Honda Q&A with Eriksen, Cunningham and Shank

Pictured with the Acura NSX GT3 are (from left): Peter Cunningham, owner, RealTime Racing; Michael Shank, owner, Michael Shank Racing; Jon Ikeda, Acura vice president and general manager; and Stephen Eriksen, vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development.
Pictured with the Acura NSX GT3 are (from left): Peter Cunningham, owner, RealTime Racing; Michael Shank, owner, Michael Shank Racing; Jon Ikeda, Acura vice president and general manager; and Stephen Eriksen, vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development.

An interview with:
Stephen Eriksen
Peter Cunningham
Mike Shank

T.E. McHALE: Thank you for joining us at the Honda Indy 200 at Midâ€'Ohio. Actually, this morning, we're going to talk about the Acura sports car program. Yesterday it was announced globally that the Acura NSX GT3, which is in its first year of competition in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and the Pirelli World Challenge Series, will be available for customer purchase in 2018. We're here today to discuss that.

My guests to my immediate right, Steve Eriksen, chief operating officer of Honda Performance Development. To Steve's right, Peter Cunningham, owner of RealTime Racing, which campaigns the NSX GT3 in the Pirelli World Challenge Series. To my left, Michael Shank, Michael Shank Racing.

Steve, we'll start with you. From a process standpoint, what is going to change the way HPD does business when the NSX GT3 moves from a factory supported program to a customer program next year?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: I think the biggest change for us is putting in place all the infrastructure that is expected for a proper customer program. This is not our first rodeo. We've been customer racing before. Thankfully we can use that experience to our benefit.

But it's putting in place all the things that customers need to have: illustrated parts lists, brochures, parts lists, spares packages, all the things that customers will come to expect. Trackside members that can be supporting the program. All the documentation has to be in place. Website updates. There's a lot of behindâ€'theâ€'scenes stuff that has to go on to get a customer program off the ground.

We've been busy working on that leading up to this announcement.

T.E. McHALE: Can you give us a sense at this point of how much, if any, interest has been articulated from potential customers in the car?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: Yeah, it's interesting. A year ago was the first time for us to bring the NSX GT3 for the public to see right here at Midâ€'Ohio. There's no more appropriate spot to have introduced the GT3 car than right in the heart of Ohio where it's manufactured.

When we introduced that car here, we had immediate interest. Folks said, Okay, how much is it? Can I buy it right now?

We had to say, Hold on, we're not quite ready. We have to put in place a proper infrastructure to have the customer support that an Acura customer would expect.

A lot of our focus has been on putting that in place. There's been continued interest. We did the launch in Spa, as well. There were customers that came forward at that time. So we're expecting to see some cars racing with customers out there next year.

T.E. McHALE: At this point, let me take a quick moment to introduce one other member of the Acura team who has joined us today, Jon Ikeda. Jon has made a mantra saying that in order for us to establish a performance brand on the Acura side, we need to go racing. Jon believes that very strongly. Jon, thanks for making the time to join us today.

Peter, you have had a lengthy history with the NSX particularly. Obviously, the cars and the technologies have evolved very, very much since your first experience with the [first-generation] NSX. What similarities do you see between the first generation car and the current NSX?

PETER CUNNINGHAM: 25 years ago when we sorted out the first generation NSX for racing, I was involved at that time to help develop it. I had a small role in the development of this car. So I've had the opportunity to spend time in each.

I would say the biggest thing that I notice would be just the seating position and the view from the cockpit, the good visibility out of the car. It has good communication with the driver.

I would say each of the cars were very easy to drive, to get to know, to communicate with, and to try to get a good lap time from. I think that's something that on the new car prospective customers will appreciate just how much of a good home it is as you sit in there and look out and begin to push for a good lap time.

T.E. McHALE: Mike, you have had some success with the current NSX in the very first year for racing the new car. You've taken it to victories backâ€'toâ€'back at the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, then at Watkins Glen. What about the NSX do you think particularly would be attractive to customers coming onboard next year?

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]MIKE SHANK: First, I really got to talk about some things about this program that I think get pushed under the table a little bit when you look at the compressed time schedule we've been on, what we've been able to do with this package in a very short amount of time.

We led 170 laps at Daytona right out of the box. Both cars finished. We've done tons of durability testing. We've won two races. We’ve finished on the podium three times now. We're in both the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championship hunt. Yet, the car is only seven races old. I think that's a critical point when you're looking at the development of other GT3 cars, where we're at compared to maybe where they were at seven races into the program.

So that's a true tribute to Honda, HPD, all the engineers, the talent, and our teams between Peter and I, developing this car at extremely fast pace.

The great thing about the customer program, in my opinion, on the NSX is we'll have battled tested this thing through-and-through. We are fighting for a championship in its first year. Hopefully most of the mountains are conquered before one client gets ahold of this car.

For me, customer service, when I was a customer of Honda in my P2 [prototype] programs or with other clients, it's customer service that we're emphasizing. So that when people have good times and when they have bad times, Honda, HPD, Acura, will all be here to support them.

So we have this program that's getting stronger every time we roll the car out of the transporter. We go to Road America next week. I expect for us to be able to contend for a win there. There's no reason in January at Daytona 24 that a client can't lead the Rolex 24 with this car.

T.E. McHALE: Steve, real quickly, Mike touched on the customer service aspect of this, and you touched on it in your opening remarks. Talk about what that looks like physically, what we're going to see from an NSX GT3 customer program in terms of the support that's going to be offered by Acura.

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: Well, I think it's been demonstrated in the past, as Mike just alluded to, we tend to underâ€'promise and overâ€'deliver. The quality of people that we put on the program are works quality people.

When you have people supporting you that you know have the experience to win championships, that makes a big difference in a customer's mind. We have great pride in what we do for customers. It's part of our Mission Statement at HPD. It's something where we feel as invested in success as the people who buy our products.

I think Mike can attest to that in his experience, as well, that we bring really quality people to the program. We've got good documentation. We've got good information, good data. When we complete this season, we'll have a year's worth of chassis setups and information to help teams be able to hit the ground running and be competitive from the getâ€'go.

T.E. McHALE: With that, we will open it to questions from the floor.

Q. How do you get the programs to complement each other, the IndyCar and the sports car program?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: The great thing is we have a foundation of engineering and processes that can apply to any program that we take on. Whether you're racing a GT3 car or an IndyCar, the underlying processes that we've developed as a company apply. I think that's where you see a lot of commonality.

When you're having an issue at the track, if you should have an issue, it goes to the same process of finding root cause, developing a countermeasure, implementing that, and communicating it.

It's really about the common infrastructure that has been used so successfully to be in the winner's circle consistently.

Q. What is the limit for customers you can supply?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: What we're trying to do is put in place enough product to meet the demand. Of course, there's a limitation based on the production throughâ€'put. You can't have instantly a hundred cars or whatever. But we've been filling the pipeline, so to speak, with resources and with product to be able to meet demand.

We don't know how much demand ultimately. In racing, there's always a lot of talk. What really matters is the people that put down their deposit. So we're going to try to expand as rapidly as the customer base demands it.

Q. For the customers, are you supplying as well engineers to get technical help?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: The idea is, depending on the car count in the series, we would expand the number of support personnel to match that. We would expect that there will be kind of a base level of people that would be there as a face of Acura at the track to answer questions, to deal with the governing body, to handle any technical concerns, to provide information, that sort of thing.

We will have the technical resources necessary to make sure that teams are successful.

Q. If a customer team wants to change the car aero package, whatever, are they allowed to touch the car, or just to accept the car like you supplied?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: It's a homologated chassis, so there are limitations of what you can do to the vehicle. Essentially it is a package. There are options, depending on whether you're going endurance racing or sprint racing. So you have to work within the window that's been homologated with the FIA.

There is some adjustability, but essentially it's a homologated package, just like any other GT3 car.

Q. Mike, how are you going to get the two programs to complement each other, talking about having an IndyCar program?

MIKE SHANK: At this time, I don't have a full-time IndyCar program, so my world is in sports car racing right now. We did the Indy 500 this year with Honda and Andretti.

I don't know what the future holds for us totally. But I'm glad I'm a part of this program, for sure.

Q. Is that still a goal?

MIKE SHANK: Of course. I love the Indy 500. It is always a goal. But sports car is where my home is and got me to this point. We can't turn our backs on that.

Q. Mike, how much of a bummer is it to be developing a car and now you're going to be racing against those cars?

MIKE SHANK: Well, I knew what the goal was from the beginning. I mean, but I can tell you this: if I'm competing against them, I'm going to beat them. I'm going to race them as hard as I'd race anybody.

But the difference is that I'm also here to help them. I won't hold any information back, because that's commitment I've made. But I will try to win. We're putting a lot of effort into this car. Lee [Niffenegger], the [HPD Acura NSX GT3] program manager, can tell you that when we make a change in a car, we think about how that change is going to affect the clients or the future buyers of this car. It's not a foregone conclusion. We talk about that a lot, don't we?

But if I race against other Acura customer teams, I'm going to try to win.

Q. Where are these cars going to be manufactured?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: The space frame is manufactured alongside the production cars at PMC, the Performance Manufacturing Center in Ohio. The engine is manufactured on the same line as the production engine. Those two components are straight out of the factory by the same guys that assembled the NSX production car.

Those pieces then go to JAS Motorsport in Italy, where they do final assembly.

Q. Will there be a certain amount of data sharing to help evolve the car?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: Our intention is to take this year's experience and then provide that as a starting point for the other teams to be able to be successful. Teams generally don't want to share data amongst themselves. That's true in every form of motorsport.

But I think one of the goals of this year's running was first to show that this can be a competitive package. I think we've proven that. Second is to gather the data that will help teams be successful right out of the box.

Anything that we've gathered with these two excellent teams over the year becomes part of the database of what we use to help the commerce. Our image is that we'll set up, and we already have, in fact, the brochure. If you go to the Acura website, go to Acura Motorsports, you can download the brochure, is to have a site where customers log in with a user name and a password, then have 24/7 access to a whole wealth of information. It's kind of a repository, a single source of truth, where customers can come and get the information they need.

Q. A technical question. Shortâ€' or longâ€'term future, is it technically possible when the right circumstances come around to modify the NX3 to a GT2 car?

STEPHEN ERIKSEN: A GTLM? Not currently. The FIA is certainly having discussions about they're calling it harmonization of the regulations to try to make the technical regulation expectations for a GT3 car where they talk about certain subsections of the car. They want that to be similarly worded between GTLM and GTE or GTD or GE.

That GTLM car is a different beast, honestly. There's only been one example that I know of where they've made a common car. The regulations are not at that point right now. They're two separate beasts.

T.E. McHALE: We will wrap it up. Thank you all for joining us.

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