Honda CART Q&A

The Honda Motor Company has been renowned for its technological excellence and innovation since Sochiro Honda established the firm in Japan in 1947. After establishing itself with motorcycles, Honda began building cars in the early 1960s and quickly moved into motor racing with a Formula 1 program in 1964. Honda has maintained a strong presence in several forms of motor racing since then, mainly F1 and CART's US-based Champ Car series. Honda entered CART with high expectations in 1994, but it took more than a year for the firm to earn its first Champ Car victory. Since then, there has been no looking back, as Honda-powered drivers have won a total of 54 races and the last five CART championships

Honda CART Q&A

Honda's Champ Car engines are designed in Japan, but maintained and developed by Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita, California, just outside of Los Angeles. HPD operates out of a 43,500 square foot facility and employs 87 people under the direction of president Tom Elliott and general manager Robert Clarke. Both men sat down with's John Oreovicz at Motegi in Japan to discuss Honda's position on several key issues regarding American open-wheel racing.

"Obviously it would mean a great deal. Our R&D facility at Tochigi is just half an hour up the road, and we have a group of engineers there who have been with our program since the beginning. They head up our R&D program, and we supplement that at HPD. Basically Honda built this facility to bring American-style racing to Japan, so to accomplish a win here in our back yard would be very special. We've put an awful lot of effort in to win this thing for the last three years, and I think we've had a better run here than we have in the past."

"First of all, the location here is pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. Access to it, both by rail and private transportation, is somewhat limited. Plus we've had some pretty poor weather here in the past, including a rain postponement last year. So it hasn't been what they expected, but they expected shortcomings with the infrastructure they had to work with. Honda did not want to alienate the people who live in the area surrounding this facility. So they have been trying to grow it slowly. This year, we've had good weather, and the infrastructure is a little bit better. There is still some work to be done on the rail access ­ I think that's still a year or two away, but I think it will really help. But they're expecting about 50,000 people for the race, so I think they're reasonably happy with that. Every promoter wants to see more, and the place has been built to hold more people, so that's something to work for in the future.

"I don't know a whole lot more than you do. There has been ongoing discussion about the engine rules since the day we got involved in the series, so I guess it's not surprising that they keep going on and deadlines keep getting missed because it just seems to be a part of CART. The basic deadline comes up every year on March 1 to set the engine rules, and given the fact that the most recent deadline has come and gone means the earliest that anything could be implemented is 2004. We are assuming that's the case, and really, therefore, nothing needs to be decided before March 1, 2002.

"Having said that, CART is trying to keep the discussions moving forward. The three engine manufacturers all have slightly different opinions about what should be done, and trying to get a consensus takes a while.

"I think we've been real consistent with that. We believe that the current formula is the way to go. The displacement probably needs to be reduced, given the power that we're producing these days. But we feel a turbocharged formula definitely has more advantages than disadvantages."

"Frankly, there's nothing wrong with the racing. The racing is not CART's problem, other than a few oval tracks where we're going too fast or maybe never should have been in the first place. But racing is not the problem, though for the long term, we feel a reduced displacement turbocharged engine is the best way to go. But frankly, we think CART has more serious problems that need to be addressed."

"I don't view it that way. It's our job as engineers, whether working on the engine or the chassis, to make the thing better. So whatever you set the rule at, our objective is to push the rules to the limit and develop the product on an ongoing basis.

"Another thing I would like to point out is that any kind of adjustment to any kind of regulation needs to be planned well in advance. For example, we're running at 37 inches of boost this year, and we're scheduled to run at 34 inches in 2002. It has been suggested that because of the high speeds, we should go to 34 inches for the Michigan race this year, which is not far away (late July). Realistically, I think we can reduce the boost by one inch using the parameters of the software we already have. We can work with that. But if you say we have to go down three inches, each manufacturer will have to implement a dyno program to optimise the motor with three inches less boost ­ in the middle of a season for which you have already developed a 37-inch motor. To do that, you're throwing away all your rules stability, and you're throwing a lot of expense at everybody at the last minute because you haven't thought about it earlier. That's the frustrating thing to us. They think, we can just take away 200 horsepower and that will solve it. They don't understand what is involved to do that."

"Before I let Robert comment, let me just say that the only decline in American open wheel racing is on ovals. Road racing and street course racing is still strong, whether it's Vancouver, Long Beach or Mexico. At a lot of the road courses we run on, attendance is never a problem. The oval venues are where we have a problem. I think oval open-wheel racing is not particularly interesting to most Americans. You can see everything, and that's an advantage, but it doesn't seem to hold people's interest like road racing. If there is a decline, it's on the ovals, whether in CART or in the IRL, where Indy is really the only race that's successful. So I think the problem is more oval racing than road racing."

"As Tom said earlier, the problem is not the racing product. That's not what's wrong with CART. I mean, we had 24 cars within less than a second here yesterday."

"Well, the Indianapolis 500 is getting more press this year simply because the CART teams are there. But we have no regrets. As I see it, Indy has three races. The most important race from a manufacturer's viewpoint is probably Formula 1, second is the NASCAR race, and last ­ by far ­ is the Indianapolis 500. Forget spectators, because I'm talking from a manufacturer's viewpoint, but from that perspective, it's the third most important race. Honda is there for the Formula 1 race, and Ford is there for two out of three. So realistically, it's not that big a deal for us. Would we like to go there, or for our teams to go there? Yes, but it's not worth throwing away everything we have for the opportunity to do that."

"It doesn't meet any of our objectives, which are into technology development and people development."

"Or innovation. We want to develop knowledge and people, and we want to innovate. When the formula is such that you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to look for a tenth of a mile per hour with a spec engine, to us, that's not racing. Looking at the IRL specs, every single dimension of the architecture is regulated."

"For an engineer, it's an act of frustration."

"First of all, develop a long-term business plan. You need a long range plan, not just for what track you're going to race at, but what the rules package is going to be so you have some stability and don't have knee-jerking every time something doesn't work at a track like you thought it would. You have to work not only with the engine manufacturers, but the sponsors. You have to have a good TV partner, and frankly, I think the relationship with the current TV partner has not been particularly good, for what reason I do not know. I think between the engine manufacturers, the sponsors and the promoters, a whole lot more can be done collectively to develop the series. I believe Joe Heitzler understands that, and hopefully he will lay out a plan to fix the problems. At the moment, it's like a group of little Indians all running around doing whatever they want to do, but not working together. More of us have to start working together, and hopefully something good will come out of this."

"The ingredients are there. They just need to get a handle on it and develop and execute a plan with greater teamwork."

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