The Racing Capital
of the World
April 22, 2013 | By John Oreovicz
Honda Performance Development celebrated the 20th anniversary of its entry into Indy car racing this weekend.
And that was before Takuma Sato won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.
Sato, driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, became the first Japanese driver to win an Indy car race. He led a triumphant 1-2-3-4 finish for Honda in a race sponsored by its market rival Toyota, turning around a season that has been dominated by its on-track rival, Chevrolet.
HPD was formed April 1, 1993, to lay the groundwork for Honda’s entry into Indy car racing. Since entering the sport in 1994 with Bobby Rahal’s team, Honda has powered 197 race victories in CART and INDYCAR competition, including nine consecutive victories at the Indianapolis 500.
Honda powered six consecutive CART champions from 1996-2001, including Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Gil de Ferran.
After moving into IndyCar Series competition in 2003, Honda dominated the 2004 and 2005 seasons to such an extent that it became the exclusive engine supplier to the series from 2006-12. Honda-powered IndyCar champions include Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.
Over the last 20 years, HPD has grown from a small rebuild facility to demonstrate full design, development and production capability, with a staff of 150 in a 123,000 square-foot facility. HPD also produces engines for American Le Mans Series and FIA Endurance Championship competition, as well as grassroots and entry-level categories, including karting, quarter midgets and Formula F.
But Honda’s maiden experience with American open-wheel racing happened much longer ago, with an almost forgotten episode from 1968 when Ronnie Bucknum tested a Honda RA302 Formula One car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Honda entered F1 in 1964, and Richie Ginther scored the company’s first F1 victory in the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix. Two years later, John Surtees recorded Honda’s second F1 win in the Italian GP at Monza, and in 1968, company founder Soichiro Honda went to the Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. The test later that year was part of a plan to build an Indy car for 1969.
Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who would later serve as Honda’s chief executive officer, was a key engineer for the Formula One team and tasked with leading the Indy car project.
“Mr. Honda visited the Indianapolis race, and he came back and said, ‘OK, let’s make the engine,’” Kawamoto said. “We did not know motorsport very well, what the difference was between Formula One and the Indy 500. So I designed a 12-cylinder engine. So I did the drawings of a 4.2-liter engine. We did the calculations and the layout drawings, but the actual parts were not made. But at the same time we bought some other parts, like Halibrand wheels. We built an induction system which was based on the system for the Meyer-Drake (Offenhauser) engine.”
In the meantime, in late November 1968, Bucknum ran the current F1 car for two days at Indianapolis in a test directed by Honda F1 team manager Yoshio Nakamura. There was ice on the track and occasional light snow during the first day, but Bucknum ran 22 exploratory laps and completed 40 laps the following day under sunny but windy skies with the temperature around 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Nakamura tried to run the engine on methanol but couldn’t generate enough fuel flow, so the team reverted to using gasoline for most of the test.
Bucknum ran the car with and without wings, and he achieved a best lap of 158.4 mph with wings and 154.6 mph without, despite not being able to achieve maximum revs because of a problem with valve float. His fastest laps were 13 mph slower than Joe Leonard’s 1968 Indy 500 pole speed in a Lotus turbine, but Nakamura reckoned that with a larger capacity Indy engine (4.2 liters versus the 3.0-liter RA302 engine) the car would have been competitive with the contemporary USAC cars.
“The design team read Mr. Nakamura's report, and we felt maybe we had a possibility in this field also,” Kawamoto said. “We talked about it, but it did not come together.”
At the time, Honda was beginning a transformation from being a mere motorcycle manufacturer into the broad-based vehicle production company it is today. Honda built its first road car, the S500 compact sports car, in 1963 and produced its first mini passenger car, the N360, in 1967. Honda’s first breakthrough volume production car, the Civic, was introduced in 1972, followed four years later by the larger Accord. The company's serious expansion into the car business meant a temporary curtailment of all racing programs at the end of 1968.
“For a motorcycle manufacturer, that was a big project,” Kawamoto said. “We had to concentrate all our resources on that, so we had to stop our motorsport activities. But since that time, we had much interest in Indy car racing.”
As the company continued to grow, it returned to racing in familiar areas: motorcycles first, then Formula One again, starting in 1983. But a quarter of a century would pass before Honda’s engineers took part in another oval-track test.
Robert Clarke, who was HPD’s first employee, led the company through 2008. At Long Beach this weekend, he expressed his amazement at the success story HPD turned out to be.
“It’s an outstanding achievement,” Clarke said. “When I started with the company, it was nothing more than a thought or a concept on a piece of paper with a few bullet points: Build the building, hire the people, train the people, win some races, win the championship. It sounded easy enough!
“The vision at that point was just an engine assembly factory to support Indy car racing, because in the history of Honda, engine R&D was only done in Japan. To think that HPD either met or exceeded all of the goals we originally set in those early years, and to grow into not just only an engine R&D company, but a complete racing program R&D company, including chassis … it was the furthest thing from our dreams. I love the fact that it’s been able to achieve that.”