It is often said that rotary engines are unreliable. And yet, some of the greatest long-distance racers have been pistonless Mazdas, including what has been called the most successful endurance racer of all time: the Team Highball 1985 IMSA GTU RX-7.
The Team Highball RX-7 was the first tube-frame race car built to the new IMSA GTU rules for 1985. Its construction began in December 1984, shortly after the new rules were revealed, and finished just in time for the 1985 24 Hours of Daytona on February 3rd.
Though the current body bears the likeness of an FC3S, this look was adopted in 1987. It originally wore a first-generation RX-7 body and started life running a 12A rotary engine. It would later get upgraded to a 13B.
With official approval from Mazda, the car was piloted by Amos Johnson, Team Highball’s founder, the legendary Yojiro Terada, and Jack Dunham, who had raced RX-7s since 1981, the #71 RX-7 promptly won its class upon debut. It would go on to win the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona four straight years with Johnson behind the wheel.
By 1990, Johnson was poached by Mazda to drive the GTO car with Jim Downing. The Team Highball car was then rented to Peter Uria, who drove it to yet another class win at Daytona. At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this year, Johnson was reunited with the #71 car.
Over the course of its career, the Team Highball RX-7 would clinch a total of eight class victories. It played a big part in making the Mazda RX-7 the winningest model in IMSA GT history. Even by itself, though, the Team Highball RX-7 was individually more successful than any other single endurance race car. And it was a rotary.
As to the so called lack of reliability of the Mazda rotary, my experience with my customers was that the people that drove them like sports cars had far fewer issues than the people that drove their RX WHATEVER like a Demio grocery getter. Short hops and short shifting are not what these cars are all about.
Not sure Mazda can make the claim of the “winningest model in IMSA history”. I thought Porsche had more wins with the 911 and it’s variants from the 70’s to present.
Winningest model of a SINGLE CAR in IMSA history. I very much doubt that any Porsche repeated from any one year to another.
This particular Chassis is the most successful Chassis in endurance racing in the world.
Most successful? Maybe for a single chassis. I dunno, Audi has dominated endurance racing for over the past 15 years, and it was Porsche before that. So maybe a little clarification if you mean the same car.
No Le Mans? If you’re supposed to be that good, why no LeMans? Or Sebring? I don’t remember any mention of this car in Car and Driver or Road and Track at the time.
Yes this Chassis is the most successful endurance Chassis in the world.
Class winner in 1988 at Sebring 12hr.
3,592 laps (12,787 miles) in the 6 years it ran at Daytona’s 24hr. It finished 3rd in GTU in 1989!!
This car also won GTU at Sebring in 1988.
Apparently Mark Newton John..should do a bit more research….Mazda is the only Japanese Manufacturer to ever win LeMans..1991 in the 787B..their records for IMSA championships in GTU & GTO class is still unsurpassed
Lol! Most successful Mazda chassis probably… but not even close to the most successful endurance chassis in the world. The author needs to do some more research or clarify the specifics that make this chassis the most successful in the world. I can think of several with far more wins worldwide, and if we talking across the spectrum of classes in FIA approved races Porsche actually comes in second to the Bugatti Type 31 with 1,000 race wins.
Bugatti Type 35, not Type 31.
For most successful endurance racer, we are talking about an single, individual car chassis in endurance car racing, this particular Team Highball car.
As for the claim that the Mazda RX-7 was the winningest in IMSA, it was indeed during the GT era we are talking about. The RX-7 (through multiple generations and individual cars) won over a hundred races.
Always wondered about the history of this car…Thank You JNC.
(Great story guys).
Great read! Ive been spolied with all these rotary stories lately ?
Hey guys, some of you are right about Mazda not being the most successful endurance racing car of all time. That may be correct, however, the “Team Highball” Mazda race car is the most successful endurance race car of all time. Not only winning the 24 Hours of Daytona 5 out of the 6 attempts (1985-1990) it raced at the 24 hours and never finishing off the podium in the 6 24 Hours Of Daytona attempts. No other CAR has won at the 24 Hours of Daytona more than three times. Additionally, this Mazda RX7 race car won the 12 hours of Sebring and the 6 hours of Watkins Glen, all three major American endurance races were won by this car. Audi, Porsche and Bugatti endurance races were won by a multitude of different chassis over the years, not by a single chassis.
Off topic, but here’s news of a new rotary.