First win, Check!

May 29, 2013
 
Without going into the full background story, which we can save for a future blog post, let's begin at the January ‘Roar before the 24' test at Daytona. As you may know Mazda entered the new Mazda6 in the Grand-Am GX division for the 2013 season using the all-new SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel engine. This is a 2.2-liter, 4-cylinder turbo diesel. It is a torque-making machine! When I received the phone call from Mazda, which I have been waiting for a long, long time. Words cannot describe the excitement. I could not wait to get started.

At Daytona in January, I saw the car for the first time in plain carbon. My first impression was that it looked very DTM-ish. Especially since the driver sat low and way back in the car. The next thought I had was "Wow, this car looks a lot like the street version as well!"

Eager to get some seat time, the Roar Before the 24 test turned out to be a few days of watching the car in the hands of team owner/engineer/ teammate Sylvain Tremblay perform in and out laps. This was because prior to the test, the car had barely been on track for its shakedown. Yes, you are correct in your thinking right now – we had just started a brand-new car/engine combination with public testing. The to-do list was massive and to make things a bit crazier the SpeedSource crew had to prepare three cars for the Rolex 24, which was only a few weeks away!

The task ahead was monumental. During the test the initial problem was a timing belt failure which was linked to a tensioner system. Remember how I mentioned this engine was a torque-producing machine? Well, it also produced some interesting harmonic vibrations due to the nature of an inline four-cylinder diesel. After the January test the work list doubled from what was learned at Daytona. Test weekend number one, check.

For the Rolex 24, SpeedSource had prepared three Mazda6 SKYACTIV-D GX cars. Everyone was interested in the new engine and its capabilities. This engine is a stock block with many OEM components. The race engine is 51% stock by part count and 63% by weight compared to the production engine. However, all the other bits that bolt to this engine are also brand-new; there are no parts catalogs. When a part was needed, SpeedSource had to design and build it!

I will paint a picture – for any small-block V8 you can go to your local parts store, look up the make/model, and find a fuel pump bracket, and perhaps multiple choices. SpeedSource did not have that luxury with this program and bringing three cars to the Rolex 24 was a giant effort and they delivered. Ultimately, the cars retired from the 24 Hours event and our to-do list was then longer than the original list! Test weekend number two, check.

At the SpeedSource shop in Coral Springs, Fla., the dyno can only do so much. There is no substitution for getting on the track and turning laps. The 2013 season had started and time was not on our side. Mazda pulled from its R&D resources in California, plus Japan, after the Rolex 24. Unfortunately, the next Grand-Am Rolex Series race weekend in Austin was fast approaching and further track session were not possible. Our R&D testing was going to have to occur at round two of the championship.

The Circuit of The Americas was brilliant to drive on and reminded me of racing in Europe. Our Mazda6 Diesel had taken huge leaps since Daytona, with noticeable decreases in vibration. Each session during the weekend, including the race, had goals for testing purposes. We really were doing public testing!

The nature of a high torque producing SKYACTIV-D diesel bit the No. 00 VISITFLORIDA.COM Mazda6 and a driveshaft failure with just over an hour remaining ended our race prematurely. However, our team car, the No. 70, marked a milestone in that it was the first SKYACTIV-D Mazda6 diesel to cross the finish line in only its second start with no previous testing. In short, the program was learning and headed in the right direction. An exclamation point should be added to this event because now the failures incurred were purchased parts from outside sources as the Mazda-supplied factory parts performed beautifully. More notes were gained and now I like to say; test session number three, check!

Round three of the championship was at Barber Motorsports Park where, again, engineering advances were applied to the lessons learned at COTA. Everyone on the team knew Barber was going to be suited to our Mazdas and the natural strengths of the compound turbo diesel engine. Tom Long, driving the No. 70, captured the first pole position for the new car and my car lined up second, making it an all-Mazda front row.

In the race we led the most laps and had the fastest race lap, but unfortunately suffered a broken fuel line and finished second. The team kept its head up high because the competition knew Mazda and the work SpeedSource had been doing was making the new platform very competitive. From the driver's seat the car was handling beautifully and the engine development was getting better in terms of driveability. We took our notes back to SpeedSource headquarters and prepared for round four at Road Atlanta. Test session number four, check.

The Atlanta race weekend was still just the fifth time the car had ever been on a track. The night before qualifying the crew was at the track until 1:00 a.m. preparing both cars for the two-hour-and-45-minute race to come. Qualifying was scrapped due to rain, so we started at the back on points. As a road racer, I think we should have qualifying in the rain [hint hint, Grand Am :)], but that is just my opinion.

Road Atlanta is a fast race course with many elevation changes that puts the car on a rollercoaster ride. It is definitely on my list of favorite tracks in North America. I got in the car around the 45-minute mark, scheduled to finish the race with two hours in the seat. All I can say is the car ran beautifully! We ran down the second-place car and made the pass going into Turn 1. The torque of the SKYACTIV-D engine pulled up the hill out of Turn 1 and when I looked in the mirror, the third-place car was soon out of sight.

After the second round of pit stops our team car, the No. 70, was coming into view. With less than 45 minutes to go, we were in the lead and never looked back. The race event at Road Atlanta was the fifth time the car had ever seen the track with no previous testing and it captured the GX class victory.

This was a milestone win:

• Mazda's first win with the new Mazda6

• First win for Mazda's new clean SkyActiv-D engine

• First diesel to win a Grand Am race

• My first win in a sports car!

This was truly a special moment for everyone and one person in particular – John Doonan, the director of Mazda Motorsports who was the first person at the door of the car in victory lane. Sylvain Tremblay, my teammate and owner of SpeedSource, was soon to follow joining us on the podium. The amount of effort by the crew at SpeedSource had been monumental to get this program to its first victory and it was a pleasure to drive the car to its first victory.

I can now say I have a small part in Mazda's history books, which is special because they have taken me from karting, through Skip Barber and Star Mazda, to where I am today. Looking back on the road to the first victory after only five race track appearances, I am amazed. This happened because a small group of people were relentless in their effort to check off every box on every to-do list.

Next up comes this weekend's Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle. SpeedSource is in continuous development of this engine and package. Since we race what Mazda sells, we have to continue developing every part with the aim of perfect quality, durability, and reliability. Our to-do list gets additions that must be addressed and advances made between every on-track session. As a recent engineering graduate, that is the coolest part of this project. If you are at Belle Isle this weekend please stop by and check out the new Mazda6 with the SKYACTIV technology.

-Joel

www.joelmillerracing.com

Twitter: @joelmilleracing