When a company has been doing something so long, particularly when that something is not their core activity, then they must be doing it for good reason. The company in question here is Mazda, and the something is their driver scholarship program.

The 2023 Mazda Scholarship Shootout at Carolina Motorsports Park marks Mazda’s 16th year of awarding a quarter-million dollars in funding to up-and-coming drivers who are making their way in a very expensive sport.

“The Scholarships are something that we hold closely to our hearts,” says Mazda Senior Manager of Motorsports Jonathan Applegate. “We consider ourselves an enabler of dreams. The Shootout is right in the middle of it and is really the golden thread that connects our grassroots programs through the MX-5 Cup and beyond.

“We see this as a pivotal point in a driver’s career,” he adds. “Motorsports is among the most expensive professional sports, which means there’s a high cost of entry barrier. So, we continue to create opportunities that help get aspiring drivers to the next level.”

Recent scholarship winners such as Connor Zilisch, who’s gone on to success not only in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich, but also in the Trans Am series, show that the Mazda Scholarship program is intent on discovering and promoting talented drivers. Zilisch is just one example of many.

When it comes to running the Scholarship Shootout, Mazda assembles a varied team of judges, from driver coaches to media members, to ensure that all aspects of discovering driver talent are considered.

“There’s nothing magical about the selection process, but there is a lot of spirited conversation,” says Applegate of the deliberations among the judges that go on throughout the two days of the Shootout. “It comes down to understanding who these racers are, and they understanding who we are. I think that’s something that’s super critical in the evaluation process. The finalists should know who is investing time, energy and resources into them.

“Showing up at the Shootout knowing the key players, especially the judges and those that might have some professional race experience, is huge,” he adds. “Overall, there are a few key data points we focus on such as their pace on track as well as how they’re progressing. Just as important is how they’re communicating with the coaches, analyzing and receiving feedback, and then acting on it positively.

“We’re looking for progress, we’re looking for attitude, and on the other end is evaluating who is the most well rounded outside of the racecar. That includes displaying some sense of how the business of being a racing driver works and understanding that speed isn’t everything.”

The nature of the program means that Mazda Motorsports’ direct involvement with the Scholarship winners, and indeed all the participants, is limited. But the big picture view is much broader.

“The scholarship takes them to MX-5 Cup, which is our aspirational program. While we have nothing above that now – it’s never a matter of if; it’s a matter of when we will – we’ll continue to support that racer as much as we can beyond the first year of the scholarship,” Applegate concludes. “When they move on to another opportunity within the sport, we will embrace it as a win for our brand.”

WORKMAN WINS 2024 SCHOLARSHIP

When the 2024 Mazda Scholarship Shootout wrapped at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C., the largest check was handed to Westin Workman (above), who now has a $110,000 leg-up on his 2024 racing season.

Scholarships valued at $75,000 were also awarded to Spec MX-5 ace Nathan Nicholson and, fresh off her MX-5 Cup debut in the Road Atlanta finale, Sally Mott.

“I won the Spec MX-5 Shootout and now to win the MX-5 Cup Shootout is amazing,” said Workman. “I knew I was in contention. In the middle of the (last) session, the track was getting pretty hot, so I slowed down and tried to cool the tires and the tow was kind of changingon the car, so it was a way to get my head in the right mindset and I set two more consistent laps. I don’t know if that was the deciding factor, but it helped me keep a level head.”

Nicholson was awarded the runner-up scholarship, while Mott (below) took the honor as the Woman In Motorsport Initiative winner.

* All Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich races are streamed live on RACER.com and archived on The RACER Channel on YouTube. The seven-event, 14-round 2024 season begins at Daytona International Speedway with a Jan. 25-26 double-header. To view the full schedule and learn more about the series, visit mx-5cup.com.