If you equate young race-car drivers to high-school students seeking college scholarships, the graduation rate among future open-wheel and sports car stars is troubling.
A year of college tuition is cheap compared to a season in the lower rungs of the sport—the feeder series where the budding IndyCar champions and endurance-racing winners are groomed—and with that scholarship deficit in mind, Mazda stepped into the breach with an unparalleled plan to solve the problem.
The first and most impressive resource committed by Mazda? Cash. Millions of dollars are spent annually to fund up-and-comers. The next element is a path for the young racers follow.
Mazda built a proverbial ladder for them to climb, pays for the most promising talent to take the next step, and in most cases, watches them thrive after going on to become professional drivers for other manufacturers. It's motor racing's ultimate education system, being funded by its largest angel investor.
"It's ironic that we're sitting here at Sebring talking about this, because this is where it all began in 2005 when we had an official news conference to announce the Mazdaspeed Motorsports Development Ladder," said Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan. "At that point, there was no Mazda Road to Indy. At that point, there was no Mazda Sports Car Racing Academy. In the end, I have to give credit to Robert Davis; this program was Robert's vision; he's a racer himself, one of our chief executives at Mazda.
"And Jim O'Sullivan, Mazda's president and CEO, is the major supporter, as well as our executive team, because when you show up and ask for a budget for motorsport, in our case, it's got to have the proper metrics behind it. They have been, without a doubt, extremely supportive of what we're doing now in our eighth year."
Mazda's most identifiable professional racing exploits take place in IMSA's TUDOR Championship, where its SkyActiv-D diesel-powered prototypes compete at events like the Daytona 24 and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
With the TUDOR Championship serving as Mazda's mountain top in sports car racing, the Mazda-powered Indy Lights series serve as the jump-off point for open-wheel racers who want to reach the Indianapolis 500, and with its youth-minded support system firmly established, Doonan says the brand is also finding benefits with its next generation of road car buyers.
"In the marketplace, Mazda has one of the youngest average age buyers in the auto industry," Doonan explained. "Obviously in racing, we've got more Mazdas road racing in any given weekend than any other brand; we want to identify our next generation of racing customer, and we put those two things together to create this industry-first and still industry-only formalized ladder, it's career development ladder that brings full value to the drivers and buyers of a similar age."
Mazda's open-wheel and sports car ladder systems reveal the manufacturer's extreme commitment to nurturing the sport. Rather than add their name to one series, they've created single-make championships, provided engines for series to use in their cars, and reached as far as karting—the starting point for most road racers—to provide stability and opportunity.
Roughly half of the Mazda-related sports-car ladder series are competing this weekend as part of the 63rd Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and in just a matter of days, the other half, featuring open-wheel cars, will compete a little more than an hour from here as IndyCar opens its season in St. Petersburg.
The assemblage of cars, drivers and teams on Mazda's path to the top over the next seven days is simply staggering, and with the financial incentives added to the equation, Doonan says he's rather proud of what's been assembled in the Sunshine State.
"Now here at this weekend's race at Sebring, which is the first round of the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich, you have Drake Kemper who's on a scholarship from us, who won the Mazda Speed Pro Challenge, on a scholarship for $75,000 tires, entry fees. In addition, Kyle Loustanou is also competing here today. He was the winner of our grassroots racer shootout. So all those grassroots racers at Atlanta and Chuckwalla and eventually at the SCCA runoffs, go into the pool to win the shootout to get a scholarship. Kyle also is on a $75,000 scholarship tires, entry fees, thanks to all of our partners to run here this weekend. So we have two drivers here at the MX-5 Cup.
"The 2013 MX-5 Cup champion, Christian Szymczak, is competing in IMSA's Continental Tire Series in a MX-5; he won the MX-5 Cup two years ago, deferred his scholarship, and he's back with a $200,000 scholarship from Mazda to run a full season in the Continental Series.
"The 2014 MX-5 Cup champion, Kenton Koch, has made a name for himself immediately in the Cooper Tires Prototype Light Series that uses Mazda engines because he won the MX-5 Cup last year. He has won a $200,000 scholarship from Mazda to compete in the MX-5 Cup. We're almost at a half a million dollars in scholarships in sports car racing here at Sebring this weekend."
The financial awards in the Mazda Road To Indy are even more impressive.
"Switching over to the open wheel side, it's an amazing story in what's happened with Dan Andersen," Doonan continued, referring to the head of the MRTI program. "Our partnership with them and what has developed into the Mazda Road To Indy is a terrific example of Mazda chaperoning more young drivers on their way to IndyCar. No other car company on the open-wheel or the closed-wheel side has what we have developed here. Over there you've got Luke Gabin who is in the USF 2000 championship. Luke won the Skip Barber shootout, then got a $200,000 scholarship from us to run a full season in the USF2000 championship.
"Last year's USF2000 champion, Florian Latorre, won a $325,000 scholarship from Mazda for that victory to go up to the Pro Mazda Championship this year. And then at the pinnacle of that open-wheel pyramid is Spencer Pigot. Spencer is in the all-new Mazda-powered Indy Lights car on a $500,000 scholarship from us, $88,000 worth of tires from Cooper, entry fees and everything else needed to build a scholarship there.
"Altogether this year, we're at around $2 million worth of scholarships to these drivers to advance their career. If you go back to 2007, it's over $10 million in direct funding from Mazda to enable nearly 50 seasons of racing for drivers on both the open-wheel and closed-wheel side of our sport."
Doonan hails some of the drivers that pilot Mazda's prototype sports cars as perfect examples of those who've use the ladder to earn careers in motor racing.
"You sit back and look five, six years ago, and one of our IMSA P2 drivers, Tom Long, was running spec Mazdas in club events," he explained. "To see him develop both in and out of the car, you can't even put it into words. It's amazing. He's been a tremendous asset to the prototype program because he came in with a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of dreams. He's a master of data analysis. He is a coach for the spec Miata folks now. He was coaching at the SCCA runoffs because he understands the business of motorsport, and for his day job, he races in the fastest class using a diesel-powered Mazda in the TUDOR Championship.
"His teammate, Joel Miller, was one of our first scholarship recipients, won the Pro Mazda race here at Sebring and ultimately got a scholarship from us because he came out of Skip Barber and moved up to Pro Mazda. Joel was heading down an open-wheel path and found sports car racing because of our program and because of what he has done to develop himself as a driver. Tristen Nunez, you talk about Kenton Koch's impact on IMSA Lights; Tristen Nunez two years ago began as the youngest champion in IMSA history and Prototype Lights and he is just a tremendous asset in the car. Out of the car, this young man has got his own foundation about distracted driving. We're quite proud of how they've gone so far with the right amount of financial support and training that Mazda makes available."
With Mazda's ladder drivers and cars competing in at least seven professional championships over the next week, Doonan provided an interesting metric that illustrates the brand's influence on road racing in North America.
"Over the winter we actually studied the numbers on how many cars, drivers, and series we're represented in because we also believe that through this process we're building a tremendous number of entries and a tremendously loyal group of brand advocates," he said. "In the Mazda Road To Indy alone, there are 75 to 80 drivers expected on the final entry lists for St. Pete. "Here, alone, you're looking at close to 60 with all of the sports car classes. It's 150 to 200 cars on the Pro side alone. Then couple that with 9000 grassroots racers in our database, and it's a giant number. Taking into account the money we put behind many of them directly, and the prize money everyone can earn, we hope Mazda's commitment to this sport is felt by every passionate racer and young driver with a dream."