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Honda plays major role in IndyCar

Posted: April 23, 2009 9:25 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
No matter who crossed the finish line first in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, Honda was going to have a winning car.

Honda supplies engines for every driver and team in the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. All the engines pass through Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita before heading to the race tracks.

In an exclusive interview with The Signal, Roger Griffiths, the manager of development division at Honda Performance Development, talked about Honda’s role in IndyCar Series racing, how the cars performed at Long Beach and how Honda is preparing for the Indianapolis 500 with possibly the largest field of cars since Honda became the sole engine supplier to the IndyCar Series three years ago.

Dario Franchitti, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, won the IndyCar Series race at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. It was his first win at Long Beach after some frustrating runner-up finishes when he was driving for Andretti Green Racing. The two times he finished second, a driver from Ganassi’s team won.

“We actually had a number of the Indy car drivers up at HPD here in Valencia on Monday,” Griffiths said. “Talking with Dario and Scott Dixon, they said that the drivability of the engines is really good, even on lean fuel mixtures. That was very good to hear.”

With no competition from other manufacturers, drivability, or creating responsive, reliable race engines, is one of the goals Honda Performance Development, or HPD, looks to achieve every race. Griffiths said after years of working on basically the same engine, durability and reliability are non-issues. However, the demands of street course racing, like Long Beach, present some unique challenges that are not found on the oval tracks.

Developing technology has become one of the driving forces behind HPD since there is no competition from other manufacturers. One of the things HPD has introduced this year to the Indy cars is a new exhaust system.

“It kept the noise levels down,” Griffiths said. “The Indy cars traditionally have been a bit obnoxious. They are extremely loud. It makes it a much more pleasant experience for the fans. You can actually have a conversation with the person standing next to you as opposed to screaming in their ear.”

Griffiths said one of the reasons for the new exhaust system is to make the series more attractive to potential venues for races. Apparently there is an interest among cities that want to hold races similar to the Grand Prix of Long Beach and the race in St. Petersburg, Fla., with their party atmospheres and corporate draw.

“It’s been a good change,” Griffiths said. “Everybody’s been very complimentary about it. We jokingly set a 95 percent approval rating from St. Petersburg. There was some kind of bowling club or shuffleboard club that still complained. You can’t please everybody.”

It was never Honda’s intention to be the sole engine provider for the IndyCar Series. Griffiths said there are a number of other engine manufacturers, particularly from Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche, Fiat and Alpha Romeo, that have expressed interest in joining the series. The original timetable was for another manufacturer to enter the series by 2011. But it’s more likely that competition will return in 2012.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about other manufacturers coming,” Griffiths said. “I think the original 2011 timing is looking less and less likely. It’s unlikely we’ll see any additional manufacturers involved before 2012. The reason being when we sat down in June of last year, we said if you want this engine package to be reliable for 2011, we need to know what the rules are by Jan. 1, 2009. That date has come and gone. We don’t know what the rules may be. It would take us 18 months to design an engine from scratch, to build it, to run it on the dyno, to go to the race track to test it, to be ready for a debut in 2012.”

Tim Haddock can be reached by e-mail at tim@haddockinthepaddock.com. Go to www.haddockinthepaddock.com for video interviews of the Dario Franchitti, winner of the IndyCar Series race, J.R. Hildebrand, winner of the Indy Lights race, Carlos Mencia, a comedian who was in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race and the Formula Drift drivers from the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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