Honda Performance Development has been on the sharp end of the results in so many racing categories – including for the last 14 years and counting in the Verizon IndyCar Series – that it was little surprise to see its Acura NSX make such a promising return to sports car racing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
And three drivers with Verizon IndyCar Series ties – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and Katherine Legge – thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Hunter-Reay was among the four drivers who shared the No. 86 Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian entry that completed the 24-hour event on the Daytona International Speedway road course and finished fifth in the GT Daytona class (and 22nd overall). It was also good enough to claim the class victory in the North American Endurance Championship, which consists of the four endurance rounds of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship calendar.
Rahal and Legge were part of the No. 93 Shank effort that ran until the final half hour at Daytona before incident damage from earlier in the race took its toll and ended the car’s day 11th in class and 29th overall. Those involved were pleased with the effort in the NSX’s return to sports car racing.
“It was fantastic from start to finish,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner for Andretti Autosport. “The car was there and it was reliable and predictable, especially in the rain. I was just blown away by how poised the car was and it allowed me to get away with a lot, it was very forgiving.”
Hunter-Reay and Rahal got behind the wheel of their respective Acuras in the worst of conditions – at night and during a cold, persistent rain. When they were relieved hours later, they had taken the cars to first and second in class.
“We walked away from everyone when we were leading for a few hours,” Hunter-Reay said. “I’m very pleased with the NSX debut, and I am blown away by everyone at HPD and Michael Shank Racing that could do this in such a short amount of time. It is an amazing feat and a win within itself. These guys should be very proud. They have a bright future ahead of them.”
Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda in the Verizon IndyCar Series, agreed with his weekend teammate.
“I'm really pleased with the performance of the car,” he said. “Everybody did a great job and we made it a long way, even though it was about 17 minutes too short (to complete the 24 hours). This Michael Shank Racing team has done a tremendous job, as has Acura.”
Legge, the veteran of 39 Indy car starts who will drive the full season in the No. 93 Acura, applauded the hastened efforts of HPD to get the cars ready for Daytona under a compressed schedule.
“It’s been incredible,” she said. “Since they got the car, they have been working nonstop and everything that we have thrown at them, they’ve worked through. Every little problem, they’ve fixed and we’ve moved on to the next thing.
“(The car) came over (from Japan) pretty basic – we had very basic ABS (anti-lock brake system) and traction control and all the systems, and they’ve just been working day and night to make it the best race car that it could be for the 24 hours. And they haven’t had much time with it. I think a few of them have grayer hair.”
Maybe, but the results of Sunday’s race conclusion put smiles on the faces of HPD representatives.
“To be slightly disappointed with a fifth-place finish in the debut of the Acura NSX GT3 in a 24-hour endurance race says a lot about the dedication of HPD, Acura and Michael Shank Racing,” said Art St. Cyr, HPD president. “We came in with a goal of just to finish the race and, if not for contact damage from earlier in the race, we were on track for two top-six finishes. This bodes very well for our future prospects in this program, starting at Sebring (for the 12-hour race there) in March.”
Allen Miller, the race team principal at HPD, appreciated the contributions of Hunter-Reay and Rahal, particularly in taking time away from their “real” jobs driving Indy cars. Rahal and his father, three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal, had a hand in development of the production NSX, as did retired Indy car great Dario Franchitti.
“Both Graham and Ryan fitted in seamlessly to our overall effort and contributed enormously in the overnight hours, when the rain was falling heavily and the track was at its most treacherous,” Miller said. “Thanks to both Ryan and Graham for their efforts, and to everyone at HPD, HRD (Honda R&D Japan), RealTime Racing, Honda of America Racing Team, all of our technical partners and, of course, the Michael Shank Racing organization. This truly was a group Honda success.”
Hunter-Reay and Rahal now turn their attention to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Both will participate in the all-series open test Feb. 10-11 at Phoenix International Raceway before they head off for private team and Honda testing in advance of the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 10-12.
All the Daytona sports car race did is whet their appetites to hop into their Indy cars and rev up for the season.
“Good fun to be there and kick our year off,” Rahal said. “We wanted to get another Rolex win to follow up on my win six years ago, but we’re going to have to wait until 2018.
“However, INDYCAR season’s coming up, I can’t wait. I think we’re going to have a great performance and I think our team’s going to be on top of it. I’m excited to get to St. Pete, try to lead the charge for Honda once again and go fight those Penske boys and see if we can get a championship.”