Late in the night at Daytona International Speedway last month, a January chill settles over the usually warm Florida coast that hosts the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. Just under the halfway point, in the garages and pit lanes of the Acura race teams, something equally discordant has materialized: Nothing. It was quiet, serene even–well, except for the endless Doppler-shifting roar of racecars rocketing past the start/finish line of the legendary racetrack.
It was loud, but unusually calm. There was little wrestling with engine components in the garage, scant duct-taping of body panels out in the pits, and a dearth of crazed gesticulating from crew members trying to troubleshoot this or that problem. Cars blazed by all night long, coming in just for tires, gas, and driver swaps. Team Penske and Meyer Shank Racing, driving machines based on Acura street cars, enjoyed a mood lacking in the frantic energy typical of previous decades in racing. The trackside action felt clinical and precise—and sporadic.
Thanks to decades of racing evolution, machines are far more reliable and now can easily go the distance of even the most grueling races. Acura’s engineering A-Team has pushed vehicle reliability even further. “The cars are so good these days that races are now won mostly by strategy,” said Team Penske driver Ricky Taylor, who drives the #7 Acura with teammates Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi.
For Acura, the success of their race cars can be traced to the components and engineering in the famously reliable road cars made for decades by its parent company, Honda, and specifically the Acura NSX supercar. The low-slung, $150,000 hybrid road rocket, which can hit 60 mph in 2.7 seconds on the way to a top speed of 191 mph, has delivered essentially bulletproof reliability in its five years on the road. It’s the Honda of supercars.
While the NSX has been significantly enhanced for racing performance, the GT3 Evo race cars fielded by Meyer Shank Racing is in some ways a “dumbed-down” version of its street counterpart, without the high-tech hybrid, all-wheel-drive system that contributes to the NSX’s status as a supercar.
The GT3 engine, according to Acura, is a direct carryover from the one in the production car, with few modifications. The electric motors that give the NSX its uniquely advanced AWD capability have been removed. (Regulations in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship stipulate rear-drive only and don’t allow hybrid engines.) Also, at the Anna, Ohio, factory, a few holes are drilled into the block of the 3.5-liter, twin turbo race engine for an element unnecessary in the hybrid version—an alternator, to supply electricity to the car’s onboard systems.
The reliability and longevity of the engine are essential to its success, says Meyer Shank team owner Mike Shank. “The cool thing about this car that the engine rolls off the assembly line in Ohio, has a couple of little outside machining bits done to it and the computer reflashed, then we stick it straight in the racecar,” he says. “Then it runs 10,000 miles. It’ll stay in the car until we get about halfway through the season, running at race speeds almost constantly. But we don’t have to worry about the engine.”
The GT3, developed by Acura Motorsports and Honda Performance Development (HPD), won the championship in its class for Meyer Shank Racing last year. While the engine is barely changed, the cars themselves are much looser interpretations of the production NSX,, and the insides look more like a science fair project than a production NSX. The GT3 uses the same space frame chassis as the NSX, but beyond that, it’s all racecar.
The interior is stripped and filled with hoses, cables, and assorted race hardware, and the body panels—mostly aluminum on the street NSX—are replaced with carbon fiber, reducing the weight of the car. An enhanced aerodynamics package, including a rear spoiler and a front splitter that sits just inches above the pavement, creates up to five times the downforce of the road-going NSX.
The GT3 also has a race-spec radiator in the front, which fills some of the space previously used by two front electric motor hardware, while the street car’s nine-speed dual-clutch transmission is replaced with a six-speed race transmission.
On the track, the cars have a different feel in how they corner. On the street version, the front electric motors generate a torque-vectoring effect that manages traction while turning. The racecar will also tend to understeer more. “Because of this you physically have to turn the steering wheel more when entering a turn, but it also gives you more adjustability while going through that turn,” adds HPD president Ted Klaus. “Of course, it’s got race tires and that heavy rear drive feel, along with lots of downforce, so you can just dive-bomb into a corner. That’s where you need that understeer to help you adjust the cornering.”
The overall geometry shared by the cars means that other aspects of their driving experiences are similar. The cylinders in the V6 engine have 75-degree bank angle, allowing engineers to tuck the engine low in the car and close to the driver, which, according to Klaus, generates a lower center of gravity as well as more instinctual balance and control.
It’s notable that race cars powered by internal combustion engines have reached nearly unimpeachable reliability just as electrification is beginning to take over. While the WeatherTech championship series doesn’t permit hybrids, plenty of other race series do, including Formula One and the ascendant, all-electric Formula E series. There’s talk that the International Motor Sports Association, which sanctions the WeatherTech series, might permit hybrid powertrains as soon as the 2022 season, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
Klaus says he would certainly prefer to race with the car’s performance-oriented hybrid AWD system, since Acura believes the system would give them a competitive advantage in a series that allows hybrids and AWD platforms. But the Acura team is also doing quite well without it. One of Shank’s cars won the championship last year, and while his teams came in eighth and tenth in last weekend’s race, the teams remain thoroughly optimistic about the rest of the season.
The next race, in Sebring, Florida, on March 21, is another endurance challenge, though only half as long at 12 hours. It’s a good bet, though, that for most teams it will again be more a demonstration of speed and strategy than reliability, which at this point is a foregone conclusion.