Most teams who show up to race the 24 Hours of Daytona are big-budget efforts staffed by a host of professionals. Not the Honda of America Racing Team. They’re an all-volunteer team of regular Honda employees recruited mostly by word of mouth for one purpose: racing the cars Honda makes.
HART has competed in endurance races since its inception in 1989, but those early races were little SCCA amateur events. Slowly HART climbed up, steadily moving into ever-more competitive series, then taking a year off in 2017 to simply shadow a more professional team. This year they’re tackling their biggest challenge yet: the North American Endurance Cup, which includes the United States’ four most grueling endurance races. When I met them, they were running an Acura NSX at the 24 Hours of Daytona. They’d come a long way from wheeling Civics around a track.
“We like [endurance racing] because if you win a race, it’s not just because of the driver—it’s the whole team. It’s pit stops, it’s strategy, it’s reliability,” HART driver and team leader Chad Gilsinger told Jalopnik. Gilsinger works as a Vehicle Dynamics Test Engineer at Honda’s R&D department.
“It allows people to feel like they’re part of the win, because they are,” Gilsinger added. The team can incorporate a variety of volunteers from across the company that way, most of whom are also involved with their own grassroots racing efforts outside of HART.
Three pro drivers have joined the effort to do Daytona, including John Falb, Sean Rayhall and Acura factory driver Ryan Eversley, but they appreciate the team vibe all the same. “Here, it’s kind of pre-announced that you are no more important than the guy changing your right rear tire, or the guy who’s carrying your tire,” said Falb.
Because it’s largely a volunteer effort, though, the team operates on a fraction of the budget compared to the others running in their GT Daytona class. Much of HART’s funding comes from Honda itself. HART is actually a department within the administration division of Honda, and a form of Human Relations within the company ultimately allocates their funding. Because this was a bigger than usual effort for HART, some of their funding came from selling off previous parts, cars and tools.
“Even though this isn’t our regular job and we don’t have much experience in this—the reason they give us the funding to do this is, we design and develop the car in Ohio, in the U.S.,” Gilsinger explained. “It’s not just that we’re taking the car and going racing, but we’re taking a car that everybody around [on the team] had something to do in creating it,” he added.
The team is a hell of a perk, despite functioning somewhat as a second job within the company. In fact, the existence of the HART team actually convinced Gilsinger to work at Honda, despite also having a job offer from Ford.
“[Ford] didn’t have anything like this, so it was an easy decision for me,” Gilsinger said. “Other than the fact that I had to live in Ohio.”
Pirelli World Challenge team Realtime Racing sold HART one of their old NSX GT3s, and it arrived right after Thanksgiving. Realtime ran the car in sprint races, so they already knew they had to add certain things to prepare it for endurance duty, such as quick connections to swap brake calipers more easily, IMSA-specific harnesses and sensors, a carbon clutch and a dry-break quick-fill system for topping off the oil on the fly. But then they discovered that the frame was tweaked, and had to thrash to rebuild the car before the preseason Roar Before the 24 test in January.
Fortunately, the car was already familiar to them. In addition to having team members embedded in Michael Shank Racing’s IMSA NSX GT3 effort last year, about half of the team members were involved in some way with the development of the NSX street car.
HART team manager Kurt Baker, even works at the very center responsible for the NSX: Acura’s Performance Manufacturing Center, or PMC for short. This came in handy for repairing their tweaked car.
“It doesn’t matter which race team you are—if you have damage to the [NSX], it’s actually repaired at PMC,” Gilsinger explained. “Even the street cars. If you have a street car and you have an accident or whatever, it goes to PMC to get fixed.”
PMC takes care of a lot of the parts supply and fabrication for the race car, even with HART’s short-notice needs. Thus, PMC got prime placement on both the race car and the hauler—similar to a traditional sponsor on any other car on the grid.
Complicating this rushed rebuild was the way that HART has to operate: outside of normal business hours.
“Usually every night, we have someone at the shop from about 4:00 in the afternoon ‘til about 9:00 at night. That’s like average,” Gilsinger explained. “Of course, on the week leading up to this, there were multiple nights where it was until 1 in the morning.”
Honda helps the HART team out considerably by allowing the use of its facilities and resources, however, it all has to be worked in around the regular work activities of the day. Because the team consists primarily of regular nine-to-five-type staff, one of the biggest challenges is one familiar to any amateur racer: getting time off.
Gilsinger told Jalopnik that he has been meeting with management to try to get more support for time off, given the travel needs of their schedule this year.
“It’s tough even internally getting people to understand what you’re asking because until you do it, it maybe doesn’t seem as challenging as it really is,” Gilsinger said.
Some managers are more flexible than others with giving time to go prep and race the car, but for the most part, the team still works on the race car outside of their regular work hours. Members of the R&D team, for example, still have to burn their own vacation time for race weekends. None of the team members get paid extra to race the car, and the team confirmed that most bosses still tend to frown on cutting off early to do race car stuff during the day.
As with any other do-it-yourself racing team, there’s a lot of long nights involved. HART only functions because they found a collection of people enthusiastic enough to do what’s effectively entire job in addition to their regular day jobs.
“Fortunately, we have a lot of very eager and dedicated people,” said Gilsinger. “That’s truly what it takes. Either people without wives or people with very, very understanding wives,” he joked.
Conveniently, the main space HART uses to work out of isn’t far away from most of the employees’ day jobs. The car is housed in a building at the TRC, or Transportation Research Center, which is owned by Honda though it is run separately. Honda works out of multiple buildings there, so there are at least many opportunities to finesse things the team needs. The TRC and various Honda facilities also provide the team access to a lot of good tools—yet one more thing they don’t have to buy separately as a team entity.
“Fortunately, all of us on the team are from multiple areas within Honda,” Gilsinger explained. “Pretty much anything we could need, we all have friends in those areas who could help out—specifically our fabrication departments. We do have some tools and equipment at our shops, but any of the specialized stuff like CNC machining stuff or the rapid prototype stuff, we rely on friends to help us out who utilize that equipment on a day to day basis.”
From around April to October, they also have access to various test tracks at Honda to shake down the car outside of Honda’s and other automotive entities like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s usual test times—usually from 6:00 in the evening onwards. Snowy Ohio weather keeps them from getting much practice time outside of that. The team admits that most of Honda’s test tracks are meant for road tests—not race car shakedowns, but they are at least close to Mid-Ohio if they need the latter.
“They’re good enough to where if you change a part, you can check that,” Gilsinger said of the test tracks.
From here, HART will go on to the rest of country’s most grueling pro endurance races—Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta—all as part of the North American Endurance Cup. They’re also considering running the IMSA race at Mid-Ohio, if they can schlep that far.