A Behind the Scenes Look at How Honda Performance Development is Preparing for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500

By Larry Mason

Copyright © 2019

The largest single day sporting event in the world takes place every Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis, Indiana (technically Speedway, IN). The 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is scheduled for Sunday, May 26, 2019. The NTT IndyCar Series has two engine manufacturers who are battling for supremacy on the race track (and at their dealerships) week in and week out during the season at different venues across North America. For the past few years, Honda has held a slight advantage at the Speedway. However, last year Chevrolet came home victorious again for Penske Racing and Will Power. Make no mistake about it; the Indianapolis 500 is the most important race in the world for the sheer size and history of the event. Honda and Honda Performance Development (HPD) are looking to get back to Victory Lane this year in a big way and have invested untold man hours to make it happen. Allen Miller who is the Manager and Principal Engineer of the Race Team of HPD frankly stated, “Yes, we seemed to get a little bit behind last year, and the week after the 500 we all got together and said okay what can we do to try to improve for this upcoming year, and we’ve been hard at it and we’ve made some changes. Hopefully the things you’ve seen on the road course will also show up on the Speedway.” Racing is in Honda’s DNA. Founder Soichiro Honda believed in competition at the highest possible levels as a means of improving his company, its people and its products. His quote, “When you race, you must win” sets the foundation for HPD.

CART FedEx 4 Time Manufacturer’s championship trophy on the left and Dan Wheldon’s helmet commemorating his first win with Honda in 2004 with a note thanking Honda on his visor.

So far this season (through the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in mid-April) Honda has won three of the four races. After Long Beach, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Miller and get a tour of HPD. Unfortunately no cameras were allowed inside (except for the museum cars with Miller’s permission) in this splendid facility but I can tell you first hand that there is a dedicated group there with one thing on their mind – winning!

Allen Miller is flanked by the 2018 IndyCar Series manufacturer’s championship winning trophy on the left and the “Baby Borg” Warner trophy on the right for Dario Franchitti’s Indy 500 win in 2012.

HPD is nestled high on a hill in the suburbs north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, California. This state of the art facility is where the engines of championships are won. Comprised of engineering design, manufacturing, engine prep, quality control, and failure analysis – these are the main departments you would think of in a place like this.

There’s also executive, financial, purchasing, procurement, race team, IT, administrative, logistics/travel, parts, inventory and even a small museum of sorts that houses some of the championship winning cars of years past. In the entrance lobby sits the 2014 Indy 500 winning Honda powered DHL Dallara driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay. HPD is a huge facility and the walls are adorned with all of the full page ads that Honda placed in USA Today the day after a victory. Furthermore, scale wind tunnel models of differing sizes are placed throughout the office complex. Believe it or not there are also a couple of carbon fiber “Honda” bicycles in there. Cervelo (who have built bikes that have won the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Kona), is well known for their carbon fiber bikes. They’ve partnered with HPD for some of the carbon work.

The lobby features Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2014 Indy 500 winning car.

The list of engines that HPD has involvement in is vast and varied. Starting with the Honda Racing HI19TT twin turbocharged V-6 NTT IndyCar Series engine; the next major one is for the Acura ARX-05 IMSA DPi. Others include the IMSA Acura NSX GT3 (GTD class), SCCA F3, F4, FF, USAC Quarter Midgets and Go-Karts. Motocross is normally taken care of by Honda in Torrance but HPD has had a bit of influence in the past with some custom parts for the GEICO Team.

The engine “room” itself is comprised of multiple sub-assembly workstations. The engines come into the area in a crate whereby they are lifted out with a shop crane and put on an engine stand. Every worker is specialized in their own workstation such as cylinder block, cylinder heads, pump assemblies, induction systems, etc. Once the engine has been cleaned and rotated amongst the different stations, the same technicians who dis-assembled the engines will also re-assemble them. Miller explains, “Everything in here has been purposefully laid out.  Each of the stations has the same tool layout so guys can jump around if they have to and help somebody else at another station and they’ll be able to find the tools that they need to get the job done.”

Not only are the Indy engines worked on here, but also all of the engines that they service. The floor of this shop space is white and looks like you could eat off of the floor. “We’re kind of sticklers for that,” Miller chuckles. “Everybody has to be neat and tidy. Engines are dirty sometimes when they come in but they’re carefully taken apart and we’ve got a clean room in the back where everything is then further cleaned and prepped for reassembly.”

Starting in mid-March, HPD started building the engines for the Indy 500. In fact almost their entire inventory will be on site for the month of May. Miller says, “We have to take care of 14 full season cars. I expect we’re going to end up with four additional, so 18 in total. At the Speedway during the event, the cars run practice with the engines, so that’s 18, the 14 full season guys get a new engine so that’s 32 so there’s at least 10 spares so that’s 42 engines. We only have a pool of 54 engines so there are only 12 engines left around here. Pretty much everything is built and out of the building at that point.”

Compared to last year’s engine, there have been minor changes and updates to pieces allowed by the rules such as pistons, valves, and springs. Miller explains, “The rest of it is down to improving combustion efficiency. How do you calibrate the engine? How do you save fuel? How do you try to get more power with less fuel? It’s a lot of work on the dyno is what ends up happening, not so much developing new parts. How do we operate the engine to make more power, be more efficient and try to get an advantage?” This mindset is a direct parallel with Honda street car engines. Through auto racing, much of this technology transfers to the street side. Miller explains, “The other Honda company that we work most directly with is Honda Research (HRA) in Ohio. They do street car research and development. So we’ve had some interactions with different programs and projects there. If you look at the Acura side the DPi engine, it’s a production V6 like you’d see in an Acura mdx or a Honda Pilot. It’s that same basic V6 structure. We’ve obviously made a few changes to it internally but we worked closely with them to develop that initially in 2010. The fuel systems I think is probably one of the areas that we can help each other with direct injection. They started it first on the production side and then we kind of brought it over to the racing side.” It was success at first try when Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500 in 2012. The Baby Borg (Warner) trophy is now in the trophy case in the lobby of HPD.

The “Baby Borg” Warner trophy representing Dario Franchitti’s Indy 500 win in 2012.

A common term you here these days is “marginal gains.” That’s where HPD is with the current racing engines for Indy. Because there should be a new engine formula coming in the NTT IndyCar Series for the 2021 season, some preliminary design work and resources are already being implemented. In the meantime, every last bit of performance and efficiency will be squeezed out of the current version. Every event they go to they generate new calibrations. They spend the better part of a week on the dyno running simulations based on that particular track but with updated anticipated weather and track conditions for the weekend and send those maps to the teams. Drivability, power and fuel economy are the primary goals for each event. Each Honda powered Indy Car has a dedicated engineer at track with an additional lead engineer per team. Based on driver feedback, there are minor engine mapping changes that can be implemented trackside. If for some reason the driver(s) don’t like the particular performance of the engine such as the power comes on too strong off the corners (or vice versa) and it’s more of a major issue, HPD has the ability at every event to run a revised calibration map on the dyno overnight and then distribute those files back to the teams for their next day’s session.

The teams get four engines leased per year based on a 2,500 mile rebuild schedule. Generally speaking, that’s a $1 million plus cost to the team. Reliability is key and if a team ends up having to use an additional engine for whatever reason, Honda is docked manufacturer’s points towards that championship. There were two engine failures at the first race of the season and that situation has already been addressed and their confidence is high going forward.

The 2.2 liter V6 puts out approximately 650 horsepower at 12,000 rpm. Miller says, “We actually run three different boost levels depending on the track. So road and street courses it’s a 150 kPa. At the Indy Speedway, during the race, we run 130 kPa. For qualifying though we jump in between – we run 140 so it’s a little bit of a power boost. We test for all of that so hopefully we can make the most out of it, but it is more stressful on the engines. When we do a durability test on an engine we simulate laps on the Speedway, we simulate qualifying, we simulate road course so that we have a high level of confidence that we can run all of those boost levels at the different tracks and that the engines will deal with all those.”

These are just three of the many engines on display. The one on the right is the version that won the manufacturer’s championship for Honda in 2018.

Adjacent to the assembly/dis-assembly area is a fully equipped machine shop. Miller explains, “We don’t make all of our parts because of the volume, but if we want to we can make a change, make a prototype. We can fully machine a block here. We have the equipment to make a change here. We can do smaller one-off projects.” In this area, automated CNC machines can modify cylinder heads, pistons, pump bodies and they even have a twin spindle CNC lathe that works as a cam grinder for the final profile grind. “We’ve done some prototype cams for our group in Ohio. It’s not a common occurrence but we work together when we can.” In addition to those there are quite a few manual lathes, and mills and a couple of large ovens that are big enough to hold engine blocks to heat parts for assembly.

There was a museum of sorts on the ground floor that featured a number of race winning and championship winning chassis that HPD developed. Included in there was the Piper Formula F for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing. What used to be known as Formula Ford in SCCA, has now become Formula F because of the HPD developed Honda Fit engine that can now be used in place of the old English Ford Kent 1.6 liter engine that’s been out of production for years. This has allowed the class to keep going with a current engine that’s much easier to get parts for. There were also a couple of prototype racers that had Justin Wilson’s name on the cockpit.

“Museum” cars on display (not available to be seen by the general public) within the walls of HPD.

There were two TCA Civics sitting next to the museum cars that were awaiting delivery to customers. HPD takes a body in white (bare painted chassis) and designed the roll cage, suspension configuration, engine, transmission and other pieces that will all fit together as a spec package which is put together back in Ohio. This spec build has a list of parts that HPD has designated to complete the race car. The engines are prepped at HPD and sent back to Ohio for installation.

A couple of TCA Honda Civics waiting on delivery to customers sit next to another “museum” racer.

Miller describes the materials lab “where we can do analysis, hardness checks, and material checks.  We have an SEM (scanning electron microscope) so we can look at failed parts and see what’s actually going on. We need to be able to check what’s going on and do it quickly. If we have to rely on sending things out it just takes time, so we’ve tried to set ourselves up with as many tools as possible to help us get our job done quick and easy. Every engine that’s comes apart has a list of things that we go over and check and measure and if there’s a problem found then it goes under the microscope.”

There is a parts storage area where Miller explains, “Parts come in the back.  They are quarantined in the backside. There’s a pass through door that goes into the QA department. They are inspected, checked, then they come back in here and put into stores for the assembly guys to come back here and request pieces for the builds that they’re doing. We use a bar code system for the part numbering so things are issued out by scanning.”

HPD builds about 150 engines per year for all of the different programs that they’re involved in. If the shop is at capacity, then a typical engine turnaround is about six days. If they had to, they could turn an engine around in about two days.

As far as lubricants go, specifically engine oil, HPD has an oil requirement. They perform durability tests and IndyCar is required to use the oil that HPD tells them to. Each manufacturer homologates what oil they want their car to run and IndyCar takes samples to make sure that nobody’s using something else. HPD currently works with Castrol and as of this year they can homologate a second oil but for now they’re content with the current situation.

We walked near the dyno area but weren’t allowed in since they were testing while we were there. Steady state and track simulations are just a couple of the durability and performance tests that take place there. While we were there in the hallway you could hear an engine running a steady state test whereby they run at a certain rpm for a while, then increase the rpm for another time period and so on. It sounded like a V6 music room to me!

In a large open area with cubicles there are a number of different specialty groups that are surrounded by wind tunnel models on the walls and on tables. The development test group is for the calibration and dyno testing which complements the design group which does the engine design with specialists in the bottom end, top end, and fuel. There’s a chassis group which does performance engineering and programming for the simulator in Indianapolis. There’s also an electrical lab that tests harnesses, coils, hardware and wiring adjacent to the design groups. Back in 2008-2010 is when HPD really got more involved in the chassis design with their original P2 car. That group provided a great platform in engineering when a few years ago they had to work on the Indy Car aero kits. There was a lot of overtime worked during those years. That background not only helped them but it also benefits the teams today as HPD supplies aero maps to their teams. They conduct simulation work for each event and then supply that base information to the teams. Wind Shear in North Carolina is where most of the wind tunnel work is done however there’s also a facility that’s coming together in Ohio that they hope to take advantage of soon.

On the Wednesday before the Acura Grand Prix Long Beach, all their Indy Car and DPi drivers came out to HPD for an event in their lunch room where all the employees were invited to interact with them, get autographs, play trivia games as well as have a Q&A. They make posters every year so the employees can have all of the drivers sign them. This year for the Grand Prix, about 450 special ticket packages were sold to employees, friends and family (and that’s out of 225 or so employees).

As serious as they are about winning, they also like to have fun. Back in 1999 they held a competition in the Indy Car paddock to make a margarita blender using a Honda 50cc weed wacker engine. Of course race teams are always serious about winning so it was a hard fought competition. Team Penske Indy 500 winners Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves were the judges and awarded the winning design to HPD associates who used two carbon fiber intake plenums to fabricate the blender bowl. This blender is now on display in HPD’s small conference/meeting room just off the lobby along with some of the more unique items including driver’s helmets, employee race winning trophies and scale models.

The contest winning HPD margarita blender!

At the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach I had a chance to sit down with Jon Ikeda, Acura vice president and brand officer, to get his take on how motorsports ties into the bigger picture of employee motivation and sales. The title sponsorship of this event happened in only 65 days before the race weekend.  From the Acura standpoint, they are the performance division of Honda with the tagline – Precision Crafted Performance.  Ikeda explained, “At Honda, we do everything from lawnmowers to jets and Acura and Honda cars are part of that. I think the racing spirit that our company exudes lives with everybody that works there. It’s really exciting because it ties everybody together. We’re all into racing and I think that’s what unites us in a lot of ways – the challenging spirit of trying to race and win.” From an employee experiential standpoint he continues, “Going into Turn ,1the main grandstand is all of our associates . . . right there our drivers are gonna’ see a lot of fans rootin’ for them coming in there.”

The Rose Parade, Honda Center and the Helpful Honda folks create an association with the community and with Honda headquarters right up the road in Torrance, Ikeda believes that it’s a good thing to be involved here. However, as fantastic as all this sounds, the bottom line is to sell cars, right? Ikeda responds, “Absolutely, I think a lot of things that we touch especially with racing it’s about the challenging spirit, it’s kind of in our blood … the Rose Parade we’ve been involved with them for a very, very long time. So I think the association with the community, we are here in LA, I think it’s a good thing to be involved with some of the big iconic things we can get our hands on. I’m just glad that working on the Acura side, on the brand side, that Aura has a chance to have a stake in something big like this race. We’ve got Honda center in Anaheim, we have the Rose Parade. You know, those are big ticket items that are around the southern California area. I think it’s great that the company has decided to let us have the Grand Prix.”

For the first time since 1994 (when the Acura logo appeared on the Comptech Lola driven by Parker Johnstone in the CART championship), Acura’s logo was on Jack Harvey’s MSR AutoNation / SiriusXM NTT IndyCar Series entry at Long Beach. The Southern California Acura Dealers stepped up with a sponsorship of their own and put their logo on Harvey’s Indy Car too. Ikeda explained, “I think with our perspective to our Acura dealers in the southern California area, once we announced that we were going to do this, I mean the commitment that they’ve showed – you know they appreciated the commitment we showed. They’ve reciprocated way more than I’ve even expected. To have that car be sponsored by them and being part of all this is just fantastic.  I think this shows that there’s a good communication between our company and how we want to work with our dealers to make a healthy business. Because it’s just not one dominating another it’s definitely a partnership.”

Jack Harvey in the Acura and Southern California Acura Dealers sponsored NTT IndyCar Series Dallara in the Acura corner (Turn 1) at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach!

Honda and Acura both were in full force at Long Beach with multiple ways to activate their sponsorships including hospitality, NSX pace car rides, Indy Car Two-Seater rides and much more. This company is serious about making sure that the consumer and business partners are well taken care of and entertained. Displays inside the arena with racing cars of years gone by, current passenger cars and more gave those with some down time between on track action the opportunity to still be exposed to their brand.

The Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach saw Alexander Rossi winning the pole position in the NTT IndyCar Series, and Helio Castroneves winning the pole in the Acura DPi IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series. A win for Rossi on Sunday showcased Honda, Acura and the group at HPD heading into the month of May at Indy. Will Honda be in Victory Lane Memorial Day weekend? We’ll know soon enough. If they do win, it won’t be a surprise after seeing the dedication from the HPD team that goes into their preparation. If they don’t win, this is a team that won’t be down and out. On the contrary, as racers with that challenging spirit, they’ll be back better and stronger next time.

Honda powered teams get great support at every event.

Photos by Larry Mason