Friday, April 4, 2008

The History Of The Big Engines

In the past, the Mazda approach to racing in America had been to offer some support to several independent teams who then had to secure additional sponsorship to carry on. It had been an extremely successful strategy, resulting in numerous wins for many different Mazda models from RX-2s to Camel Lights cars. Thirty-seven IMSA drivers and/or manufacturers championships had been secured in various classes, and by the end of 1989, the RX-7 alone had recorded 96 wins.

When the 1990 season began, the Mazda racing program, now under the direction of Motorsports Manager, Dick St. Yves and part of the Mazda's Marketing Division, fully supported two factory teams and no independents. A GTU (Grand Touring Under 3-Liter) team, managed by longtime Mazda stalwart, Roger Mandeville, fielded two MX-6s for drivers Lance Stewart and John Finger. The two-car GTO team, funded directly by Mazda Japan
, was to be managed by Jim Downing for Pete Halsmer and various other drivers.

IMSA's GTO division, in existence since 1978, was for production-based race cars, with engines exceeding three liters in displacement. IMSA used a sliding scale to relate weight to engine size to equalize competition. The intention was to produce high tech racing machines that looked similar to models seen in showrooms although the silhouette was the only part of the race car required to actually match production models.

By 1990, the series had become so competitive and so expensive that only factory – backed entries had a chance of winning. The Mazdas were to compete against factory-backed Mercury Cougar XR7s, Nissan 300ZXs, a few independent Camaros, Fords, and an occasional Ferrari in what was to be a hotly contested season.

Mazda's new program had begun with the hiring of designer Lee Dykstra in 1989 to design a four-rotor RX-7 to IMSA GTO specifications. Indianapolis-based, Dykstra was well known in the professional racing world for his work with GTP, Can Am, Trans-Am and Indy cars.

Over the following year the components came together in a steel space frame chassis with aluminum and carbon fiber panels, composite bodywork, and the 26B rotary engine from Mazda Japan. (See 1990 car specs below). It was to be campaigned from Jim Downing's Downing/Atlanta race shop with team personnel from Downing's organization. Downing's rotary engine wizard Rick Engman, was dispatched to Japan to learn all the intricacies of the four-rotor engine.

1990 Car Specs for the GTO Mazda RX-7

Engine: Mazda 26B rotary (4-rotor) Displacement: 654cc x 4 = 261cc (160 cubic inches) Maximum Power: 600+ hp at 8500 rpm Maximum Torque: 390 lbs. - ft /7000 rpm Carburetion: EGI (Electronic Gasoline Injection)
Chassis: Steel space frame with aluminum and carbon fiber panels

Transmission: Hewland - 5-speed and reverse
Clutch: Triple plate (Borg & Beck)
Front Suspension: Double A-arm/inboard coil shock units with push rod
Rear Suspension: Double A-arm/high mount coil shock unit
Front Brakes: AP ventilated disc 6-piston caliper
Rear Brakes: AP ventilated disc 4-piston caliper
Shock Absorbers: Koni
Tires: Goodyear Front: 24.5 x 12.5 x 17 Rear: 27.0 x 14.5 x 17
Wheels: BBS 3-piece Dimensions and Weight:
Length 169.9 in. Width 79 in. Wheel Base 95.7 in. Front Track 64 in. Rear Track 62.25 in Weight 2,250 lbs

The team's debut was at the 1990 24 Hours of Daytona. St. Yves had succeeded in hiring defending GTO champion Pete Halsmer away from the Roush Lincoln/Mercury team to be the lead driver in the RX-7s, hence the #1 displayed on the hood of the car. The second car bore the #63, Jim Downing's traditional racing number. For that inaugural race, Halsmer was joined by John Morton and Mazda development driver, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, in the #1, while Downing, Amos Johnson, and John Osteen campaigned the #63.

Right out of the box, Halsmer qualified the #1 car on the GTO pole with a new track record to start 16th overall. The #63 qualified 19th. At the end of 24 hours and more than 2500 miles, the #1, after setting the fastest race lap, was parked, having suffered what was to be its only engine problem for the entire season. The #63, which Halsmer joined later in the race, finished second in GTO and seventh overall.

The independent RX-7 of Peter Uria, Bob Dotson, Rusty Scott, and Jim Pace, won the GTU class, scoring the RX-7's 97th IMSA victory.

At the second race in Miami, Halsmer finished second. At the following 12 Hours of Sebring both cars failed to finish due to mechanical problems and a crash during the race. Following that event, Jim Downing stepped out of the driver's seat to concentrate on managing the team and Elliott Forbes-Robinson drove the next few races. Near the end of the season, Lance Stewart was given a chance in the #63 while Price Cobb, who was to become the full time driver in 1991, drove in the final event.

Halsmer had his first victory at Topeka followed immediately by another win at Mid-Ohio. But the most important race of the season turned out to be in the streets of San Antonio, where Halsmer won his third race of the season and scored the Mazda RX-7's 100th win in IMSA competition. It was the culmination of a drive that had started in 1979 with the RX-7's first IMSA win at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Where are they now?

Pete Halsmer: Drove for the Mazda factory GTP effort in1992. Lives in Michigan and for the past few years has driven a Honda in the Grand Am Cup and Grand Am GT series.

Dick St. Yves: Managed the 1992 GTP effort. Now lives in Tennessee and works for Mazda as a district manager.

Lee Dykstra: Designed the 1992 RX-792P prototype GTP car. Currently serves as technical director for the Champ Car World Series.

Major contributors to the RX-7's 100 wins in IMSA competition.

A total of 38 different drivers contributed to the Mazda RX-7's 100 wins in IMSA competition. (Some events have had two to four drivers sharing one car).


Performance is a hallmark of the Mazda experience, and it's put to the test every time at the tracks of the Mazdaspeed Motorsport Race Series. The Mazda MX-5 Cup is named for the Miata roadster, which took the automotive world by storm in 1989 and proved itself a competitor on both road and track. The Champ Car Atlantic is a formula racing series and one of the top open wheel racing venues in the country; Mazda is proud to not only sponsor the race, but also to help power its engines with Mazda design. The Star Mazda Championship is a spec-racing series powered by advanced RENESIS engines and carbon fiber racecars, where the top international racing prospects of tomorrow come to prove their mettle. All three races are powered by Mazda engineering, ingenuity, and passion for a true driving experience.

The Rolex 24 AT Daytona

After 24 hours of fiercely intense competition among 41 cars, the SpeedSource Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8 team won the GT class at the Rolex 24 in Daytona. What a way to kick off the 2008 GrandAm season! The SpeedSource driving team of Sylvain Tremblay, David Haskell, Nick Ham and Raphael Matos started from the pole, and led 323 of 664 laps, on their way to ninth overall and the class win.

Intermittent rain showers for over half of the race created inclement turmoil and posed a severe strategic challenge for the racing teams. The dangerous combination of a wet track and race cars led to a total of 24 caution periods, many the result of on-track incidents. The SpeedSource team was challenged by the slippery conditions with multiple spins, one of which resulted in minor body damage to the rear of the car including a broken taillight. Other than the taillight, the rotary-powered Mazda ran flawlessly throughout the grueling day-night-day race.

The SpeedSource Mazda team beat the runner-up Porsche by over five laps. The win was Mazda's 22nd class win at the race, ending Porsche's lengthy winning streak at the biggest 24-hour race in America. In its wake, the champion SpeedSource number 70 RX-8 left behind over two dozen Porsche 911 GT-3s, a handful of Pontiacs, a pair of Ferrari 430 Challenges, a Corvette and a BMW M6. Although fierce attempts were made, including a total of 55 lead changes among 10 cars in the class, no one managed to pass the RX-8 for the final 185 laps.

"This was a great win for the entire SpeedSource team. Endurance racing in particular is a team sport and I am so proud of our collective effort. Thanks especially to our new partners at Castrol, who believed in our ability to deliver. Thanks also to Fresh from Florida for their support of our in-car camera, as well as the many rotary enthusiasts who have supported our efforts," remarked SpeedSource owner/engineer/driver Sylvain Tremblay.

Mazda was well represented in the top-ten winner's circle. Sharing top-ten honors with the Castrol Syntec RX-8 were two other SpeedSource-built RX-8s. Finishing fifth in the GT class was the SpeedSource FXDD RX-8 of Emil Assentato, Jeff Segal, Nick Longhi and Lonnie Pechnik. The final top-ten car was the RX-8 of Racers Edge Motorsports driven by Ken Dobson, Robert Thorne, Craig Stone and Drew Staveley.