Mazda to end sponsorship of Road to Indy program after nine years

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The Mazda Road to Indy (MTRI) racing program will continue to go forward despite Tuesday’s announcement that Mazda will end its affiliation with all three of IndyCar’s developmental series, effective at the end of this season.

Those series are: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

“The time has come for Mazda to focus our resources into other areas of our motorsports footprint,” John Doonan, Director of Mazda Motorsports, said in a statement. “We have truly enjoyed our role in developing young racers into Indy 500 hopefuls, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with Andersen Promotions through the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup.

“The 2018 USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights champions will receive Mazda Advancement Scholarships for the 2019 season and the annual $200,000 Mazda Road to Indy Global shootout will also be held in December of this season.

“Motorsports is at the core of Mazda’s DNA and the company remains committed to its variety of motorsports programs in the coming years including our grassroots club racing initiatives, the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BF Goodrich, the Mazda Road to 24, and Mazda Team Joest.”

Dan Anderson, owner and CEO of Anderson Promotions, chief promoter of MRTI, issued the following statement:

“We would like to thank Mazda for nine tremendous years in supporting and headlining the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. They have been a great partner and their scholarships have helped so many drivers achieve their dream of progressing to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Mazda has been a key player in establishing and helping to grow our driver development system into the unparalleled program it is today. They remain with us through the end of this season and will once again be awarding each of our series’ champions a scholarship to move up to the next step in 2019 as well as the winner of the USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in December.

“As their marketing objectives pursue new horizons, we at Andersen Promotions are committed to maintaining the outstanding ladder structure we have in place for 2019 and beyond. We are currently in discussions with several potential companies as we actively pursue a new partner.”

The big question now is who will step in to fill the sponsorship void left by Mazda’s departure.

One thing is certain: The three-pronged Road to Indy program will continue forward, according to IndyCar.

“The Road to Indy program has staged great racing over the years while developing teams and drivers for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that will continue with plans soon to be announced,” the series said in a statement. “Mazda has been a transformative partner, and IndyCar is appreciative of its many contributions.”

The MRTI was established in 2010 and provided a platform for young up-and-coming racers to earn scholarships – and notoriety – as they worked their way up the ladder of the various series in hopes of eventually culminating with an IndyCar or Indianapolis 500 ride.

Last season, the scholarship program provided over $3.5 million to drivers across all three developmental series.

The MRTI ladder system was particularly popular because it attracted drivers during its nine-year existence from nearly two dozen countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and Venezuela.

In essence, the three series are microcosms of the IndyCar Series, racing on the same racetracks and at many of the same events that IndyCar competes upon, including permanent road courses like this past weekend’s racing action at Mid-Ohio, temporary street courses like Long Beach and Toronto, and ovals such as Indianapolis and Texas.

Among notables who have graduated through the program and went on to the IndyCar Series include Josef Newgarden (2011 Indy Lights champion), Sage Karam (2013 Indy Lights and 2010 U.S. F2000) Gabby Chaves (2014 Indy Lights), Spencer Pigot (2015 Indy Lights and 2014 Pro Mazda), Ed Jones (2016 Indy Lights), Mathew Brabham (2013 Pro Mazda champ and 2012 U.S. F2000)), Conor Daly (2010 Pro Mazda) and Jack Hawksworth (2012 Pro Mazda). Another notable that also graduated from the program was current IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe.

Newgarden became the first MRTI series graduate to win the IndyCar Series championship in 2017.

Tuesday’s announcement came as somewhat of a surprise.

For example, 19-year-old Kyle Kirkwood won the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda last Friday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Kyle Kimball, Mazda Motorsports operations manager said after Kirkwood’s championship-winning run: “The Mazda Road to Indy is not only about training inside the car, but also outside the car.

“We tell the young men and women that their behavior and attitude and the way they conduct themselves outside of the car is more important than what they do inside the car and on the track.

“We saw his shining personality in 2016 (at the shootout) and to look forward to 2019 and know that Kyle Kirkwood will be representing the Mazda brand puts us very much at ease.”

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Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).