You know it ain’t no ordinary car show when you tilt your head up to see a pair of Mazda race cars in the sky. Twisting on a lattice of white steel, the Central Feature at the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed was an homage to racing successes of Mazda at the greatest motorsports festival in the world.
With an attendance of about 400,000, the FoS is the largest outdoor festival on Earth. Fans covering every imaginable corner of automotive geekdom converge on this four-day event, held on the sprawling estate of an English noble.
Japanese automakers haven’t made as deep inroads into the UK market as compared to the States, and Brits practically invented the concept of tradition, so celebrating the heritage of a Japanese marques isn’t all that common over there. As such, it’s particularly noteworthy when one is made the centerpiece at the nation’s most renowned automotive event.
Being selected as the featured marque is a very special honor for any automaker. Not only are their proudest moments from their racing history showcased before the world, but their motorsports heritage is celebrated as art.
The Goodwood Festival of Speed is the very definition of a bucket list event, and it’s been on mine for ages. I was this close to going in 2007, when Toyota was the featured marque. I wanted what would be my first trip across the Atlantic to be relevant to JNC, but I couldn’t make it that year. Whatever, I figured there’d be another chance soon, as Honda had been the honoree just two years prior. Who knew that the wait would be eight long years before another Japanese autobuilder became headlined the event?
For their moment in the West Sussex sun, Mazda trotted out a prized collection of cherished race cars. Normally scattered around the world in places like the Mazda North America basement in California, the headquarters museum in Hiroshima, and various hidden garages across Europe, this marks the first time these historic cars have been seen together, ever.
The Tom Walkinshaw Racing RX-7, for example, is a car we don’t hear much about in the US, but it’s a legend in Europe. It won the 24-Hours of Spa-Francorchamps outright in 1981, catapulting Mazda and the rotary engine to the head of the performance pantheon on the Old Continent (We’ll have more on this car in an upcoming story).
Likewise, the 1986 Mazda 757 is another machine rarely seen stateside. Mazda North America is in the process of restoring a 1987 757, and when they’re done the end result will probably look something very much like this. Replacing the 737C as Mazda’s Le Mans weapon (calling it the 747 would have caused some confusion with the Boeing jetliner, I guess), it was the first endurance race usage of the company’s 3-rotor 13G, which was later renamed the 20B and put under the hood, in street tune, of the 1990 Eunos Cosmo.
From the era of 4-rotor cars comes Mazda’s 767. This particular example is reported to have come in 12th at Circuit de la Sarthe in 1989 when it wore #203. Believed to be the only privately-owned Mazda Le Mans car outside of Japan, it belongs to Moritz and Max Werner, German brothers who found it in South Africa, shipped it to California to be restored by ex-Mazda racer Jim Downing, and now campaign it in vintage motorsports events across Europe.
Mazda USA, for its part, shipped its 1991 IMSA GTO RX-7 across the pond, seen here piloted by Mazda USA PR head Jeremy Barnes. Powered by a quad-rotor motor, its sister car placed second in IMSA GTO at the 1990 24 Hours of Daytona. Together, these FCs helped Mazda become the most dominant marque ever to race IMSA, racking up over 100 wins and 10 championships, eight of them consecutive.
Finished in Mazda’s trademark blue-on-white livery, Mazda’s 787 should be a familiar sight for SoCal-based Mazdafarians. In 1990, the 4-rotor monster was thought to be Mazda’s last shot at their decades-long chase for a Le Mans championship before an FIA rule change rendered the rotary ineligible. Sadly, both 787s DNF’ed that year, but the 800hp a last-minute goof allowed the rotary to compete for one more year, and the rest is history.
Even better than merely seeing the cars in their paddocks, however, is hearing them as they’re fired up to take part in the Festival of Speed’s traditional hillclimb. You already know that the shriek of the 4-rotor is otherworldly, but at low rpms its thunderous brap brap brap is equally heart-pounding.
Once they’re at the start, racing machines of all stripes and eras compete for the best time to the top. Cars like the Mazda-Tiga GT286, with is face-facing exhaust, go head-to-head with everything from NASCAR Camrys to street-built supercars. Where else can you see an IMSA GT racer from 1986 take on a vintage Formula One open-wheeler?
Hailing from Europe was one of the coolest cars we came across: the 1970 Mazda-Chevron B16. Though the car DNF’ed thanks to a busted cooling hose, it was important for being the very first Le Mans racer to have any Mazda affiliation whatsoever. Entered just three years after the company successfully put the world’s first dual-rotor engine into production, it was powered by the then-spanking new 10A rotary (based on the same unit that powered the 1967 Cosmo Sport) which Mazda supplied to a Belgian team. They plopped it in, mid-mounted to a Chevron body, and became the first rotary team to race at Le Mans.
Then we saw it. And by it we mean the 787B. The Argyle Demon. The very car that took the checkered flag at Le Mans, shipped all the way from the Hiroshima museum in Japan. Back in 1991, this car made history as the first and only rotary-powered car to win Le Mans overall, and they did it, after decades of attempts, at the last possible moment before rule changes made rotaries ineligible. If you look closely, you’ll see that its livery colors are a bit more tame — a relative term, course — than those of the Werner Bros.’ restored car.
Another great thing about the FoS is that racing legends can often be found hanging out in the pits, accessible to all the fans. Next to the 787B was Pierre Dieudonné, one of the winning 787B’s original 1991 drivers (and who shared seat time with Tom Walkinshaw’s 1981 RX-7 pictured above). Monsieur Dieudonné was wearing the coolest racing suit ever made and about to climb into his championship chariot.
This 787B is the most valuable car in Mazda’s possession, but the value is unknown because it’s priceless. And yet, there it was just parked in the paddocks approachable by 400,000 fans when it’s normally locked in a museum. We’d originally been told that the car on the Central Feature was the 787B, but there was no way Mazda was going to dangle their most prized possession up in the air. No, they were going to run it.
Here’s a video of the holy grail of Mazdas just cold rolling out of the pits amongst a crowd of car show attendees, headed towards the hillclimb start.
Unfortunately, the distance from the paddocks to the hillclimb was too great for me to traverse in time to see Dieudonné’s run, not that I would be able to outrun an idling 787B anyway. Instead, I was later able to see MotoGP champ Valentino Rossi, who is and a hero in Europe and typically found on the backs of two-wheeled Yamaha superbikes, make a run in it. With utmost apologies, this orange and green blur is the only shot I managed to capture of the car in action. As it turns out, I can’t even out-pan a 787B.
Naturally, Mazda took this opportunity to try and move some of its new product. It had massive displays throughout the Goodwood grounds showcasing the upcoming CX-3 and MX-5.
Mazda USA even shipped one of the original Chicago Auto Show NAs over for the festivities, though little fanfare was made about it. We think they could’ve probably just as easily sourced a UKDM Miata and called it a day, but it was nice to see an old friend.
Here’s something you won’t see in the US: the all-new Mazda2. Mazda has announced that the outgoing generation Mazda2 will be the last sold in the US, as the company simply doesn’t have the supply. And with fuel prices relatively low at the moment (and the cost of marketing a slew of new models this year), it just doesn’t make financial sense, they say. Those hankering for a budget slice of Zoom-Zoom will have to go down to the Scion dealership and get a Mazda2 sedan-based Scion iA. There’s still hope for the hatchback though; it will be sold in Puerto Rico, meaning it’s already certified for sale in all 50 states.
Mazda also had dominion over the massive Goodwood stables. However, rather than horses there were new MX-5s, “refueling” stations serving cocktails, and live music including a fantastic British 10-piece brass band called, I kid you not, Old Dirty Brasstards.
Miatas and stables, giving new meaning to the phrase “jinba ittai.”
For me, however, the coolest Mazda that didn’t win Le Mans was this RX-4. It was found in the “supercar parking area,” a thing of grace and beauty surrounded by a mass of the latest Lambos and Astons on hideous rims.
Technically, I only saw the car for a split second as we were leaving Goodwood at the end of the first day. Luckily, Máté Petrány of Jalopnik sent me these photos from his trawl of the parking area, proving that it was just as gorgeous as I thought and making me very sad that I wasn’t able to get a closer look at it or talk to the owner.
This was my too-slow-to-get-my-camera-out shot of it, snapped as it left the festival with its FD RX-7 buddy. Somehow, such a gorgeous JNC prowling the streets of UK seems simultaneously out of place and entirely appropriate. I saw a lot of oddball cars on the streets of Great Britain, but none topped this beaming yellow Luce.
Long-time readers know I have a soft spot for Toyotas. Missing the Festival when Toyota was the featured marque was truly painful for me, but right now there are few automakers more deserving of the honor. Bringing a passion for cars — and, more importantly, driving them — to the masses is what Mazda does better than anyone, and that’s what Goodwood is all about.
Still, it’s impossible to convey the totality the FoS in words and photos. We’ll have more soon. To be continued…
Special thanks to Andrew Craig and James Davison.