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Honda's race against rival not extending to NASCAR

The IRL and F1 manufacturer says it has no designs on duplicating Toyota's stock-car plans.

By BRANT JAMES
Published March 12, 2006


HOMESTEAD - Honda's and Toyota's racing programs have seemingly followed each other from series to series and battled, sometimes at the expense of that series, for supremacy in trophies, technology and car sales.

But now Toyota is out of the Indy Racing League, established in the NASCAR Truck series and set to debut in Nextel Cup next year. And Robert Clarke, the president of Honda Performance Development, said his company is content where it is, as the lone engine supplier for the IRL.

NASCAR, he said, is not a consideration.

"Will we follow Toyota to NASCAR? I never say never. I've learned that in this business," he said during a national teleconference. "But we have no immediate or near-term plans to get into (NASCAR). We are quite occupied with our activity in the IRL and (have) no plans for NASCAR."

NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said when Toyota announced its Nextel Cup intentions in January that unnamed foreign-based manufacturers had visited races but "I don't know of any other that have made official inquiries."

Honda and Toyota are often lumped together as the embodiment of powerful foreign manufacturers, but their approaches are markedly different. Toyota, as the saying goes, is a car-selling company that races; Honda a racing company that sells cars. So Toyota's involvement in NASCAR is intended to increase brand identity and move merchandise. Honda's commitment to open-wheel racing allows it to hone the kind of in-car technology forbidden in NASCAR's old-school carbureted engines.

"I would agree that Honda's racing historically has been focused on technology," Clarke said. "Having not been directly involved with NASCAR, I think it's probably unfair for us to say that their technology is "dumbed down' or at a lower level, but it's clearly a different kind of technology. I hear from those that are involved that even though it's maybe an older technology, it's still extremely challenging.

"But as we've found, I think when we first looked at the IRL when we were still competing in CART, we might have looked at the IRL as being a dumbed down technology. But I can tell you from the day we got involved with it, we found that's not the case. So things are perceived, I think, unfairly when you're in another camp."

Honda's decision to stay with the IRL through at least 2009 came as good news for former Toyota teams that believed the company lost interest and diverted resources elsewhere when it launched NASCAR and Formula One ventures. Two-time series champion Sam Hornish said there has been a noticeable gain in horsepower from last year.

Scott Dixon said after he won the series title in 2003 and Toyota drivers claimed victories in 11 of 16 races that Toyota "pretty much laid down."

"It was a big sigh of relief (this year), knowing that this was going to actually be a year where we could fight for where we should be," he said.

Toyota and Honda competed in, then departed from the IMSA and CART series - and left teams in both series scrambling. They entered the IRL together in 2003 and after Toyota's strong start, Honda won 26 of the next 33 through last season, hastening Toyota's departure (Chevrolet left as well).

Both CART (now Champ Car) and the IRL are now one-engine "spec" series, which reduces costs for teams because they are not bidding for the services of competing manufacturers. The cost of a one-year Honda engine lease program has been reduced from $1.8-million last year to $1.3-million, IRL president Brian Barnhart says. It will fall to $1-million next year, Clarke said.

"We're archrivals and we particularly enjoy fighting each other," Clarke said of Toyota. "But why are we continuing to support the IRL? ... We believe strongly in open-wheel racing as a form of racing that Honda has historically competed in, and particularly in Formula One and CART and now the IRL. We very much enjoy that style of racing at the premier level."