When Mazda Got Dirty

Mazda once had a team in stadium short course off-road racing

Mazda obviously has a long history in racing. From open-wheel to prototypes to production-based racers, the company has raced or supported programs at nearly every level – but the vast majority of that racing has been conducted on pavement. While many SCCA RallyCross National Championships have been won in Mazdas recently, and a few diehards will recall Mazda’s efforts in SCCA ProRally, there aren’t many who remember Mazda’s success in stadium off-road truck racing.

In the late 1980s, Mazda contracted with Glenn Harris to race facsimiles of the company’s B-series pickups in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix series. The rotary-powered trucks were tube-framed, designed by legendary off-road, drag racing, road racing and land-speed-record car builder Nye Frank.

“Mickey Thompson was a phenomenal person,” says Dave Clark, Frank’s protégé. “He was able to get the manufacturers involved early, and convinced Frank that Mazda wanted to get involved. There was this guy named Glenn Harris we were running buggies with who put together a deal and had Nye design and build the trucks.”

The team had more than a little success. Harris added Jeff Huber and Rod Millen, who also regularly won in stage rally with Mazdas, as drivers. It was Huber who captured the driver’s title in 1987, with Harris finishing second.

“It ended up being really competitive,” says Clark. “Toyota had a bigger budget, but we were on our game and it ended up being really close races. There was a two-and-a-half year period where we won more races. Mazda also ended up with the record for most consecutive wins.”

The Mazda trucks were unique in many ways, partly due to Frank’s innovations such as the use of air shocks, but also because, well, they were Mazdas. Using a rotary engine mated to a stock automatic transmission, the Mazda engine was half the displacement of the piston engine trucks.

“Everyone thought they were turbocharged, because it was easy to pump in too much fuel and there were flames coming out the exhaust,” says Clark, citing a phenomenon well familiar to Formula Mazda drivers.

The Mickey Thompson Off Road Championship wasn’t the last time Mazda rotary engines were featured in short course off-road racing. A spec class called SuperLite used Mazda rotary engines for several years running with the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series.