With spectators draining away, Mazda's democratic means of getting gearheads behind the wheel is what will save the sport.
The furrowed brow and fierce gaze staring at me through the windshield of a black and blue Mazda MX-5 signaled only one thing: Patrick Gallagher was not happy. You could feel it as he gave the cameras fake smiles for sponsorship photos while perched on the second highest podium rung. They always say it's the guy in second who's least happy because they got close enough to first that they could taste the glory but not get their fill, but Gallagher wasn't mad because he was in second.
He was seething because in his eyes, first place was stolen out from under him. Prior to this weekend, the racing world was mostly unknown to me. I'd watched Rush a few times and driven enough fast cars-both in real life and on virtual tracks-to understand the appeal behind it, but being a spectator never struck a curious nerve in my body. So when Mazda invited me to one of the few racing series that its motorsports division runs, the Mazda MX-5 Cup Global Challenge, I was intrigued. The trek to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was made out of motivation to cross an item off my bucket list: watching a race from a suite stocked with plenty of booze, an eager caterer, and thousands of horsepower whizzing by to the point that the experience becomes bewildering.
Those selfish ambitions melted away when I encountered the combined presence of Gallagher and Luke Oxner at dinner the night before the big race. Oxner, the rookie of the two, had a calm air about him that signaled his ability to keep a cool head when adrenaline glands were working as hard as his MX-5's 2.0-liter. Gallagher, the good old boy from Ohio, had the experience and confidence of someone who's been on the winner's podium before but he didn't have to put on an act for his humility to come to surface. That was forged by his simple desire to be in first place no matter what, extravagant displays of the wealth he'd won on the track being an afterthought.
Hang with any Mazda racers for a spill and that attitude comes through clear as day. Unlike other automaker-orchestrated racing events, the MX-5 cup isn't an outlet for bored rich car fans with too much time and money on their hands. Being a fraction of the size of its giant Japanese rivals, Mazda doesn't have a half billion dollars to spend on each Formula 1 season. Instead it puts its time and energy into getting underdogs with humble beginnings and checkered flag aspirations behind the wheel of its Global MX-5 Cup cars-the vehicles being a perfect translation of Mazda's philosophy of distilling the gearhead essence into every vehicle it builds and selling it at prices the masses can afford.
That's been the thesis of the legendary MX-5 since the first NA chassis rolled off the line in the late 80s. Now in its fourth generation, the ND MX-5 is sent to North Carolina-based Long Road Racing where it's taken apart and rebuilt to racing spec. Once the MX-5 is stripped, it's given a roll cage, a suspension upgrade, and gets tamper-resistant seals placed on the engine, transmission, and limited-slip differential so teams can't go in and tinker with horsepower, torque, or gear ratios. After that it's up to the drivers to add stickers or a custom pain job (all MX-5 Cup cars come in white because it's the lightest color-Mazda's signature Soul Red adds about 15 pounds to the overall mass).
One could assume the stock 155 horsepower going to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox would make for a boring race, but that would mean one is assuming wrong. With discrepancies between each car kept to a minimum, the race is as much about driver skill as it is about the cars. Shuttling between Mazda's suite at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the track's notorious Corkscrew corner, I could feel heat of battling drivers, pieces flying off their vehicles and peppering the track as the cars bumped one another, each driver looking for the gap needed to overtake the guy in front and get a better shot at the $75,000 prize. It was at the end of Race 1's muck that Gallagher wound up in second place.
That wasn't because his car crossed the finish line second. It was a last minute love tap that called for a penalty due to a track limits violation that went unrepented that convinced the judges to kick him back one place. Meanwhile, levelheaded Luke landed in fifth, but Mazda knows that luck does play a role in podium finishes. To ensure that the $75,000 grand price went to the best driver and not just the luckiest, the MX-5 Global Cup Challenge is split into two races. With money on the line, Race 2 was the most adrenaline-filled motorsports event I've witnessed. After a flag brought out the pace car for a few laps early in the race, the drivers were more anxious than ever to use whatever time was left to win.
Gallagher, Oxner, and competitor Bryan Ortiz, who was racing for the glory of hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, were running neck and neck until the very finish when close-quarters contact sent Ortiz tumbling through Turn 11 with such violence that it sent the stands to its feet. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and with emergency crews huddled around the overturned MX-5 with no sign of Ortiz, it seemed like that was exactly what had happened. Luckily, Long Road Racing knows exactly what it's doing when it welds those roll cages into the MX-5 Cup cars, and after Ortiz was spotted walking around trying to shake off the dizziness, the race was back on.
With only minutes left to go, the battle was between Gallagher and Oxner. Gallagher's experience proved to be too much for the rookie, but being the younger and less experienced driver, Oxner was more than happy to finish as Race 2's second best. The party at the podium was predictably exciting. Gallagher jumped onto the hood of his car like he told us he would during the previous night's dinner if he won the race. Luke had a humble smile plastered onto his face, celebrating his first podium finish and his 3rd place (MX-5 Cup takes into account the points awarded over both races, which put Oxner in 3rd) prize of $10,000.
Positive emotions could have clouded perception, but our favorite part of the celebration is that none of it felt pretentious. As the champagne-soaked drivers stepped off the podium, they were once again equals all happy to have forgone society's pressure to go to college and get a desk job in exchange for stifling their true desires to race, or at least they were happy to be taking a break from those desk jobs and getting dirty on the track. The flurry of events we'd been lucky enough to bear witness to were more than one of the most entertaining races one can watch. That's because we were also privy to a yearly family reunion where competition runs as high as a screaming SkyActiv engine without breaking the bonds of family.
And as the sun set over Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, we got a sense that we, along with each of those talented drivers, would be back next year for more. Photos by Mazda North American Operations.