If you look at the current line up of Mazda cars on sale, you’d hardly pick the small Japanese automaker’s motorsport roots.
But rewind into Mazda’s history books, and you’ll find a very different company, hell-bent on dominating race tracks domestically and on the international stage. Last weekend, Fuji Speedway played host to the Mazda Fan Festa, where the past and present of the Mazda Motor Corporation was celebrated in the best way possible.
You can’t commemorate Mazda’s achievements without mentioning the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans race. This year, Le Mans celebrates its 100th anniversary, so there was an extra-special reason for Mazda to bring out the ’91 race-winning 787B for the Fan Festa.
As part of the official centenary celebrations at Circuit de la Sarthe in France, the 787B participated in a special winning cars parade. Back on home soil at the Fan Festa, the R26B-powered sports car joined other Mazdas that had previously entered the greatest endurance race of all time and other significant events all around the world. As the only rotary-powered vehicle to ever win Le Mans, the 787B proved just how far Mazda’s engineers pushed the Wankel engine.
Aside from its Le Mans cars on display, Mazda assembled an A-Team of rotary tuners and associated aftermarket parts manufacturers to join in the celebrations. Purveyors of wheels, tyres, brakes, suspension and seats set up stalls alongside rotary tuning legends like RE Amemiya and Fujita Engineering (FEED).
I always end up missing half the things on display and other activities at these kind of events. I find myself repelled by crowds to quiet corners where weird cars sit unnoticed by the masses, or on hot days like this one, spending some time in the shade with a cold drink in hand. It’s why I missed the display of factory-restored RX-7s, the ‘Become An Engineer Experience’ for kids, the ‘Try!! Mazda RC School’, the ‘Akita Dog Interaction Corner’ and the ‘Clay Modeling Experience’. Still, what I did see was worth missing the stuff I didn’t.
A decent grid of historic Mazda race cars were not only on display, but had several parade runs and friendly laps around Fuji Speedway.
Back in the 1970s, some of the best-looking and best-performing cars in the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC) were rotary Mazdas, and it was great to see R100s and RX-3s in action 50-odd years after some of them competed, at one of the original places they did it.
This is the way to celebrate these legendary cars, engines revving, with sweaty drivers grinning from ear to ear as they relive the raw atmosphere of yesteryear. A living, breathing museum like this is so much better than a static one.
The rotary engine sadly went out of production in 2012, last seen in the RX-8. But although it ceased to be used in any new models, it never really went away. The factory which built the Mazda rotary remains largely as it was, with a small team of skilled machinists still making parts by hand on many of the same machines used to build the original engines. If that’s not testament to the innovation and ingenuity of the early Mazda rotary engineers, I don’t know what is.
The story gets even more remarkable, with Mazda resurrecting the rotary engine after a 10-year hiatus. Sort of. True to its slogan of ‘Unrelenting Challenge’, Mazda engineers have successfully married the rotary with an EV powertrain, using the compact rotary engine as a power generator to recharge the batteries of the new MX-30. It seems like a bit of a kick in the guts for the engine that once powered modern classics like the RX-7 – and in 4-rotor configuration the 787B – but at least it gets to live on, even if it is as a kind of hand servant to an EV motor.
It also means that the historically significant factory full of vintage machines used to hand-craft the 10A, 12A, 13B and 20B can continue to build parts for one of the most interesting internal combustion engines of our time. Which in turn means a continual supply of parts for classic RX-series Mazdas. Not to mention those Mazda Le Mans heroes, which we’ll look at closer in a follow-up feature.