Honda rules CART, boosts its racing stature
Severe, time-demanding environment helps engineers hone skills
So in 1994 it was natural for Honda to jump into the top U.S open-wheel racing league, Championship Auto Racing Teams, known as CART, to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and other prestigious races.
Competition was intense. Chevrolet, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota provided engines at one time or another. But Honda soon dominated. CART further polished Honda's reputation for superb engines in the United States.
By 1996, Honda had 11 race wins, the CART manufacturers' championship and the driver's title with racer Jimmy Vasser.
By 2002, Honda's engines had won 65 races and 65 pole positions — "more than any other maker during that period," says Robert Clarke, who led Honda Performance Development for three years until retiring last June.
"We had four manufacturers' championships and six consecutive driver championships," he said. "There wasn't another manufacturer program that even came close. "We had nine cars at the end and the field was probably 26 cars."
The engines were designed in Japan and co-developed by Honda r&d and its U.S. performance arm, Clarke said.
Significance: Racing has been part of the Honda's corporate culture and a key training ground for engineers and designers. Dominating CART further polished Honda's reputation for technological expertise.
What does Honda get out of racing? The publicity is an obvious plus.
"It was done to set us apart from our competitors; obviously Toyota followed us several years later," says Tom Elliott, former executive vice president of operations for Honda.
There isn't a significant transfer of technology from racing to production cars, Clarke says. Variable valve train technology on today's cars came from racing, but not from Indy cars but Formula One, he says. Honda ended its participation in Formula One at the end of 2008 to save money.
"Honda races to develop its people," he says. "Auto racing is an extremely difficult environment. You are faced with the real-world challenges that an engineer would face in the production-car world — but in a more severe and time-demanding environment."
In 2002, CART split from the Indy Racing League. Honda decided to go with the Indy Racing League and became the sole engine provider to the teams.
Understandably, Honda would prefer to have competition, and the racing league has brought together other manufacturers to discuss becoming Indy car engine providers, says Erik Berkman, president of Honda performance development and an American Honda vice president of corporate planning.
Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and Fiat have expressed interest.
Says Berkman: "All the companies have an opportunity to come back because the fundamental tenant is that we must drastically reduce the cost and rekindle the value of the series."
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