2016 marks the 25th anniversary of Mazda’s historic win at the world’s most celebrated endurance race: Le Mans. Yet Mazda’s interest and involvement in endurance racing stretches way back, beginning with its Cosmo Sport at the 1968 Marathon de la Route. Following that excellent showing—4th place finish after 84 hours at the Nürburgring in its debut race—Mazda continued in endurance racing but with a new car: the R100, a.k.a. Familia Rotary Coupé.
Mazda Endurance Racing Continued
The Familia Rotary was Mazda’s first mass-produced rotary vehicle. The Cosmo Sport was a stunning beachhead, a high-price halo car meant to inspire and draw attention. For Mazda to capitalize on its breakthrough rotary engine, however, it needed to sell in volumes. This was the Familia’s mission, specifically the second generation model that appeared in 1967. Sitting between the Luce and the kei Carol, the Familia was the family car everyone needed. Thus for 1968, the hot and new 10A rotary engine became an option.
Around this time, Mazda was already actively racing. With Yoshimi Katayama at the wheel, the new M10A Familia Rotary Coupé won its debut race at the 1969 Singapore Grand Prix Touring Car Race. That same year, Mazda returned to Marathon de la Route with a triplet of R100s (the Familia Rotary Coupé’s export name).
For power, these cars used the aluminum peripheral-ported 10A race engine from the Marathon Cosmo Sport, but with a year’s worth of further development. The drivers included Yoshimi Katayama, Masami Katakura, and Yves Deprez, veterans from the previous Marathon. Unfortunately, only one car finished, coming in at 5th place.
The European debut of the R100s, however, occurred a month prior to the Marathon. Mazda entered into the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps. Spa has its own share of history and charisma, with a 24-hour endurance race having started there in 1924 (one year after Le Mans) and a Grand Prix in 1925. It is a challenging and notorious circuit of high speeds and capricious weather.
Three R100s were entered, driven by Masami Katakura, Toshinori Takechi, Yves Deprez, Yoshimi Katayama, Leon “Eldé” Dernier, and Hughes de Fierlant. Lighter than the Cosmo Sport with more powerful engines, the R100s had no trouble mixing company with the likes of the Porsche 911 and were dubbed “Little Giants” Tragically, Dernier, who also drove the 4th place Cosmo Sport at the ’68 Marathon, suffered a fatal crash. The other two cars, however, finished 5th and 6th.
For the following year, 1970, Mazda did not return to Marathon de la Route, but it did take on the Spa challenge again. It brought back four R100s this time with veteran drivers including Yoshimi Katayama, Masami Katakura, and Toshinori Takechi. Katayama and Takechi’s car actually led the race for a while. However, engine trouble eventually retired three of the cars, while #33 — piloted by Roger Enever and John Hine— finished 5th. Mazda was not to return to Spa for another 11 years, but the seed for its eventual Le Mans victory had been planted.
Fast-forward 46 years, and we’re pulling up to the Watkins Gate at the backside of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Leaving behind the bucolic scenery of Salinas, California, we ascended the hills of Fort Ord National Monument into the thick — very thick — morning fog. It was the last day of the 2016 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, the premier vintage racing event in the US. The fog bestowed a mystical atmosphere upon the circuit, the perfect backdrop for a pair of reincarnated Spa R100s racing down Mazda Raceway’s famous corkscrew.
The cars are the creation of Dr. Hitoshi Kato, who has been in love with the cars for half a century. Three have been built from Dr. Kato’s extensive research on the Spa racers. We saw the green #33 car at Nostalgic2Days in Yokohama earlier this year, but he’s brought two others from Japan to race at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
Coincidentally, the Sunday conditions at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca bore some semblance to Spa’s infamous weather. The fog was so thick it felt like rain drops on our faces. It would burn off as the morning progressed, and by mid-day the land was warm and dry. Such is the weather on the Monterey Peninsula in late summer.
Unfortunately, the humidity and elevation were not what Dr. Kato’s red R100 was set up for. The team reported that they had been in frequent contact with their mechanic back in Japan and that the car required a fair amount of adjustment to reach optimal tune at Monterey.
The Motorsports Reunion team was organized by Katsunori Tamaru, who also owned and drove the matching blue-on-white Toyota Sports 800 that raced at Monterey in 2014. While Dr. Kato himself would be driving the red #31 car, the driver of the blue #32 was none other than Ikuo Maeda, Mazda’s global head of design and the man responsible for many of Mazda’s recent masterpieces such as the RX-Vision and ND Miata.
It was a bit surreal watching the man responsible for Mazda’s design — who also happens to be the son of the designer behind the SA22C RX-7 — suiting up to race a piece of Mazda racing history. Few carmakers have as many high-ranking execs who love to race as Mazda.
Granted, these are not the actual cars that raced in 1970 (those are long lost to time), but as faithful tributes, they are second to none. In the contingent was also Dr. Kato’s friend Haruhisa Yamamoto, owner of the Kota Circuit and Suzuka Circuit’s official announcer.
The fog delayed the morning race by more than half an hour. Unfortunately, Dr. Kato’s car became plagued by electrical problems, but Maeda-san’s car finished the race. Some quick repairs and testing readied the red car for the afternoon session.
Both Little Giants finished the afternoon race. At the age of 69, Dr. Kato said he is unlikely to return to Spa with the R100, and he’s already a four-time veteran of the Le Mans Classic. Lucky for us, he will return to the Monterey Motorsports Reunion next year with a different car. We look forward to seeing him again.
Nothing Beats the Sound of a Racing Rotary
That hill you climb to get to the corkscrew at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is a both blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because once a race starts, some of us always feel the frantic urge to climb it at lightning pace, and it’s a bit of a hike. It’s a blessing because once up at the corkscrew, what you see is a living picture frame. As you reach the viewing spot and turn around, you face a panoramic vista of the track where you can follow the cars. When they swing by Turn 10 and pull away from you, the sound of their engines thunder at you in full broadcast.
The R100s may be Little Giants, but there was nothing little about their soundtrack. Watching them going around Mazda Raceway and hearing them screaming away towards turn 11 was both an emotional and visceral experience. It transported us into those black-and-white photos of the original R100s pushing the boundaries of Mazda, Japan, and, what with their rotary powerplant, automotive engineering.
It gave us a taste of what it might have been like to witness those cars face monumental challenges and make history. This is vintage racing at its finest. Let us hope that more cars like these Spa R100s participate at events like the Motorsports Reunion, not just for us to enjoy but also for those outside the fold to experience and appreciate such marvels of Japanese racing history.
Special thanks to Dr. Hitoshi Kato, Kelvin Hiraishi, Hugo Zusho, and Moto Miwa. Some images courtesy of Mazda.