Messing with more than 40 years of racing history is asking for trouble. When making changes to a competition class of such stature as Formula Ford which, worldwide, launched the careers of Formula 1 champions from Emerson Fittipaldi to Jenson Button and in the U.S. was the jumping-off point for racing school magnate Skip Barber and Indy car champion Jimmy Vasser, it's best to tread lightly.
Born in 1967, the formula has been pretty much the same since – a tubeframe chassis powered by a 1600cc Ford “Kent” engine. It was a worldwide formula, with the only exception being treaded or slick tires depending on where you were running. However, as the Kent engine ceased production, parts were getting harder to come by. In Europe, Formula Ford switched to the Zetec, then Duratec Ford engines. In the U.S., the SCCA a few years ago approved an alternate, third party crankshaft. But it was clear a major change was needed to combat a dwindling supply of engine blocks.
So, in 2009, Honda Performance Development practically showed up on SCCA's doorstep with a possible solution – a Swift DB-1 chassis stuffed with a slightly modified engine from Honda's Fit compact road car. At 1500cc, it was similar in displacement; being a modern engine design, it had to be slightly detuned to make horsepower equivalent to a race-prepared Kent. Four months later, SCCA's Club Racing Board approved the Fit engine as an alternate powerplant in the class, now simply called Formula F.
Marc Sours, general manager of Honda Performance Development, says: “We made a very deliberate point of trying to introduce ourselves, both to the sanctioning body and to the individual Formula F competitors themselves. We wanted to be a part of that community. We tried to find out what they needed and we tried to meet those needs as a good partner.”
A year after its approval, and the Honda engine has been installed in a variety of chassis and some of the cars have been in competition for a full season. Sours says interest in the program is growing, and HPD is on track to meets its goal of selling 40 kits a year.
If there's a downside, it may be that the Honda engine is at a disadvantage at some tracks – especially high-horsepower tracks like Road America. That's according to Mike Scanlan, who finished 12th at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in September at the Elkhart Lake, Wis., track with his Honda-powered Swift DB-6. Scanlan worked with the Club Racing Board on air restrictor size – designed to limit horsepower – which the Board has pegged at 29mm for the time being.
“When we first classed the engine, we were real conservative on the restrictor size,” explains CRB chairman Bob Dowie. “We worked with Mike Scanlan and were able to see the car on track and gave it a little bigger restrictor. I think the engine is awfully close now and, as we get more cars out there, we'll certainly continue to evaluate.”
Some competitors, such as Glen Tomlinson, who has won a National and several Regional races with his Honda-powered DB-1, think the Honda's power is about right and that torque might even be better than the Ford. But if there is in fact a slight power deficit, there have to be other reasons to choose the Honda motor. For most competitors using or considering the engine, it comes down to cost and ease of use.
“I ran this motor all season, then went to the Runoffs with it, and it was as strong at the Runoffs as it was at the beginning of the season,” says Scanlan. “Had I been running the Kent motor all season, I would have had to rebuild it for the Runoffs. Already I know that we're getting more reliability and life out of this engine. I've put 2,500 miles on it and it could still be getting stronger.”
Honda has tested the engine to 5,000 racing miles. And when it's done? “I won't rebuild it, because HPD will sell me a new motor for $2,500 and, in my 16 years, I have never paid that little to get a Ford motor rebuilt,” Scanlan adds. Swapping in a crate engine is a big deal for competitors used to spending a lot of money for race-prepared motors.
The initial kit from Honda – which includes all the special parts for the engine (intake manifold, dry sump and mechanical throttle body) and the parts to fit it into a particular chassis, is $11,750. The engine with the special parts alone is about $7,500. It's not cheap, but the bulk of it is a one-time expenditure.
Maintenance is easier, also. Scanlan says he spends about two percent of his car-prep time working with the engine, compared to 40 percent before. Notes Tomlinson: “All I've ever had to do to this engine is clean the filter and change the oil and oil filter. I run regular pump gas, and found lower octane burns better. Race fuels are useless.”
The Honda may be generating new interest in the class. Bill Maisey, who in recent years has been running D Sports Racing, left Formula Ford years ago because “the engines broke, they're expensive and they didn't last long.” Now he has a Honda-powered DB-1 and, together with his son, Sean, he wants to build another one. However, he says used chassis are all of a sudden rather scarce.
Another indication of renewed interest is the addition of a 1600 class to the F2000 Championship Series, an East Coast pro series sanctioned by SCCA Pro Racing.
Most competitors are taking a wait-and-see attitude, and many aren't going to give up their Ford powerplants anytime soon. But a cheaper engine with greater ease of use certainly appeals to some racers. In some cases, messing with success might just lead to more of it.
FITTING IT IN
Some engine swaps are easier than others
Even in a racecar designed to make the task easy, an engine swap is seldom a simple task. In the case of the Honda Fit engine in a Formula F, Honda Performance Development worked to make the task as efficient as possible, including a detailed manual along with all the necessary pieces in the kit. HPD even did several test fits into various FF chassis to make sure it all works.
“The conversion was fairly straightforward,” says Mike Scanlan, who was the first to put the Honda engine into the Swift DB-6 chassis. “I wouldn't call it simple. The basic fitment of the package was terrific; the machine quality and tolerances of the stuff I got from HPD was spot on. Where you run into difficulty is you have to change the engine input shaft in your gearbox. That means the gearbox has to come apart.
“I probably spent 40 hours doing my conversion. If I did another, I bet it could be done in under 20.”
Of course, that time will vary from chassis to chassis, especially considering that some of them are 20 or more years old and have been modified over time. Bill Maisey ran into that problem converting his Swift DB-1; he says it took him about 100 hours to fit the engine.
Glen Tomlinson, on the other hand, says it took a weekend to bolt it into his DB-1. “Honda does their homework. Their engineering, their support, it was aviation grade. The kit was very complete.”