Mazda's Davis sees racing as a test of character
MAZDA RACEWAY AT LAGUNA SECA Salinas, Calif.
It's a cool, overcast day at the famed racetrack bearing his company's name and logo, but Mazda's Robert Davis is still sweating.
The culprit sits a few feet away, being refueled: a rare 690-hp 1990 Mazda 787 prototype race car that finished eighth overall in the 1991 24 Hours of LeMans.
Davis, 53 and in the twilight of his career as vice president for special assignments at Mazda, has just come in from a practice session on the undulating strip of racetrack inland from the Monterey coast.
For Davis, sessions such as these are the ultimate team-building exercise. A lifetime around racetracks has taught Davis that if you can trust someone at a track, you can trust that person anywhere.
"It allows you to learn how to judge people more quickly," Davis told Automotive News. "When you're around different people at the track, you learn the way they drive is the way that you've got to judge or react to them."
It's not just their driving. Act like a jerk after a bad race or track session and you'll act like a jerk in the office when things go wrong. The reverse is also true: Trust earned working on a car with someone is trust deserved in the workplace.
With Davis at this two-day track session are a handful of Mazda employees assembled from disparate departments but sharing an appreciation for hands-on track experience.
Davis has been around cars his entire life, having inherited his zeal for speed from his dad, a driver and technical director for drag racing teams.
"My earliest memories are being at drag racing tracks all around the southeast," Davis said. "Florida is drag racing country and South Carolina was stock car country, so I have an interest in all motorsports."
But it wasn't until 1988 -- a year before he joined Mazda -- that Davis was bitten by the sports car and endurance racing bug after a chance encounter with the 24 Hours of Daytona.
"I had never been to a road race before," Davis said. "I ended up spending the whole weekend at the racetrack, and that's what got me hooked."
A trip to Skip Barber Racing School soon followed, then racing in Barber's series. Since that time, Davis has averaged about 14 days a year on tracks throughout the U.S., racing both his personal cars and Mazda's heritage racers.
That includes the blue and white 787 racer still hot from Davis' laps, his name emblazoned on the driver's door. Far from a garage queen, the No. 56 car sees regular use by Davis and his Mazda coworkers.
That's a lot for a car likely worth millions thanks to its scarcity (one of five ever built) and its front seat to history. In 1991 when No. 56 placed eighth overall at Le Mans, a slightly different version of the car (a green and orange 787B) won the race outright, marking the only time to this day that a Japanese car has won the famed endurance race.
The 787 bearing Davis' name is serious business. Wringing 690 hp from a 2.6-liter, four-rotor rotary engine that has just 1,800 pounds of car to move around, the car wails like an angry mosquito on the track.
Being able to handle a car such as this also helps Davis' product decisions. As a member of Mazda's executive product review committee, Davis routinely draws on his track experience to shape his input on Mazda's production vehicles.
"To know the basic dynamics of cars and how they work and how they're supposed to work, and what you're looking for in feel really helps too," Davis said.
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