John Doonan - interview by John Thawley

Q&A With John Doonan -- Motorsports Team Development for Mazda North America By John Thawley With all the talk of the American Le Mans Series LMP2 class and the anticipated level of competition we anticipate, I thought it would be a good idea to...


Q&A With John Doonan -- Motorsports Team Development for Mazda North America
By John Thawley

With all the talk of the American Le Mans Series LMP2 class and the anticipated level of competition we anticipate, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at one of the 2005 LMP2 standouts, B-K Motorsports. We tracked down John Doonan, Manager of Motorsports Team Development for Mazda North American Operations. Here's how 2006 looks from John's perspective.

JT: John, thanks for taking the time to talk. I know this is a busy time of the year for you, though I suspect that's probably your normal pace.

JD: You are exactly right, John. This is definitely a crazy pace as we get ready for the season. I have been given a dream opportunity here at Mazda to work with all of our racing programs in many capacities on the marketing and public relations front ....so, I wear many hats. And since our racing programs span...the new MX-5 Cup presented by Hankook Tire, the STAR MAZDA Championship presented by Goodyear, Speed World Challenge Touring Car, Grand-Am Cup, our new Grand-Am ROLEX GT program with the RX-8, and our ALMS P2 program....life is pretty hectic.

JT: Let's reflect back on the 2005 season and BK Motorsport's entry into the American Le Mans Series. You guys really hit the ground running with your debut in April at Atlanta. By time we wrapped it up at Laguna, you had a pretty good season under your belt and certainly not bad for a development year. And, to top things of Guy Cosmo and Jamie Bach come away with the Rookies of the Year award. You had to be pleased.

JD: 2005 was a fantastic season...one of much learning...and success...as we measure it. As you may recall, the Courage/Mazda package which B-K ran was built from scratch in just under ten days in France. Guy went over and tested the car on the short course at Le Mans and we shipped it over here for Atlanta. To come away with a podium in our first outing was beyond belief....the first time Jamie sat in the car was the Wednesday before the race...crazy! But, things came together late and you do the best you can with what you have.

We chose the P2 class because it was a place where we could enter the series, have success with a new car...a new team...and young drivers...and build on it from there. There was never an expectation that we would come in...contend for the pole every weekend...dominate...win races...win championships right out of the box. This program is built on the philosophy that we will crawl before we run...and that we will not reinvent the wheel when it comes to the Mazda rotary powerplant. So many individuals have contributed to Mazda's success over the years and those folks have come to help in this new program. "Slow and steady wins the race" could apply here. We may not be the fastest...but we wanted to finish races and use the rotary reliability to our advantage.

With 8 podium finishes in 9 races...including one "lady luck" victory...helping Goodyear win the P2 Tire Manufacturer's award, and Jamie and Guy coming away with the Co-Rookies of the Year award...our feeling is that is one heck of a year. After all, we had a mathematical chance of winning the championship going into the final race. Not too bad...many of the other competitors came up to me during the season and commented on how well they thought we were doing...even Johnny O'Connell commented on how it took at few seasons for things to come together for the Corvette program, which made me feel good...so we are staying the course.

JT: We noticed the car was without Sportsbook.com graphics at the Winter Test in Sebring. Is there any news on the sponsorship front?

JD: Sportsbook is a tremendous partner. They will continue to support our program in an associate fashion for 2006. We will be making some special partnerships as we approach Sebring. The neat thing about the opportunity that I have been given is that we are building long term relationships with Mazda corporate partners.

JT: Before we get into 2006 goals and objectives, talk to me about the elusive snorkel on that car. Is it my eyes or is that thing moving around? Is the configuration you ran in Sebring's Test Days the original location?

JD: The original air intake which was run at Atlanta, Mid-Ohio, Limerock, Infineon, and Portland was above the driver's head. This was simply what we had time for based on the original air box. We sent the original air box to Courage and in ten days they made it work with the B-K team members who flew over there to help build the car.

The air intake you saw starting at Road America and for the rest of the season was simply another step in our development process. As we developed the motor...changed the air box location...and looked to do more to increase speed...we did move things around.

You did see it back in the original location at Sebring for the test days. As we continue testing and development, we may make additional changes.

JT: It's hard not to comment on the decibel level of the Mazda... but I will say, I was out on the backstretch at Sebring and the car actually sounded pretty nice at full song. I don't know if you got a chance to hear our "Sounds of Sebring" Podcast, but there is one part where you guys come down pit lane and I was recording from your pit box. There's no mistaking the car. What makes the distinctive sound?

JD: As Robert Davis, Mazda's Senior VP of Quality, Research, and Development, said at the news conference in Sebring last year...some say it is NOISE...some say it is MUSIC. It is MUSIC to those of us at Mazda....and that distinctive sound is ROTARY...simply put. They make that bellowing...throaty sound...and always have. We love being something the fans and media can identify with....and to be honest...our corporate partners like it because it is so unique. Since the test days at Sebring were our first time at the track...I was thrilled to hear it come down the backstretch and down past start/finish...pretty awesome!

JT: So, what can you tell us for 2006? I've heard talk of a new car maybe by Mid-Ohio? Care to comment?

JD: We are definitely looking at a bunch of options...but it all comes down to timing. I will definitely keep you posted on where we head. We want to continue to develop the motor and chassis combination.... I can tell you this, however, B-K has definitely brought on the personnel. Marcus Haselgrove, one of the key players at Champion Audi is now the Technical Director and Team Manager. He is a wealth of information and great addition to the team which raises the bar considerably. B-K is also bringing in many other new faces...surrounded by some key folks from last year...it is going to be an awesome year.

JT: It's no secret that you guys struggled for speed last year. And, in your search, you seemed to give up some reliability as well. How do you plan on overcoming that this year?

JD: As I mentioned earlier, we were not going out to set lap records. Obviously many people felt we were "way off the pace", but that is all in the eyes of the beholder. Long story short...8 podiums in 9 races...a second place finish at Petit, where all but three cars dropped out with mechanical problems....again, we were pleased with what we learned an accomplished. It may be comparing apples to oranges, but when Mazda won Le Mans in 1991...it was not because we were the fastest...in fact, we slowed down...it was because we were steady, put down consistent laps, and made it to the finish.

JT: One thing is apparent, you have an excellent team and a team that is a great fit in the American Le Mans Series. I'm sure the IMSA folks would love to have a handful more just like BK Motorsport. But, from day one, you guys have really put on a first rate presentation. What do you contribute that to?

JD: We are proud of all of our Mazda teams...be that in ALMS, GRAND-AM, SCCA, etc. B-K is a relatively new member of the Mazda family...growing up from STAR MAZDA. They had a ton to learn in a very short time in '05...and they come into '06 a ton smarter...and that is what racing is all about. Learning and applying it. One of the reasons B-K was a nice fit from the start was that they are a professional organization that run their team like a business....and they do present things VERY professionally...and our corporate partners like that as well.

In my position, I have been given this amazing opportunity to work with all of our teams in our corporate partnerships...how we present ourselves...and bringing special value to Mazda and the companies whose names are on the sides of our race cars. It is about making corporate investments show special and measureable return....that is how you can really "WIN" in this business for a long time.

JT: Talk about your drivers a bit. These are two special talents. Both are out of the Mazda Star Series and both are first class acts. Are they a testament to that Series and the development process?

JD: We are so proud of the drivers coming out of STAR MAZDA. Jamie and Guy are two fine young men who are terrific representatives of Mazda, the STAR MAZDA SERIES, and now ALMS. They are eager to get better...they are eager to win races...and they are great with the fans...corporate folks...and the media. The same goes for the other drivers from STAR MAZDA...with Raphael Matos joining Guy and Jamie at Sebring...and so many of the drivers from last year's STAR MAZDA field climbing the racing ladder...Rahal to Atlantics/24 Hours of Daytona...Hinchcliffe to Atlantics...Matos to a full time Atlantic ride as well...Andretti to the IRL and the Indy 500...McDowell in CHAMP CAR/Grand-Am...Joey Hand...and even Scott Speed, now in F1, used Star Mazda to grow his career early on...fun stuff!

JT: What's your take on the challenge you'll face with the Porsche LMP2 program. After all, it's a big enough challenge to take on Porsche... but you add in Roger Penske and you've got double jeopardy. What type of strategy will it take to keep the Porsches in check.

JD: First of all, let me say how pleased we were with their entry into the P2 category. It clearly reinforced our reasons for being there...and it raises the profile of the class and the series as a whole. And as a young boy I watched and dreamed of having the success of a Roger Penske...and now I have the amazing chance to stand along the same pit wall as a legend like him...again...pretty cool stuff.

We will stay our course with finishing races. There is no question they are fast as they proved at Mazda Raceway in their debut. We are continuing some special development programs to try to catch them...and we are excited by the challenge. At Mazda we typically have been the underdog...and we relish in that role.

JT: Finally, tell us about the Rotary engine and how it fits into equation. What options does Mazda have available, and as we hinted at earlier, where will you find the speed you need along with the reliability?

JD: We have been pleased with the Renesis based 3 rotor program (the technical name of the engine is the R20B). This ties directly into the RX-8 sports car on the street. Again, reliability has been the key. As you try to add horsepower you also add heat however, and rotary engines like to run cool. Having said that, we continue to look to the traditions and research we have done in the past. There are other opportunities with the 3 rotor...and when we won so many GTO races in the early 1990s we ran a 4 rotor and when we won at Le Mans in 1991 we ran a 4 rotor (technically called the R26B)....so we will continue to work with the resources we have available and come up with the most competitive package we can. Again, we will crawl and walk before we run.

JT: So... we fast-forward to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca... about 8pm, Saturday night in October? What will you accept as "a job well done?"

JD: "A job well done" will be finishing all the races and having been a contender...all year. But, most importantly it is about representing Mazda and our ZOOM-ZOOM brand image....and being a FINE representative of our CORPORATE PARTNERS...and adding value to their investment...after all, this is a business we are in!

JT: Thanks John and all the best to you, Guy, Jamie and the BK Motorsports Team.

JD: Thanks for having me, John. I appreciate the opportunity and I appreciate how you have grown Trackbytes....way to go!

Editor's Note:
John Thawley, owner and editor of Trackbytes.com allowed Motorsport.com his exlclusive interview with John Doonan.

(www.trackbytes.com/news.php?id=1154)

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About this article
Series ALMS
Drivers Johnny O'Connell , Joey Hand , Guy Cosmo , Scott Speed , Roger Penske , Robert Davis