On October 30, Art St. Cyr gave a lot of Honda motorsports fans a shiver (me included) when he implied that Honda was seriously considering joining NASCAR , and that such a move would mean the withdrawal of Honda/Acura from Indycar and IMSA . [LINK: https://www.motorsport.com/nascar-cup/news/honda-nascar-manufacturer-makes-sense/4589525/ ]
It was an odd article from a journalistic point of view. First, St. Cyr left his position as head of American Honda’s racing division, Honda Performance Development on April 1, 2019. He is now VP of North American Auto Operations. This struck me as odd because you would expect such information to come from either Ted Klaus, who replaced St. Cyr as head of HPD , or Steve Erikson, long time VP at HPD (the person at the helm of HPD typically does a 5-year rotation. VPs like Erikson don’t). The other place something like this might logically come from is American Honda Marketing, which pays the bills for Honda’s Indycar program and Acura’s factory IMSA program, and does all the “activation” around those programs.
Second, it was written by Charles Bradley, who typically writes about F1 for Motorsport.com. You would expect he would have some Honda contacts, but those would lead to Japan, not to American Honda. And he got some facts wrong, including not knowing that Honda makes a pickup truck. Under normal circumstances, one would expect an article like this in Motorsport.com to be written by David Malsher, who covers American racing series for the site and undoubtedly knows St. Cyr and Erikson.
The central questions on my mind are:
1) Would Honda really join NASCAR? And how would that come about?
2) Would Honda really have to pull out of Indycar and IMSA to do it?
3) What’s going on?
DISCLAIMER: I want to make it known that although I have some inside contacts in the racing industry, I have communicated with NO ONE from any Honda division since October 30. The following comes from my knowledge of how things work in corporations, some experience with racing teams and racing, and my talent for working through problems and puzzles.
Would Honda really join NASCAR?
Why not? I used to think that NASCAR would be a “bad fit” for the brand. But I can see where NASCAR could serve Honda’s purposes in the near term. And there is no time like the present (more below).
Honda is not as hell-bent on rushing to full battery electric vehicles as many of its competitors. I think Honda will be hanging its hat on “total fuel efficiency” and selling the idea that hybrids make more sense in the medium term until battery prices come down and several other advances happen. The NASCAR crowd would love to hear this. And if a racing Ridgeline sells more pickups (this strategy helped Toyota a lot), that’s a bonus.
Who’s driving this move?
If history is any guide, this did not come about because someone in American Honda Marketing woke up one morning and said: “We need to be in NASCAR!” And if you were going to join NASCAR , you wouldn’t announce you’re joining and THEN look for teams. The specific teams would be part of the package. Given that, I bet someone outside the company pitched the idea to someone in California.
The usual suspects for this kind of thing would be Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi: NASCAR team owners who have long-running relationships with Honda. Roger Penske played a role in getting Honda to move to the IRL in the early 2000’s and set up the relationship with Ilmor (of which Roger is a part owner) to allow Honda to get in quickly. Penske also “recruited” Honda to form the Acura LMP program (Penske ran Porsches), which led to a golden age of competition between Acura, Porsche and Audi in the American Le Mans Series. There is a lot of mutual respect between Honda and Penske.
Honda joining NASCAR with Ganassi and Penske would give Honda immediate gravitas and an immediate chance to win.
What’s in this for Penske and Ganassi?
Most people, even rabid NASCAR fans, don’t appreciate what a sea change the “new car” for 2021 (though this may slip to 2022) and the new engine spec. for 2022 are for NASCAR teams. For as long as I have been alive, NASCAR cars have been tube frames under steel bodies. Custom built for each different kind of track, with each team often building their own cars in their own fabrication shops (some teams buy cars from other teams). Often teams have 10 or more chassis for each entry in a given season.
The new car is revolutionary. The new chassis will be more like an LMP car or a Class 1 (SuperGT/ DTM ) car with a heavy emphasis on Carbon Fiber safety cells and a unibody structure. They will be single-sourced likely from Dallara, which supplies Indycar chassis. And there will likely be no need to use more than two or three chassis for a full season.
With the new car will be new transmissions (Six speed instead of four), new suspensions (independent rear suspensions instead of live axles), new wheels (18-inch instead of 15) and engines (open to V6s with turbos instead of or inclusive of Naturally Aspirated V8s, all with Hybrid elements) and new standard bodies supplied by the manufacturers.
For the teams, this makes obsolete a whole lot of intellectual property that is tied to the old cars, old methods and old protocols. It’s going to lead to major reductions in staff. And a major search for competitive advantage in this brave new world.
People like Penske and Ganassi could turn to Honda in search of a new unfair advantage, especially against Toyota. Honda is the only organization that could match the racing knowledge concerning Carbon chassis and aerodynamics that Toyota has from its sports car experience.
Currently, Penske and Ganassi build their own cars, but rely on third party engine builders for their motors (Roush-Ford for Penske and Hendrick-Chevy for Ganassi). My reading is that one or both of them has decided that they would rather partner with Honda than with their current partners.
Why NASCAR? Why now?
NASCAR is the most well known and most watched racing series in North America. There are those of us that scoff at it, but you can’t argue with the ratings, the money and the crowds. Nothing even comes close. If you sell cars in North America and want to race in the Big Time, NASCAR is IT.
With the major shifts in chassis construction and engine options, there will be no better time for a manufacturer to join NASCAR . If Honda is not going to join NASCAR now, then it won’t ever join NASCAR .
Would Joining NASCAR mean the end of Honda’s participation in Indycar and IMSA?
It could, but it does not have to. There are really two major considerations for this: the ability of HPD to take on a NASCAR program from a capacity standpoint and the ability of American Honda Marketing to pay for it.
Let’s deal with these one at a time.
Does HPD have the capacity to handle NASCAR , Indycar and IMSA?
The short answer is “no”. As St. Cyr said in the article, there are limits to what could be done inside of the existing facility in Santa Clarita. But it only takes a couple of minutes to figure out how HPD could handle it.
First, let’s assume that St. Cyr is correct when he indicates that HPD could handle NASCAR with the existing resources that handle Indycar and IMSA now. That indicates that you would need to double the capacity of the organization.
Second, let’s think about what the NASCAR program would look like. Odds are that Honda would only join NASCAR if the engine specs were “relevant”. I assume that means competing with a twin turbo V6 engine. I think it also means a e-turbo system as the hybrid portion of the program because it could be used on all NASCAR’s tracks. That sounds an awful lot like the rumored Type-S variant of the NSX . Or a performance versions of the coming Acura 3.0 V6 turbo.
Third, many of you have seen the Acura-produced video that plays up the fact that the production NSX engine is in effect a race engine and that the NSX GT3 uses a production NSX engine.
Finally, Honda already has a partner in the production of those NSX engines: Cosworth. The same Cosworth that builds and maintains racing engines. And has a large facility in the Midwest.
How does HPD double capacity to handle a NASCAR program? Hire Cosworth to build and maintain the engines and possibly provide engineers for the teams. That wasn’t so hard.
Where does the money for a NASCAR program come from?
Killing off the Honda Indycar program and the Acura IMSA program does not get you anywhere near the money you would need to pay for a NASCAR program, at least not to do it right. The Indycar program costs tens of millions of dollars. Same for the Acura IMSA program. Together they probably cost something like $50-to-$80 million a season. By factory racing standards, those programs are very cost-effective.
NASCAR , on the other hand, would cost more than twice what the other two would cost, conservatively. In the beginning, the activation costs would be HUGE . So maybe an annual outlay of $200 million. In order to pay for NASCAR , Honda would have to cut back sports marketing programs that cost real money, whether it keeps Indycar/ IMSA or not. Like the NHL , PGA , Soccer, facility sponsorships, etc. American Honda spends a lot on sports marketing (60% of total sponsorship dollars according to a 2016 report). To pay for NASCAR , some of those programs would have to be chopped.
Would anyone want to lose the equity Honda has in Indycar and IMSA?
Let’s look at this from the viewpoints of the players involved:
American Honda — I just don’t believe that Honda would leave Indycar and IMSA for NASCAR . The brand equity the company has built up with the loyal fan bases in those two communities has significant value. Honda has been in Indycar since 1994. Acura has been in sports cars for longer than that. The company is part of the fabric of those two communities. It took a very long time to build that. Given how cost-effective sponsorship of those series are, throwing that away makes no sense. Especially replacing it with the long slog that building the same kind of equity in the NASCAR fan base would be.
Chip Ganassi— Although he obviously makes more money from NASCAR , Chip actually raced Indycars. It is his first love. He’s at every race. There is no way he would push for Honda to enter NASCAR if it meant Honda would ditch Indycar.
Roger Penske— He owns Indycar. He owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He appreciates that Honda is the single most important partner Indycar has, bar none. The series would have died without Honda’s support through the 2000s. Honda leaving would lead to Chevy leaving. It would leave four races looking for sponsors on the Honda side, and leave Penske’s Detroit GP looking for a new corporate sponsor. It would mean an immediate contraction of the series. But that’s not all.
For Roger, there is the matter of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the new rules and with a factory team relationship with Honda/Acura, Roger could be in a position to compete for the overall win at that race for the first time ever in 2022. It’s on his bucket list. He’s 82. He’s not going to push for Honda to join NASCAR if it means Honda leaving Indycar high and dry. And he’s not going to throw away his last best chance at an overall win at Le Mans.
So, what’s going on?
This brings us back to the question of why Art St. Cyr went public and why he chose the channel he chose. In short, I think that on October 30, 2019, there may have been a plan afoot to join NASCAR and leave Indycar and IMSA . The purpose of Art St. Cyr talking to Charles Bradley may have been to call attention to it with a specific audience in Japan for the purpose of killing the idea. At least to squash the idea of leaving Indycar and IMSA as part of joining NASCAR .
Why St. Cyr and not Klaus or Erikson? Maybe Klaus and Erikson had been arguing against the idea internally and had been losing the battle. Maybe they’re not comfortable jumping over anyone’s head in California to Japan. Why Bradley instead of Malsher? Maybe the right people read Bradley, and not Malsher.
Then it gets into “print” and affords someone outside the normal reporting structure (Like an F1 program executive who used to work for St. Cyr and Erikson) to see it and raise the issue with his colleagues at HRD in Japan, who are known to like the Indycar program.
When do we know if that gambit worked?
I would guess that if Honda is going to join NASCAR , they would have to do it for 2022 (new engine). In order to do that, they would likely have to announce something by this summer. Acura will need to give some indication on the future of the IMSA program by August. The contract with Penske is up at the end of the season, and Acura would likely need to partner with a chassis manufacturer for LMDh by mid-summer in order to be ready for the 24 hours of Daytona in 2022. There should be an Indycar announcement this summer as to whether Honda is going to extend its contract and support the series from 2022.
One way or the other, I would think the picture will be clear by August at the latest.