Industry insider: John Doonan reveals how Mazda snared Joest
In the first of a series of long-form interviews with motorsport industry experts, John Doonan, director of motorsports for Mazda North American Operations, tells all to Motorsport.com.
Q: Congratulations on the big Joest news for IMSA in 2018. How were you able to keep it quiet while the Penske/Acura deal was the most well-known secret in motorsports?
Doonan: “Well thank you first of all, and it was difficult. We had to be respectful of our current partner, our future partner, follow the legal and finance processes we have internally, and so it was a long six months.
“I think only a handful of people on our staff knew right up until the announcement. But I think it was a relief amongst all of us to know that we didn't have to keep our mouth shut much longer.”
Q: How long did it take for the entire deal to come together?
Doonan: “We had analyzed the program for several years just making sure that we continued to deliver the results for Mazda, the brand.
“We looked at every aspect of it: the chassis, the engine, the team, the drivers and honed in on what we could do to put our best foot forward.
“Larry Holt [of Multimatic] and his team really stepped up their game for the chassis and AER has certainly proven to be focused on their engine reliability.
“We believed in our driver line-up, and then Joest becomes available. They were not on our list initially, but they become available and it's really difficult to step away from one of, if not the greatest, of all time.
“When that opportunity came to be, we certainly wanted to have an introductory meeting, which we did have at Daytona and candidly I was concerned that we wouldn't be good enough for them.
“But from the outset the chemistry was awesome, and so then it was like, ‘Okay, this has potential, let's do everything we can to make it work.’ And in our business, seven months in some ways is a long time, and then in other ways it's a really short time, and honestly it all came together real fast.”
Photo by: Jake Galstad / LAT Images
Q: How excited were you about the possibilities when you found out Joest may be available?
Doonan: “At the time Joest spent here in the American Le Mans Series we were competing in a different category, but you always saw that organization as the best of the best, the cream of the crop, who you want to model yourself after, your heroes.
“And their expertise, their experience, their record, how they treat fans, it's fantastic. And to have them part of the Mazda family now it's, in a lot of ways, beyond my wildest dreams.
Q: Joest were immersed in the Audi culture for a long time, how difficult will it be for them to become part of the Mazda family?
Doonan: “Well, I think one of the huge benefits to Joest is they have represented, clearly, some of the world's most premium and best manufacturers: not only Audi but Porsche, Bentley and Opel at the DTM level. So, representing a manufacturer is not new to them. I think they have a huge fan following in Japan, which is exciting. So, representing a manufacturer is not new to them, they understand that side of the business.
“I think early on in one of our first meetings we educated them on what the Mazda brand stands for, and they fully embraced that. They understand our challenger spirit, they understand the grassroots nature of our Motorsports program.
“Obviously there's more education to be done on what Mazda means and our brand, but I think they get it. I think we all hit the ground running to be honest.”
Q: How hard was it to break the news to Sylvain Tremblay and the SpeedSource team?
Doonan: “Toughest conversation of my career, toughest decision by far.
“From the personal side without a doubt, sitting across the table and looking him in the eye and explaining what was happening was not easy. At the same time, when you have an opportunity to program with, and align with one of, if not the greatest, of all time, from the business side that was the easy part.
“We originally had planned to finish out the season, without a doubt, and we've had some momentum lately. A couple podiums for the team and everybody under the tent has been giving every ounce of energy they have to see the project succeed, so any timing was not going to be good from the personal side.
“And from the business side to put all the resources into preparing for next year, given the current and future competition, in the end we decided that was the best scenario.”
Q: Does Mazda feel an extra sense of pressure now Joest is on board? There are no excuses now…
Doonan: “Yeah, I had the opportunity, of course, to chat with our internal staff, and we had reason to be excited and reason to have emotion based on the SpeedSource relationship coming to an end.
“But I also shared with them that if you think there was a spotlight on us now, relative to the current program, somebody just changed the bulb to be an LED floodlight.
“So the answer is yes, in short. There's pressure to perform. I think there's pressure to perform anytime, but when you put all the right pieces together from Multimatic's focus on the car, to AER's focus on the engine, to Joest's focus on the team operations and facilitating successful races, and bringing the top driver talent which we certainly believe we have and plan to bring, you go into it with an additional set of confidence as well.”
Q: How has the news been received back home in Japan?
Doonan: “It's been universally and greatly well-received. Our colleagues at Mazda Europe, who we did give a heads up to, were obviously thrilled with the idea and they have been pleased with the response for sure. Same goes for our colleagues in Japan. It's just been big company-wide, a really exciting opportunity that none of us a year ago had really thought was possible.
“So, it's a huge boost for all the employees, our dealers. I've heard from a lot of dealers who are not just Motorsports enthusiasts but Mazda brand enthusiasts, and they really see this as a big step forward for the brand and a chance to shine a brighter light, in a positive way, on what we're doing as a company.”
Q: Do you see this as an exciting new era for prototype sportscar racing in the US?
Doonan: “I grew up going to IMSA races in the ’80s and the GTP days with big manufacturer involvement, a lot of customer cars on the shelf available, it was amazing.
“And someone would say ‘Well that was the good old days’ and then roll around to the heyday of the ALMS in ’07, ’08, ’09 – we were in that one huge competitive landscape.
“We saw amazing times in Grand-Am with Daytona Prototypes banging off each other with crazy competition and now you have what we've seen now just go to a distant universe.
“I mean we just went into orbit with the teams, the cars, and I hope that more join us in the coming months or years, because while what appeared to be good old days in the ’80s are the good old days now.
“And, history's great, I love history, I'm a big motorsports historian, but we are writing the next chapter and I think all of us, whether it's IMSA or any of the other manufacturers, want to write a current day chapter of motorsport history for sportscar racing.
“So, to think about what Daytona is going to be like is unbelievable, it's really exciting. I've even heard from some European teams this week that said ‘We can't wait, we look forward to being there too’ so there's plans for people to come from around the world to be part of this, which is ridiculously good.”
Q: IMSA’s DPi concept appears to be in rude health. How do you see that concept compared to the current situation in the FIA WEC?
Doonan: “I think what IMSA has provided manufacturers in terms of this platform and to integrate our brand design language into the cars is absolutely perfect.
“It's cost-effective, it allows us to tell a proper story. We have massive respect for the ACO and the FIA and what they've done, and certainly huge respect for Audi, Porsche, Toyota, Peugeot, so many manufacturers that have invested heavily into the LMP1 overall victory format on the world stage.
“Obviously the rules don't align for DPIs now, I certainly, for the health of our sport of sportscar racing hope that they do change, but for now we are focused 1,000 percent on the North American championship.
“And should the day come when regulations allow we'd be silly not to think about it. But right now it's laser focus on the job at hand here, and we'll see where the chips fall.”
Q: Mazda is already tremendously busy with the “Road to Indy” program and a market leader at the grassroots level. How do you keep all the balls in the air?
Doonan: “It has been a labor of love for so many of us on our small team, and when you see all the things that we're doing across the whole strategy you would think that we have 40 or 50 people working in the background making all this happen.
“Well, it's three of us that are Mazda employees and some very trusted outside contractors that are making it all happen. So, it's divide and conquer, and tons of hours, and trying to do what we can to keep all the wheels on the bus.
“But I think we've focused on the pyramid and having grassroots be the foundation, driver development on both sides, open wheel and sports cars, and we've put our money where our mouth is, and where we think the industry needs to be with driver development, and then ultimately it's about what's best for Mazda.
“We're a company about driving, and the passion and love of driving, and so we believe in giving drivers from autocross, to open wheel, to sports cars and all the way to the top, the best chance to grow their careers, pursue their passion, and so many of them are doing it with their discretionary income.
“So I'm really proud of what we've built, but we've got to continue to do what's best for Mazda and we will hopefully do that.”
Q: Mobility on the road appears to be headed for a change with autonomous driving becoming a looming huge deal. How do you think this will impact our sport?
Doonan: “It's something we've been talking about and thinking about. Obviously for a company like ours that is so focused on the joy and passion of driving, we believe that the relationship between the driver and the car still has decades and decades to go as being relevant.
“Obviously Formula E has grown and gained prominence, but for us, for the Mazda brand, we certainly see it to continue to be a participatory sport where a driver and car are working in unison and not one or the other being the lead.
“It's interesting to think about, but I just don't think that it will completely take over what we know as motorsport today.”
Q: So what is the John Doonan story? How did you end up in the role you are in today at Mazda?
Doonan: “It was a young boy's dream. My dad was a grassroots club racer in the Midwest. Raced some Volkswagens, raced some Porsches and ultimately a bunch of his buddies, when the first boatload of RX7's came over, drove showroom stock race cars and I fell in love with Mazda.
“I fell in love with the rotary engine. Instead of collecting baseball cards, through my career I watched race results.
“Then I followed what Jim Downing and Roger Mandeville were doing. My mom to this day teases me about it because she said all I ever talked about was Mazda, Mazda, Mazda and about wanting to work for Mazda and be in racing.
“It didn't come together right away. Out of college I worked as a fundraiser at the university where I went to school and lo and behold just met the right people at Mazda at the right time and shared my dream but there was nothing at that time.
“But eventually I got a call from Robert Davis, who is the Vice President of Marketing and R&D at one point. He said: ‘How about you move to Chicago and work for Mazda?’ It was not a Motorsport position, it was a regional advertising position, which allowed me to achieve one part of the dream and that was to work for this brand.
“And then after a couple years of that, staying late at the office, working on potential motorsport programs, a couple of deals emerged that allowed us to get back into ALMS in '05 and the rest is history.
“Robert created a position for me and now I have this crazy opportunity to do what we do. I report directly to the President of the company, which is really special for Motorsports.
“So you're talking about a kid who was sitting on the other side of the fence dreaming to be a participant. The chances that we've had are amazing, both in Indianapolis with the Mazda Road To Indy, and sports cars, and with MX5 Cup, and then one of my favorite races of the year is the SCCA Runoffs.
“We're going to Indianapolis for the Runoffs this year and have hundreds of Mazda customers competing with their passion and their own hard-earned dollars to earn a gold medal at the event.
“It's kind of surreal, to be honest. The fact that we get to pursue this passion, and live it, and provide for our families through it, it's really hard to put your arms around it. It's emotional and you can't believe that you get to do what you do.”
Q: What is the biggest surprise you’ve had in your career in the sport?
Doonan: “I think probably when someone is not involved in the sport, or at least is on the periphery or is just fan, they may assume that there's adversarial relationships among the competitors.
“And I think that's a sad fallacy that there might be that perception out there, because whether it's fierce competitors like Porsche, or the folks at Acura/Honda, or GM. You think these are the kind of people that you want to sit and have dinner with and just get to know them.
“The relationships and the family atmosphere that is among the community, it's amazing. You compete head-to-head, and rub fenders with, and fight it out for steps on the podium with, are the same people you want to go have dinner with that evening and talk your family and life.
“You want to attend weddings, and unfortunately sometimes we attend funerals, and people get sick and everybody rallies around one another.
“I think that's something that should be more well known. I mean it's an amazing family this sport, and when we have someone who's struggling through a situation everybody rallies around them and vice versa when the green flag drops everybody is fiercely competitive, but patting each other on the back when the celebration happens in victory lane.”
Q: Is the sport doing a good enough job of attracting the young fans – trying to relate to them?
Doonan: “Collectively, we as an industry have a big challenge on our hands. The automotive industry in general has got the challenge of people turning 16 – or whatever the given age is in their state of residence – less and less they are racing to the DMV to get their license.
“They're connecting in other means. We continue to work at attracting and educating a younger audience as a brand.
“In racing, we've certainly got additional challenges with that. What we do on the race track is fighting up against tons of other distractions for the younger audience, and we have felt that at Mazda for several years.
“We've certainly communicated that with the sanctioning body partners. We started a STEM program (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) a few years ago driven by just our internal team to try to bridge that gap and literally take the content of what we do to the schools.
“As an industry I think we're going to need to do more and more of that.
“It may be an overused word, but connectivity is key. How do we connect with the younger audience through apps and their phones?
“And I know all these major sanctioning bodies are doing that type of thing, but I certainly envision all of us coming together around a table at some point in a summit fashion, and continue to brainstorm how we're going to attract the next generation of fan and the next generation of participant. Because we're going to need to.”
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