On the Track With Mazda’s All-New Endurance Racer

2017 Mazda RT24-P
2017 Mazda RT24-P | Mazda

What do Rolex, Dodge, and Ferrari have in common? They all owe a big part of their legacy to Daytona Beach, Florida, a small city that happens to be “the birthplace of motorsport.” Daytona is where NASCAR was born, driving right there on the hard sand beach. Rolex named its iconic watch after the place once it noticed how popular its chronographs were with drivers. A few years later, the first 24-hour event there was won by a Ford GT40 in 1966. A year after that, thanks to its one-two-three finish there, Ferrari simplified the name of its new grand tourer, the 365 GTB/4, to the Daytona. And by the end of the decade, the cutthroat competition at stock car events led Dodge to launch the Charger Daytona, a 200-plus mile-per-hour aerodynamic stock car that radically changed the sport and has gone on to become a muscle car legend.

So to say the place is hallowed ground for gearheads is something of an understatement, but it’s no museum piece either. Daytona International Speedway is not only home to the largest NASCAR event of the year (the Daytona 500), but also the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona: The start of the IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, which pits some of the most formidable cars in the world against each other through some of the most grueling races in America. And while the cars will duke it out at other iconic circuits like Sebring, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Daytona is the one to watch. Daytona is the big debut — the one that often sets the tone for the entire season. And with the arrival of a new generation of endurance racers, this year’s competition was truly something special. 

2017 RT24-P
2017 Mazda RT24-P | Mazda

A full 55 cars ran this year, and despite a few familiar faces, most of it was new. There were the Cadillac DPi-V.R prototypes, which started the race in the top three spots and ended up finishing in the top two spots. There was the Porsche 911 RSR, which bucked 53 years of 911 tradition and had their engines mounted amidships. And then there was the pretty underdog, the Mazda RT24-P, which we were there to follow.

This isn’t Mazda’s first rodeo; the RX-7 won more IMSA races in its class than any other production car ever. In 1991, the rotary-powered 787B prototype won in a stunning victory at Le Mans, making it the only Japanese manufacturer to ever win the world’s most famous 24-hour race. This decade, it had a strong run with its diesel-powered Skyactiv-D prototypes, and since 2015, has been racing traditional gas-powered cars. All this is on top of the thousands of Miatas that race all over the world every weekend. 

The Cadillac DPi-V.R would end up taking second place
The Cadillac DPi-V.R ended up taking second place overall | Richard Prince/ Cadillac Racing

For 2017, IMSA has come around to the idea that if a manufacturer wants to run a prototype, it should bear some similarity to its road cars. So, for example, the new Cadillacs wear a chrome trim around the side glass, looking like the cutline on an ATS-V coupe. Its headlights also have the unmistakable Cadillac shape, and its vertical taillights carry on a design tradition that goes back to the 1940s.

But no manufacturer has taken this new rule to heart closer than Mazda. Prototypes have been pretty in the past, but the RT24-P is truly breathtaking. If a homologation rule was suddenly instituted, we doubt Mazda would have trouble selling a few hundred of these.

There were two cars at Daytona: a Soul Red car, number 70, and a Machine Gray car, number 55. Both come in colors you can buy a Miata in, and like the roadster, the RT24-P was penned by Julien Montousse, the head of Mazda design. It also has a similar five-point grille, teardrop headlights, and a side glass profile that echoes the new Miata RF. It even boasts a 2.0 liter inline-four like the Miata. But there are a few key differences, of course. 

The #70 RT24-P in the Mazda garage less than an hour before the race
The #70 RT24-P in the Mazda garage less than an hour before the race | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

For one, the Mazda Performance team designed the car in conjunction with Multimatic/Riley, culminating in a marathon eight-day engineering session in England where the car finally came together. That 2.o liter four may have the same displacement as a Miata, but with a massive turbocharger, the powerplant (carried over from Mazda’s previous prototype) puts out a whopping 600 horsepower.

Number 70 was driven by Tom Long, Joel Miller, and James Hinchcliffe, while Jonathan Bomarito, Tristan Nunez, and Spencer Pigot piloted the 55 car. Ben Devlin split time between the two. Long and Devlin are the old men at 34; Nunez is the kid at just 21.

The race starts as the pace car pulls back into the pits
The race starts as the pace car pulls back into the pits | James Derek Sapienza/ Autos Cheat Sheet

The flag fell on Saturday afternoon, the 28th, under darkening skies, with the 55 cars each taking off behind a bright orange Audi R8 pace car. Between the Prototypes, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans, and GT Daytona classes, it was an amazing sight — and an amazing noise. On the same track you had inline four, six, eight, 10, and 12-cylinder engines, all competing for the same thing: the checkered flag, and new Rolex Daytonas.

Two Cadillacs took off first, leading both the prototypes and the entire field. The Ford GTs led the GTLM class, and a Ferrari 488 in the GTD class. The Mazdas started 11 and 12th overall, not a bad place to be. But despite it being Florida, it was still January, and as the light started to fade it began to rain. It wouldn’t let up until the last few hours of the race. 

During a brief break in the rain, the traditional fireworks display took place
During a brief break in the rain, the traditional fireworks display took place | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The weather, wet and in the 50s, gave the race something of a Le Mans vibe, and despite thousands of spectators, the speedway’s 101,000 technicolor seats were mostly empty. The real action was in the infield, where hundreds of RVs, from massive rolling motorhomes to rusty old Volkswagen Type IIs took up almost every available inch of grass. It was a strange mix, from European team members out of their element to good ‘ol boys out on a weekend. The carnival atmosphere was topped off by a giant ferris wheel, which dominated the sky over the track.

In Mazda’s headquarters at the end of the pit lane, the tent doors were kept shut to keep the wind and rain out, as the cars blew by approaching 200 miles per hour. A buffet stayed stocked, depending on which meal it was closest to; at odd hours it was filled with junk food. There was almost always a group of engineers, Mazda personnel, and even drivers who would duck in to sit, eat, and watch the race and real-time positions on the bank of TVs. Compared to the chaos of the pits, it was a haven. 

2017 Mazda RT24 at the Rolex 24
2017 Mazda RT24 at the Rolex 24 | Mazda

Just before 9 p.m., the gray number 70 car went into the pits, where it would spend most of the night for transmission repairs, while the 55 car continued to ground it out. Throughout the night, the Cadillacs and Fords largely continued to hang onto their leads, despite serious cutthroat competition. We left around midnight as the rain got heavier, and spectators began to disappear into their RVs, tents, or trucks. At our hotel across the four-lane street, we fell asleep to the field roaring together into the night.

By the time the sun came up on Sunday, most cars were still going strong — no small feat, especially since so many of them were new to competition. The weather was still cold and wet, but the track was an unforgettable sight. Both pretty Mazdas were back in, with the 55 car inching ever higher on the leaderboard. There were the GTs out in force, their legend already set after Le Mans last year, battling the iconic, bright yellow Corvette C7.Rs. At full throttle, the new Cadillac prototypes didn’t sound much different than the ‘Vettes, with their roaring V8s drowning out anything else around them.

On top of the prototypes and front-runners there were Lamborghini Hurácans, Lexus RC Fs, Aston Martin Vantages, Mercedes-AMG GT3s, Audi R8s, BMW M6 GTLM, and the all-new Acura NSX, running its first endurance race. Together, it all made for an unforgettable sight. 

The long walk from the pits to the garage
After the fire, the long walk from the pits to the garage | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

By 10 a.m., the rain had stopped and the crowd was beginning to return. We decided to go to the pits to see how the crews were faring after a hard night. Stopping at a checkpoint to show our credentials, we noticed that the 55 car, now in fifth place and climbing, was pulling into the pits.

After walking around through the spectators and speeding carts loaded with new tires and fuel, the crowd fell silent around the Mazda garage and started to part. There was an oil fire in 55’s engine bay, knocking the car out in a plume of black smoke and flames. Luckily no one was hurt. The long walk to the garage looked like a funeral procession, with drivers rolling the car and the crew falling in behind it. To see the beautiful little underdog roll by, its Soul Red paint marred by soot and fire extinguishing powder, was the biggest disappointment of the race. 

The Number 55 car shortly before the fire
The number 55 car powering out of a corner, shortly before the fire | James Derek Sapienza/ Autos Cheat Sheet

Despite getting back into the fray, the 70 car never quite regained its footing, retiring just 30 minutes before the flag due to lingering transmission issues. And while the attitude had changed in the Mazda tent, there was still a hell of a race going on. In the last few minutes, the number 5 and 10 Cadillacs were neck-and-neck. It didn’t matter that both cars were Cadillacs, the race was now number 10 (Wayne Taylor Racing) versus number 5 (Mustang Sampling Racing). While the prototypes were duking it out, the number 911 Porsche (get it?) was giving the number 66 Ford GT a serious run in the GTLM class. The Ford managed to pull away with a few laps left, just as the number 62 Ferrari began to catch up with the Porsche. After 24 hours and hundreds of laps, the race was decided in the last few seconds.

With just minutes to go, there was contact between the two Cadillacs, sending the number 5 car spinning. It was able to recover, but Wayne Taylor Racing hung on to take the checkered flag amid the protests of the Mustang Sampling team. Ford would hang on to win the GTLM class, the number 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R won the GTD class, and the number 38 Oreca won the PC class. In its first race, the Mazda RT24-P scored two DNFs. 

24 Hours of Daytona
2017 Mazda RT24 at the Rolex 24 | Mazda

But there’s a lot of silver lining for Mazda, which despite its past racing successes still has the scrappy underdog reputation. Both RT24s will race again, and soon. The 12 Hours of Sebring is on March 18th, and we have no doubts the team will be ready. “Once we get to the new Continental road course tires and the higher downforce package, these Mazdas are gonna be something. The car’s great, it’s definitely a driver’s car,” says Jonathan Bomarito. Tom Long agrees: “By the end, our Mazda had a ton of grip as we were running the best laps we had run all weekend.” And with 13 victories under its belt and the new car’s kinks worked out, the Mazda will again be one to watch.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t already looking forward to the next Daytona. Because despite the importance of the rest of the season, the symbolism of winning right out of the gate is too hard to resist. It may not have The Corkscrew like Laguna, or the aching beauty of Lime Rock or the Glen, but Daytona is hallowed ground. For some, it’s where it all began. For others, it’s where legends are made.

For Mazda, we think Daytona was the beginning of a very good thing.