How Tech Hubris Took Down Mazda and Nissan’s Boldest Motorsports Bets


In the world of professional motorsports it’s always risky to reinvent the wheel. And yet, when major auto industry players get involved in big-buck racing programs the urge to flex muscles beefed up elsewhere and carve out a unique path has often been too overwhelming to resist.

In justifying the untold millions spent propping up race teams both successful and otherwise, automakers often point to the trickle down effect that these go-fast technologies can have in products that eventually find their way to the showroom. It’s a compelling narrative, what with all manner of modern vehicle features (disc brakes, adaptive suspension systems, carbon fiber panels, precision engine controls) able trace their way back to pit lane.

Not every on-track experiment ends up paying marketable dividends, however. This is especially true when engineering teams and designers are given free rein to push untested ideas. There’s a fine line between innovation and arrogance, and while a certain degree of organizational blindness is to be expected from mega-corps buoyed by decades of doing it their own way, should those confidence-induced cataracts eventually float their way to the center of the screen, it’s easy to lose sight of the plot entirely.

So it goes with two major names who over the past 20 years have been blinded by their own past success on the way to losing millions and millions of dollars—not to mention the reputational damage—at the racetrack. Nissan, and Mazda, each brand resplendent with the laurels of checkered flags and championships gone by, found themselves completely out of their depth when attempting to parlay that success in a new and unfamiliar arena.

Whether it was an over-commitment to a technology that was far from ready for prime-time, or a misguided engineering effort that siphoned millions into a dead-end before alarmed executives pulled the plug, the common factor was surprisingly familiar: “we know what’s best.”

Except they didn’t—and that became an extremely expensive lesson to learn for each member of this otherwise distinguished duo.

Mazda’s Diesel Blues

When Mazda declared it was going to be taking its Skyactiv-D turbodiesel drivetrain racing in 2012, at first blush it seemed a reasonable promotional push for a brand-new market segment that the Japanese company was hoping would draw in new customers around the world.

Behind the scenes, it was a whole lot more. Mazda employees at the time paint the company as being in search of a second engineering holy grail that would replace the rotary in the minds of customers, and help differentiate the brand’s products from competitors who were beginning to rapidly outpace the Hiroshima-based company in terms of market share. Diesel seemed to be ‘it,’ and Skyactiv-D was positioned as the reason to choose a Mazda over a Toyota, Honda, or Subaru.

Right from the beginning, however, there were problems. Mazda intended to race the upcoming Mazda 6 sedan shape in Grand Am’s GX class (over a modified, rear-wheel drive RX-8 chassis), but despite making the official announcement in June of that year the car’s design wasn’t made public until November, only a few months before its debut during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January 2013. This meant each of its three entries made the field with virtually no real-world testing—and it quickly became evident that all those hours on the engine dyno weren’t enough.

Within hours, the trio dropped out of the marquee race with engine vibration issues so severe that they made the 6’s virtually undriveable before damaging themselves past the point of no repair.

From an engineering perspective, the problem was clear: these motors were being pushed well past their design spec to output levels they simply couldn’t handle. Mazda’s standing policy to “race what it sold” meant that the very first engines off the Skyactiv-D assembly line were dedicated to the Grand Am program, and they shared over 60 percent of their components with the stock power plant. It was 150 horse design boosted to over 450, in a field where 600 ponies was the bare minimum needed to be competitive.

Despite these clear limitations, the edict came down that the show must go on; a source involved with the project told us it was the old sunk-cost fallacy. Too much money invested to stop now. So Mazda pushed forward with a sub-par racing effort that had no corresponding product in showrooms to promote, as a street version of the motor had yet to reach American shores. Yes, it managed to win the 2013 manufacturer’s title in GX, but wasn’t difficult to do given that the field often consisted of four cars or less, and three of them were Mazdas (the driver’s title actually went to a privateer Porsche Cayman pilot).

Furthering the misery, this all played out in the shadow of the merger between American Le Mans and Grand Am that had been announced just prior to the season. It was a move that blindsided Mazda and forced them to field their underdeveloped car in a lame duck series that would see the GX class disappear entirely the following year.

Despite its Grand Am embarrassment, the engineering pride baked into the Mazda corporate ethos simply wouldn’t let the diesel program die. The following year its ashes were disinterred so that the same 2.2-liter, four-cylinder power plants, which were barely reliable in touring car trim, could be pumped up with an additional 75 horsepower in an attempt to compete in the Tudor United Sports Car in Lola LMP2 form. This partnership with SpeedSource would further cement the Skyactiv-D’s reputation as a race loser, and it wasn’t long before it had been yanked in favor of a gas engine, thus ending Mazda’s diesel motorsports experiment only a handful of years after it had begun.

The racetrack wasn’t the only arena where Mazda’s diesel dreams failed to take flight. Although sold in a number of global markets, Skyactiv-D struggled to meet American emissions regulations. “We can make power, or we can be efficient, but we can’t be both. We have no idea how Volkswagen is managing to do it with their own diesel engines,” lamented engineers, according to a source within the company familiar with the project’s long seven year slog to a 2019 model year appearance in American showrooms. This was, of course, before Dieselgate blew wide open.

By the end of the decade, VW’s emissions testing cheating was no longer a secret, and the incredible scale of the fraud had gone a long way towards canceling diesel in the minds of most car buyers in the United States. It was largely a moot point for Mazda. By the time Skyactiv-D had stubbornly made it to America it was offered in a single vehicle—the CX-5, for the 2019 model year only—and delivered almost no fuel mileage advantage over a comparable Skyactiv gas engine. And last week, the automaker confirmed that’s the end of it. Mazda’s effort to bring diesel to the U.S. is officially, finally dead.

When Nissan Went FWD at Le Mans

Nissan’s LMP debacle came a few years after Mazda’s diesel woes, and traces its roots back to a previous motorsports program—the dramatic DeltaWing—rather than a road car.

The DeltaWing had begun as one of three potential replacements for the IndyCar chassis towards the end of the 2000s, a contract that eventually went to Dallara. So much time, effort, and cash had been invested in the DeltaWing, however, that it was shopped around the Nissan global empire in search of a backer, with renegades at Nissan Europe finally taking a flyer on the radical-looking racer in 2012.

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