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The Way It Is/ Honda & US Formula Ford's 40th anniversary

by Gordon Kirby
It was my great pleasure to spend a very pleasant few days at Road America last weekend for the celebration of forty years of Formula Ford racing in America. Invented in the UK in 1967, Formula Ford 1600 was imported to the United States two years later and the formula immediately took off. Big fields quickly appeared for one of the most effective forms of low-cost open-wheel racing ever invented. Many top drivers around the world started their serious racing careers in Formula Ford, including Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna.

Formula Ford in America has also contributed mightily to the sport. Skip Barber won the first two American FF championships in 1969 and '70. Skip drove a Caldwell in 1969 and a Tecno in '70 and enjoyed a successful racing career in Can-Am, Formula B, Formula 5000 and briefly F1, too. In retirement Skip went on to found and develop the USA's most enduring and successful race driving school and today he owns and operates the Lime Rock road course in northwestern Connecticut.

Other top drivers to win the SCCA's national FF1600 title include Bob Earl who won the championship in 1973 and went on to race at the front in Formula B and IMSA GTP cars. Dave Weitzenhof won a record four SCCA FF titles between 1977-'87 and continues to race today at 66 in the Formula Continential class. My old friend David Loring won the 1978 championship aboard a factory All American Racers Eagle and achieved the distinction of winning more than fifty FF1600 races over the years in the United States, Canada and England. Loring went on to race with further distinction in Formula Atlantic and in IMSA, winning a dozen races in Camel Lights and IMSA GTU and GTO cars, including three Sebring 12 hours class wins.

Probably the most successful graduate of American FF1600 was Jimmy Vasser who won the SCCA's championship in 1986 driving a Swift DB1 and went on to become one of America's top open-wheel racers of the last twenty years. Jimmy won the CART title in 1996 with Chip Ganassi's team and today he's the co-owner with Kevin Kalkhoven of the KV Racing IRL team.

A tremendous collection of more than 200 Formula Fords turned out at Road America last weekend to celebrate the category's forty years in America. Organized by longtime formula car racer and track manager Mike Rand, the event attracted examples of almost every conceivable type of FF1600 from Lotus 51s to the latest Swift and it was great to see former champions Barber, Weitzenhof and Loring on hand to enjoy the celebrations.

It's well-known of course, that American Formula Ford has been in decline for many years. Anthony Lazzaro is the biggest name to come out of the category over the last two decades as the formula became increasingly expensive and lacked any kind of manufacturer support to push it forward.

© Gordon Kirby
Sadly, Ford did little or nothing to support the category over the years so it was great to hear the news at Elkhart Lake last weekend that Honda plans to enter a Fit-based engine in American FF racing next year, pending the engine's final approval by the SCCA. The Honda FF engine is the first tangible step in American Honda's new grassroots racing initiative. Honda's American racing boss Erik Berkman said the company's new plan has been taking shape over a number of years.

"This is not in response to the calamity of the financial markets since last fall," Berkman commented. "This started before that, although the calamity may have facilitated this effort.

"In my time in R&D and in the factory before that there were always racing clubs," Berkman continued. "Racing clubs became very popular, just like they are in Japan. Before I left Ohio, over many years there was a belief in supporting racers and growing Honda's brand and to ultimately maybe someday go toward a performance division, like AMG or M-Power, that would affect the road cars.

"We've put into business plans ideas which began before my time under Robert (Clarke) which was a need to go towards supporting grassroots motorsports. Last year, in my first year at HPD, we studied and prepared to roll out the next business plan for the next fiscal year. In January and then March and May we went to the very top of American Honda's management.

"We involved lots lawyers and company leaders with elevated titles. We looked at this thing from every angle and after a lot of hard work we got formal approval to go. A team of people was put together about this time a year ago and we finally got approval in May."

Berkman explained how Honda's grassroots racing program will work. "What we're going to do in grassroots motorsports is support racers who run Honda and Acura products. You have to be an active racer, have a logbook, and be a member in good standing with one of the sanctioning bodies. We're going to have the ability to sell them parts and engines and race cars--whatever ultimately comes of this. "Right now, the only way you can buy something from us is to go to a Honda dealer and we argue that we don't want to sell our racing engines, or parts, to racers through our dealers. Of course there are a lot of dealer franchise laws and so forth that had to be investigated.

"We've got a phased plan of introducing components and engines. At some point we want to introduce a turn-key racing conversion where you can buy the car from the factory and also buy everything from roll cage to brakes, engine and so forth, and offer that to you at a fair price so we can make our margin and you would get a better deal than if you had to do it on your own."

Berkman said Honda is searching to find the right series to support. "That could even go so far as to spawn a Civic SI Cup series," he commented. "We want to get our toe in the water on those things. We don't want to build thirty of them on speculation and find out we only have five customers. So there's a little give and take. There are so many things that have yet to be determined in our longterm plan.

© Gordon Kirby
"The first, most concrete thing we want to do is offer a Formula Ford engine," Berkman said. "We've worked closely with Sandy Shamlian at Quicksilver and with others, including the SCCA. There's a process that have you go through for SCCA approval.

"The Fit engine is perfect for this application. Not only does it fit. With the restrictor plate and ECU that HPD supplies we've matched the power and torque curves of the Kent engine. Sandy and Quicksilver have been supportive of the project and helped us develop the engine and work our way through the process with the SCCA."

Honda's new Formula Ford engine is based on its Fit four-cylinder 1.5 liter overhead cam L15A7 engine. The fuel-injected Fit engine has been developed by HPD in company with Sandy Shamlian of Quicksilver Racing. The aim has been to produce a power curve comparable the existing and long outdated 'Kent' FFord engine but with much longer service life, improved availability of parts and components and cheaper operating costs. The prototype engine has been tested in a Swift DB1 chassis and car and engine were on display at Road America last weekend. The car and engine ran some demonstration laps driven by 1998 and '99 SCCA FF1600 champion Keith Nunes.

The Fit engine is being developed to equal the performance of the Kent powerplant thanks to an HPD-developed intake restrictor plate and appropriately mapped ECU. If testing reveals the need for additional performance adjustments, changes can be made to the restrictor plate and/or the ECU maps to achieve this goal.

"Many of us, myself included, have been involved in FF racing," said Marc Sours, HPD Production Division Manager and Large Project Leader for HPD's grassroots projects. "We've all seen FF engine costs rise and replacement parts become increasingly difficult to locate.

"The result has been a decline in FF participation. We believe that introducing the modern, less-expensive Honda Fit engine can restore interest in and raise the profile of FF to a point where it once again becomes the place for young drivers to begin their careers, and where existing SCCA club racers will find economical, close competition."

HPD will supply all necessary parts from intake through exhaust, including a chassis conversion kit. Honda believes the engine will require minimal maintenance and tuning. HPD expects engine rebuilds would be reduced from two per year to one every other year. Top-end refreshing would be needed just once a year rather than multiple times per season. Both crankshaft and valve-spring life should be extended dramatically; and most ignition and all carburetor maintenance would be eliminated.

The complete Honda FF kit is expected to sell for under $12,000. The package will include a base L15A7 engine, FF race kit (including intake, exhaust, dry sump, restrictor plate and ECU), and a bolt-in chassis kit, to permit installation of the engine without welding or other major modifications. Individual component parts would also be available for purchase separately. Honda hopes SCCA approval to be complete by November so that the engine will be ready to race for the 2010 season.

"You'll be able to get parts for the engine and have somebody who is eager, ready, willing and able to support you," Berkman remarked. "We will support the champion or each individual race winner with contingency money."

Berkman said Honda wants to help create a new formula that can operate and thrive as part of the USA's anarchical open-wheel ladder system. "We could go to shifter karts and maybe we could go to the other rungs between Formula Ford and Indy car," Berkman observed. "We are looking at that and we are talking about how do we create a Honda brand with a reasonable progression up the ladder system to encourage drivers, mechanics, engineers and team owners. Having some emphasis towards the base of the sport will hopefully help attract fans and competitors.

"We are going to pick and choose future projects based on whether or not we can make a business out of it and it makes some sense. We probably won't get rich doing this. Where do we go? Do we try midgets, for example, and how much volume is there and how stable is it? We won't be able to make a lot of money, but we won't lose a lot of money either, and we will be able to stay busy and hopefully make the sport stronger through our involvement at the grassroots level.

"We've got all the tools and capabilities to build a race car," Berkman added. "This isn't the scope of building an LMP car, but I think we could do it and bring it to market to compete. Above Formula Ford and below Indy Lights, it's a little bit confusing. Would we make it better, or not, by putting another option in there? You've got choices between Star Mazda, Atlantic and Formula BMW, and if you throw Formula Honda in there, where's the sweet spot? We haven't decided. But we'd like to think that makes some sense."

At Road America last weekend there were grumbles from some old-timers about Honda's anticipated move into Formula Ford. Some complain that their investment in 'Kent' engine parts and components will be lost to Honda's grassroots racing initiative but most people agree that Honda's arrival should provide a big boost for an essential category of racing that has long suffered from neglect. As we all know, manufacturer support is the key to success for any type of motor racing, professional and amateur both. Here's hoping Honda's Fit Formula Ford engine will help the category recapture some of its glory days of old.

Meanwhile my personal thanks and congratulations to Mike Rand for organizing a superb 40th anniversary of American FF1600 last weekend. The sport needs more people like him.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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