The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech championship season was something our entire Mazda Motorsports program was highly anticipating. In 2015, there was a lot of off- and on-track development with the new MZ-2.0T engine along with the continued chassis and aero development that the new engine package would bring.
The team worked so hard at developing the new package through the end of 2015, and I got to drive the updated car for the first time during a test at Daytona. I was awed by the sound and the skill that the new powerplant brought to the car. In my mind, it really transformed the car. Everything changed, from the way the car accelerated to the way it handled out of the corner, and even the braking feel was different due to the higher downforce levels under braking. Traveling at the fastest top speeds I’ve ever achieved at Daytona was exhilarating yet very comfortable in this new package.
From very early in the season, our Mazda proved to have a great pace, which meant qualifying was always exciting. Vying for the pole at each race became a reality, and at Long Beach we started to lead practice sessions. We followed that up by sweeping every session at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and then the team got its first podium at Detroit’s Belle Isle. That all happened within a six-week time span. We felt like we’d really arrived on the scene in terms of being competitive.
On the other hand, we also had some tough luck. We came so close to a win and maybe even a double podium at Watkins Glen during the Sahlen’s Six-Hour. The cars and the team were flawless all day, but we came up short at the end with a mechanical issue. At Mosport, we had incredible pace but we were unable to translate that into a top result.
Our competitiveness continued throughout the year, and the team was in contention for a podium position in the final two races of the season. For me, I will especially remember the crazy heat at Circuit of the Americas—with cockpit temperatures well into the 130s—and how much fun racing was at Petit LeMans, with the dynamic of all four classes on that very busy, twisty Road Atlanta circuit.
Looking back, I think about all of the incredible accomplishments for the team but also for me personally. I got to compete against the top-level Prototype drivers in the country. Going wheel-to-wheel with them to produce high-quality sports car racing was really cool for me. From starting near the front of the field to even leading races, fighting for race wins was a great feeling and there were a lot of defining moments for me along the way.
Taking everything we learned from our season, we’re certainly optimistic and excited about what 2017 and beyond will bring. Stay tuned for news about next season’s plans!