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Acura Exec Jon Ikeda on How They're Getting the Brand Back on Track

Motorsports and performance are in the driver's seat.

When the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship concluded with Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in October, a new champion stood atop both the Daytona Prototype International and GT Daytona classes. Acura claimed the DPi manufacturers' title, and Acura Team Penske took the team championship as well as the drivers' title with Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron behind the wheel of their ARX-05. In GTD, Meyer Shank Racing's Mario Farnbacher and Trent Hindman claimed the drivers' championship in their NSX GT3 Evo, with Meyer Shank winning the teams' championship. The results capped Acura's ascension to the top of U.S. sports-car racing in only the third year for the NSX campaign and the second for the DPi effort. Acura boss Jon Ikeda talks about what it all means.

Automobile: You've been with Acura almost from the beginning…

Jon Ikeda: I graduated from Art Center in 1989 then went straight to Japan to start working [for Honda] as a designer. It ended up being six years. The Integra, the Legend was just such a big thing that was happening at the time with Acura. I was very impressed, and I really wanted to go see who was making this stuff. [Eventually] I went back to Los Angeles, [then in 2007] we built the Acura Design Studio. In 2015, Acura picked me to be vice president and general manager [essentially head of sales and marketing], and this year I became brand officer, focusing more on product and brand.

Acura has been criticized for not necessarily knowing what it wants to be. Where do you stand now?

Valid point. We're 30 years old. We went through some growing pains. We knew out of the box what we wanted to be: We were performance-driven; we were supposed to be premium. But when Lexus and others got in the game, there was a lot of discussion of, "What is luxury?" or "What is premium?" We went through a stint where we got concerned: Are we doing the right thing? Is this the right thing for business? There was a little bit of self-discovery in terms of what we are about.

And now you come full circle?

We're reorienting ourselves to our heritage. What we're working on, it's not a brand-new philosophy. It's basically going back to the roots. For four years, we've refocused on what our image is all about: performance.

How key is racing to the strategy?

If we say we're about performance, we have to race, and we have to challenge ourselves against the other brands out there. In 2015 at Pebble Beach, we had three prototype NSXs and a tagline—"Precision Crafted Performance"—to get us back into the game. The following year, we revealed the GT3 racing program. In 2017 we announced the DPi program to make sure everybody understood we were going to be about performance. To be where we are now, winning double championships, is humbling.

Explain why it's so humbling.

Because we know what it takes; we've been racing with this company forever. But just because we race doesn't mean we're going to win. We understand the challenges very well. Three years might seem like a long time to some people, but [that timeline] in racing? It's a challenging experience, but it's a great one. We talk about 80 percent of the NSX is shared with the race car. So you come into our family, buy a car—you're part of the whole motorsport ethos whether you even know it or not.

How do you define performance in the context of Acura road cars?

We're not just chasing numbers. It's more human-centered. It needs to feel right. We want to build around motorsports and design. It's helped us with the A-Spec series; just the styling alone has brought the age group down quite a bit with those, and the upcoming TLX Type S [previewed by the Type S Concept]—those are vehicles to really get excited about in terms of what this performance thing is.

What effect thus far has the racing had on the business?

Winning is contagious. Whether you're a die-hard or halfway believer, when you start winning, you start behaving like winners and making decisions like winners, and things start to happen. It's critical—whether you're a dealer or you work at Acura R&D or in sales—that you have a positive outlook about things, and you start to get results. A brand takes a long time to build; winning is the first component. Motorsport has been a huge benefit for us because it allows us to build that image quickly as we transition into our next generation of automobiles.

The GTD manufacturers' title escaped you at the very end. Now you have unfinished business to shoot for next year…

Absolutely. Mike Shank was devastated. [Driver] Katherine Legge was devastated. At the same time, that's racing. Nothing is guaranteed. That's why winning is such a big deal, because you never know until the end. But at the IMSA banquet, there were three championship-winning cars there, and two of them were Acuras. Everybody's chin is a little bit higher, and we walk back into the office on Monday, and there's a big banner. It's a good thing and an important thing.

You said after Petit, you're just getting started. Expand on that.

Racing and winning forces everybody to rethink what we are. We have to represent those cars and wins now with the clients. It helps everybody refocus. And I'll bet on my Acura brothers and sisters, they're going to bring some badass things [to the market]. The people that win are going to be the clients; they're going to love our cars. All the enthusiasts, we don't want to let them down. And as long as I'm around, we'll be racing, one way, shape, or form somewhere, because not racing is not an option when it comes to this company. That's why I've been here for 30-plus years.

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