Only 30 miles from Mazda North America Operations headquarters the No.55 Soul Red Mazda Prototype team earned a best-ever finish in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with a third-place run at the 100-minute BUBBA burger Sports Car Grand Prix at Long Beach.
The No.70 Mazda also had a great day until pit stop troubles sent them one-lap behind the leaders, but rallied to finish sixth in the Prototype class.
The third place finish is the second podium finish for the team (the previous was at Detroit in 2016, where the team finished third in-class, but had a lower overall finish). This is the first podium for the new Mazda RT24-P race car, which was sculpted by Mazda designers in Irvine, California.
The start of the race was sparkling for both Tristan Nunez in the No.55, who muscled past the No.5 Cadillac going into the first turn to take second place, and for Tom Long, who raced from his seventh place starting spot all the way to third place during his stint.
“We got a great start, which put me side-by-side with them heading towards Turn 1." explained Nunez "I didn’t give an inch, so we made our way into second place. Then, we held it until the pit stop. I was very very pleased with the performance. At Long Beach, you’re always going to have close calls, especially with so many cars on a short street circuit. It’s a concrete canyon but, overall it was pretty clean despite all of the yellow flags that came out. It was pretty smooth sailing.”
With one hour remaining and Mazdas running second and third, both drivers encountered a gridlock situation exiting Turn 11, the tightest hairpin turn of the season. A Ford GT had stalled and was sitting sideways on the track. As Nunez steered around the car, the Ford lurched forward, forcing Nunez to come to a halt. Meanwhile, Long took a tighter angle to the inside of the stalled car. Then, the Ford suddenly backed up, forcing Long to a halt, eventually losing a number of positions in the traffic jam.
The short sprint race meant a single pit stop for both cars. Nunez handed the car over to co-driver Jonathan Bomarito, who returned to the track in fourth place among Prototypes, but behind a number of GT car who were on a different fuel strategy.
“The traffic was wild!" saud Bomarito "We talked about that scenario with Zach LaGrone, our engineer. You try to plan for it before the race, but you can’t plan everything. You have to be flexible with the environment as you race. There were a lot of yellow flags, so you really had to stay clean. It’s risk versus reward. You don’t want to lose to the cars in front of you, but you can’t take a big chance. Some took chances today and you saw their cars in the wall. It was a good day for the team and Mazda. And, a first podium for the new Mazda RT24-P! Tristan did great in qualifying and had a great first stint. I’m happy with our performance for the day.”
Long also climbed out, as co-driver Joel Miller climbed in for the finish in the No.70. The team suffered a failure with the air jack system, which meant the right rear tire was not properly attached. After correcting the issue, Miller was able to continue, but one lap down.
“The biggest thing for us in this sprint race format was losing the lap because of the issue there in the pits." said Miller "That was crushing to our race. We rebounded from that and showed that we had a car that was quick, as our pace was very good through the entire race. It was definitely bumper cars out there, but we knew that coming into the race. It’s fantastic for the 55 car, and I’m really proud for the program for them to get that podium. We know what we need to work on going towards COTA [Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex., May 6], which is next. We showed the cars are getting faster on the race track, which is good and shows we have the potential for many more podium positions.”
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