Monterey Car Week’s centerpiece racing event, the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, concluded this weekend. While there was a noticeable lack of Japanese representation at Laguna Seca as compared to last year (despite the fact that the theme was the 50th anniversary of IMSA), Mazda did bring out some seriously cool machinery that from the early days of their US racing efforts.
Perhaps the most striking car was the No. 53 Gatorade Mazda RX-3, which represents Mazda’s first factory effort at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Though privateers had been racing RX-3s at America’s most famous enduro as early as 1975, Mazda (through Mazda Auto Tokyo, in which lies Mazdaspeed‘s origin) finally fielded an official team in 1978 of two cars painted in Gatorade livery (coincidentally, also green and orange!).
The No. 53 car, driven by Jim Downing, Walt Bohren, and Stu Fisher, placed 11th in the GTU class, but valuable lessons — like how the airborne Florida sand at Daytona would devour the seals of the rotary engines — helped the team take the GTU win when it returned the following year with the all-new Mazda RX-7.
The car is owned and recently restored by Downing at his shop, Mazmart. Sadly, the No. 52 sister car, driven by Yoshimi Katayama and Yojiro Terada, was cannibalized for its engine, which ended up in a hillclimb car.
The following year Katayama, Terada and Takashi Yorino would return with the brand new SA22 and rule not just the GTU class, but finish fifth overall in a field of Porsches and Ferraris. The RX-7 may be the most famous Mazda racer in the 24 Hours of Daytona, but these RX-3s paved the way.
From that point on, the Mazda RX-7 would be the dominant force in IMSA GTU. From 1980-87, Mazda won eight consecutive GTU championships, breaking all sorts of records and unseating Porsche as the IMSA manufacturer with the most championships.
Even more impressively, a single car, the No. 75 car seen here, won four of those championships. It was built and driven by Jim Downing to a GTU win in 1982. In 1984-85, Jack Baldwin drove the car to its victories. And then, Tommy Kendall took over the car from 1986-87 and won two more. Kendall still owns the car today in all its unrestored and battle scarred glory, one of the most significant in Mazda North America’s racing history. By 1987, eight of the top 10 GTU winners were behind the wheel of a Mazda RX-7.
Even after the RX-7 became popularized in GTU, Downing continued racing an RX-3 in the IMSA RS class. If our research is correct, the No. 63 RX-3 began life as a silver RX-3 SP, and Downing raced it from 1979-81, and won the 1981 RS championship in it.
Last but not least, was a car from Mazda North America’s collection. Originally campaigned by Pat Bedard of Car and Driver magazine, the Racing Beat-modified RX-2 was said to output 218 horsepower at 8,400 rpm. It logged two wins at the IMSA-sanctioned BFGoodrich Radial Challenge, so the privateer car technically was the first Mazda to have won a professional race in North America. This car was restored to its current form by, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim Downing and sold to Mazda several years ago.
We have featured this car many times before, but it was great to see it in an assembly of watershed rotary racers. By the early 90s, Mazda had clocked over 100 IMSA wins, and is still competing today. In a year that celebrated 50 years of America’s premiere road racing series, it was only fitting that Mazda brought out the cars to remind those present of what the small Hiroshima company is capable of.
This article was updated on August 21, 2019 to include additional details of Jim Downing’s racing and restoration involvement in the Gatorade RX-3, RX-7, and RX-2.