, the Mazda Race of NASA Champions,” Doonan said. “I grew up a fan of racing and I remember the old International Race of Champions, or IROC, and it took world champions from Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars and put them in one race in identically prepared cars, and I think this, the Mazda Race of NASA Champions, has kind of got that same flavor. It’s really exciting to have drivers from all over the country, drivers who haven’t raced here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, have never raced a Mazda are out there together with the same passion. They’re all champions in their own right, but now they’re here to take off the gloves and decide who is ultimately the NASA Grand Champion.”

Being named Grand Champion is an accomplishment in itself, but it’s also another rung on the ladder to professional racing. The Grand Champion automatically becomes a semifinalist for the Mazda Club Racer Shootout held each December in Southern California. If the Grand Champion becomes a finalist and if he wins the Shootout, he’ll be rewarded with a $100,000 scholarship to fund a full season of racing in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

NASA Spec Miata Champion Kyle Loustaunau was the 2014 winner. He beat five other NASA drivers — among a field of six that came from amateur road racing — and two others from the iRacing series, and is now competing in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires. Loustaunau was the fourth NASA driver to win the Shootout in the last five years.

Just as drivers were arriving Wednesday, two car carriers filled with MX-5 Cup cars rolled into the paddock at Mazda Raceway. They spent the afternoon choosing and getting fitted into their cars, and applying all the required decals and those from their own sponsorships. They were itching to get on track.

Two car carriers loaded with Mazda MX-5 racecars arrived Wednesday after a cross-country trip from Road Atlanta.
Two car carriers loaded with Mazda MX-5 racecars arrived Wednesday after a cross-country trip from Road Atlanta.
After introductions and instructions, each driver set out to find a car that fit him best.
After introductions and instructions, each driver set out to find a car that fit him best.
Each driver’s name was displayed on the lower right corner of the windshield and on each door.
Each driver’s name was displayed on the lower right corner of the windshield and on each door.
PTB and TTC Champion Dave Schotz works with a Skip Barber technician to get fitted into his car.
PTB and TTC Champion Dave Schotz works with a Skip Barber technician to get fitted into his car.
NASA Florida driver Chi Ho helps fellow Orlandoan Eric Powell apply decals to Powell’s car Wednesday afternoon.
NASA Florida driver Chi Ho helps fellow Orlandoan Eric Powell apply decals to Powell’s car Wednesday afternoon.
NASA Northeast’s Edgar Cabrera settles into his car Wednesday afternoon, noting that he’s never driven a Mazda, let alone a Miata MX-5.
NASA Northeast’s Edgar Cabrera settles into his car Wednesday afternoon, noting that he’s never driven a Mazda, let alone a Miata MX-5.

On Thursday and Friday, the NASA Champions had the chance to sample the cars and practice on one of the most storied racetracks in North America. Some drivers had been practicing on iRacing in the weeks leading up to the race. Others had never laid eyes on the track, let alone driven in anger on it. In the end, six seconds separated the front runner from the tail end of the field.

On Saturday, there was no practice, but Mazda treated NASA drivers to a Q&A session with Glenn Long of Long Road Racing, who is in charge of developing the 2016 Global MX-5 Cup car. Drivers also were introduced to Alara Racing team owner Ara Malkhassian and Speed Source Race Engineering principal Sylvain Tremblay. NASA Champions toured the pit garages for Mazda’s diesel prototype car that competes in the IMSA Tudor United Sports Car Challenge and peppered drivers Tom Long and Jonathan Bomarito with questions on everything about racing. After lunch, drivers had the afternoon free.

At the first of many meetings, NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty and NASA Director of Business Development Jeremy Croiset go over the week’s schedule and “rules of engagement.”
At the first of many meetings, NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty and NASA Director of Business Development Jeremy Croiset go over the week’s schedule and “rules of engagement.”
Sporting commemorative jackets and hats, drivers (from left) Dan Williams, Michael McAleenan, Tristan Littlehale, Paul Arnold, Matt Powers and Larry Fraser watch a presentation on the development of the global 2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup car.
Sporting commemorative jackets and hats, drivers (from left) Dan Williams, Michael McAleenan, Tristan Littlehale, Paul Arnold, Matt Powers and Larry Fraser watch a presentation on the development of the global 2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup car.
All the NASA Champions were treated to a close look at the Mazda Skyactiv diesel prototype.
All the NASA Champions were treated to a close look at the Mazda Skyactiv diesel prototype.
Mazda team driver Tom Long takes a few questions from the NASA Champions.
Mazda team driver Tom Long takes a few questions from the NASA Champions.

The Mazda Race of NASA Champions served as a support race to the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo Series, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge and the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Pro drivers were everywhere, striding through the paddock in shiny new gear — a few of whom were once NASA regulars. NASA Champions took to the track as one of three fields along with the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup cars and the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge cars. All totaled, 48 Mazda MX-5s took the green flag Sunday morning. To find out how that race went, check out “In Pursuit of a Grand Champion”.

Alara Racing team owner Ara Malkhassian and Mazda North American Operations Business Development Manager David Cook tell the NASA Champions what it’s like to race in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series.
Alara Racing team owner Ara Malkhassian and Mazda North American Operations Business Development Manager David Cook tell the NASA Champions what it’s like to race in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series.

“This program speaks volumes to the importance Mazda places on motorsports as they are truly devoted to finding the best driver in NASA to include in their annual Mazda Club Racer Shootout later this year,” Flaherty said. “Both of our companies share a common vision for offering new opportunities in motorsports and this program could help identify the next great driver in our sport.”

 

Click on the Speed News YouTube Favorites page to watch various drivers’ in-car video of the whole race:

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Image courtesy of Brett Becker