Mazda's seventh annual Club Racer Shootout brought together a wealth of talent both in drivers and in those who would judge them to Buttonwillow Raceway Park, two hours north of Los Angeles. The driver who'd emerge from the day in the winner-take-all event would earn a fully funded scholarship from Mazda to compete in the 2013 Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup.
Unlike a year ago, when only three drivers were selected to compete in the one-day event, this time the field consisted of two young guns and two lifelong grassroots racers who've focused on their businesses as much as their racing. Kenton Koch and Patrick Gallagher, 18 and 20, respectively, had their moms in tow for both moral and road car driving support (Koch made the two-plus hour drive from Glendora, Calif., while Gallagher flew from Ohio and couldn't rent a car on his own). Bruce McNutt and Yiannis Tsiounis, by contrast, came solo.
Although there are several categories in which the drivers are judged, the Shootout essentially breaks down to two key elements: a written, then presented business proposal to a consulting group (the judges), and the on-track sessions, which seek the most complete package of a driver with outright speed, consistency, a willingness to provide feedback and analyze data, and the ability to keep it on the road.
Koch, who earned his entry to the shootout by winning the Skip Barber Pro Challenge and made several Skip Barber class starts in Playboy MX-5 races this season (he finished fourth overall in at the recent event on San Diego's Coronado Island from 18 cars), made the decision to go first in both sessions. He certainly dressed the part, wearing a pressed grey shirt with a cascading purple and black tie that nearly matched Mazda's corporate livery, and dark pants to boot. Unfortunately, the nerves started to show through at the outset of his presentation.
After the bad start, though, Koch recovered admirably and his personality began to emerge as he made his pitch for HookIt and Monster Army, which would rely heavily on at-track iPad support and sign-ups. Beyond his pitch, he answered technical questions adeptly and described his passion for racing as “an addiction worse than doing drugs” – before he quickly added, “I've not done drugs,” to inspire some laughter.
Gallagher, this year's Formula Enterprises champion at the SCCA National Runoffs at Road America, stepped into the boardroom next. He told me going in he'd researched some of Mazda's active programs – “Project Yellow Light,” for example, is in collaboration with NHTSA on a preventative texting and driving program for teen drivers – and planned to have that coincide with his pitch.
He selected Farmers Insurance as the insurance company to pitch on the idea of using his status as a racecar driver to discourage texting and driving, on the basis that Farmers was “very weak” in this area. But, his presentation appeared almost too rehearsed. That prompted the judges' first question asking how much he'd prepped it going in.
Gallagher recovered with his off-the-cuff responses to the judges. In the “passion” question posed at the end, Gallagher said if he couldn't be a driver, he'd want to be involved as a crew member, team owner or driving instructor. He's already done so at Mid-Ohio for teen driving school sessions.
The tone shifted as McNutt, a down-to-earth, affable, self-described “career grassroots racer” from Nova Scotia entered the room – the first Canadian to do so in the history of Mazda's shootout. A four-part presentation followed, highlighting his plan to use Mazda's support to help generate more interest and sell more cars for the Targa Newfoundland rally.
Tsiounis was the wild card entry. NASA's Spec Miata champion has his doctorate in cryptology and is an entrepreneur specializing in financial services, investing, e-commerce and other internet properties. Quick proof of his intellect came when he was asked why Starbucks, his company of choice, would opt to support a “smaller” series given its status as the No. 1 of coffee shop chains.
Yiannis responded, “It doesn't hurt the image nearly as bad if you do something bad in a small series, as opposed to falling flat on the biggest stage like Formula 1.” Yet, despite his evident business acumen, one the judges thought he needed to provide a more concrete definition for a tangible return on investment.
Three on-track sessions followed. Each driver was provided a track familiarization session followed by two longer periods (15 and 30 minutes) in which their times would be closely monitored. The latter session would see each driver have to describe a slight car change made midway through the 30 minutes. However, impending darkness cut that time to 20 minutes apiece for the quartet in the late afternoon session.
The divide between the two sets was evident again in these sessions. Koch, with the most MX-5 racing experience, set the tone with a staggering early pace in the morning session on sticker tires. A 55.57 on his third lap of the day was the fastest of the day overall. The judges opined almost in unison, “We were worried it would be a whitewash.”
If outright pace was the lone determining factor, Koch had the title firmly in his grasp; but Gallagher, a formula car veteran making his first appearance in an MX-5 car, rapidly improved. In the last afternoon session, on scuffed tires, Koch's 55.96 topped Gallagher's 56.29 for a fastest time, but Gallagher improved his time in each of the three sessions.
McNutt and Tsiounis struggled to measure up to the kids. Yiannis got into the low 57-second barrier while McNutt failed to break the one-minute mark. Each had an off-course excursion as well around Buttonwillow's East Loop. Even so, both drivers received high praise from Mazda factory driver Eric Foss – who analyzed data with all drivers during the day – at their openness and rate of improvement from morning to afternoon. Foss praised all four's feedback.
“It's the best group we've ever had for coaching, because every one of them improved and wanted to soak up information like a sponge,” he said. “Kenton was fast out of the box, but he wanted to try harder to make it quicker. Patrick has no experience but he was really eager to try everything. Even Bruce, who struggled with the car, had the ‘light bulb' come on. Yiannis was the most detailed on the data, and great in his ability to self-analyze.”
A grueling 10-hour day had reached its conclusion at 5:30 p.m. for the participants – but not for the judges. Koch and Gallagher were the clear front-runners on the day and from there, minor details made all the difference.
The panel included lead judge Charles Espenlaub, a veteran of all six prior Shootouts, fellow Grand-Am RX-8 driver Jonathan Bomarito (in his first judging experience), sports car legend John Morton, former Shootout winner Scott Shelton, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo engineering professor John Fabijanic and outgoing BFGoodrich/Michelin technical team leader Karl Koenigstein.
Both drivers exuded passion. Both planned to dovetail their 2013 season with schooling. Both were quick. Both showed room for growth and an ability to take in information and rebound quickly from critiques or criticisms. It all made for a tight contest, but the judges' assessments gave the edge to Gallagher on the strength of personality, maturity (two years older), active involvement in instructing beyond just driving, and a slightly stronger business presentation.
“Really, they tie for me in a lot of areas,” Bomarito said. “I liked Patrick's personality slightly better as it was a touch calmer – but barely.”
“It's the closest I've ever seen it,” added Espenlaub of the decision. “We could spend hours but ultimately come to the same conclusion – we're all leaning the same way, but it's still the closest we've had.”
Gallagher now has to figure out to which team he'll take his $75,000 Mazda-backed scholarship, which consists of:
- $50,000 for the running of his car for the season
- $10,000 in parts support
- A MAZDASPEED driving suit and helmet
- Professional media training (Courtesy of MAZDASPEED)
- BFGoodrich tires, one set per race (Courtesy of BFGoodrich Tires)
- 2013 entry fee waivers (Courtesy of SCCA Pro Racing)
“I don't quite know what to say; it is amazing to have this opportunity,” he said. “I am honored to have the opportunity to be a part of the Mazda family.”