Mazda's Racers Zooming up the Ladder

Photos by: Jimmy Sykes & John ThawleyOn any given weekend, there are more Mazdas on the road-race tracks of America than any other brand of vehicle. That statement lent itself especially well to Road America last weekend, as the manufacturer was represented in six of the seven series competing there. No fewer than 87 drivers from around the world were in Mazda-supported efforts, a testament to the strong level of support the brand provides to racers on all levels.

photo by: Jimmy Sykes“For Mazda, the foundation of our programs has been grassroots racing,” says John Doonan, Manager, Motorsports Team Development for Mazda North America. “With over 8,000 grassroots racers nationwide, that has built us a foundation to grow people through the motorsports industry. We start people out in things like Spec Miata, or any of the club racing classes for that matter like Formula Mazda, Formula SCCA. It gets people started. For those who want to grow further, we’ve given them the chance to race either in a Mazda or a Mazda-powered car all the way up to the pinnacle, for us, in sports car racing, which would be Le Mans or Daytona.”

Mazda provides two distinct paths to aspiring racers, one in the open-wheel ranks and another in sports car racing. On the open-wheel side, Mazda starts support at the karting level, then giving drivers the opportunity to graduate to the Skip Barber Racing School arena. The champion from the BFGoodrich/Skip Barber National Presented by Mazda receives a full scholarship to the Star Mazda Championship Presented by Goodyear. That season’s champion then moves into a seat in the Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.

photo by: Jimmy SykesOn the sports car racing ladder, it all begins in grassroots racing. The winner of an end-of-season shootout in the SCCA Club Racing National Championship receives a scholarship to the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup. That series champion gets a ride in SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championship for the following year. From that level, the opportunity opens for possible rides in Mazda’s supported Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and American Le Mans Series programs.

The ladder system has proven to be very successful. Ex-Formula One-turned NASCAR star Scott Speed, as well as stock car up-and-comers Michael McDowell and Brad Coleman have all been through the Mazda ropes. Raphael Matos is another key example, as he worked his way up the entire Mazda open-wheel ladder and is now one step away from landing a drive in the IndyCar Series.

Two drivers currently enjoying success in the ladder are Jason Saini and Gerardo Bonilla. Both started on different paths, but ultimately have ended up in similar arenas. Together, they credit Mazda for where they are today.

photo by: Jimmy SykesSaini began his connection with Mazda in the Spec Miata ranks before moving into the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup, where he won the championship in 2007. That awarded him a ride in this year’s SPEED World Challenge Touring Car Championship, driving for Tri-Point Motorsports in one of its Mazda 6s. In his rookie season, Saini has already picked up his first World Challenge victory at Miller Motorsports Park in May and will be looking to earn victory number two of the season in Sunday’s Touring Car race.

“Mazda’s ladder system is simply amazing,” Saini says. “I think its one of the most important things in sports car racing right now because so much is focused on money and sponsorship. What Mazda has done has taken that sponsorship and focused it on young talent coming up. I’m just really lucky to be involved in this program.”

photo by: Jimmy SykesSaini hopes to one day end up in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, steering one of the Mazda RX-8s in the GT category. SpeedSource, Mazda’s flagship entry in the Rolex Series, has enjoyed success in 2008, winning the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and other races this season. While Saini dreams of one day being in victory lane at Daytona, he’s grateful to spend a few more seasons in World Challenge, first to hone his skills as a driver.

“If I was taking the standard path to being a professional driver, I might win the MX-5 Cup and then be able to get a ride with one of the slower World Challenge teams,” Saini says. “I’d then work my way up and maybe do well in one race and catch the eye of one of the top teams. With the Mazda ladder system, you can go directly into the top team. That just shaves years off your career progress: to be able to move up immediately and show what you have and get that chance. It’s really a remarkable program.”

photo by John Thawley

Bonilla is another prime example of the success a Mazda driver can have through the ladder system. Bonilla took the open-wheel path to move up the ranks, starting out in karting before graduating to Skip Barber. He won the 2005 National championship, moving into Star Mazda the following year. Bonilla placed sixth overall in the standings, winning the Expert Championship. That propelled him to a dominant season in IMSA Lites in 2007, claiming the title with a Mazda-powered prototype.

Now, Bonilla is at the wheel of B-K Motorsorts’ Mazda MZR-R-powered Lola B07/46 in the American Le Mans Series. While still at the pinnacle of sports car racing, Bonilla continues to teach at the Skip Barber Racing School, a place where he got his start.

photo by John Thawley“Staying in the Mazda family has been a wonderful thing,” Bonilla says. “There are a lot of passionate racers here. The people from Mazda are also very passionate how they’re involved with the sport. It’s great that they’re involved in so many levels so you can stay loyal to the brand and to those people throughout many different levels of the ladder.”

While Saini and Bonilla are still in Mazda-supported machinery, that doesn’t limit them, or any other racer going up the ladder, to possible rides in other racing disciplines.

“Our goal with the ladder is not to own those drivers, but we want to own their path,” Doonan adds. “And have them someday in victory lane either at Indy or Daytona or Le Mans and say ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for what Mazda did throughout my career.’”

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