Visiting Honda Performance Development

It's been 92 wins since American Honda devised Honda Performance Development to service its US-based racing needs. The first win came in 1995 with Andre Ribeiro (New Hampshire), the most recent victory was Dan Wheldon's record-breaking sixth...

It's been 92 wins since American Honda devised Honda Performance Development to service its US-based racing needs.

The first win came in 1995 with Andre Ribeiro (New Hampshire), the most recent victory was Dan Wheldon's record-breaking sixth of the season in Chicagoland last month.

Ten years have passed since Ribeiro's breakthrough victory and Honda Performance Development has changed along with the times.

Adhering to Mr. Honda's dictate that the company is improved through its racing, HPD has gone on to take four CART engine titles, six straight CART drivers' titles, two IRL championships as both engine manufacturer and powering the winning driver and has twice consecutively taken a [different] team and driver to an Indianapolis 500 crown.

Those are deep achievements and HPD has grown with them. From its 1993 origins through a fraught initial 1994 season, since Ribeiro brought home the brass it's been good sailing for HPD. When Chip Ganassi came aboard, of course it all exploded. The titles came with the wins, a huge amount of success and then the changes (in sanctioning bodies).

When HPD began in 1993 it was part of American Honda's Torrance, CA campus. It was easy to see the need for a separate facility as soon as the program was ramped up and supplies were needed beyond the Team Rahal development squad and, later Tasman Motorsports.

The move to Santa Clarita has begat two sites, the most recent of which opened for business in February of this year (less than a month before the season started), with good rationale for the site choice by HPD President Robert Clarke.

Thinking he'd be likely to hire more Midwestern associates for the operation, Clarke figured the culture shock wouldn't be quite as tough as Los Angeles or Torrance.

He figured right, as signs on the lunchroom celebrate different associates' anniversaries with the firm. It's an open area - in fact nearly all of Honda Performance Development is open, once you get past the guards who need to make sure you're on the list.

Cameras and cell phones are barred from any part of HPD for what they consider obvious reasons: there are secrets here as this company has gone from a supplier to a fully capable research, development and production facility.

Its 123,000 square feet were built with the intent of being filled eventually. Clarke believes there's another 30,000 feet worth of space available and more if need be to build upon. The building at one time housed a circuit board manufacturing enterprise, enhancing its value for the cleanliness necessary in that business.

The exterior of this huge building is quite purposeful. What you might not expect is its environmentally friendly "ice farm" that supplies cooled water and electricity to make HPD less of a polluter and nearly self- sufficient.

(But then, Honda was first on the scene with its Insight hybrid, a FC fuel cell-powered car - which can be leased in California - and currently makes two excellent sedans, the Hybrid Civic and Accord.)

As you enter HPD, there is a cut-away of Bryan Herta's Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car. There are engines of every generation from first to most recent throughout the building. There are photos, there are banners and there are win advertisements wherever you look, none duplicated.

In the Japanese way there are no separate offices. Clarke's got a nice window view but anyone who glances over the extremely low partitions in the upstairs administrative and operations area can do the same thing. He does have more "win pins" on his partition than anyone, though.

With all of its executive offices together and with R&D, manufacturing and testing within easy reach, it's easy to see the need for a central meeting area, itself unfettered in any way. The objective, in the Japanese way, is to enhance the working experience for everyone. If results mean anything in the racing world, the idea seems to work.

As is customary for this type of facility, the shop area occupies the central area and all ancillary areas feed into the main floor. Some of the machinery is, as you might expect space age, and the entire space is tended to by personnel - 123 associates in all - who look happy to be there and (obviously) pleased with their accomplishments.

There are actually five dynos - one with gearbox for a complete test bed; Honda does quite a bit of its own manufacturing and will rebuild more than 250 IRL engines for the Andretti Green Racing team through the end of the League's tenth season.

"In some cases we try to reinvent the wheel," Clarke observed of HPD's trial and error on the race track to make the company and its products better.

Honda uses the racing spirit to motivate its associates, dealers and customers, Clarke put forward. He's all for open communications within the campus and believes that the lessons of motorsports translate to better product development.

Honda uses racing worldwide to train its engineering staff, something no other manufacturer has done on a regular basis.

This theorem holds true for the American arm of the company. In addition to training its technical - and administrative personnel - Honda uses HPD to develop technology, for the simple pleasure of enjoying the sport and to promote the brand and its engineering prowess.

Sure looks like they've succeeded.

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Series AUTOMOTIVE , HISTORY