Soichiro Honda founded the Honda Motor Company in 1948, at first producing motorized bicycles, but soon after designing and building his first true motorcycle.
In 1954 he stated his intention to follow his childhood dream and enter a team of Honda-built motorcycles to compete at the prestigious Isle of Man TT races, saying, “I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour in all my energy and creative powers to win.”
Five years later, Honda made its racing debut at the 1959 TT, and just two years after that won its first motorcycle grand prix.
Today, Honda is a company that’s still following its dreams and still pushing itself to the next level through the spirit and challenge of competition, on two wheels and on four.
From a pure branding standpoint, it never hurts to be a winner and Honda has done plenty of that. On four wheels, the ongoing journey stretches from Richie Ginther’s victory in the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, to Marcus Ericsson drinking the winner’s milk at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
Honda powered Marcus Ericsson to his 2022 Indianapolis 500 victory. (TOP) Honda Performance Development’s at-track engineering team celebrates the win.
But the benefits from racing go well beyond image, and into every production vehicle Honda builds. In North America, Honda Performance Development focuses on the company’s competition activities, but there’s valuable interaction and overlap between the racing operation and its road car counterparts.
In some instances, the crossover is easy to identify. For example, the Civic forms the basis of Honda’s touring car racing programs, with the street car serving as the platform for its track-focused cousins. But as HPD President David Salters explains, even when a production car is the starting point, refinements made for racing can find their way back into the road car side to close the feedback loop.
“If you start with an excellent street car, you can make a superb race car,” Salters says of the Civic, which in multiple model generations has been the benchmark in the SRO TC America series’ TC and TCA classes. “But, for example, we did some work on the cooling with that last generation of touring car, and some of it was transferred (to the production side). The duty cycle is super-extreme for these race cars, and we had some of the engineers in Japan reach out to us to discuss cooling aspects. Those interactions help them and us, too.
“Also, racing pushes the parts (to their limits). There were some bits that we managed to vibrate quite a lot and, again, that information got fed back. When you go racing you find a way to break most things! And then you fix it, and feed back what you find.”
Honda’s latest Civic-based touring car, the all-new Si FE1, is already a proven winner in SRO TC America’s closely fought TCA class.
While some developments correlate directly from road to track and back again, other benefits present themselves less directly. Like most manufacturers, Honda is placing an increasing focus on hybrid and electrical vehicles, where reducing drag could help extend their range. In the NTT IndyCar Series, any extraneous aerodynamic drag at a place like Indianapolis Motor Speedway will certainly make itself known on the stopwatch. As a result, some of what’s learned from putting an IndyCar in Honda’s new, state-of-the-art HALO wind tunnel could also help future Honda EVs to go further on each charge.
“The HALO wind tunnel is just being commissioned, but as it gets going, the same group of people will be involved in testing race cars and advanced road cars and EVs” explains Salters. “We get to do a lot of learning. If you’re an engineer, it’s great to be able to compare different things. Of course, on the racing side we’re looking for efficiency and being quick and all that sort of stuff, which helps. But it’s great that Honda engineers on both sides are getting that experience.”
That interaction between road and racetrack will only become stronger as motorsports follows production cars in moving more toward hybridization and electrification. Motorsports can help accelerate improvements in areas such as power generation, cooling, battery technology and weight reduction, but Salters sees another huge benefit in…recruitment.
“(Motorsports) has allowed us to attract a lot of young, smart engineers,” he says. “The fact that we’re working on relevant technology puts the buzz into getting young, smart people engaged. Typically, inquisitive young engineers get enthused by new stuff, and it gives me a lot of pleasure to see us bringing the next generation through and helping them develop.”
So, racing helps build better production cars, which in turn helps build better race cars — and both can showcase new technologies that attract the talent that will develop the vehicles we’ll see a few years down the road. Soichiro Honda went racing to improve the breed, and Honda has been reaping the benefits ever since.
FUELING THE HUMAN SPIRIT
For Honda, racing is the very soul of the company, a touchstone reaching back to its founder, Soichiro Honda, who believed that no dream fuels the human spirit like the challenge of racing.
For Soichiro Honda, the dream of racing and winning had started as a child, and it was his drive and passion that turned it into a reality.
Today, racing is still a huge part of Honda’s DNA, and every lap run is another lesson learned in the quest to build even better road cars.
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Honda makes its racing debut at the 1959 Isle of Man TT races under the watchful gaze of founder Soichiro Honda.