Rotorheads and the Cult of Mazda

Mjordan
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Rotary Insignia

SevenStock is really a bonding experience for true believers in the rotary engine, which in the world of car enthusiasm is kind of like being a Druid, only without the hooded cloak and wooden staff.

For the ninth year, all the rotorheads gathered in late October at SevenStock, a car show organized by the Southern California RX club that’s dedicated to all things Mazda. Held this year on the grounds of Mazda’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California, SevenStock9 featured classic Mazdas, tricked-up new Mazdas, and really fast Mazdas.

In truth, SevenStock is a really bonding experience for true believers in the rotary engine, which in the world of car enthusiasm is kind of like being a Druid, only without the hooded cloak and wooden staff. Rotorheads are the masters of the rotary engine's arcane science and they're always trying to explain the way Felix Wankel’s weirdly eccentric creation actually works. It always sounds to me like some triangular thingy that wobbles around a central axis according to laws determined by the music of the spheres. In comparison, particle physics seems as simple to understand as a cake recipe.

SevenStock revolves around a show-and-shine car display for club members, and you see old R100 coupes tricked out with big wheels like NASCAR racers of the mid-Sixties, lovingly preserved rotary-engine Mazda pickups, and even old Datsun 510 sedans converted to rotary power. There are lots of vendors selling trick stuff for third-generation RX-7s and the new RX-8, and there are plenty of rides pimped out with vented hoods, big turbochargers, and elaborate exhaust systems. Some rotorheads will occasionally light off one of the cars just so everyone can be reminded of the ear-splitting crackle made by a high-performance rotary engine, a sound so awful that it has destroyed the hearing of more than one Mazda racing driver. (You! Johnny Herbert, winner of the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans in the Mazda 787B!; Can you read my lips?!)

There were quite a number of Mazda racing cars on display, too, notably Mazda's own stairway to fame and fortune in open-wheel racing;-- an SCCA club-specification Star Mazda, the Star-Mazda Pro series car, and of course the Swift 016a-Mazda for Formula Atlantic. In addition, there were examples of the 300-hp Mazda6 that competes in the SCCA’s Speed World;Challenge GT class, plus a couple of 1200-hp Mazda6s from the NHRA’s Sport Compact series.

Mazda has been re-discovering its heritage in the last few years, so it has slowly been restoring some of its race cars of the past. One of the Lola T616-Mazdas that took a class win at the 1984 24 Hours of Le Mans rolled out of the corporate garage, as did several other notable Mazda race cars of the past, including a second-generation RX-7 that our technical editor Don Sherman drove to set a speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Courage C65-Mazda that competed in the American Le Mans Series this year also was present. In fact, Mazda has become quite the racing company, as 167 of the 719 cars that competed at the SCCA Runoffs this year were Mazdas, and they registered more overall wins (four) and more podium finishes (fourteen) than any other brand.

None of this proves anything, of course. Except maybe that it’s getting to be cool to be a Mazda guy, a real switch from the last couple of decades when the rotorheads were the only ones who cared about the company.

Then again, I stopped at Nissan’s headquarters on my way home. Or what used to be Nissan’s headquarters, as the tall, mirrored building -- an architectural landmark when it was constructed in 1971, a time when both Honda and Toyota were doing business out of crummy industrial buildings -- overlooks empty parking lots now that Nissan has moved away to Nashville, Tennessee. There was a time when Nissan HQ was the site of a yearly gathering of enthusiasts, just like SevenStock, only much larger. Mr. K (Yutaka Katayama, the man behind the original 240Z and the smartest car executive I’ve ever met) would walk among scores of tricked-out Z-cars and ask questions about the company’s latest successes on the race track, where it once dominated the scene as Mazda does now. But all that is gone now.

The 3000 people at SevenStock probably don’t mean much to Mazda’s corporate sales, but it’s always nice to know that there are plenty of people who want to gather at the front gate and get a glimpse of the company they admire. It’s the same spirit that has helped Ferrari endure through good times and bad over the last fifty years, and it’s working the same magic on Mazda.

I wonder if Nissan realizes what it has left behind.

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