When you see this Honda Challenge 1 car whistle past you on a racetrack, you’ll have to look twice. No, it’s not a pace car or a safety vehicle or an ambulance. This 2005 Honda Odyssey minivan is a real racecar, if a bit unconventional.

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Not as unconventional as you might think. A group of engineers from Honda Manufacturing Alabama has been using Odyssey minivans for everything from autocross, rally cross and track days to racing at Pikes Peak with Simon Pagenaud at the wheel.

“Most all of the Honda plants have associate driven race teams,” said Paul Street, an engineering specialist with HMA in Lincoln, Ala. “A group of engineers in 2006 got together and came up with the idea of starting a team here in Alabama. They wanted to use a product we built here and they wanted to do the 2006 “One Lap of America.” They first did it with two leftover preproduction test cars. The current red Odyssey we race in NASA is one of those original cars.”

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The team focused on building Odyssey vans for the “One Lap” series, which is sanctioned by NASA. In 2007, Street’s team built a turbocharged Odyssey that made 532 whp. They added a six-speed manual transmission.

When the economy soured, the team sat out the “One Lap” series from 2009 to 2011 to focus instead on local events. They returned to the “One Lap” event in 2012, and in 2013 got a NASA log book for the van, and a Honda Pilot and Accord also built at the Alabama plant. Street said they sent their drivers to advanced race schools to train them up.

In terms of modifications, the van has everything you’d find a in a passenger-car based racer. The team stripped the interior of everything they could, and just like you or the guy parked next to you in the paddock, they took it to a cage builder, who viewed it as just another project, Street said.

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“At the time we just wanted it for the One Lap,” he said. “The good thing is he knew what we needed more than we did, so he went ahead and built what we needed not what we wanted.”

They added H&R springs and Enkei 19 x 10 wheels and deleted the precatalyst and added a J pipe. They also added a Brembo big-brake kit to the front. Other than that, the Odyssey is completely stock, including the rear brakes. Of course, one of the challenges has been finding performance parts for an Odyssey, which likely were sourced by specification rather than by application. And despite the service record of automatic transmissions when used for track duty, Street pointed out that the team has never had a mechanical issue with the car. They have never changed one part, not even a spark plug or a belt. Just brakes.

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“The automatic, we shift in manual mode,” he said. “It works really well and much better than you would expect.”

Some nifty custom touches include a carbon fiber hood made at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The HMA team also turned the left front headlamp into a cold-air intake system. With holes drilled in the lens and the bulbs removed, the cone-style air filter just behind the housing gets a constant feed of fresh air. They wrapped the custom intake tube with foil tape to maintain temperature as it’s routed to the engine.

“We do tape the holes up at big tracks like Daytona and road Atlanta to keep too much air from entering the engine bay and then having to exit under the vehicle causing turbulence and drag,” Street said.

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In its current trim, the car runs in Honda Challenge 1. How quick is it? Well, it runs 1:47s at Road Atlanta, a time that would put it squarely in the middle of the Spec Miata field. Despite those numbers, the team still sometimes struggles to be taken seriously, although the team’s next Odyssey will have a little sharper edge to it.

This van is going to be displayed in a new Honda museum in Ohio along with other Honda team racecars. The new one will be the purpose-built racecar, Pagenaud drove at Pikes Peak. It features a seam-welded chassis from a body in white. It also uses H&R coil-overs, Brembo Brakes, Enkei 19 x 10 wheels. It weighs about 100 pounds less than the red van you see here.

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Its J-35 V6 is just a bit more powerful at 271 whp. The new van also is fitted with a proper six-speed manual gearbox, SPEC clutch and a lightweight aluminum flywheel. That should be good enough for a few seconds around Road Atlanta.

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“This car started out as a One Lap car, but last year competed in the Pikes Peak hill climb for American Honda with Simon Pagenaud driving,” Street said. “It finished second in class. We are prepping it to run in NASA Honda Challenge now.”

Odds are good spectators will still have to look twice.

Owner:

American Honda

Year:

2005

Make:

Honda

Model:

Odyssey

Weight:

3,280 lbs.

Engine:

247 hp J-35 V6

Suspension:

Front: Stock dampers H&R springs

Rear: Stock dampers H&R springs

Tires:

Front: 295/35/19 race slicks

Rear: 295/35/19 race slicks

Brakes:

 Front: Brembo 355mm 4 piston calipers

Rear: Stock

Data system:

NA

Sponsors:

Honda, HPD, RV6, Megan racing, Enkei, MOMO, Spec clutch, Unorthodox racing
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Image courtesy of Brett Becker