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.
There wasn't a clear favorite from the business proposals, and senior judge Charles Espenlaub, a MAZDASPEED driver and a judge of all six Mazda shootouts, told me oftentimes it works where one driver might be head-and-shoulders above in the business side and then struggle on track. We waited to see if such a situation might present itself on this occasion.
Goulart went first, per alphabetical order, and quickly found his footing. He had the built-in disadvantage of a dustier track and one that would rubber in and get quicker with every subsequent run. His first main run after the morning shakedown laps ended with nine laps all between 55 and 56 seconds, a best of 55.89 from unofficial timing.
Skeer followed, and posted a quicker time on his second lap (55.63). He got down to 54.96 for his last timed lap after seven laps in the 55s and 54s. Sparks matched his young counterpart's pace, and showed the most consistency over the run with five consecutive laps in the 55s – but he didn't crack the 54s.
Each driver went to break down and analyze the data with Eric Foss, another Mazda driver who was one of Espenlaub's teammates in World Challenge competition when the Mazda 6 ran in competition (the last time in 2009).
Skeer (RIGHT, GLASSES) had the quickest time and said being able to run after Goulart provided an advantage. He also had the one funny moment of the session when on one lap, he inadvertently hit his left turn signal but didn't run wide!
“Oh, yeah. You like seeing where he made a mistake, and where you can improve,” he said. “That one lap, I reached down for something and saw a green light come on, I knew I'd hit the blinker at that point!”
Sparks said his “lips were twitching” with excitement in the build-up to his run.
The final run posed a greater challenge as the engineers and crew on hand would make a minor setup adjustment to the car, but not tell what it was, and leave the drivers to discover it.
All three drivers set their fastest times in their final runs, and save for in and out laps, were entirely consistent. Both Skeer and Sparks set the exact same fastest time, 54.78 and, after the second change at the rear of the car, Goulart got down to a 55.57, slightly off.
There was still little to separate the three, though, when the whole package came up for discussion. The final questioning consisted simply of asking what each driver learned, and what would be done differently given a do-over.
“I learned the whole package, from driver feedback and the platform to work with,” Goulart said. “I would have worked on the presentation side a little more. This is a good mockup for real life.”
“I learned a huge amount. Even though this is still a Miata, it's a completely different car,” Skeer said. “The data helps. You have to be professional the whole time, and learn how to present yourself. I would have changed the business proposal. I should have said Mazda Raceway instead of Laguna Seca!”
Sparks reckoned his initial formal stance of standing before the judging panel might have been a mistake: “I'll sit down next time,” Sparks laughed. “There's a lot more than I can summarize in one sentence. I learned foresight; I wasn't looking far enough into the future. The data was familiar and easy to implement. I'd have a better future plan for proposals. Ten years is half my life – I tend to think in two-three year increments.”
Once it came to voting, although the numbers were close for all three, Skeer emerged victorious. The judges noted his maturity for his age level, a presentation on par with the much more experienced Goulart's, and particularly, his data feedback compared to the counterparts. It didn't hurt he had the most laps in the 54-second bracket, either, but that wasn't the determining factor.
“It's the best group we've ever had for data,” Foss said. “I'd score them all high if it was normal. But Elliott really got involved in the feedback; Nate didn't really interact or ask questions, and Elivan struggled with how to change things.”
The car was very difficult to handle, and Foss said he was very impressed the three didn't have one single off-course excursion or spin between them.
Skeer, no doubt surprised, was thrilled with the outcome.
“First off, you guys aren't joking, right?” he said. “Wow. Are you serious? I have to say a huge thank you to all of you guys. This is my first year in a car, and to do this in one year is incredible. I learned so much in one day. I can't believe it.”
The next step is Skeer exploring his team options for his debut season in the championship.