Teen Mazda Challenge In Transition

After the death of founder Ron Cortez, James Brown kept the series for young Spec Miata racers going – and growing

Ron Cortez started the Teen Mazda Challenge to provide an easy avenue from karting to car racing. Open to drivers between the ages of 13 and 20, the series is running in several NASA regions and has sent many drivers to the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout, including three with Teen Mazda Challenge backgrounds this year alone. Unfortunately, Cortez passed away early this year, leaving some uncertainty regarding the future of the program. But James Brown has picked up the ball and run with it, making sure the program not only survives, but thrives.

“I had been with Teen Mazda Challenge with my own son for four years, then with a new driver, Hannah Grisham, after my son passed away four years ago,” explains Brown. “I didn’t want to see the series die. It was very important to me to see it keep going because it’s been so instrumental in helping so many drivers. So I just tried to put together all the people that had an interest and a stake in Teen Mazda Challenge and said, ‘Look, this is what I’d like to do.’ Fortunately, we all agreed.”

As a result, the Teen Mazda Challenge has changed from being its own entity to being part of the National Auto Sport Association’s program. The steering committee includes Brown; Tim Barber from TFB Racing; David Cook, manager, business development for Mazda Motorsports; and NASA’s Jeremy Croiset. They managed to not only launch a season for 2018, but grow the contingency program as well.

“We got to the season fairly late, just scrambling to put together the parameters because it needed to change,” says Brown. “Teen Mazda Challenge was a standalone entity, and now it’s NASA-owned with the support of Mazda and other partners. It was important that it was based on a regional schedule with NASA and that we keep these guys as regional racers. We’ve probably got 15 drivers in the regions and we had a couple of really heavily contested regions, Northern California and Rocky Mountain regions.”

In the Rocky Mountain region, Matthew Dirks and Loni Unser fought for the title, and both were invited to the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout. So was Southern California TMC racer Hannah Grisham. 

Looking for further signs that the program produces strong racers? There’s the fact that Dirks was the overall polesitter for the Toyo Tires Classic at the NASA Championships at COTA, and Mid-Atlantic TMC racer Peter Ensor made it onto the podium in third overall at the NASA Championships.

Ensor, Dirks and others were eligible to receive help to attend that NASA Championships thanks to contingencies for winning their regional championships. These awards were part of the Toyo Tires Ron Cortez Memorial Awards. Each regional champion also earned free entries for the following year from NASA. Hawk awarded the top five TMC competitors at the NASA Nationals $400 in product certificates. Brown says TMC is hoping to add a data partner for next year, in addition to a variety of other changes for 2019 now that the series is stable.

“We’re going to be able to announce the schedule very early,” he says. “What we hope to do, and what we have done in the past, is promote this in advance of the season in the local karting communities so that they’re ready to go. 

“We’ve got the same contingencies in place, at least tentatively, as last year. One of the things we hoped to do this year, but ran out of time, is to schedule monthly webinars for all Teen Mazda Challenge competitors, and these webinars come from all different aspects of the industry. They’re not all driving seminars – racing is a business, so these seminars are geared toward that. They’re geared toward media presence and there are some technical seminars on setup.

“It’s easy to take to the track in Spec Miata and Mazda provides a great platform for doing that,” Brown explains. “But to extract every bit of speed takes time; on average that’s two or three years for a Teen Mazda Challenge competitor. We want to fast-track that and bring the knowledge into the series and shorten that development time.”

Look for more information on the 2019 Teen Mazda Challenge in the near future, as well as profiles of the TMC stars of 2018. In the meantime, check out https://tmc.drivenasa.com/.