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RACING HERITAGE
A Conversation with Connie
Connie Downing's Unique Perspective of Mazda Motorsports History


Today, with a strong sports-car-DNA-infused lineup of cars and incomparable participation in motorsports of all kinds and levels, the Mazda name and motorsports are synonymous. There was a time, however, that Mazda - today the only Japanese auto company with an overall victory in the prestigious Le Mans race – was known just as an upstart car company with a peculiar rotary engine.

That was the early 70's, a time when Mazda cars had only recently entered U.S. showrooms (the 1970 RX-2 was among the first Mazda U.S. imports) and had yet connected with Americans on the virtues of the much-misunderstood rotary engine. When a few of the diminutive, but potent RX-2's began falling into the right hands – those of capable enthusiasts, the message finally began to spread - Mazdas were excellent sports cars and the unique rotary engine was an ideal power plant for competition use.

Connie Downing has a unique perspective of this exciting chapter of Mazda's competition history. As a motorsports journalist covering American road racing during that time, she experienced first hand the private and factory racing efforts that eventually put Mazda on the motorsports map. Factor in the fact that she later married Jim Downing, one of the pioneers of Mazda racing and possibly the most successful of all time (five IMSA championships in three different classes and a class victory at Le Mans), and you'll begin to understand the unparalleled knowledge she has on the subject.

Downing later used her familiarity to pen MAZDA MOTORSPORTS - 20 Victorious Years In America (Connie Gudinoff, Motorbooks International; August 1992) - an intricate account of Mazda motorsports' formative years featuring more than 150 candid photographs and considered to be the authoritative book on Mazda's competition history.

Mazda Performance Corner recently had an opportunity to speak to Connie. In our interview, we discussed topics that ranged from the motorsports world's early perception of Mazda to why Jim still feels like he missed out at the Mazda party the night of his honeymoon (Jim and Connie were married at a Daytona race weekend to ensure their friends would be in attendance). Read on to find out why Connie is an authority on Mazda motorsports and why this may be the most dedicated Mazda enthusiast couple in the country.

MPC - You are an accomplished writer with a motorsports journalist background that dates to the late 70's – what was it like to be reporting on motorsports in those days?

CD - As a free-lance writer just starting out, I would say it was difficult even to get credentials to be where the stories were. Then there was the added obstacle of being taken seriously as a woman writing about motorsports. I sent an article to Autosport, at the invitation of Leon Mandel. One of the staff people called and told me he had taken my name off the article and shown it to several people and no one guessed it had been written by a female. This was supposed to be the ultimate compliment.

Later when I worked at Autosport Canada and Wheelspin News, I was representing Canada's only national motorsports publications so I was welcomed warmly. I was grateful to the one or two fellow Canadian journalists who accepted me when I first joined their small circle as well as people like Dic Van der Feen at IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) and some PR reps who were terrific. Even at Autosport Canada, the publisher told me I could never be editor because readers would not accept a woman in that position, but they did.

I don't think women have these problems now when there are many more of them in responsible positions in motorsports and in motorsports journalism.

In those (old) days, as everyone remembers through that haze that enlarges everything and makes everything better in memory, reporting on racing was more fun. Reporters mostly did their own work. And there was much less "correctness" from the subjects of our stories. Once you were accepted by the racers you would sometimes be let in on the stories that would never see publication, but that made racing exciting and fun.

MPC - What was the atmosphere like for Mazda in the early years of their participation in the IMSA racing series? Were they and their rotary engines received well?

CD - IMSA greeted Mazda with total suspicion. No one knew how to deal with the rotary engine, how to equate it with piston engines. In addition, Mazda was a newcomer and was expected to spend some time in the ranks - every time Mazdas showed on track success in the early days, they would be hit with a weight penalty, a carburetor, or porting restriction.

When Pat Bedard qualified the Car and Driver project RX-2 on the pole at Pocono in 1973, more than a second faster than the second-place qualifier, IMSA added 300 lbs of weight to the Mazdas. Later that year, Bedard scored Mazda's first professional race win at Lime Rock. At the end of the season, IMSA banned all modifications to the ports of the rotary engines and most of the Mazda racers retired.

This has been the case in many racing series and not just IMSA. Even today, sanctioning bodies don't know how to deal with the rotary engine.

MPC - Who was responsible for Mazda's decision to first enter racing in the U.S. and for what reasons?

CD - The first racers in the US were entirely independent. Mazda had no competition department, could not even sell racing engines or high performance parts because of agreements with Curtiss-Wright who held the US rights to the rotary engine, although some of these things were available in Japan.

Most of them survived on ingenuity and resourcefulness and had some success. Around 1976, Mazda street cars were suffering from a bad image as gas-guzzlers with unreliable engines. A couple of people thought racing would help to improve their image.

Mazda Central, with the blessing of chairman Kenichi Yamamoto, brought in Damon Barnett to their Mazda headquarters in Irvine, California to head an engine rebuild and competition department. In the Mazda East organization, PR man Bob Fendell suggested to vice-president and general manager Eric Sundstrom, that racing should be part of their program. Sundstrom agreed. Gradually some contingency was offered, and some small support given to racers. Barnett states that in 1977 he gave almost half of his competition budget to Roger Mandeville - $400.

MPC - Your husband Jim, an exceptional racer and one of, if not the, most accomplished Mazda racers ever, can you tell us how you met?

CD - We don't remember. But we probably met sometime while he was racing IMSA RS and I was a journalist. We didn't become an item until much later. We had to be pretty secretive about our relationship when we did start dating because I was managing the Kelly American Challenge series (IMSA's series for American sedans) by then, and I had about 20 big brothers keeping an eye on me. Also, Jerry Grant, who was my counterpart for the Champion Sparkplug Challenge (IMSA's RS series) seemed to be watching us all the time because he thought I was trying to recruit Jim to run in my series.

Eight years later, we got married in Daytona during the week of the 24 Hours so that our friends could be there. Since there were so many Mazda people at the reception, we moved our wedding up an hour and they moved their party back an hour - so people could attend both. I wouldn't let Jim go to the Mazda party that night and he still thinks he might have missed something important.

MPC - Your husband competed in a Mazda RX-2 in 1974 and began a winning relationship with Mazda that still exists – what first drew him to the rotary power of Mazdas?

CD - Jim has always claimed that he was drawn to the rotary engine by a project that he did in high school on Felix Wankel's engine. He had been racing a Mustang in SCCA, but realized there was an opportunity for the Mazda package in IMSA. He called up IMSA and talked to John Bishop (founder of IMSA) personally and was quite impressed when John said they paid prize money and that you could at least win your entry fee back. Jim had the opportunity to buy an RX-2 from Pete Harrison, who had quit because of the new engine restrictions, and that started his IMSA career in 1974.

MPC - In the 1980's, Mazda RX-7's dominated the IMSA GTU and Camel Lights classes. From its series inception, Jim won three consecutive Camel Lights championships while a number of drivers put together a string of GTU championships that would last seven consecutive years. How did the Mazdas ascend to the top of the racing ranks and stay dominant for so long?

CD - I would say it was because of extraordinary individuals - builders/racers who were resourceful, determined, had a good reliable product and support from Mazda and their fellow racers. Some were good at racing politics. I might add that most would say that not all races were won because Mazda engines were so reliable – they deserve credit for their driving skills as well.

MPC - What do you consider the three most significant wins for Mazda in the history of their participation in motorsports?

CD - In my personal opinion, from having written a Mazda racing history and having the gift of hindsight, I think that Walt Bohren's win at Road Atlanta in 1976 was important. Campaigning the former Car and Driver car, his win signaled that the drought was over; the dues were paid, and Mazdas could win in IMSA again. I think that led to more people choosing to race Mazdas, which led to Mazda's many championships.

The RX-7 class win in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1979 was the culmination of much research and development and hard work by Mazda US and Mazda Japan. They had competed the year before with two factory RX-7s and took home all they had learned from that experience and came back to win in '79. It was the RX-7's first win in world-class competition.

In 1985 Jack Baldwin and Jeff Kline in a Malibu Grand Prix RX-7, won the 500-mile GTU race at Road America. This marked the 67th win for the RX-7 and surpassed the Porsche Carrera for wins by a single make in IMSA competition. Of course, the RX-7 then went on to win more than 100 IMSA races, the 100th being scored at San Antonio by Pete Halsmer in 1990.

MPC - Jim later began building his own race cars with Mazda powerplants under the Kudzu name and began another successful chapter in Mazda racing history – what was his motivation for this and where does the name Kudzu originate from?

CD - Jim has always been a builder/racer. When he could not find a manufacturer who could produce a tub and body combination suitable for the demands of the rotary engine, Jim had the talent and the personnel necessary to design and build his own car. He had always built his own cars, but the Kudzu was his first prototype.

I'm afraid I suggested the name, mostly kidding at the time, that it was both southern and Japanese - and lent itself to many jokes and comments about speed, due to its rapid growth (Kudzu is a fast growing vine that originated in Japan but is found widespread in the South). There was also the added cachét that Jim's father had worked for the Dept. of Agriculture during WWII and had been instrumental in re-introducing kudzu to the south as an agent of erosion control and food for livestock.

Of course, now kudzu, the plant, has taken over the south and is considered a noxious weed. But it does move quickly and overwhelms everything in its path.