Honda Performance group not eyeing NASCAR

INDIANAPOLIS -- Between 1987 and 1994, Ilmor Engineering built the engines that powered seven of eight champions in the CART Champ Car World Series. Honda horsepower motivated every CART champion between 1996 and 2001.

Imagine what Ilmor and Honda could achieve if they combined forces, you ask?

Well that's just what happened in 2004 in the IRL IndyCar Series. And the competition took a beating at the hands of the collaborative HI4R engine that won 14 of 17 races, boosting Tony Kanaan to the IndyCar title.

The updated 2005 engine, dubbed HI5R, has paced preseason testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, and will power 10 of the 21 cars on the IndyCar grid when the season kicks off March 6 on the Homestead oval.

The Honda/Ilmor pairing was sparked in the summer of 2001, when Honda was looking for a way for its CART teams to participate in the Indianapolis 500 without forcing them to find a Chevrolet or Infiniti engine. The original plan fell through when Honda announced its withdrawal from American open-wheel racing in October of 2001; but by May of 2002, Honda decided to enter the IndyCar Series on a full-time basis, utilizing the 2003 Indy engine that Ilmor had been developing.

The 2003 season didn't see the success Honda was used to achieving in CART, but General Manager Robert Clarke and his team at Honda Performance Development gradually took over development of the Ilmor-designed engine and the result was a record-smashing 2004 season.

Now Clarke and HPD are looking toward an independent future. HPD recently made the short move to a new facility, still in Santa Clarita, Calif., which nearly tripled available space to 120,000 square feet. And HPD engineers are already busy working on Honda's 2007 Indy engine -- even though the series is not expected to announce its future engine regulations until sometime in May. It's all part of a carefully conceived plan to transform HPD from a glorified rebuild shop into a full-service engine design and production facility.

"It's an exciting time for HPD," said Clarke, a 55-year-old Notre Dame graduate who started his Honda career in 1981 designing motorcycle accessories. "Whereas during the CART program we were essentially a service company that built and rebuilt engines and did track support and that was basically it, now we're into true R&D.

"Although we don't know what the '07 engine is, we're working on what we guess an '07 engine will be. We're using that to develop and refine procedures we haven't done before. We're actually designing and building a complete engine as an exercise to prepare ourselves for when those rules are announced so we can hit the ground running.

"The design group is very active and the development engineering side is already testing components that have come out of the design group. By the end of this year, we will basically have a complete engine up and running to our specification."

Of course, the $64,000 Question in American open-wheel racing circles is what will the future Indy engine format be? IRL founder Tony George spoke at the SAE Motorsport Conference in December about the need to cut costs and hinted the series will examine the possibility of reverting to production car-based engines, similar to those utilized from 1997-99.

However, that path would not hold much appeal for Honda, a technology-driven company that does not currently manufacture a V-8 engine for any of its street cars. But Clarke says Honda is working with the IndyCar Series to extend its commitment beyond the end of 2006.

"The IRL has typically announced their future engine rules at Indy, eighteen months before the new regulations go into effect, and they have told me that they have every intention of following that tradition," Clarke said. "In these discussions we haven't drawn any lines. We're trying to be very open-minded and very supportive as a partner of the League.

"We came to the IRL, just as we came to CART initially, believing that it is the premier open-wheel racing series in the U.S. Honda has a heritage in open-wheel racing, and if we are going to race in North America, which we feel we need to do from a corporate point of view, then the IRL is where we need to be.

"We made the decision (to join the IRL) and we made a major commitment," he added. "HPD is a much larger and more involved company than it was during the CART years. We're moving into a new facility, we have 120 people now and are still growing. Just like we ask of our teams, if we're going to race in the IRL, the IRL is the only thing we're going to do. We're 100 percent focused on that and we're not looking to leave or do anything different."

That said, Clarke noted that Honda is not completely satisfied with the current state of the IndyCar Series. While his remarks were not as pointed or controversial as those made in November by Toyota's Lee White, Clarke noted that Honda is frustrated by the lack of impact the series is having on the general public, as measured by race attendance and television ratings.

"Our reasons for racing are a little different than for other manufacturers," Clarke said. "We put our top priority in developing our people and our technology, and we have been very pleased with the development opportunity that exists with the IRL. It has been pleasantly surprising that we have found more opportunity to develop the product than we originally imagined.

"However, there is the issue of viewership and attendance. It's very disappointing. We know how much we are putting into the program, and to roll the cars out onto the grid on race day and look up in the grandstands when there is nobody watching makes you wonder why the hell you're doing all of this -- though regardless of whether there was one person or a million we would put the same effort in.

"It's kind of disheartening. Ultimately when it comes down to budget time and getting approvals, you can't avoid questions being asked about the promotional value of being involved."

With Toyota already participating in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and believed to be headed to Nextel Cup within three years, Honda has also been linked to shifting its attention from Indianapolis to Charlotte. The fact that Honda just introduced its first ever pick-up truck (the Ohio-built Ridgeline) has only increased that speculation. But Clarke says Honda isn't NASCAR bound -- for now.

"I would never say never," he allowed. "But things change. It is not in our plans, not part of any of our long-range planning to be in NASCAR. We watch other series; we feel that is part of our job, and when we have IRL events that coincide with NASCAR Truck racing, we go out and watch what is going on to inform ourselves. But clearly we have no plans to be involved in the series at this time.

"The technical side of racing is very appealing to Honda," Clarke added. "There has to be opportunity for actually achieving something. Taking a production engine and turning it into a racing engine, that's beating your head against the wall and that's not appealing to us. You have to feel you can actually achieve something from the exercise. So having rules that were more open and contemporary would be what we were looking for. But I'm not sure that's what NASCAR is about."

Instead, Clarke is pushing for the IndyCar Series to adopt a more radical level of technology for its 2007 engine package, believing it could spark a revival for the Indianapolis 500 and American open-wheel racing.

"Even the current technology in the IRL is prehistoric compared to some of today's road car technology, and this is something I was talking to Tony George about," he said. "I think racing needs to move more into the future. People used to talk a lot about the innovation that came out of Indy, the turbines in the '60s and things like that. That was an exciting time. How can we return to that kind of era?

"The challenges that road car manufacturers face are fuel efficiency, emissions and product life. Now people expect cars to run 100,000 miles without any service. Running a 500-mile race without pit stops maybe seems like the kind of challenge we need in the future. What we build now has no direct relationship to anything. Maybe we should be racing fuel cell cars."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.