Two years. Two CART drivers' championships. You would think American Honda Motor Co. Inc.'s racing effort would be on auto pilot by now.
But although Honda took the top three spots in the driver's championship last year, the sheer number of different teams placing high with Mercedes-Benz engines gave the constructor's title to the three-pointed star. And with the Ford-Cosworth engine much faster this year, Honda is definitely not sitting still.
'We're spending a lot of money to develop our engine, more than most teams spend per car. Our budget is stable because r&d expenses are the same if you're supplying two cars or eight cars. The fluctuation is in the number of engines and the number of rebuilds we do,' says Thomas Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda and president of Honda Performance Development.
Honda is changing its advertising strategy in relation to racing. Although the company has plenty to brag about, it has realized that fans root for drivers, not for engine suppliers. So, although the Honda name still will be prominent in advertising, the ads will feature drivers such as 1997 series champ Alex Zanardi.
Also, Honda will not try to link racing technology to street cars in its ads. Back when Honda was winning in Formula One and the Acura Integra was brand new, things like programmed fuel injection and twin cams were carried over from racing to the street. But that is old hat now, says Elliott, who chuckles at Ford's attempt to equate the success of the V-8 rear-drive racing Taurus coupe to a V-6 front-drive street sedan.
But Honda still will market the brand name as a leader in high technology.
'The key purpose is to separate ourselves from the competition with consumers. But we can't attribute our image entirely to racing, because we also have the EVPlus and alternative-fuel vehicles as well,' Elliott says.
Honda tracks showroom traffic on race weekends, and dealers say business improves around race day, especially if the store has one of the race cars on display or has a ticket giveaway promotion, Elliott says.
Honda also has used racing as a schmooze tool for its dealers, vendors and employees. Almost 2,000 Honda employees attended the Long Beach Grand Prix in California and were rewarded with Honda-powered cars finishing 1-2.
Honda also uses racing as an incentive tool for the service side, rewarding top technicians with trips to races.
Honda does not usually attach its name as a race sponsor. But it does sponsor the Mid-Ohio CART race in Lexington, Ohio, since it is in Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.'s back yard. And although Toyota has top billing for races in Long Beach and Fontana, Calif., when it gave up the rights to the Laguna Seca, Calif., race, Honda swooped in.
'We wanted to have a California race. Laguna is prestigious, and it has an excellent fan base. It is a desirable track, and we can design incentives and hospitality around it,' Elliott says. Plus, Laguna Seca hosts several motorcycle races, which is where Honda got its start in racing.
Elliott hopes the racing effort can help with brand loyalty, especially with younger consumers.
'Racing may be influencing all the kids souping up their Integras and Civics. And they may see our success as an affirmation of their purchase. But if you don't give them a good product and good service, race wins don't matter,' Elliott says.
Elliott is not concerned with the possibility that Honda may return to Formula One racing in the next couple of years. That program would be done out of Japan, while Honda's CART effort is almost entirely funded and developed in the United States, although the engineers are mostly in Japan.
'Ilmor and Cosworth run parallel programs, and there are benefits even though there are different engines. They can share the basic technologies,' Elliott says. 'There are significant resources in Japan to do both programs without impacting either program.'