One of the standout performances from this year’s IMSA-sanctioned championships has been that of Kenton Koch, who wrapped up the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites powered by Mazda Championship in dominant fashion, and is now looking to make the next step up the Mazda ladder in 2016.
The 21-year-old Californian, in his rookie season of Prototype Lites with JDC Motorsports, claimed an impressive 11 victories in 14 starts, equaling the record held by now-factory Mazda Prototype driver Tristan Nunez.
The level of success achieved, particularly in his first year of racing a high-downforce car, has been a rewarding, but somewhat surprising experience for the Cal State Fullerton sophomore, who is quickly making a name for himself in the sport.
“It was unexpected, that was for sure,” Koch told Sportscar365. “Coming into the season out of MX-5 Cup, I was really worried about the jump to such a stupidly fast race car.
“I asked a couple of friends of how difficult the jump would be and if I could do it and a lot of people told me I’d be fine but there were others that said it would be tough.
“But the second I stepped foot in the car, all the worries went out the window because I felt immediately comfortable. It wasn’t too big of a step after all.”
Koch has been on a rapid rise through the sports car racing ranks, having been supported by Mazda every step of the way.
He won the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Challenge in 2012, before claiming nine wins out of 11 races in Pro Challenge the following year and going on to win the Mazda MX-5 Cup championship, also in his rookie season, in 2014.
While having had the option of making the logical step up to Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST competition, Koch instead went the prototype route, taking his $200,000 scholarship from Mazda to the John Church-led JDC squad.
“The surprises were the little things I learned from jumping into a car with aero,” Koch said. “There’s so many things to learn about it. There’s just different ways to go about setting the car up.
“You’d think lowering the car to the ground to where it almost scrapes the floor would be the best, where in this situation, with this car, it wasn’t the best scenario. You had to go against your intuition in some things to learn.”
Koch received guidance from Eric Foss, as well as fellow Mazda ladder graduate Tom Long, who made a similar transition from MX-5 to the SKYACTIV-D Prototype in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship last year.
But once the season started, Koch took it largely upon himself to learn how to extract the most out of the Mazda-powered Elan DP02.
“I experimented a ton and got to feel a bunch of different things,” he said. “I think what surprised me was that it’s a whole new ballgame when you step into an aero car.
“It was quite intriguing for me because I love understanding how things work and what the engineers do, in order to help me relate what I’m feeling to an engineer.”
Koch’s title-winning Prototype Lites season is set to propel him to the next step up the ladder, potentially following in the footsteps of former Lites champions Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Mikhail Goikhberg to IMSA’s premier sports car series.
“I’d love to be in the WeatherTech Championship,” he said. “That’s the ideal goal but I want to make the right decision for me in the long run. So I have to take the opportunities that are given to me and make the right choices.”
While Koch carries a prize package estimated at $100,000 to be used for a Prototype Challenge ride, it’s only one of his options for 2016, with rumors persisting of him potentially being in the frame for the factory Mazda Prototype program.
Should that materialize, it would no doubt be a dream-come-true opportunity for the 6-foot-4 tall driver, who has very much been a poster child for Mazda in progressing through his entire sports car career entirely on scholarship money from either Mazda or Skip Barber.
“It’s pretty cool to have this as an achievement, to be on their ladder system,” Koch said. “It’s a testimony to what [Mazda] has provided.
“Hopefully I can be an inspiration to karters coming up the ladder to take this route because it’s a good one.”