All I Wanna Do is Zooma-Zoom-Zoom- Zoom with Mazda at Grand Prix

Joel Miller is a driver with a Mazda Prototype team that had one of its best final weekends ever at the 2016 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

But Miller was equally pumped the Wednesday before (April 13), after he made Racing Accelerates Creative Education presentations in the morning at Lakewood High School and in the afternoon at Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles.

With R.A.C.E., Mazda drivers and engineers boost Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) at schools around the country. Since its founding three years ago, R.A.C.E. has reached 24,000 students.

The carmaker, whose national headquarters is in Irvine, sees R.A.C.E. less as a charity endeavor than an existential one.

“For every engineer at Mazda that retires, it takes two degreed engineers to replace him because of the experience lost,” said Kyle Kimball, a Mazda Motorsports specialist, as he stood Friday next to a stand holding a tray of bolts in the staging area for two Mazda Prototype class race cars.

Those engineering jobs with the automaker must be filled, but his bosses at Mazda’s North American headquarters would prefer not having to import those professionals from other countries, Kimball said.

It’s not just mechanical engineers that are needed but bio-medical engineers, nutritionists and trainers to keep the driver-athletes healthy, he added. And it extends beyond jobs associated with STEM as, for instance, there are the lawyers racers need during contract talks.

“As we’re talking to the kids, it occurs to them, ‘I have to pay attention now if I want to get where I want to be,'” Kimball said of the students he and Miller face at R.A.C.E. events.

“It’s hard to be more inspired than by what the kids give to us,” Kimball said of the appreciation young people express to the Mazda team.

That inspiration also touches Miller, who along with Kimball mentioned Griffith Middle School girls who were crying because they’d never been treated to a presentation like R.A.C.E. before.

As we huddled in a corner, Miller told me it blows him away when he and Kimball go to an inner-city school and receive some of the best questions from students anywhere on the R.A.C.E. tour. 

“I show them, with STEM, you can get a very cool job down the road,” Miller said of the students he meets

He is not with R.A.C..E. just because he is a tall, dark and handsome fellow and solid ambassador for auto racing, which he has been doing since age six. He also majored in engineering at UC Riverside, making him one of the few drivers who can build his own race car.

His skills got him a scholarship with Mazda, where the 27-year-old moved quickly through the driver development system. He notes that, for each graduation to a higher level of racing for Mazda, “they add zeroes to my paycheck.” He also gets to travel the world.

Not bad for a kid from Hesperia. After UC Riverside, he lived in Tustin and Florida before settling down in his current home of San Diego.

“Once you’re in the Mazda family,” he says, “you are with Mazda for life.”

* * *

As mentioned up top, it was the best-ever finish for the Mazda Prototype team, a day after their best-ever qualifying runs.

After Friday’s qualifying, Tom Long and Joel Miller’s No. 70 Mazda Prototype started third and Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito’s No. 55 began fifth in Saturday’s Bubba Burger Grand Prix for the Prototype class.

During the middle of the actual race, Long had No. 70 in first for three laps, and No. 55 found itself in second—also a first for the Mazda team.

Number 70 finished Saturday in fourth and No. 55 was fifth.

Christian Fittipaldi, the son of former Grand Prix driver and owner Wilson Fittipaldi, and nephew of Indy 500 champion and two-time Formula One winner Emerson Fittipaldi, had the best qualifying lap Friday: 1 minute, 14.962 seconds.

But in Saturday’s main event, Fittipaldi’s No. 5 Action Express Racing Mustang Sampling Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype was taken over in the first lap by Ricky Taylor’s No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP.

Brother Jordan Taylor finished 2.958 seconds ahead of Fittipaldi’s co-driver Joao Barbosa for the win Saturday. The Taylors led all but three laps of the 75-lap race, their first triumph of the season and 12th career victory in North America.

Fittipaldi and Barbosa’s Action Express Racing teammates Eric Curran and Dane Cameron, in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering/Team Fox Corvette DP, took third.

After 12- and 24-hour endurance races, the 100-minute Bubba Burger Grand Prix is the shortest race of the year for the Prototype class in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship.

* * *

Long Beach is considered a home race for Mazda because of how close it is to Irvine.

But Mazda Motorsports considers Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas its home track.

And a better track than downtown Long Beach.

“Our car runs really well on a smooth track—places like Daytona and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca,” said Nunez. (His team will be doing prep work at the Mothers car care facility in Huntington Beach before heading to Laguna Seca in two weeks.)

The 20-year-old former tennis pro, who is known as a speed demon on the race circuit, politely referred to Long Beach streets as “uneven.”

“When you put us on a street course with a lot of bumps,” Nunez explained, “it cuts away the aerodynamics under the floor and it’s a lot harder to drive.”

Don’t tell that to Simon Pagenaud.

“This is my favorite street course,” the Frenchman said after winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach’s 33rd IndyCar Series race Sunday.

A two-time winner in sports car races in the streets of Long Beach, Pagenaud scored his first IndyCar win, after finishing second in his two other IndyCar races this year.

“To win here, especially in IndyCar, given the level of competition, is amazing,” Pagenaud said. “The PPG car is good luck on me. Every time I’m in that car, I’m on the podium.”

He only beat New Zealander Scott Dixon by 0.3032 of a second—the closest finish in Long Beach Grand Prix history—to take the top spot on the podium.

“It was fun for me as a driver because it was pure racing,” Pagenaud said. “It was about doing a perfect out lap, being on the limit every lap.”

IndyCar race stewards did warn Pagenaud for improper lane usage exiting the pits.

After the race, Dixon expressed disappointment that Pagenaud didn’t receive a more severe penalty.

“It appeared Simon turned a little early and crossed the (pit exit) line that you’re not meant to cross,” said Dixon, who won last year. “It is what it is, so second place today.”

IndyCar released a statement after the race clarifying the warning that Pagenaud received.

“Simon Pagenaud’s actions during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were deemed an infraction per Rule Lane Usage of the IndyCar Penalty Guidelines: failing to follow designated procedures entering or exiting the pit area, including the proper use of the acceleration and deceleration lanes.

“The penalty for this infraction ranges from a warning (minimum), putting the driver to the back of the field (mid) and drive-through or stop and go/hold (maximum). IndyCar race stewards determined his actions were not deemed severe enough to warrant a harsher penalty than the warning that was issued.”

* * *

An invite by Mazda USA allowed me to check out the Grand Prix expo in the Long Beach Convention Center and some races from the grandstands. This included the qualifying round for the 40th and final Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race.

Because Toyota is moving from Torrance to Plano, Texas, the world’s largest carmaker is discontinuing support of the Pro/Celebrity Race, although it will still be the title sponsor of the three-day Long Beach Grand Prix.

As Alfonso Ribeiro, the host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, slowed down heading into the sharp turn I was facing Friday afternoon, a MazdaSpeed Motorsports Development driver mentioned how the celeb hit his brakes too soon, that he should have gone into the turn faster, braked midway through, then accelerated.

Well, either Ribeiro learned his lesson or the other drivers were doing it also, because he won Saturday’s 10-lap final in 31 minutes, 24.954 seconds—or 4.872 seconds ahead of Max Papis, a former Champ Car racer.

Papis, Al Unser Jr., Rod Millen and comedian/amateur racer Adam Carolla were among the speed veterans Ribeiro beat. But Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is no slouch; Ribeiro also won last year as well as the 1994 and ’95 events.

Ribeiro started in eighth but needed only two laps to take the lead from Papis. All drivers were in 210-horsepower Scion FR-6 cars.

Toyota will donate $5,000 in the name of all 20 pro-celebrity drivers to the nonprofit Racing for Kids, which benefits the children’s hospitals in Long Beach and Orange County, and $5,000 to Ribeiro’s designated charity Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, a Carlsbad-based group that provides reconstructive surgery and related health care to infants, children and teenagers with physical deformities caused by birth defects, accidents or abuse.

* * *

In a hotel hall next to the convention center, half of the room was filled with bounce houses, little pedal race cars and other amusements for kids, and the other half had a line of various race cars on display.

One was Kyle Mohan’s 2016 Mazda RX 5 drift car, which did not require a long tow given he resides in Long Beach.

“There is a disconnect between fans and racing,” he said Friday a few feet from his No. 99 ride. “This is a car fans can get … modified, of course.”

Sadly, Mohan could not get out of the first round of the Formula D event the next night at the Grand Prix, losing to top qualifier Forrest Wang. The $25,000 KMC Wheels Super Drift Challenge was eventually won by Texan Conrad Grunewald, driving a Camaro.

But give the kid a break; the RX 5 was only acquired in December and, after those modifications, has only been running for 2 1/2 weeks.

Kyle’s dad, John Mohan, is certainly giving his kid a break—but not the kid you’re thinking of.

“This is my new grandchild,” he said of the RX 5 he oversees as his son’s crew chief.

Papa Mohan showed me the lead pipe behind the passenger seat that helps the car meet its 2,700-pound weight-class requirement. 

Unlike many other drifters, his son has no air in the car’s tires when he competes, yet by the time the heat is done there are six or seven pounds of air in them, John Mohan explained.

“We’d run on slicks if we could,” he said.

* * *

Hundreds of Mazda employees were on hand to watch the prototypes race Saturday, and there were opportunities for them and Mazda car owners to meet and greet Long, Miller, Bomarito and Nunez Friday and Saturday.

They also got to see the drivers change their own tires.

At least virtually.

The Mazda consumer display in the convention center included a virtual reality screen that makes it appear a race car has pulled in for a pit stop.

All four Mazda Prototype drivers gave it a go as pit crew members Friday afternoon—and promptly fell over one another trying to change a tire.

At least virtually.

Tip to the real crew members: Now’s the time to ask for raises.

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