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Honda Engines On Fast Track

When the Indianapolis 500 took place this year, it was three months late. But that made little difference to the folks at Honda Performance Development, the Santa Clarita subsidiary of American Honda Motor Co. Inc. that develops and makes race car engines and parts. The winner of this year’s race, Takuma Sato, did so with a Honda engine in his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda race car. All told, eight of the top 10 finishers in the Indy 500 were powered by an engine developed in Santa Clarita. Usually taking place over Memorial Day weekend, the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was held on Aug. 23 instead, delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Sato’s victory was his second at the Indy 500, following his initial triumph in 2017. It was the 13th overall victory for Honda at the race. Honda Performance Development (HPD) President Ted Klaus called the win very satisfying. “On behalf of every HPD team member and everyone back at HPD in Santa Clarita – who have all been pushing hard since last year’s race – thank you!” Klaus said in a statement. Allen Miller, the race team principal and IndyCar engine team leader at Honda Performance, said in an interview with the Business Journal that this year’s Indy 500 was competitive but lacking in some regards in the feel of the event because of the absence of a crowd. Miller characterized the atmosphere at the 104th running of the race as “very strange, very quiet” in a place where you can hear the crowd over the cars. “Previous years, when something happened on track, somebody makes a great pass, you can hear the crowd cheer,” said Miller, who spends his time in the pit lanes watching the race on a monitor. “A lot of times, the crowd lets you know something happened before you can see it.” The coronavirus pandemic has affected the Honda division in ways other than keeping the crowds away from the Indy 500 and the other races in the NTT IndyCar series. Only about half of the 230 employees actually go to the Santa Clarita facility at 25145 Anza Drive. That includes staff for building production engines and parts and the testing area as well, said Miller, who has been into the office only three times since March. “The design and simulation work is being done remotely from the employees’ homes,” he added. “We don’t have a lot of people in the building at the same time anymore.” Automotive ‘Skunk Works’ Honda Performance Development got its start in 1993, and at first rebuilt engines and provided racetrack support to cars. Later, the company began doing its own research and development, manufacturing and sales. Today, it makes engines and parts for not just professional race drivers but also those who are on the amateur scene. Dan Kahn, chief executive and founder of Kahn Media Inc., a Moorpark marketing and public relations firm specializing in the automotive industry, called Honda Performance the “Skunk Works” of the Japanese car maker, a reference to the top secret R&D arm of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. that is located in Palmdale. “It’s interesting in that they are having a renaissance in the showroom and on the track,” Kahn said. The Honda Civic, in particular, has always been a big seller for U.S. car buyers. The Civic SI has been popular in the import performance market and the new Civic Type R, introduced to the U.S. just three years ago, is another legitimate performance car, he added. “It’s a four-door Honda sedan with a four-cylinder engine, but it gets just rave reviews from the performance automotive press,” Kahn said. “They see it as a pretty legitimate four-door sports car.” Honda thought so much of the Type R that it became a pace car on the race track. It debuted during the Bommarito Automotive Group IndyCar doubleheader race weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway, just outside St. Louis, on Aug. 29 and 30. HPD had its hand in the pace car with the brake package, which included competition rotors, racing pads and stainless-steel brake lines. It speaks highly of the vehicle that Honda built as well as HPD for its contributions to it, Kahn said. It is a feather in the cap not just for the Valley region but for Southern California and for Honda fans who will enjoy seeing a car that looks like theirs out leading race cars, he added. “The thing that makes it even cooler is that the cars it is pacing, many of them are powered by HPD race motors that have been very dominant, especially this season,” Kahn said. Test drive simulator The strong showing by Honda so far in the IndyCar series starts with the engine – a 2.2-liter turbocharged V6. That engine has been used since 2012, after a period of six years when Honda was the sole supplier of engines for cars in the Indianapolis 500. Now, both Honda and Chevrolet supply the engines. But it is not just the engine that HPD looks to make more efficient. It has become more involved with the aerodynamics of the cars and the general setup as well, Miller said. “It is the full performance of the vehicle we are trying to improve and not just the engine,” he added. Another change that the pandemic has brought to racing is that it caused a cancellation of all the teams doing track testing in between races. Since the Honda teams are not allowed to do private testing to prepare for races, HPD came up with a driving simulator to allow for virtual testing, Miller said. “That is something else I think helped dramatically in preparing for the Indy 500,” he added. The newest thing the subsidiary is working on with IndyCar is a new engine – a 2.4-liter turbo V6. It is expected to be combined with an electric motor, Miller said, adding that Honda, Chevrolet and IndyCar are still working out the details of the power supply and the motor power level. “It gives us a chance to do something new and unique,” Miller said. “Something different. Small and capable. And powerful. We have a goal of getting it up to 900 horsepower or more.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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