The Little Engine That Did
(Part I)
By Connie Goudinoff Downing

The first rotary-engined Mazda to have real success in professional racing in America was an RX-2 campaigned by Car and Driver magazine in IMSA's (The International Motor Sport Association's) Baby Grand series in 1973.

In late 1972, editor Pat Bedard, had sold the magazine on the idea of going racing with the rotary and writing about it in the magazine. He and fellow editor, Don Sherman, had attended drivers schools and competed in showroom stock racing. They had also prepared a Pinto for IMSA but had not actually raced there. Both were former Chrysler engineers.

They got a budget (a slim one by Bedard's recollection, but perceived by the rest of the racing community as huge) and commissioned Kas Kastner and Roy Woods Racing in Gardena, California to prepare a new RX-2 for racing. Most of the actual prep was done by Ron Nash.

The IMSA specs for the then titled "Baby Grand" series, dictated limited modifications to compact and sub-compact sedans running on street tires. The series changed names several times over the years as sponsors came and went but street tires were always required. The generic name for the series was RS for Racing Stock. In 1973, RS cars had to use stock brakes and the original springs. Exhaust systems and shock absorbers were free. For Mazdas in particular, IMSA specified heavier weights than piston-engined cars and prohibited any modifications to the rotors.

Bedard had chosen the RX-2 for several reasons. The magazine had already done a 40,000-mile road test on the car with very favorable results. (C&D Feb. 1973) so he knew it was tough, but the predominating reasons were the top-end power, smoothness, and light weight of the rotary engine. It was also the only eligible car with a 4-bbl carburetor.

Bedard had heard about an engine builder who had some experience with the rotary, Jim Mederer at Racing Beat in Anaheim, California. Mederer, who had worked on several professional race teams, and his partner Ryusuke Oku, had just recently started a performance parts business for Mazda rotaries. Because they both loved racing, they were always working on racing modifications as well. C&D hired Racing Beat to massage a stock engine to produce enough horsepower to make the RX-2 a competitive race car.

Bedard and Sherman estimated that the engine must produce at least 160 hp to be competitive and they vowed they would not put it on a track until it did. The stock engine produced around 95 hp.

Mederer had bridge-ported the rotor housings. This is done by enlarging the original intake port and opening up an eyebrow-shaped passage above the standard port. It works by containing the corner seals, enlarging the intake and increasing the timing duration. When they put the engine on a dyno, they found that it far exceeded their requirements. They admitted to 198 hp in the magazine in the series of articles Bedard wrote about the car, but privately he said they got over 200.

Bedard and Sherman, after a shakedown for the new car at Willow Springs, brought the car back to New York. The duo, with help from editorial assistant and "gofer," John Eberhart, maintained a garage with basic equipment in Long Island City and worked there in their spare time after completing their work at the magazine.

They thought they were ready to race in a 200-miler at Pocono in June. Bedard qualified on the pole by way too much (1.22 seconds ahead of the next car) after burning up the brakes and tearing off the exhaust in practice. At the start, the differential locker broke and Bedard was dead at the start/finish line, as 61 cars roared by.

It was an ignominious start but it got the attention of the other competitors who lobbied IMSA vociferously to put some restrictions on these upstarts and their mystery engine. IMSA responded by adding 300 lbs of weight to the Mazda for the next race.

The next race was at Mid-Ohio in July, a six-hour enduro where Bedard and Sherman would share the driving. They had bolted 300 lbs of lead bars onto the floor, made changes to the suspension, exhaust, brake materials, and cooling system, and had a new limited-slip differential. They made more modifications in the hotel parking lot after practice.

They were running second after 75 laps when a wheel bearing failed.

This inspired them to commit to testing and led them to Lime Rock every Tuesday afternoon until the next event. There anyone could pay $25 and put a car on the track for open testing. With this, they were able to develop the handling and cure some of their braking problems. They had dispatched a C&D correspondent in Tokyo to buy and ship them a stainless steel Mazda racing exhaust, which was not available in the United States. With it and a new 218 hp engine, they felt they were pretty well prepared for the upcoming race at Lime Rock. There, Bedard qualified on the pole, led every lap, and won the race. It was the first overall win in a professional race for the RX-2!

Bedard won again from the pole at the next race at Road Atlanta with such a strong showing (a four second margin of victory), that IMSA demanded a tear down of the motor after the race, but found none of the suspected modifications to the rotors. The rotary engine is not easy to take apart or reassemble so the engine had to go back to Racing Beat to be rebuilt.

They missed the next race at Indianapolis Raceway Park because of commitments at the magazine.

For the final event at Daytona in November, Bedard qualified on the front row for the 198-mile night race. Although they had competed in four races and finished only two, Bedard was third in the drivers point standings going into the finale.

Bedard felt confident as he started on the front row of the 64-car grid but within a few laps, the power mysteriously fell off. He still managed to finish second and clinched third place in the championship with two wins and one second in only five races. Mazda finished third in the manufacturers championship as well.

The restrictions placed on the rotaries at the end of the season led to the retirement of the C&D Mazda as well as all the other Mazdas that had been competing that season. IMSA had prohibited all modifications to the ports of the rotary engines and without porting, Bedard figured the horsepower would be about 135.

Bedard recalls being naive about racing when he went into the series, thinking, " you did your homework, went out and raced and won or lost." They fell down somewhat on the politics, although they had the might of the magazine behind them, as more experienced teams and manufacturers lobbied against them. Bedard said they didn't want to spend their required time losing during the 1974 season and decided to move on to other projects.

The C&D racer was advertised for sale but sat in the New York garage until the following year when it was purchased by New Jersey Mazda salesman, Walt Bohren. By then IMSA's rules had changed and it looked as if the rotaries could be competitive again.

The further adventures of the Mazda RX-2 will be continued next time as it scores eight more wins and a championship.

Where are they now?

Pat Bedard went on to race in IMSA many times in several different classes and cars. He raced at the 24 Hours of LeMans and in the Indy 500. He is still an Editor-At-Large at Car and Driver magazine.

Don Sherman went on to set three land speed records in rotary-powered cars with Racing Beat. He is currently technical editor at Automobile magazine and also works as a freelance automotive writer.

John Eberhart the C&D race team "gofer" works for Mazda Motor of America as a manager at corporate headquarters in Irvine, California.

Jim Mederer and Ryusuke Oku still have Racing Beat and produce performance parts for production cars as well as high performance applications. They have been involved in many forms of racing as well as land speed records. Racing Beat is currently developing products for the RX-8.

If you would like more information about the Car & Driver RX-2 and its racing history, check these out:

Pat Bedard 's articles in Car & Driver July, October 1973; March, April 1974

Rich Ceppos "They Don't Build Race Cars the Way They Used To," Car & Driver July 1982

Connie Goudinoff Mazda Motorsports 20 Victorious Years in America, Motorbooks International, 1992

The Little Engine That Did - Part II