Acura is making the most of its brand of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” this racing season by leading the manufacturers’ race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s DPi class. This might seem a hard sell at a time when even NASCAR, let alone IndyCar or Formula 1 struggles for television viewership. But sports car racing on twisty, hilly road courses with mostly sports, and/or premium brands may have more resonance with well-heeled enthusiasts who are increasingly looking for an antidote to the industry shift toward autonomous electric road cars expected in the coming decade.
It’s fitting that Honda’s premium marque chose a Penske Racing test day of its two Acura ARX-05 DPi racecars at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, a circuit that’s virtually booked up all season long, in part thanks to drivers’ clubs, driving schools, and manufacturers inviting loyal customers to try their skills on the 14-turn, four-mile road course.
“The basic idea” of the ARX-05 DPi “is production styling cues and engine tech,” Matt Niles explains. He’s principal engineer of the DPi program and large project leader for Honda Performance Development (HPD). “We race what we sell.”
Acura has struggled to sell its new hybrid-powered NSX, which Honda proudly proclaims was designed and engineered, and is hand built, in the U.S. near its big Marysville, Ohio assembly plant. Acura’s first sold cars and SUVs in the U.S. and Canada in 1986, and it has raced every year since then, except for 1994-95, winning 17 championships among TLX-, TSX- and NSX-based cars.
Designers in Torrance, California “sketched a cool Acura racecar,” which was sent to Oreca in France for aero development, and tested at Paul Ricard, Niles says. Thirteen of such Oreca-based race cars, including the Acura ARX-05 DPi are raced worldwide.
Beginning with the 2018 season, Acura and Penske Racing had a DPi (Daytona prototype) racecar based on the J35 V-6 that is found in the TLX, RLX, and MDX models with the 3.5-liter engine. It’s limited in the series to 600 hp (so it has “590-ish” horses). Being endurance/sports car racing, sanctioning body IMSA is forever adding ballast to various cars and adjusting limits to keep racing competitive among teams and brands. HPD already is worrying about a new formula and rules package due to arrive for the 2022 season.
Though Acura didn’t even raise the possibility, I can imagine a limited number of NSX customer track cars without airbags, air conditioning, the hybrid powertrain and other street requirements, and without the race series limitations, just as Aston Martin, McLaren, Ford with its GT Mark II and others do for rich amateur racers, to help keep the car’s factory busy.
On the Acura ARX-05 DPi, there’s a bespoke intake plenum and bigger radiators. The Borg-Warner turbos are similar to Honda’s IndyCar turbos, Niles says, bespoke front and rear dampers, and HPD’s own driver-adjustable anti-roll bar. The suspension and gearbox case are shared with Oreca’s LMP2 car.
Drivers adjusting those anti-roll bars for Penske Racing this season are Dane Cameron and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who are leading the IMSA DPi series in points, and Ricky Taylor wth his teammate, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who are third in points, behind the Cadillac DPi-V.R of Felipe Nasr and Pipo Derani.
Next race is a two-hour, 40-minute enduro on August 4, here at Road America, thus Team Penske’s testing.
How does this all pencil out for someone like Roger Penske? Acura wasn’t talking those numbers, but Niles says a production-based Acura NSX GT3 car like the one Peter Cunningham’s Real Time Racing campaigns in the Blancpain GT series goes for about $525,000. The crowds for the IMSA WeatherTech Championship aren’t huge, as I noted above, but if they’re anything like the fans who attended back when I paid to get into Road America to watch IMSA in the early 1980s, they’re a loyal, intensely interested group.
Back in the ‘80s, there were none of the fan hospitality tents that the manufacturers—Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan in the top-tier DPi series alone—or interactive displays that connect the racecars to the street models in showrooms. As a friend associated with one of those other (non-Acura) brands points out, virtually every automaker selling in the U.S. races in one series or another. These days, racing, especially the kind practiced at big, wooded circuits far from the urban and suburban traffic jams that are pushing us ever closer to autonomous technology helps provide respite from that bleak, driverless vehicle future (even if the races create their own traffic jams).
It seems to be working for Acura, which has struggled with NSX sales in 2018, its second model year. Together with mid-cycle upgrades added to the 2019 model, the race effort has pumped up Acura NSX sales by 63.4 percent for the first half of this year, to 151 sold so far in 2019, compared with 93 for the first half of ’18.