The Past and Present on Display in Monterey

Memorable Mazda race cars from IMSA’s early years will be on display at the Monterey Motorsports Reunion

As Mazda celebrates three straight wins for the Mazda RT24-P in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, it can also look back on past accomplishments in IMSA. This year’s famed Monterey Motorsports Reunion at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca celebrates 50 years of the International Motor Sports Association, and Mazda has been a large part of that history dating back to 1970. To bring that celebration to life, Mazda Motorsports will be assembling a variety of cars from its IMSA history for both static display and on-track running.

“As we looked across our collection and private-owner cars – people with Mazda history but the cars are not owned by us – we wanted to provide a cross section of our IMSA history with key milestones in mind,” explains John Doonan, Director, Mazda Motorsports. “We’re going to have a combination of static display cars and cars that are on track competing.”

Mazda’s history begins with RX-2s in the IMSA RS sedan championship, includes eight championships in GTU and GTO, and extends to its current success in Daytona Prototype international. In that static display will be several examples of winning cars from the early days. 

“We have a little bit from each decade,” says Doonan. “We have our Car and Driver RX-2 which, in September of 1973 at the hands of Patrick Bedard, gave us our first professional win in IMSA at Lime Rock Park. Then, fast-forwarding a few years to when we were on our journey and knowing the RX-7 was coming, we ran two GTU RX-3s at Daytona in Gatorade colors. Jim Downing has one of those fully restored. One of the cars was driven by a group of Japanese drivers and the other was a group of American drivers. We’re going to have that RX-3 on display kind of as a beginning of the journey of the RX-7 in racing, as well as for the Rolex 24. Jim also won the 1981 Champion Spark Plug RS Series, and we will have his championship RX-3, too.”

While today’s Daytona Prototype international campaign is a factory-backed program, most of the early Mazda successes were not – they were privateer efforts led by the likes of Downing, Roger Mandeville and Amos Johnson, who were enthusiasts of the brand, much in the same way Mazda’s grassroots racers in everything from club racing to Battery Tender® Global Mazda MX-5 Cup and Touring Car America are now. 

“I think it mirrors the way we’ve gone racing to this day,” Doonan explains. “IMSA provides a platform for full-on factory efforts, which we’re now part of as an OEM partner and on the DPi project. But in those early years, our participation in IMSA was driven by those at the dealerships. That started in the Pacific Northwest, and it really was the dealership employees – the service personnel, the master technicians – that were enamored with the rotary engine and were also enthusiasts. Eventually, they took their rotary-powered Mazdas autocrossing and ice racing, and IMSA finally provided them the opportunity to go wheel-to-wheel racing. 

“As we do today, in several other sanctioning bodies where our customers participate, it gave our loyal, passionate and enthusiastic customers a place to go and experience their Mazda in an extreme racing environment.”

Doonan adds that a cultural element that existed back then continues to this very day, and that’s the concept of family, not only among Mazda racers, but all racers. “If there’s a competitor who has a need, it’s understood among all of us that we give them the tools in our toolbox, the spares in our parts bin, the shirt off our back, if it gets them back out there competing,” he says.

Today’s Mazda enthusiasts will be able to walk among those early cars at the Monterey Motorsports Reunion on Aug. 16-18. In addition to the RX-2s and RX-3s, Mazda Motorsports will also have a current Mazda RT24-P on display, as well as members of the Mazda family of road cars. And, of course, Mazda will have some of its most memorable cars on the track so that fans can hear the rotary wail. We’ll tell you more about those cars in the days to come.