All around Honda Performance Development headquarters are trinkets from many victories. Engines and other memorabilia signed by winning drivers, trophies and plaques. But one “trophy” of sorts sits in the Materials department at HPD's large facility in Santa Clarita, Calif., about 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. It's memorabilia not of a race won, but lost.
The object is a gasket. It's a gasket on which the supplier had changed the glue, which failed under the stress of the high heat produced by the Acura LMP2 engine. That one small failure let air through the gasket, which was able to bypass the restrictor, and left the Fernandez Racing ARX-01B disqualified from a second-place finish at the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring. It serves as a reminder of how every piece is critical at this level of motorsports and that every detail must be optimized for a winning performance. It's a symbol of how precise and high-tech race engine building has become, and the serious commitment regular victories require.
That sort of commitment is going to be especially critical for HPD as it gears up for competition in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012. The sole engine supplier for the series since 2006, HPD has been able to produce reliable machinery that has gone years without a failure. Faced with new competition from Chevrolet and Lotus at the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing, though, Honda faces the challenge of producing reliable engines that make more power than the competition as well.
It's not a position with which Honda and HPD are unfamiliar – they have raced against others in IndyCars before, and won. They race against competing manufacturers in their sports car programs with the Acura ARX-01. They know how to do it, and invited several journalists to see for themselves how with a tour of the 123,000sqft HPD facility where the research and development is done on a variety of racing engines and parts.
It's a thoroughly modern facility, where engine blocks may be milled by automated machinery that runs overnight after being programmed by machinists, moved from mill to mill on automated pallets. The Materials department is scrutinizing the metals and other bits at the molecular level to find what works and what can stand the high demands of racing applications. The testing department is temperature and humidity controlled, allowing a deviation of no more than half a degree Fahrenheit over the course of 12 hours. There are even 3D printers for rapid prototyping of parts.
The dynamometer facilities, like in any modern racing engine producer, are a critical component to producing powerful and reliable units. HPD has five, two of which can be programmed to run entire race simulations, where the engine is going through the revs just like it would on any given lap of a particular racing circuit, and can even include yellow flag running and pit stops for a 24-hour race simulation.
However, HPD – which was founded in 1993 and is a wholly owned subsidiary of American Honda Motor Co., Inc. – isn't just about engines, and it isn't just about pinnacle programs such as IndyCar, ALMS and Le Mans. The company has in recent years moved to bolster the grass-roots racing efforts of those who compete with its products.
It has created the Honda Racing Line program to provide support, contingency prizes and parts discounts to amateur and entry level pro racers. It produces a wide range of performance parts for racers. It has produced an engine – based on the 1.5-liter unit from the Honda Fit – suitable for the racing class once known as Formula Ford and achieved its approval from the SCCA to race alongside the long-out-of-production Ford Kent engine, helping (along with the recent announcement of a “new” Formula Ford by Ford Motor Company) to secure that class's future. It even re-purposes Honda's 250cc motorcycle engines for karts and power-washer powerplants for quarter midgets.
On any given weekend, Honda and HPD engineers are out testing these products firsthand. Senior engineer Lee Niffenegger is one of those, and is likely to be found racing Honda or Acura products in SCCA or National Auto Sport Association (NASA) events. NASA's 25-hour race at Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California is a favorite testing venue, and the company raced its new CR-Z hybrid racer there last year.
The CR-Z was one of several racecars that HPD had available for journalists to drive or investigate at Willow Springs International Raceway following the tour of HPD's facilities. Others included a 2012 SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge Civic Si Coupe, a B-Spec Honda Fit Sport, A Piper Formula F chassis fitted with HPD's engine and, as a bonus, a Honda Pilot desert off-road racer.
“This grouping is significant because they're all production-based,” said Marc Sours, general manager of HPD. “Even up to the pinnacle of sports cars, they're all production-based. They're fun, they're durable, they're a quality product; but they're also engineered to the extent that they're suitable for a tough environment like the racetrack.”
Honda is fresh off the 2011 World Challenge Touring Car championship, won by Lawson Aschenbach and Compass360 Racing. Its 2012 Civic Si racecar will build on that for what they hope will be another successful season. Compass360 principal Karl Thomson notes that greater torque of the new 2.4-liter engine (last year they ran a 2.0-liter unit) and the wheelbase that provides the right combination of nimbleness and high-speed cornering stability as improvements over previous generations.
Perhaps the car that could have the greatest impact on grass-roots racing is the Honda Fit B-Spec car. Part of a movement involving several other manufacturers, notably Mazda, B-Spec is designed to be inexpensive, low-maintenance racing. Starting with a production B-segment car – others include the Mazda 2, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta and Fiat 500 – racers can remove the interior and install competition safety equipment and competition kits to produce a fun, reliable racer.
SCCA is looking at running the class in its Club Racing programs as a subset of Showroom Stock C. NASA has expressed an interest as well. Rather intriguing is the interest that Grand-Am Continental Tires Cup and World Challenge have given to the class. Should those series add B-Spec, it would mean a competitor could run local amateur and entry-level pro races with the same car, one that costs less than $25,000.
“It's not a spec series, but it is a spec per car,” explains Niffenegger, who spearheaded the project on Honda's end. That means that there are different manufacturers, but each car will have to run the manufacturer's competition kit. “The whole idea is the absolute minimum modifications to take the car racing. It still has the catalytic converters, but we wanted to change the suspension to make it a little more fun to drive, a little more lively, but at the same time not so stiff that it's intimidating.
“It's a very minimal modification car, easy to work on, easy to build,” he continues. “Basically, you just run it. You don't need to keep working on it. You do alignments and brake pads and change the oil, that's pretty much it. A guy by himself can go racing, he doesn't need a crew.”
Judging by a few laps around Willow Springs, the goal appears to have been met. The B-Spec fit isn't fast – it still only has 117hp. But the changes to the suspension, including stiffer springs, a bigger front swaybar and bigger, stickier tires – along with 200lbs of removed interior – make it a tossable little racer.
The work that HPD and other manufacturers' racing departments are producing means support for grass-roots racers and the halo of competing at motorsports highest levels. If a race fan chooses the right weekend, he or she could see B-Spec Fits and Touring Car Civics racing in World Challenge, the LMP2 Acura ARX-01g competing in American Le Mans Series and Honda-powered Dallaras in the IndyCar Series, in the span of a couple of days on the same racetrack. That type of top-to-bottom integration can only be good for the future of the sport.