Parker Johnstone on Driving the Spice Acura GTP Lights Racer
Championship-winning Acura-powered prototype rides again.
The 2015 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, and other associated events are over, but we're still sorting through our favorite sights and sounds from Monterey Car Week. Right at the top of the list: The Comptech Racing Spice Acura IMSA Camel GTP Lights race car that ran in reasonable anger for the first time since it claimed the 1993 Lights championship.
Piloted around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca by its original three-time title-winning driver, Parker Johnstone, the car -- powered by a modified version of the original NSX's 3.0-liter VTEC V-6 -- claimed a pair of second-place finishes in the vintage races at Laguna. Pushing out about 425-440 hp and a scant 275 lb-ft of torque, it wasn't quite a match for the turbo-boosted, Bruce Canepa-driven Porsche 962, but we see 962s all the time. In contrast, Honda/Acura has warehoused its old prototype racer for the past 22 years; seeing it in person, let alone blasting down the Corkscrew, coaxed grins all around. We had a quick chat with Johnstone about the Spice Acura and his experience behind the wheel after all these years.
AUTOMOBILE: You won races in SCCA, in the Firehawk Series, in the old Renault Cup National Championship, in IMSA including the Rolex 24 at Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring, and raced in the CART Indy-car series in the mid-'90s. What are you up to now?
Parker Johnstone: Lots of club and vintage racing. This is my eighth event in 10 weekends, and I've done 18 vintage race weekends so far this year. But I do it very quietly. After I did TV work [covering CART and NHRA] for ABC and ESPN, [I opened] a Honda dealership in Oregon. And now I also have Airstream travel trailers. We're the largest Airstream retail network in the world, we sell 38 percent of all airstreams worldwide. We also have a customization shop. I worked 80-100 hour weeks for a long time; now I can take off time due to the wonderful people [we employ] to come to weekends like this.
A: Doug Peterson, principal of the original Comptech team, got this car ready to go for the Rolex Motorsports Reunion. You guys even managed to source an original ECU and an old laptop computer to flash it to get the car running. That's all great stuff, but what is it like to actually drive?
PJ: It's got the old DG400 gearbox with massive gears. It's a fully tunneled, skirted ground-effects car. The [mid-'90s] Indy car had lot of power, but it doesn't stop and doesn't turn. Compared to this car it's an old farm truck.
A: Is that how you remembered it?
PJ: I had done Lights for the Spice factory team and other privateers, Nissan, Porsche, Jag, lots of GTP experience. I said the Indy car was terrible. It rolled [in corners], it wasn't responsive. When the front end bit, it wasn't confidence-inspiring. So going back to this [car this weekend], as soon as the door closed and I did the Hewland back-and-down into first-gear shift, it's like I've only been gone for a few weeks and we're back racing.
A: What speeds do you see in it at Laguna Seca?
PJ: Maybe 150 mph here, it makes around 3,500-4,000 pounds of downforce, and would make more if it would hit terminal velocity at 185, but we aren't that fast here. It weighs 1,850 lbs. Useable power is 425-440 horsepower, and 275 lb-ft of torque. It makes more power with revs but we aren't running it [to the original redline in the name of saving the engine]. If another car [balks you] off a corner, you're done because it's a downforce car but also a momentum car.
A: How do you make it go quick?
PJ: The change in driving style from what I learned in an Indy car is completely different, it changed in Indy car, so I had to go back to that.
To drive it quick, the commitment is similar to driving at [Indianapolis Motor Speedway]. You go through this intellectual process of realizing that if you feather-off the gas, you're going to move the center of pressure forward, you're going to destabilize the back of the car. You actually will go through the corner not only quicker but at a much higher level of stability when you go flat than you will feathering out -- even though everything in your brain, from self-survival mechanisms to whatever else, is going, "Whaaaaaaat!"
It's very similar in this car. Like coming down the hill, you say, "I understand the power of large tunnels producing downforce at a zero-yaw moment," because if you get any yaw moment in the car and you unload the tunnels, you're done. If you don't commit and you feather-out of the throttle and you don't roll [smoothly] into the corner, it's gone. Again, it's like Indy: If you try to drive Indy at 185-205 mph, the car is oversprung, overdampened, it's not producing downforce, the ride height is not in the ideal setting. The car is moving and it's loose and you're going, "How can I drive 230 mph when I can't drive 205?" You have to go push through that, you just have to go. So your out-lap is 226, 228, 230 mph, and you're in it. Same thing in this car: If you try to sneak up on it, it'll bite you, and bite you hard.
[The Spice Acura requires] precision, be smooth, roll-in gently. With an Indy car, the difference how you drive turn two here, for example, you're two different drivers. If you try to roll the old Indy car in smoothly and let it transition in turn two, you've missed it. You have to pitch the Indy car in, but that doesn't work for this. Getting into this car, it was a time machine that took me back. [Because of its] ride-height requirement and riding on [suspension] packers, the feel is unreal. You go over a dime, you know if it's heads or tails.