Hot-rodding. It’s generally thought of as making cars fast—specifically old American iron with large engines, lowrider looks and a penchant for some silly concept like “There’s no replacement for displacement.”
What you might not think of when it comes to this uniquely American concept is that it’s not uniquely American at all. Perhaps the most famous “performance tuner” of Mazda vehicles—Racing Beat—continues to think of its business as hot-rodding Mazdas and making them quicker, more powerful and better-handling. And, it’s always been that way.
Racing Beat came about as the result of a friendship that stemmed from the two cofounders’ love of speed. Cofounder Takayuki Oku owned a small race shop with his brother near Fuji Raceway in Japan and decided to venture over to the U.S. to better understand the operations of an American race team. Long before the days of the internet, Mr. Oku had heard of this ex-Air Force officer in Anaheim, California, who had experience with the Shadow Can-Am team, open wheel racing and local club racing.
Oku decided to take the flight to California to meet this pioneer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Well, actually, there’s more to it than that.
When Oku landed on U.S. soil, he was greeted by Jim Mederer, the air-force-officer-tuned-hot-rodder, a man of few words and great ambition.
“Jim Mederer was an interesting guy—hard-nosed, and he loved to work,” Jim Langer said, today’s general manager of Racing Beat and a 22-year veteran of the company. “To [Mederer], everything had to work, not just for the sake of trends or power. That was his philosophy—every project had to be perfect.”
Both Mederer and Oku decided on calling their company Racing Beat and focused their efforts on developing the rotary engine for racing applications. To raise capital, they decided to offer performance parts to the public, taking the foundation of their learnings on the track and selling them to those who appreciated a certain quirky, little automaker from Hiroshima.
Mederer and Oku began racing their Mazda RX-2 in 1972 and developed engines for dirt tracks and “midget car” racing. They even facilitated in the development of a car with Car and Driver magazine after the publication had found much to love about its long-term test car. That devilishly loud car would be the first Mazda to win a race on North American soil in the IMSA RS racing series.
Mederer formed close relationships with many IMSA racecar teams, including Mazda’s factory team, competing around the U.S. and having cars secure class wins at the 1983 24 Hours of Daytona and Mosport 6-Hour race, and taking 1st and 2nd place in the 1980 IMSA GT-U Championship.
As Langer explained it, “[Mederer] was never really sentimental about holding on to the racecars.” He just wanted to race—and win.
He and Oku attempted their initial entrance into motorsports through drag racing, engineering and developing “bridge-porting” rotary engines and turbocharging them to make them ever faster. From drag racing came land speed record attempts. In 1986, Racing Beat again partnered with Car and Driver and set their second land speed record at Bonneville with a 600-horsepower RX-7, reaching 238 mph.
In the 1990s, Racing Beat began developing parts for the MX-5 Miata, and the company again continued its rotary-engine development with the introduction of the RX-8 in the 2000s.
Noteworthy Performance Mazdas by Racing Beat
To know Jim Mederer was to know that he was an intensely quiet man who preferred the confines of an engine assembly room or in his chair in front of the engine dyno. Although the Racing Beat crew would begrudgingly drag Mederer to an occasional SevenStock or open house event, getting Mederer to share his rotary wisdom certainly took some effort.
“Jim, they want you to mingle and answer questions!” said Langer of the much more stoic Mederer. “Of course, he didn’t – or they’d just be short answers. But, if you did get Mederer to open up and talk you’d hit the rotary knowledge jackpot. His passion for developing performance parts was reflected in the extensive development and testing behind every product. Jim would only produce a part that he was convinced was performance-proven. If we (the staff) made a suggestion for a new product and Jim didn’t approve, there was little chance of changing his mind. On occasion when Jim would consider our idea and new part would evolve, we’d consider this a small victory!”
Mederer and Oku had a hand in developing some decidedly famous, non-rotary Mazda vehicles as well. In the early 2000s, Mazda North American Operations was looking to get into the sport compact car culture with its lauded Protégé, the predecessor to today’s Mazda3. Mazda R&D approached Racing Beat with the idea, and the Protégé MP3 was born, complete with a Racing Beat exhaust and sportier suspension. A turbocharged variant would later become the first MAZDASPEED-branded car sold in the U.S.
Racing Beat also worked with Mazda to develop the MX-5 Super20, a supercharged SEMA car that worked so well that it was loaned to media for weeks on end and punched far above its weight.
But, perhaps, the biggest claim to fame for Racing Beat’s non-racecar heritage comes back to the Furai concept, which housed a 20B, three-rotor engine and had all the looks of a show car but could actually run at speed. Racing Beat worked with Mazda’s engineers to perfect the engine, while Mazda’s design team made sure the exterior was as slippery in the wind as it was sexy.
Of course, there were a number of other cars Racing Beat built, from SEMA projects to customer cars. Many were brought together for the first time in decades at September 2017’s Japanese Classic Car Show in Long Beach, California, to celebrate the life of Jim Mederer and his accomplishments with Racing Beat. Mederer passed away on December 27, 2016, after a long battle with cancer.
A Legacy, Continued
Today, Racing Beat actively serves the Mazda performance community, specializing in all things rotary but branching out to serve MX-5 Miata, Protégé, Mazda3, Mazda CX-3 and CX-5 and Mazda6 customers, alike, with an array of performance parts for various levels of competition.
Oku continues to design exhaust systems in-house at Racing Beat’s production facility in Anaheim, California. Every one of the team members has numerous roles. One person might have operations, marketing, photography and durability testing all in one job title. Another might be an engineer and strategist, designer and planner. Everyone is a utility player.
With an office and production team consisting of eight team members, Racing Beat isn’t the largest tuner out there; however, their output of rotary-specific parts is one of the largest in the world. They’re simply satisfied by a history of racing and supported by the production of durable and performance-proven parts. They carved out their niche, serving diehard enthusiasts who crave racetrack-honed performance.
Racing Beat has expanded its efforts to many Mazda vehicles, but its history is specifically intertwined with the quirky, brilliant rotary engine that only one persistent automaker from Hiroshima could make work. And, if that’s your cup of tea, wanting to see how modern technology integrates with the legendary performance of the rotary engine, they might just might have what you’re looking for.