Geri Amani Finishes 4th in Debut US Touring Car Race in No.3 TNI Racing / SanDisk Mazdaspeed3

Geri Amani Finishes 4th in Debut US Touring Car Race in No.3 TNI Racing / SanDisk Mazdaspeed3 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

June 28–29, 2014 -  Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is one of my favorite places to drive, as it offers some nice classic corners, long straightaways, plus an exciting and challenging series of turns entering and exiting corkscrew. I’ve been on this track driving a wide variety of cars, mostly in Spec Miata’s. But I’ve been lucky to run around its surface in higher powered machinery with marques such as BMW, McLaren, Aston Martin, Audi and Porsche. In the later part of June 2014, I was fortunate to be invited to drive for the Northern California based US Touring Car Team known as TNI Racing.

Team owner Ron Valtierra and his partner Doug Makishima did a great job orchestrating the effort for this event, bringing with them a carefully prepared pair of Mazdaspeed 3’s in USTCC trim as well as hospitality for our corporate guests from SanDisk. For those who are not familiar with the USTCC, this entry-level pro-series sports rules set around power-to-weight ratio which tends to invite a spectrum of platforms to participate. Recent model years are permitted to race which makes the field comprised of Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Scion, BMW, Honda, Chevy… and of course Mazda.

Looking at the platforms on the entry list, I felt that the Mazda seemed to be a bit of an underdog platform being front-wheel drive. But what it lacks in cornering ability is made up for in straight-line power, which certainly makes any race track a lot of fun. I should probably note that this car, despite its shortcomings, it’s a very capable platform. In fact, TNI has had much success running the Mazdaspeed3 winning at Laguna in prior years (no pressure, right?).

Mazda Raceway inherently has a low grip surface, and while I haven’t driven a front-wheel drive platform in a number of years I knew getting to know this machine was going to take a good session or two. The Nitto tire required for all USTCC cars brought me back to my early track-driving days. The NT01s are a hard to kill, lower grip DOT tire. Much like the Toyo RA1, they make a ruckus in the corners and give out under hard cornering. So sliding around a little is part of the game.

Unique to the USTCC is the qualifying format, where competitors have two separate qualifying sessions to get that fast lap in. In reality our time was spent adjusting the car and getting right for the race. Even though the Mazdaspeed3 was unfamiliar, in my first qualifying I nearly squeaked by in 3rd, but got bumped down to 4th by 4/1000th of a second.  The second qualifying brought some faster times past start-finish, bumping me down to 6th.  With times being quite close, I wasn’t going to stress too much about where I qualified. As with any race a lot can happen when the green-flag is waved. This race was no exception.

Admittedly, the start was a bit chaotic. While normally the USTCC begins the race in a standing-start format, there appeared to have been trouble coordinating the flaggers. By the time I rolled up and others behind me where on their way up to grid, the green was already in the air. Not necessarily “standing” by my standard! By this time drivers behind me had a good run coming past the starter stand and further back I went. Instantly, there was a contact a few cars up, which diffused the field a bit. I was fortunate to miss the incident, remained patient during the full-course caution, and kept moving up. TNI Racing team partner Doug Makishima was my radio man, and did a great job being an extra set of eyes for me while the race unfolded.

As would any professional driver racing someone else’s car, my goal was to return this Mazda to TNI exactly the way I found it (minus some fuel, tire and brake pad wear of course). As other drivers made mistakes or fell off pace, consistency paid dividends. Soon after avoiding a car that lost control and went off at Turn-11 then came back on course, his failed attempt to block put me in a position to hunt for the current P3 driver.

Focusing forward and only forward was the only way to catch these efficiently-turning BMWs. In my sights was the P3 car, a very nice looking E46 M3. I was able to catch up to him quite closely several instances under braking, trying to exploit any mistake he might make.  It did seem the race ended a bit too early, as I was certain in one more lap I could have squeaked by in P3. I ultimately finished P4, turning laps quickly and consistently on par with the other top-3 drivers.

As a driver I certainly wanted a spot on the box, but wanted it more so for the team with all the hard work they put in over the weekend. The entire crew did a great job preparing a wonderful car for me to drive. It was an absolute pleasure working the TNI crew and team owners, as well as spending time with our guests from SanDisk. Judging by their enthusiasm, without a doubt I know they really enjoyed the event too!

While I barely missed the podium first time racing this car, the experience in-car and with the team more than constituted a win in my book. We are hoping to continue to gather support from partners and sponsors to help us continue running in the USTCC series.

A very special thanks to TNI Racing and SanDisk Corporation. Without their involvement, none of this would have been possible!

For more information about USTCC, visit the official site at:

SanDisk Corporation:

TNI Racing:

Posted on 07/11

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