Why does Honda stick with Indy?
GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH , Long Beach, Calif.
Pit lane during an IndyCar qualifying race feels like the center of the automotive universe.
Alongside the track that's being lapped by the brightly painted open-wheel racers, the grounds teem with uniformed crew members, scores of onlookers, steely eyed race officials, team owners scooting by on mini motorbikes, trains of utility carts stacked high with spent tires, and clipboard-toting engineers from IndyCar's two engine suppliers, Honda and Chevrolet.
But while this scene buzzes with controlled intensity that foreshadows the race drama of the next day, it's a world largely overlooked by most Americans. Like its distant open-wheel cousin, Formula One, IndyCar is a motorsport with a dedicated but limited fan base that trails well behind NASCAR's.
Which begs the question: Why would a company such as Honda bother with IndyCar, particularly if its participation in the annual series is a money-losing proposition?
To Honda, the real question is "Why wouldn't it?" according to Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, the subsidiary of American Honda that oversees all motorsports efforts in North America.
"It's about advancing technology, it's about racing in front of large crowds, it's about doing different types of courses that really shows the flexibility and engineering capability of Honda," St. Cyr told Automotive News.
As with its IndyCar rival, Chevrolet, racing has been a cornerstone of Honda's ethos for decades. And Honda, it's worth remembering, builds more internal combustion engines a year globally than anyone else. Proving what Honda engines can do via competition, even in a race series with limited popularity, is crucial for the brand.
"It's an important part of what we are as a company," St. Cyr said. "We view open-wheel racing as the truest form of motorsport that we have here."
Honda entered Indy racing in 1994 as the automaker was looking to assert its American-ness amid a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment from supporters of domestic brands whose market share had been cut over the previous decade.
"We wanted to be part of this American establishment," St. Cyr said. "And what better way to do that than race in the Indianapolis 500?"
A year later, Honda found its Indy groove, winning its first race in the series in New Hampshire. Since then, Honda Performance Development-powered Indy cars have won 221 races, 15 drivers' championships, six manufacturers' championships and 11 Indianapolis 500s.
(Last year, Honda Performance Development-powered cars won just two of 16 races, though the Indy 500 was one of them.)
The open-wheel relationship goes both ways. Honda and Chevy's support of Indy is crucial to the race series' success. Honda was the sole engine supplier from 2006 to 2011, and its current contract runs through 2020; Chevy has been on board since the 2012 season.
Honda wouldn't disclose how much it costs Honda Performance Development to participate in IndyCar though it acknowledged it's not a profit generator.
"Typically pinnacle motorsports racing is done for image building, for technology building, so it's not something that we look at as a for-profit endeavor," St. Cyr said.
The average Accord driver might not know that 13 of the 21 cars running this year's IndyCar series are using Honda engines. Nor would they necessarily realize that some of the technology inside their family sedan was first developed for racing, including direct injection.
In addition to the image benefit Honda's racing efforts provide the company, it's also a deep source of pride among employees: knowing that their company is committed to excelling in motorsports and not just meeting sales quotas.
As a result, IndyCar's audience size is less of a concern to Honda. This is probably a good thing, given how it stacks up against NASCAR. The IndyCar series averaged 1.3 million viewers per race in the 2016 season, vs. 4.6 million for NASCAR, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Back in the pits at Long Beach, there's no lack of atmosphere for this spectacle that's part race prep/practice and part strategy. With a finite supply of tires for qualifying and the race, teams often wait for someone to make a move during the final round of qualifying -- not unlike Olympic speedskaters who casually lap the rink until an all-out sprint at the end.
Here, the honor belongs to Helio Castroneves, who sets a track record en route to claiming the top spot for the next day's starting position. While his Penske team runs Chevy engines, the remaining five qualifiers in the final round are all Honda-powered.
The next day is even better for St. Cyr and the Honda Performance Development teams; Honda cars go 1-2 in the race itself.
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