A Few Minutes with John Doonan

We caught up with John Doonan, the Director of Motorsports for Mazda North American Operations and asked him a few questions about the 2013 season and what to expect in 2014.

Q How did the 2013 season go for Mazda? What were the highlights and lowlights?
A I hope 2013 is most remembered for the debut season of the Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel. This was an amazing accomplishment by Mazda and SpeedSource. We took production engines straight from the Mazda assembly line and developed them into race winning powerplants while retaining a majority of production parts.

Q What was so important about it being a production engine?
A Mazda believes in racing what we sell. Within some circles, Mazda is known as the rotary company, but we are really much more than that. We are a company of gearheads, car geeks and racing fans who want cars that are exciting to drive. With racing we can demonstrate our quality, durability, reliability, and performance. BUT to be authentic to the hardcore fans – the influencers within their circle of friends, we need to do it with our cars. Our engines. Our engineering. While we remain committed to the ongoing development of the rotary engine, the current market requirements are such that a performance diesel and our SKYACTIV technology is a logical fit for Mazda. It’s a fantastic challenge that has benefits to our customers.

Q So the future is diesel?
A Partially. No one powerplant matches every need, nor does any one car. Mazda needs to have a portfolio of car and engines, both for the street and the track. Clean Diesel will be a key part of our product lineup, thus it makes perfect sense to race the diesel.

Q What are the Mazda plans for the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship?
A We can’t wait for the new series to begin. We have a number of teams who have approached us about becoming customer teams for our SKYACTIV-D program.

Q Can you be more specific?
A Not yet. Just like a car company not discussing future product plans, we don’t wish to talk about our specific race plan for 2014 just yet. We are about 90 days from the Roar before the 24 test at Daytona. I can promise you that we’ll be making some news between now and then.

Q Let’s get back to that first question, about highlights and lowlights of the 2013 season. Besides the SKYACTIV-D program, what stands out?
A We had a number of highlights. We added another dozen national championships at the SCCA Runoffs and NASA Championships. In addition to the nine Grand-Am GX race wins and the GX Manufacturers Championship, we had six wins in the Continental Tire ST Challenge. Those six wins were more than all other brands combined. In Pirelli World Challenge, our customers had good success. Ernie Francis Jr. scored seven wins in his Mazda2 and Michael Cooper won four times with his MAZDASPEED3. Those four series combined for a total of 26 wins from 51 races. As CJ Wilson might note, we had a .510 batting average this season. We’re very happy about that.

Q How is CJ Wilsons team doing?
A Quite well. Mazda is very fortunate to have some great teams racing our products. CJ Wilson is among the newer teams, but they have quickly developed a solid operation that is winning in both MX-5 Cup and Continental Tire ST. CJ, as a person, is in for the longterm having also bought a Mazda dealership. We are also proud to work with SpeedSource Engineering, Freedom Autosport, i-Moto Racing, Breathless Performance, Atlanta Motorsports Group, and Dyson Racing.

Q It looks like Dyson was struggling this year. What happened there?
A We are in a transition period for sports car racing. With the much needed merger of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans series, we are on the verge of what should be an amazing period. But, just like when Champ Car and the IRL merged, it created a year or two when things were bumpy. I think it’s fair to say that the Dyson team tried some new things and not all of them worked. That’s the nature of racing. They had a great run at the most recent race at VIR and will certainly be looking to close out the ALMS history books with a win at the Petit Le Mans.

Q What will Mazda be racing in the Continental Tire Challenge or Pirelli World Challenge next year?
A We expect to see Mazda cars competing in both championships in 2014. The Mazda philosophy is to have great customer teams. We are not seeking to have factory teams. In some classes, like B-Spec it is very much against the spirit of the competition. We seek to develop the best products possible, reward teams with contingency prize money, and let the market decide what cars to race where. It is only when we are developing new technology that it’s key to have a strategic engineering partner like we have with SpeedSource in Grand-Am.

Q What is the state of the Mazda Road to Indy?
A As race fans know, Indycar racing suffered for many years with the IRL and ChampCar split. The merger in 2008 was good, but came at a time of overall economic challenges. When top Indycar teams find it challenging to find partners, it is even tougher for the series below. I believe that there is blue sky on the horizon now that Andersen Promotions has taken over the total management of the USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights Championships. If you were at the races this year you saw amazing depth of field in USF2000. That bodes well for those drivers and teams to move up to Pro Mazda and Indy Lights in the years ahead.

Q Will Mazda supply an engine to the next Indy Lights car?
A While we have a great partnership with Andersen Promotions for the Mazda Road to Indy, the Indy Lights engine program does not match our corporate objectives. Mazda has to live within our means and cannot simply add programs. If we were to add a new program, we would likely need to eliminate an existing program. While we are race fans, we operate motorsports as a business and have both business and technical objectives.

Q What are those objectives?
A To sell cars. Sometime people forget that we are not a race team. The fact that we have such a strong position in club racing is built upon the MX-5 Miata and the RX-7 being amazing sports cars that work very well on the track. I would argue that great car sales led to affordable racecars for club racers. Everything else, including our present professional racing programs, was built upon that foundation. We love the sport, but have responsibilities to the business.

Q What does the world of club racing look like these days?
A I would say that club racing is quite strong. We were at the SCCA Runoffs last month and Mazda set records for most entries (201), greatest market share (28%), and biggest race in SCCA Runoff history when 67 Spec Miatas took the green flag. Mazda is now the official car of the SCCA. The SCCA Runoffs are coming to Mazda Raceway in 2014. The NASA Spec Miata Teen Challenge is growing and we have some great plans with NASA in the works. After a slow start the B-Spec class is growing. Overall, club racing is looking good.

Q As the world waits for the next generation MX-5 Miata, will the MX-5 Cup continue?
A We are working on the details for the 2014 MX-5 Cup schedule and are talking with both existing partners and organizations interested in joining in the MX-5 Cup in 2014. We think that the MX-5 Cup offers an amazing value in terms of the cost to race vs the champions’ prize, a ride in the series above. Where else can you take the world’s most affordable car and compete for a $250,000 prize?

Q That series above has varied over the years. Two year ago Michael Cooper went to Pirelli World Challlenge and last year Stevan McAleer went to the Continental Tire Challenge. How is that decision made?
A Over the past few years, we have seen tremendous changes to the sport, and every sports car series, many of which were dictated by the overall economy. As I mentioned, this is a business, and we need to make strategic decisions as to where to race when it is corporate money being spent and where we can gain the most value. We also take into account the scholarship winners experience and interest. So the short answer is that each year we make a decision based upon what is best for both Mazda and the racer as to where the MX-5 Cup champion advances.

Q For young drivers, alignment with a factory program is the ultimate goal, How does a driver get started on the Mazda Ladder program?
A I am often asked that question. We are so proud of what we have been able to do in this industry….an industry first, for sure. Since 2007, with full support from our executive leadership, we have been able to fund dozens of drivers and over three dozen seasons of racing in Mazdas or Mazda powered race cars. From the start, our intention was to do something special FOR the industry. We wanted to help drivers that had talent, but lacked the funding. From a broader perspective, Mazda has the youngest median age buyer among full line brands in the auto industry, so having our brand in front of a young audience, and their parents, is a huge benefit for us and continues to help us identify our next generation of car buyer. The current open wheel ladder starts in karting and reaches to the Mazda Road to Indy…and on the closed wheel side, we have been doing our Club Racer Shootout, for Mazda-powered racers who win a grassroots championship in NASA, SCCA, or Skip Barber…taking them to the next level in the MX-5 Cup Series…on to the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge or Pirelli World Challenge…and, ultimately, the “cream of the crop” has even gotten a turn at the wheel of our top level programs in Grand-Am or ALMS. We expect that to continue with the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. If you want to race at the top with Mazda, start at the bottom with Mazda – our customer teams are very good at promoting from within the deep talent pool on both the sports car and open wheel sides of Mazda.

Q You are always a glass half full kind of guy. Does anything worry you about the sport?
A We do like to be positive. I think the sport as a whole needs to be vigilant to shared challenges and opportunities. We need greater cooperation among everyone to help grow the sport. Everyone needs to work together to improve safety. We need schedules with fewer conflicts. We need rules sets that keep costs down. We need racers to understand that modern motorsports is not 100% sport – it is a combination of sport, technology, and commerce. It is about value. Every race driver, team, or series who has a business partner needs to provide a favorable ROI to that partner.