Buttonwillow Raceway Park rests in a sleepy portion of central California – a place you pass driving north on Interstate 5 without much thought or attention unless you have a reason to go there. However, for three drivers seeking to make their next big leap in the motorsports ladder, this otherwise deserted test track transformed into a classroom and boardroom in Mazda's annual shootout for a fully funded ride in the 2012 SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup.
Elivan Goulart, Elliott Skeer and Nathaniel Sparks were the three finalists after a three-step process to get here. First, they had to prove their worth racing a Mazda throughout the course of a season in either SCCA or NASA. Second, they had to win a club racing national championship in either division. Once they got that out of the way, they then had to submit a business proposal – pitching a company of their choice to a panel of judges who surveyed and approved (or disproved) their idea of how to get a company to commit over a several-year period.
Goulart set himself aside from his counterparts with the “S” surnames from the outset. He was the only SCCA finalist – having won the Spec Miata class at the National Runoffs at Road America. But he also had the family aspect, with a wife and two young children, both under 2.
Skeer, in contrast, entered at age 17 – and only just made the semi-finalist list after a hard-fought battle with another competitor who bowed out late in a Teen Challenge west regional championship race. Sparks, 21, had the advantage of being in the 2010 shootout (held in Greenville, S.C., at the BFGoodrich/Michelin proving grounds) and could take what he learned into the 2011 edition.
The one-day shootout tests the trio's ability to run consistent and fast laps on track and their business acumen in selling themselves to the panel of judges assembled at the track.
Each driver made his presentation before the first shakedown laps, as it went in a staggered fashion. Goulart was first up to face the music – and earned himself brownie points for wearing his fire suit and bringing spiral-bound copies of his proposal. Originally from Brazil, Goulart also speaks Portuguese and holds dual citizenship. That was a plus for his potential backer, SoBe, in a quest to enter that market.
He also did well in response to one judge's question about the possibility of associating with series title sponsor Playboy, as the judge identified himself as a “conservative Christian.” Playing it off, Goulart answered, “Well, so is my wife, and just because a consumer isn't a Playboy fan, we'd make sure that wouldn't detract them from attending the event.”
Skeer, a 10-year karting veteran who only just completed his first year racing cars, and Sparks followed, both offering presentations far beyond their years and expected maturity level.