Honda has been involved with U.S. open-wheel racing since 1994 – the longest unbroken streak of any engine manufacturer. Racing is important to Honda. "Everything we do on the race track affects how people think of us," explains Roger Griffiths, technical director for Honda Performance Development. "Racing helps put the Honda name out there. It builds the HPD brand and promotes the growth of the company and our ability."
HPD includes a fully integrated research and development center where the staff designs and builds engines for several series, including IndyCar. Acknowledging that the engine isn't as glamorous as some other components, Griffiths only half-jokingly says they consider it the most important part of the car. After all, he says, "We power the race!"
In all seriousness, he continues: "Reliability is a boring story, but it's important to us." Consulting the statistics, he reports that Honda hasn't had an on-track engine failure in IndyCar racing since Sonoma 2009, and the one previous to that was at Kansas in 2007. "We logged a quarter-million in-race miles between engine failures."
Another important statistic he quotes is five consecutive Indianapolis 500s without an engine failure. "We're shooting for our sixth straight this year," Griffiths says with a hint of nervous anticipation. "It's nerve-wracking. This is the biggest race of the year, and it's the 100th anniversary. We don't want to screw it up."
All of Honda's R&D, all of their attention to detail and all of their results on the racetrack translate in some measure to their road cars. "Honda cars have tremendous reliability; that comes from racing."
R&D earned HPD the 45th annual BorgWarner Louis Schwitzer Award for their development of the Honda Refueling Safety Interlock System, whichprevents a racing car from leaving its pit with the refueling hose attached. A reworked LED photoelectric sensor is installed in the Dallara chassis adjacent to the fuel receiver "buckeye" and connected to the chassis wiring loom. When the probe on the end of the refueling hose is inserted into the buckeye, the sensor detects the probe and sends a signal to the Engine Control Unit. Using system-specific software, the ECU then sends a message to the Gearbox Control Unit (GCU) to select and/or hold the gearbox in neutral until the sensor detects that the probe has been removed from the buckeye.
Once the probe has been removed, the driver can select first gear, and the car can safely leave its pit.
Almost as important as performing on the racetrack is connecting with the crowd. "People come to the track and tell us their story," Griffiths relates. "They tell us about their Civic, how long they've had their Honda... It's important for us to have a connection to our customers, and by having a presence at the races, it's a way to reach them."
Last year's Indianapolis 500 brought Honda's 100th win in IndyCar racing. "GM may have the pace car, but we use these achievements to promote Honda," Griffiths says. "Indy is the biggest race of the year. It's our opportunity to showcase our product."
Joining the rest of the racing world in looking back at the first 100 years of the Indianapolis 500, Honda is at a crossroads. The company is preparing for a fresh start for the next 100 years with the introduction of a new 2.2-liter turbo-charged V6 engine that runs on E85 – a package with a closer tie to Honda's production cars than the current engine specifications.
Perhaps even more notable, next year, Honda will have to share the spotlight with other engine manufacturers when IndyCar introduces a new car and rules package. Current partner Ilmor will become a competitor once again. "We're super excited to have competition," Griffiths exclaims. "It's why we go racing. This gets us back to development; it gets us back to excitement. Mr. Honda was a racer. The racing spirit is in our DNA throughout the company."