If all middle- and high-school students in the country could take a tour of Honda Performance Development in Valencia, Calif., we would have no trouble getting them interested in math and science.
Moments after you enter the modern concrete, steel and glass confines of Honda’s U.S. racing headquarters and tour the eat-off-the-floor clean engine assembly and machine rooms, you wish you had paid more attention in algebra and chemistry classes in high school.
The facility is world class. There are nearly two decades worth of IndyCar racing engines on display throughout the lobby and even more stashed away in every corner of the building. Prototypes from the American LeMans Series sit in a row alongside cars once displayed at SEMA and even more IndyCar V8s returned from racing teams across the country.
Upstairs, there is a phalanx of associates who work in Commercial Motorsports. They are the people who answer the call when grassroots Honda racers and professional teams alike phone in for parts or technical support. To be clear, the same people who handle inquiries from IndyCar and ALMS teams also help NASA’s Honda racers.
“There’s nothing worse than being a racer and you don’t have support, said Robert Klyver, who works in Commercial Motorsports. “That’s what we’re here to do, support the racers. This is an investment by Honda in the grassroots racer, because they get it. That’s a lot of dedication on the part of a big company that doesn’t have to do this. That’s a lot of support for the grassroots guy.”
Through its contingency program, HPD offers many benefits to Honda Challenge racers, and support for any NASA member who races a Honda-powered vehicle, but let’s first look at all the fascinating and state-of-the-art activities that go on inside the HPD facility .
What They Do
First of all, Honda has been involved with racing since its humble beginnings as a motorcycle company after World War II. The late founder Soichiro Honda immersed himself in motorsports and his quotes have become the stuff of legend. “Racing improves the breed,” and “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda” are the two we hear most often.
For a time, Honda’s motorsports programs were spread throughout the company, according to Lee Niffenegger, an a former R&D engineer who now manages Commercial Motorsports. About six years ago, all the programs were concentrated in one place so Honda manage them as a whole pie rather than as individual slices. HPD services what its people call the “pinnacle programs,” such as IndyCar and ALMS and amateur racers like you.
Engines used for those top tiers of racing are designed and built in house, a process that starts with research and development. For example, when IndyCar announced the switch from V8 to V6 engines, HPD started from scratch to develop the new engines, which debuted in 2012.
Before development can begin, HPD engineers scrutinize which materials are best suited for constructing each part of the engine. The process is so stringent that it goes to the molecular level, and HPD has the right equipment and the expertise to solve any problem.
“We do material analysis and failure analysis and base metal evaluation. It’s very important that we fail the part here and not in the field,” said Nilesh Pandya, a senior materials engineer. “When we do have a failure, we evaluate the failure to see if it’s tensile, fatigue or impact and where it originated. In racing, it’s mostly fatigue. Once you know where it is initiated and what kind of load, you can design around it.”
In the machine shop adjacent to the assembly room, technicians start with drawings from engineers fed into three-dimensional printers that pop out prototype plastic parts that are used to check for fit and for creating molds for casting. There are CNC machines for complex parts, lathes, drill presses and water jet machines that can cut through 6-inch steel — and many of the machines can run 24/7 if necessary.
The clean room at the heart of the building thrums with a quiet energy and a silent hustle. Technicians are busy assembling everything from IndyCar V6s to K24 four cylinders destined for sprint cars.
Once built, the engines are validated in HPD’s massive dyno facility, a key-card-protected secret room tucked deep in the bowels of the building. Some dynos they won’t even let you see. They will let you see a few of the others, but get too close with a camera and they will boot you out of the room. Really.
The same people, machines and processes used to develop parts for IndyCar and ALMS engines are used for developing parts for the grassroots racer, such as camber plates and other performance-adding components that can be used on production-based racecars.
“So what we traditionally did when we did pinnacle, they were engines that were designed and built here,” said Jennifer Erickson, who works in Commercial Motorsport. “But then when we started doing grassroots, we started bringing in already-developed Honda engines, and then doing HPD performance added.”
Those production engines can come from any branch of Honda Motor Company, be it two- or four-stroke mills from power equipment, automobiles, motorcycles and power sports.
“In the last four years what we’ve done, we’ve gone to other Honda entities, and started bringing in these production engines and doing literally HPD performance added and using already developed engines for race use,” she added. “It all depends on the application.”
Those applications include Honda Challenge, karting, midgets, sprint cars, quarter midgets, Formula Atlantic, touring cars and more. In fact, HPD even offers a kit to retrofit the 1.5-liter engine from the Honda Fit into Formula Fords, which have been around for decades, but face a dwindling supply of Kent engines.
“When was the last time you saw a 68 Cortina on the road?,” Klyver said. “It’s not a common car, and that’s what the engine originally came from.
“So instead of letting the class die, they came in and said we can do something here that will be good for everybody and have a little more fun,” he added. “And we’ve got almost a hundred of them sold already. And you just start it and go, just like any Honda.”
Support For Amateur Racing
Any NASA member who races a Honda-powered vehicle is eligible to sign up for membership in the HPD support program, which is free, and includes a host of benefits.
First, members can buy parts at a discount directly from HPD, and that includes HPD performance and factory parts such as transmission gears or pistons or any OEM for that matter — even JDM stuff if it’s available. Membership also provides access to broad and deep technical support you can’t find anywhere else.
“They get access to all the OE parts at a discounted price and all the service information that is generally only available to a dealer or an independent repair facility that has paid for it,” Niffenegger said. “All they have to do is own a Honda car they race or intend to race.”
That includes dedicated autocross cars, too.
Niffenegger worked in R&D on the 2006 Civic Si, which is just now beginning to make its way into amateur racing, and he knows the cars inside and out. It also helps that he has raced Hondas on professional and associate club teams (see “Racing as Culture” below) ever since going to work for the company, so HPD associates have a lot of racing knowledge and experience, but they also have the backing of an original equipment manufacturer.
“I might not always know the answer, but I also have access to every Honda drawing that’s ever been made,” Niffenegger said. “We can weed out some of the misinformation or get them to the answer quicker, rather than a bunch of trial and error.
“I can’t always solve everybody’s problems, because it’s really hard when you don’t have the car in front of you, but I can help connect the dots,” he added. “People have their small circle of people that they usually deal with. My circle is a lot bigger.”
One key benefit of having all of Honda’s racing efforts concentrated in one building is the opportunity for top-tier technology to trickle down and benefit amateur racers. For example, HPD tries to use as many factory Honda parts as possible on its Grand Am Continental Challenge Series engines. They discovered that the teeth on a factory stamped-steel crank trigger wheel were breaking, so they developed a stronger piece, which is something that will become available to all racers.
By design, however, the bulk of the benefits of joining the HPD program go to Honda Challenge racers, which is where the contingency program kicks in. The program is unique in that it spreads the wealth, so to speak, rather than solely rewarding the top finishers.
In every NASA region, HPD’s contingency plan awards the first-, third-, and fifth-place finishers with parts credits good for $200, $150 and $100, respectively. Those credits are good for racing and OEM parts and even things like Honda generators, all at discounted prices. For the NASA National Championships, the HPD program is even more lucrative.
First, every Honda Challenge racer gets $500 just to show up. On top of that, they are treated to catered lunches in the HPD tent Thursday through Sunday. The tent has closed-circuit television with live feeds of the racing action. In addition, regional champions get an additional $500 to attend the National Championships. Prize money is good, too: $2,500 for first; $1,500 for second and $1,000 for third. In theory, one racer could win up to $3,500.
“Honda Challenge is unique. It’s our people, if you will,” Niffenegger said. “They’re not necessarily racing new cars, but they are Honda enthusiasts. They’re in Honda Challenge because they like Hondas. It’s not like somebody decided to race a Honda because there’s a good contingency for it. So here’s this community that already supported Honda so now we’re coming in to support it. That’s our focus in NASA.
“We want to support Honda racers, but racing is about competition, and if we can help cluster that competition in one spot, that’s what we want to do,” he added. “It makes a better race. It makes a better story. Everyone has a better time, too.”
Racing as Culture
As a company, Honda recognizes that people and their satisfaction are essential to the success of the company. As with racing, the philosophy goes all the way back to late founder Soichiro Honda himself.
American Honda, in all its forms, encourages associates to form clubs at work as a way to promote interdepartmental cooperation and employee satisfaction. The clubs vary from motorcycling and bicycling to, of course, racing.
HPD’s facility in Valencia is no exception, and the company even donated space in the warehouse where the employee-run racing team can store and work on the car — but strictly in their spare time.
“The club was designed to provide something to the HPD associate,” said Brett Erickson, an engineer II in the Performance Engineering department. “It allows them to get involved with grassroots motorsports on different levels. It also helps with cross pollination between departments at HPD. You have guys working on the car from the development department, from build shop, from dyno. Currently we have 22 associates signed up from nine different departments.”
The car is a B-Spec Honda Fit, and although the club has existed for two years, this is their first year actually racing the car. The first year was spent putting funds together to buy the car and prepare it for racing. This year the club is doing sprint races while preparing the car and the team to race in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. An added benefit is that it helps associates who are accustomed to working on top-tier racing programs understand the challenges of an amateur racer. To keep fist fights from erupting over who gets to drive, the team has set up a system.
“We’ve set it up where guys who work on the car get points, so there’s a racer ratings system set up, where the more time you put into the car the more points you get, which moves you to the top of the list,” Erickson said. “When we go to an event we determine who drives based on that points schedule.”