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Does Motorsports Matter?

If you build your motorsports program from the grassroots up, feed what you learn directly into R&D, and manage it to add to the bottom line-like Mazda-the answer is: "Yes."

 Auto racing is a sport whose mantra is: "Speed = Money. How fast do you want to go?" In 2007, Formula One teams reportedly spent a combined $3.0 billion so BMW, Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes, Renault, and Toyota could brag about whose technology is best. Meanwhile, the Big Three and Toyota spent countless millions racing vehicles in NASCAR that are technology free by comparison to entice sedan shoppers into their showrooms. Yet, for an amount not much more than what a top F1 team spends on hospitality at the race track, Mazda was able to test its vehicles at the track, share this information directly with its production R&D team, support 10 series in North America, and pay for the bulk of this effort through the sale of motorsport parts and accessories.

"I have the benefit of $8 million in part sales (accessories and motorsport parts) that generate a lot of revenue, and make my numbers a little easier to manage," says Robert Davis, senior vice president, Product Development and Quality, Mazda North American Operations. As the point man for Mazda's motorsport efforts and a part-time racer, his day job also includes a lot of weekends at the track. To make the structure self-supporting, Davis built the Mazdaspeed organization around a triangle that places factory-engineered halo-type vehicles at its peak and Motorsports and Accessories across from each other at the base.

Since the late 1990s, Mazdaspeed has followed what Davis describes as a "Four 'P'" approach built around:

  • People: Experienced in both racing and business
  • Products: Suitable for the brand and the track
  • Partners: Organizations with similar mindsets, complimentary skills, products or services, and a
  • Plan: Unwavering support of grassroots racing activities.

An example of how this works can be seen in the new Mazda6. According to Davis, one of his people re-engineered the suspension of the Mazda6 Speed World Challenge touring car while developing the latest Mazda6. "The changes made that car a championship winner last year," he says, "were transferred into the suspension development program for the new car." It's not his only example of tech transfer facilitated by running motorsports through the Mazda R&D organization. Racing highlighted concerns with the shift forks on the MX-5 and ball joints on the RX-8 that were fixed early in production. It also helped in the development of an extreme altitude/extreme temperature package for RX-8s sold in Mexico. Even the R3 RX-8's suspension tuning is derived from what was learned from racing the car, with the race car's parameters ported directly to the software for the direct-drive electric steering on the street car. "Racing is the ultimate million-mile test done in 15 minutes," says Davis of technology transfer from racing to the road.

Central to all of this effort, however, is the understanding that moving sheetmetal off dealer lots is still the main goal of the organization. Next year Davis and his team will repeat a study they first conducted in 2005 to support Mazda's motorsport spending. They were able to show that the North American motorsport program is directly responsible for about 3,000 vehicle sales per year, and that 35,000-40,000 people were influenced by the company's participation in racing. Despite the fact that the paddock demographic for series like the Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series are higher than that of the average Mazda buyer, it is at the top of the list of cars these people refer to their family and friends. In addition, says Davis, "The five guys in motorsport sales sell more S-plan cars-400 per year-than the average dealer."

Going forward, Davis is interested in instituting a "Tuned By" program that would put the right motorsport-developed pieces in a package buyers could order from the dealer. This would extend to vehicles-like the Mazda5, CX-7, and CX-9-that otherwise would not get any help from the motorsport program, but have a loyal enthusiast following. "Mazdaspeed fits in three places: motorsports, high-performance halo cars, and the accessory pieces developed for the rest of our cars," he says firmly. It is this focus that allows him to profitably, and sustainably, manage Mazda's motorsports program.