Mazda has a new, big team running them next year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Winning pursuit fuels Mazda Motorsports’ move to Joest in 2018

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Mazda Motorsports’ prototype program since it came back to being in 2014 has been defined by several staples: a Soul Red livery, an evolution of chassis platform and gut-wrenching heartbreak.

It has not, to this stage, been defined by winning – which goes against Mazda’s otherwise sterling record in North American sports car racing of winning regularly, with 155 major sports car wins in North America (third among all manufacturers) and 11 major sports car championships.

But with podiums the best result since Mazda evolved from its SKYACTIV-D diesel prototype effort, abandoned after 2015, to the gasoline-powered MZ-2.0T in the back of its Lola Multimatic based chassis in 2016 and then to the new Riley Multimatic chassis and KODO design inspired Mazda RT24-P that’s debuted this year, something had to change.

It’s a harsh reality of the motorsports world that sometimes loyalty loses out to performance gains and Mazda, which has maintained an incredible relationship with SpeedSource, can’t be accused of lacking loyalty to the Florida-based outfit run by Sylvain Tremblay. But when a team of Joest Racing’s caliber becomes available, it proves incredibly hard to overlook.

“I answer to the executive team at Mazda, and that executive team answers to a brand… and it’s our process to put the brand in the highest position as possible,” John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, told NBC Sports.

“For a while we’ve continued to look at ways to do that. There’s no question, that Sylvain and his organization gave every ounce of effort in their personal tanks to this program.

“At the same time, we also looked at every aspect of the chassis, with Larry Holt and Multimatic, the powerplant from AER, to the drivers, and we had to look at every element of the program to put our best foot forward.

“Working with one of the greatest teams of all-time doesn’t happen very often, if ever. And I’m not sure this will ever happen again.”

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hour, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer celebrate on the podium with Wolfgang Ullrich of Austria, Head of Audi Motorsport on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

The process to bring Joest Racing, a 16-time Le Mans winner and prior factory team for Audi, Porsche and Opel, began almost from the off at the Rolex 24 at Daytona when Joest officials – including managing director Ralf Juttner – were on site at the season-opening round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Joest needed a manufacturer and Mazda needed results to prove to the brass the competitiveness and winning potential of the program. From that standpoint it was a match made in heaven and things moved quickly in relative terms, through the various processes, to make it happen.

“We had a list of teams… and initially, they weren’t on it or available!” Doonan said. “When they did become available, when it even became possible to sit down with them, we thought, ‘Well that’ll never work. We won’t be good enough for them.’

“But quite the contrary! The chemistry was there from the first minute. It set in, and holy cow, this could be possible… you compare notes, objectives, the business means to you, and someone who has represented premium manufacturer brands in the past. It became reality.”

That this was kept a secret though was almost the bigger shocker. Certainly Joest made DPi rumblings, but a VAG brand – perhaps Audi again, Bentley or Volkswagen itself – made more theoretical sense than Joest and Mazda coming together.

With SpeedSource personnel informed earlier this week of the change, Doonan admitted the challenges that come with the nature of a buildup to this announcement, and how fast this all went down.

“It was difficult to know what was going on the background, but out of sheer respect for processes and agreements, who were signing up with next, we had to do it right,” Doonan said. “I am shocked we kept it quiet! That’s exciting; we did it not to be sneaky in the industry, but to respect our partners and the right people all the time.

“It was a relatively short time frame. We’ve worked for six to seven months, but in our business, that’s all happened relatively quickly. You bring up peoples lives and that’s a consideration for the process, for the existing partner, and for the future partner. That’s the internal processes with Japan, America, finance, legal departments and all the steps it takes.”

Both Mazdas racing a Nissan Onroak DPi at COTA. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Now that the announcement of the program is out the natural questions are about where the program goes from here.

Per Juttner, the testing will begin in the next month, with the existing Mazda RT24-Ps sent to Europe. The quartet of full-season drivers (Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, Tom Long, Joel Miller) will undertake the testing duties but as a result this means the Mazdas won’t be on the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class grid for the final three races of the year.

“We expect to be starting with the testing as soon as August, without going into detail on the test program. But in the next month we expect to have the car rolling,” he said.

Given the limits on what can be changed to the car per IMSA’s homologation process, the car will not need a full rehomologation under the Joest team banner, but the two outfits will be working in tandem to improve what they can.

“There is, for sure, some discussions with IMSA about the homologation. It’s not a complete re-homologation, for sure. Homologation processes is anyway not completely closed,” Juttner said.

“The testing will be done with a car that does already have some modifications in it. We expect more to come throughout the remainder of this year until then we have a version that we think is the right one to start the season in 2018.”

Doonan reiterated there was “never really a doubt” in continuing with Multimatic and AER.

“Larry and his people are so committed to making this one work,” Doonan explained. “We invested heavily. We’re counting on Larry and his people to see this car succeed.

“We’re really excited for to continue work to together with AER; we’ve been with them 11 years and they’ve ramped up their game on reliability in eight to 10 months. Let’s put all the pieces together and have people standing on the top step.”

Nunez, Bomarito and Miller are three of the four who’ll test this fall, along with Long. Photo courtesy of IMSA

A decision on the 2018 driver lineup is expected by the end of the IMSA regular season, and it’s hard to foresee the Mazda and Joest partnership keeping all four existing drivers on the books next year. Long, whose Long Road Racing family operation builds the Global MX-5 Cup cars and Miller, who also works within the Mazda Road to Indy as a driver coach and steward, are active within other areas of the company.

For the quartet of drivers who have been so integral to Mazda’s development over the last six or seven years, if not longer, they’re now in the position of helping to develop this car over the next couple months while not entirely knowing their status driving-wise, without having the chance to race. Doonan said championship position made no bearing on the status to withdraw, although neither pairing is higher than sixth in the points.

“After looking at all the options and understanding the timeline to get ready for Daytona, we made this decision,” Doonan said. “The vision was to try to finish the season, but we had to make a tough decision to stop. I wanted to finish it. But there’s a laser focus on testing. That’s what we’ll go do.”

The exciting and perhaps surprising part – just like Penske and Acura’s official union announced last week – is that two more sparring partners from the ALMS prototype heyday of 2006 through 2008 have again come together.

Whereas in 2008 there was Joest with two LMP1 Audis, Mazda with a privateer LMP2 Lola Mazda, and then Penske’s two Porsche RS Spyders and Acura’s handful of ARX-01s making up the field, now all four are back in the game to create a fascinating potential rivalry, while also battling the Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis and trio of Cadillac DPi-V.Rs, thus far the dominant force in 2017.

Winning now will mean more because of the competition level, and that’s the only goal here for this new partnership.

“We all know that with announcements like today and announcements like a few days ago, the competition level and the quality and the racing will get even better. So we are really looking forward to the task that’s ahead. We know it’s a difficult one, but we are ready for it,” Juttner said.

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 17: Raphael Matos drives the #8 LMP2 BK Motorsports Lola B08 during practice for the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 17, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Doonan added, “It’s interesting because we talk about the our Le Mans victory in 1991 as a key notch on our brand timeline. I love that, and Mazda in GTO and GTU, but that is the past. It’s a foundation of our company.

“But we’re in the process of selling great road cars. And we’re in the business of writing the next chapter of motorsports history. With things like the rotary RX-8 that won Daytona, the MAZDASPEED6 with SKYACTIV-D and others, we tried to write the new chapter.

“We’ve been like a caged animal waiting to announce this. I’ll be on a plane to Germany soon for our next technical group meeting.

“We’re doing all this to create success. I am thrilled. We did participate in the Joest, Acura, Porsche, Mazda era in ALMS – and whether you call it version ‘2.0 or 3.0,’ now we’re in it again thanks to the France family.”

MONTEREY, CA – OCTOBER 18: David Brabham driving the #9 LMP2 Patron Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01B leads Gil de Ferran in the #66 de Ferran Motorsports Acura ARX-01B into turn 1 at the start of the American Le Mans Series Monterey Sports Car Championship on October 18, 2008 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

NHRA Norwalk winners: Blake Alexander, Hagan, Gray, Krawiec

Norwalk winners, from left, Tanner Gray, Eddie Krawiec, Blake Alexander and Matt Hagan. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Blake Alexander captured his first career NHRA Top Fuel win, winning Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

Alexander becomes the 105th different winner in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Alexander won the race with a 4.011-second pass at 297.81 mph, defeating Terry McMillen.

“It felt really good,” Alexander said afterward. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life. I’ve come close but have lost sponsors, thought I was never going to drive the car again and basically we have gone through everything to climb back to the top.”

Alexander qualified 12th for the event and defeated three of the sport’s heavyweight drivers – Don Schumacher Racing pilots Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett – before entering his second career final round.

In Funny Car, Matt Hagan earned his second event of the season with a run of 4.094 seconds at 288.21 mph over points leader Courtney Force.

It was Hagan’s first win since the season-opening race at Pomona, California.

“We just had a good solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap.

“It’s been a while since we turned on four win lights but it’s a nitro Funny Car; you never know what you’re going to get.”

Hagan was the No. 3 qualifier and defeated fellow DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, followed by Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd in the semifinals en route to meeting Force – who had qualified No. 1 – in the final round.

Courtney Force defeated John Smith, Shawn Langdon and her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

In Pro Stock, young Tanner Gray earned his third win of the season and eighth of his career. Gray covered the quarter-mile in 6.615 seconds at 209.62 mph, defeating two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders in the final round.

Gray becomes the only Pro Stock driver to reach the winner’s circle three different times this season.

“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season.

“We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”

Gray defeated Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford and Drew Skillman prior to his final round win over Enders, who now has one win and four runner-up finishes in the first 12 races of 2018.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec won for the third time in his career at Norwalk with a pass of 6.923 seconds at 195.05 mph, defeating 2016 PSM champ Jerry “The Alligator Farmer” Savoie.

“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec said. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops.

“We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner’s circle.”

Savoie is now 1-1 in final round appearances, with a win at Charlotte and runner-up Sunday.

The next NHRA national event, which kicks off the second half of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, takes place July 6-8 at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Blake Alexander; 2. Terry McMillen; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Leah Pritchett; 5. Tony Schumacher; 6. Richie Crampton; 7. Clay Millican; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. Doug Kalitta; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Pat Dakin; 12. Dom Lagana; 13. Kyle Wurtzel; 14. Chris Karamesines; 15. Brittany Force; 16. Luigi Novelli.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Courtney Force; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. John Force; 5. Jack Beckman; 6. Shawn Langdon; 7. Robert Hight; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 10. Jim Campbell; 11. Dale Creasy Jr.; 12. John Smith; 13. Del Worsham; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Drew Skillman; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Jason Line; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Vincent Nobile; 8. Matt Hartford; 9. Greg Anderson; 10. Alex Laughlin; 11. Deric Kramer; 12. Chris McGaha; 13. John Gaydosh Jr; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Charlie Westcott Jr.; 16. Kenny Delco.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. LE Tonglet; 4. Angie Smith; 5. Hector Arana Jr; 6. Angelle Sampey; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Jim Underdahl; 9. Matt Smith; 10. Mark Paquette; 11. Scotty Pollacheck; 12. Cory Reed; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Steve Johnson; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Joey Gladstone.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Blake Alexander, 4.011 seconds, 297.81 mph def. Terry McMillen, 4.155 seconds, 289.20 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.094, 288.21 def. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.615, 209.62 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.923, 195.05 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.071, 175.39.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Richie Crampton, 3.802, 321.81 def. Pat Dakin, 3.834, 318.24; Mike Salinas, 3.884, 268.38 def. Luigi Novelli, 14.101, 30.94; Terry McMillen, 3.816, 324.98 def. Brittany Force, 9.389, 79.86; Clay Millican, 3.759, 332.26 def. Dom Lagana, 3.837, 323.89; Steve Torrence, 3.800, 329.99 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.052, 300.06; Tony Schumacher, 3.807, 327.66 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 3.902, 306.74; Blake Alexander, 3.802, 319.75 def. Antron Brown, 3.808, 326.71; Leah Pritchett, 3.794, 328.94 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.805, 321.73; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.798, 330.15 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 330.31; McMillen, 3.793, 327.11 def. Crampton, 3.810, 320.51; Pritchett, 3.788, 327.74 def. Millican, 3.817, 327.03; Torrence, 4.027, 269.89 def. Salinas, 4.001, 232.07; SEMIFINALS — McMillen, 3.854, 317.57 def. Torrence, 3.929, 302.96; Alexander, 3.799, 329.91 def. Pritchett, 4.185, 254.28; FINAL — Alexander, 4.011, 297.81 def. McMillen, 4.155, 289.20.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.998, 322.58 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Stratus, 4.338, 224.21; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.994, 327.19 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.990, 323.27; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.994, 324.51 def. John Smith, Toyota Camry, 4.373, 248.52; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.034, 315.05 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; John Force, Camaro, 4.066, 320.13 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.140, 311.49; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.047, 319.07 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 9.812, 93.13; J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.016, 316.01 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 5.438, 142.39; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.045, 318.77 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.847, 202.00; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 4.004, 321.27 def. Capps, 9.588, 81.56; J. Force, 4.085, 319.75 def. Hight, 4.116, 308.07; Hagan, 4.010, 322.27 def. Beckman, 4.022, 321.73; C. Force, 3.971, 325.37 def. Langdon, 4.025, 315.19; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.981, 320.58 def. Todd, 4.031, 321.50; C. Force, 4.007, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.053, 321.27; FINAL — Hagan, 4.094, 288.21 def. C. Force, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 208.26 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.614, 208.78; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.607, 209.65 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.603, 209.07; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.608, 209.04 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.648, 208.55; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.616, 208.23 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.632, 208.23; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.626, 208.42 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.765, 205.66; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.751, 207.40 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 6.802, 203.52; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.599, 208.94 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.588, 208.88 def. Charlie Westcott Jr., Ford Mustang, 6.848, 201.85; QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.671, 207.85 def. Nobile, 7.216, 141.86; Gray, 6.600, 209.04 def. Hartford, 15.697, 42.27; Skillman, 6.614, 209.14 def. Line, 6.625, 208.59; Enders, 6.634, 207.56 def. Coughlin, 6.737, 207.50; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.636, 207.59 def. Butner, 6.651, 208.42; Gray, 6.610, 209.30 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Gray, 6.615, 209.62 def. Enders, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Angie Smith, Buell, 6.932, 192.17 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.993, 190.19; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.907, 195.56 def. Mark Paquette, Buell, 6.932, 189.60; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.906, 193.85 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.959, 192.11; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.896, 194.60 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.903, 193.29 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.066, 189.71; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.866, 195.39 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.964, 193.71; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.926, 193.32 def. Matt Smith, 6.899, 195.48; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.953, 192.69 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — A. Smith, 6.972, 191.10 def. Underdahl, 7.080, 188.73; Krawiec, 6.889, 193.46 def. Sampey, 6.922, 193.35; Savoie, 6.916, 193.13 def. Hines, 6.991, 192.25; Tonglet, 6.940, 194.58 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.187, 155.10 def. A. Smith, 7.627, 128.07; Krawiec, 6.865, 194.24 def. Tonglet, 6.898, 195.11; FINAL — Krawiec, 6.923, 195.05 def. Savoie, 7.071, 175.39.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 964; 2. Clay Millican, 847; 3. Tony Schumacher, 817; 4. Doug Kalitta, 749; 5. Leah Pritchett, 736; 6. Terry McMillen, 643; 7. Antron Brown, 622; 8. Brittany Force, 594; 9. Mike Salinas, 475; 10. Scott Palmer, 471.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,038; 2. (tie) Jack Beckman, 788; Matt Hagan, 788; 4. Robert Hight, 771; 5. J.R. Todd, 767; 6. Ron Capps, 755; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 637; 8. John Force, 577; 9. Shawn Langdon, 537; 10. Bob Tasca III, 532.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray, 882; 2. Greg Anderson, 856; 3. Erica Enders, 830; 4. Vincent Nobile, 812; 5. Drew Skillman, 751; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 732; 7. Bo Butner, 717; 8. Chris McGaha, 691; 9. Deric Kramer, 659; 10. Jason Line, 628.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, 515; 2. Andrew Hines, 510; 3. LE Tonglet, 440; 4. Jerry Savoie, 389; 5. Hector Arana Jr, 377; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 363; 7. Matt Smith, 355; 8. Angie Smith, 272; 9. Angelle Sampey, 257; 10. Hector Arana, 255.

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