Championships & late-season podiums for top Mazda teams in America's elite sports car series

Mazda teams made big impressions on the stretch run to the conclusion of the 2011 motorsports season. Competitors clinched five season titles and nine podium positions in just one weekend in mid-September, with three teams in particular – Dyson Racing in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), Team i-MOTO in the Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC), and Team Pelfrey in the Star Mazda Championship Presented by Goodyear – able to claim multiple top-three finishers.

In northern California, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – the spiritual home of Mazda – hosted the ModSpace American Le Mans Monterey presented by Patron September 15 to 17, the penultimate round of the 2011 ALMS campaign. Dyson Racing’s Chris Dyson, Guy Smith, and Jay Cochran finished second in the race in their No. 16 G-OIL ModSpace/Construct Corps Lola Mazda, leading 149 laps of the 248-lap race. Guy Smith added the fastest race lap to the record book to go with his pole position in qualifying.

The No. 20 Oryx Dyson Racing sister car with Humaid Al Masood, Steven Kane and Butch Leitzinger came in third, leading 35 laps in the course of the event. Between the two entries, Dyson Racing led over 70 percent of the six-hour event.

Dyson Racing picked up the 2011 ALMS LMP1 class Drivers and Team championships at the Monterey race, with Chris Dyson and Guy Smith taking home the season’s top honors. In addition, Mazda won the Engine Manufacturer title with the Petit Le Mans still to go in the season. This was the first International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) manufacturer’s championship for Mazda since the RX-7 won the GTO title in 1991.

The following day Team Pelfrey racer Connor De Phillippi won his fourth race of the 2011 Star Mazda Championship season driving the No. 11 Team Pelfrey / Justice Brothers Products / Trademark Garage Floors Mazda in the season finale at Mazda Raceway, leading the entire way from pole position. JCD Motorsports driver Tristan Vautier, who led the championship since the first of his four victories – Round 2 at Barber Motorsports Park – finished fifth in the No. 5 JDC Motorsports / Cecibon / Circuit du Laquais Mazda, scoring enough points to win the 2011 championship and the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship to race in the 2012 Indy Lights series.

With his victory, De Phillippi secured second in the championship while his teammate Nick Andries started from the outside of the front row and finished second, clinching the third spot in the championship. Rounding out the top-three was newcomer Zach Veach, a top competitor in the USF2000 Championship making only his second start in the Star Mazda Championship driving the No. 77 Andretti Autosport / Team Zakosi Data Backup / Retail Pro / ArtRotondo.com / ADS IT Solutions Mazda.

The top-finishing driver in the Expert Series for racers 30 and older was Team GDT owner/driver J.W. Roberts, who secured his second Expert Series championship in a row with his fifth first-in class (13th overall) finish.

Bad luck struck two of the top qualifiers in the race. Andretti Autosport driver Sage Karam, who won two races this year and had already clinched the prestigious “Rookie of the Year” award in Round 11 at the Grand Prix of Baltimore, was pinched into the wall right after the green, damaging his suspension and knocking his No. 88 Andretti Autosport / MAZDASPEED / Comfort Revolution Mazda out of the race just five seconds into Lap 1. And on lap 21, Juncos Racing driver Gustavo Menezes, driving the No. 28 Juncos Racing / Truecar / Safety Park Mazda, had a shunt that severely damaged the nose of his car and took him out of the race; he was not injured. Ironically, it was a loss of all points penalty imposed on Menezes for multiple blocking moves at the Grand Prix of Baltimore that handed the Rookie of the Year title to Karam.

Vautier won the championship with 426 points, followed by De Phillippi with 401 and Nick Andries with 385. Fourth was Joao Victor Horto, winner of Round 6 at Mosport, with 375, Sage Karam with 364 and the lone female racer in the series, Colombian driver Tatiana Calderon finished 6th with 322 points. Rounding out the top-10 were Carlos Linares with 301, Gustavo Menezes with 297, Joao Jardim with 244 and Quebec racer jerimy Daniel with 237. Expert series champion, Texan J.W. Roberts, finished 11th overall with 200 points; second in the Expert series was the racing dentist from St. Petersburg, FL, Walt Bowlin, followed by noted AMA Superbike racer Larry Pegram. Team Pelfrey won the Team Championship with 293 points, followed by Juncos Racing with 274, and JDC Motorsports with 270.

In the same weekend some 2,500 miles to the east in Lexington, Ohio, the Emco Gears Classic at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course marked the season-finale for the 2011 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the CTSCC. With several teams entering the Rolex Sports Car Series race in championship contention, Mazda teams knew it would be an all-out effort.

In a hard-fought race, Team SpeedSource’s No. 69 FXDD Mazda RX-8 finished in second place to take its fourth podium finish of the year. Early on it was evident that the race would be a gritty fight as the first yellow flag fell just six laps in. The race would go to caution two more times in the opening hour, setting up many teams for their first round of pit stops.

Longtime SpeedSource teammates Emil Assentato and Jeff Segal ran a typical trouble-free race that allowed them to steadily climb through the GT-class field and earn a spot on the podium. The 2010 Rolex Sports Car Series GT Class champions ended their season on a solid effort.

The team’s No. 70 Castrol Edge RX-8 finished fifth to cap off the year in third place in the 2011 Rolex Series standings. Sylvain Tremblay started the race from fourth on the grid and quickly charged for the lead. Jonathan Bomarito took over driving duties and was launched into the lead by a stellar pit stop.

He would remain at the front of the GT pack through another series of cautions before pitting the car for the final fuel stop of the 2011 season. The last pit stop seemed to last an eternity as Bomarito had to wait for 19 gallons of fuel to flow. The disparity in filling time saw championship hopes dashed; nevertheless, Bomarito pushed the car to its limits in the closing minutes of the race.

Dempsey Racing’s James Gué and Dane Cameron scored a second consecutive third-place finish – the duo’s third podium showing in the last four races – in the No. 41 Team Seattle/Global Diving & Salvage Mazda RX-8 GT, as Patrick Dempsey and Joe Foster ran solidly in the top-10 before being knocked down to an 11th-place finish in the No. 40 VISIT FLORIDA/ModSpace/Construct Corps/Trina Solar RX-8 GT.

The strong stretch run boosted the No. 41 Team Seattle/Global Diving team to a fourth-place GT finish in the 2011 GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, matching last year’s rookie season result.

Several times in the race it appeared that the No. 40 might join its sister No. 41 entry in victory lane. Dempsey and Foster led their team to a career-best third-place finish in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona this past January.

Foster took over from Dempsey and quickly moved up to seventh only to be knocked off course in Mid-Ohio’s “Keyhole” turn 30 minutes from the finish. He and the Dempsey Racing team quickly recovered but could only salvage an 11th place finish to end the year.

Mazda finished second in the 2011 Rolex Series Manufacturer’s title, proving that strength in numbers and having solid and reliable race cars is always a great recipe for success. With no single finish worse than fourth place, Mazda showed that consistency is critical to long-term success.

Finally, in the CTSCC race from Mid-Ohio, Team i-MOTO ended the season strong with a dominant performance. The squad gave Mazda its first professional Mazdaspeed3 win with its No. 31 car piloted by the brother duo of Mark and Mathew Pombo. Both Mark and Matt had impressive drives, battling for the lead throughout their stints.

Team i-MOTO also gave Mazda its first double Mazdaspeed3 podium with its No. 32 car piloted by Taylor Hacquard and Pierre Kleinubing. Taylor drove solidly, running third and fourth throughout his stint, and Pierre drove a damaged car (after contact from another car) to the podium.

The win and double podium clinched the Manufacturers title for Mazda. Team owner/driver Glenn Bocchino said after the win, “Knowing we only needed to finish in 13th position to clinch the title, we decided it to go for the win and not play it conservatively. They cars were perfect, the strategy was perfect, and the pits stops were perfect! What more could you ask for?”