Summer scorches with Mazdaspeed sports car teams crowding the podium, including an RX-8 GT sweep

While August is generally considered the peak of heat during summer months, the end of July could scarcely be hotter for teams along the Mazdaspeed driver development ladder. Over the Saturday and Sunday of July 23 to 24, five different sports car squads picked up podium hardware in three different major series, including a sweep of the top three positions in the Grand-Am Rolex Series’ GT Class; additionally, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear—one of the stops on the open-wheel IndyCar Mazda Road to Indy—saw a first-time victor.

Mazda racers SpeedSource arrived at New Jersey Motorsports Park for the Rolex Sports Car Series’ American Red Cross 250 looking to carry their mid-season momentum and as defending race winners the pressure was on for crew and drivers. Even with a mid-afternoon start time, the blistering weather could do little to stop the charge of the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda RX-8 driven by Sylvain Tremblay and Jonathan Bomarito, as the duo would claim the top podium spot in New Jersey for the second straight year.

Bomarito and Tremblay were chased across the line by two other RX-8: the No. 42 Team Sahlen entry driven by John Edwards and Wayne Nonnamaker and the No. 41 Team Seattle/Global Diving & Salvage Mazda of James Gué and Dane Cameron in second and third, respectively.

Knowing that managing the elements would be an integral part of the race strategy, the SpeedSource crew opted for a dual-driver change race. Bomarito started the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda RX-8 from third on the grid. Following along the lines of conserving, tire preservation would be critical for the duration of the race; older tires lost almost two seconds of lap time.

The No. 70 Mazda RX-8 maintained position at third before heading to the pits for the first of two driver changes. Team owner Sylvain Tremblay drove a fantastic mid-race stint, extending the conservation strategy to a usable fuel window for the race's closing stint.

A blazing fast full service pit stop that included fresh tires, fuel, and driver change allowed the No. 70 Castrol Edge Mazda RX-8 to leapfrog all competitors to second place, behind the No. 69 FXDD Mazda RX-8. When Jeff Segal, in the No. 69 Mazda, pitted for tires Bomarito gained control of the race at the front of the GT class. Battling with former-SpeedSource driver John Edwards, Bomarito drove a brilliant closing stint to victory extending his margin to over a second.

Earlier in qualifying Edwards leaped to the front of the pack, placing the No. 42 on pole position. The pole position marked the second one in three races and the third straight front row start for Team Sahlen. Additionally, this achievement marked a milestone for the team in recording their 40th all time top pole position.

At the start of the race, Edwards took the cautious approach to the start and settled in second in class behind the hard-charging Boris Said in the No. 31. John continued to maintain his slot in second and eventually progressed around Said. Nonnamaker jumped in to fill in the middle stint of the race.

As the race progressed, a full-course caution at the 35-minute mark saw the entire field bunch up. When the race went back to action ten minutes later, Edwards was second, throwing everything he had to pursue and potentially pass the No. 70 SpeedSource machine. In the end, less than one second separated the rotary duo, delivering Team Sahlen its second silver finish in three races.

Gué and Cameron scored their first top-three podium finish as co-drivers of the No. 41 Team Seattle/Global Diving & Salvage Mazda RX-8, and the race marked the first time since early June’s Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen that both Dempsey Racing RX-8 GTs finished in the top 10 (Patrick Dempsey, Joe Foster and Charles Espenlaub in the No. 40 VISIT FLORIDA/ModSpace/Construct Corps/Trina Solar Mazda RX-8 finished ninth). The No. 41’s podium was also the first victory lane appearance for Team Seattle since the team scored Dempsey Racing’s first and only win last August in the NASCAR short course race at Watkins Glen International.

After starting fourth, Cameron had the No. 41 in the lead when he handed off to Gué who in turn raced to as high as second in his shift in the middle of the race. Along with the No. 41 Team Seattle/Global Diving Mazda, both drivers seemed to be at their best late in their respective driving stints.

SpeedSource’s win gave Mazda its first series win of the 2011 season. The valuable points from all three teams on the podium pushed Mazda into first in the Manufacturer's championship, with three races left in the season.

A day earlier on the same circuit for Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Sports Car Championship B+ Foundation Heroes 200, Freedom Autosport’s Brad Rampelberg and Eric Foss gave the team its first podium for the Mazdaspeed3. The third-place finish in the Street Tuner class came after plenty of hard work by the Freedom Autosport crew; before Foss and Rampelberg put the No. 27 Mazdaspeed3 on the ST podium in the GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge race, the car underwent a complete overhaul in just a week’s time.

Foss handled qualifying, setting the quickest time to claim the pole. The only unexpected hurdle came in the early laps of the race, when the radio stopped working. Foss was keeping track of the race time on his watch, so he took a chance during the second caution and pitted.

Rampelberg took over, and says, “I had no radio, no cool suit, half a jug of water, over an hour to go, and the crew said, ‘Go do it.’”

And Rampelberg did just that. He was able to capitalize on a late-race restart to move from sixth to third. “The guys gave us everything to make the car handle better and go faster,” he says. “We had to do it for these guys. I’m glad we could give them a good result as a reward.”

Meanwhile, the No. 28 ModSpace/Construct Corps Mazdaspeed3 also benefitted from the Freedom crew’s hard work. Nick Igdalsky set the fourth-quickest time in qualifying. He and Jason Saini got a punctured oil line early in the race and lost time making repairs, but they proved that their car is a solid contender.

On the same weekend 500 miles to the northwest, across the US-Canada boundary, the American Le Mans Series and the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear shared an event at Mosport International Raceway in Bowmanville, Ontario.

Mazdaspeed team Dyson Racing has enjoyed more success at Mosport than any other ALMS venue, and for the Grand Prix of Mosport it ran its track podium record to 16 with second- and third-place finishes. Chris Dyson and Guy Smith took second place honors in their No. 16 G-OIL ModSpace/Construct Corps Mazda Lola, with Humaid Al Masaood and Steven Kane securing their second podium in a row in the No. 20 Oryx Dyson Racing entry. Smith set fastest race lap and Dyson led the race for 27 laps.

The Muscle Milk Aston Martin took the lead from pole and led the first 33 laps with Dyson second and Masaood third. Masaood closed up on Dyson shortly before the only full-course yellow of the race on Lap 29. After their yellow flag pit stops, Dyson led until Lap 61. Smith took over the No. 16 car 11 laps later while Masaood handed the No. 20 car to Kane on Lap 57. Both Smith and Kane pushed to the end, trading team fast laps with Smith, taking overall fastest time on Lap 95.

Earlier in the day, João Victor Horto, a Brazilian racer in his second season of competition in the Star Mazda Championship, scored his first win in Round 6 of the 2011 season at Mosport. The victory also marks a first for the Juncos Racing team, which won the championship in 2010 with a dominant performance by Conor Daly but has been shut out of victory lane so far this season.

Horto, who qualified fifth, drove his No. 18 Juncos Racing / Programa Leilões Mazda to a 2.69-second margin of victory over second-place finisher, Californian Connor De Phillippi in the Team Pelfrey / Justice Brothers Products / Trademark Garage Floors Mazda. Horto made his move into the lead in the closing stages of the race as De Phillippi and pole-sitter Sage Karam braked side-by-side into the Turn 5a/5b complex and both went wide.

De Phillippi started from the outside of the front row, got the best start, led the first half of the 35-lap race and survived unscathed an extremely close battle with Karam during the second half.

Starting from sixth and finishing third, her second podium of the season, was the series' lone female racer, Tatiana Calderon of Bogota, Colombia in the No. 10 Juncos Racing / JAC Motors Mazda. Calderon passed pole-winner Sage Karam, then running third, to secure her spot on the podium. Rounding out the podium finishers was Walt Bowlin, the top finisher in the Expert Series for drivers 30 and older.