When it comes to motorsports, the average person might not think of Acura first and foremost. But the truth is, Acura has a long and successful history in racing, winning 17 manufacturer championships in various series across 29 of its 31 years of existence. That strong legacy still hasn’t done much to quiet the haters of the latest Acura NSX.
When our review of the NSX was published last year, it was met with its fair share of disbelievers, as the first round of reviews for the car in some other outlets described it as “the world’s slowest supercar.”
Turns out, they might have just been the world’s slowest drivers, as our glowing review was later confirmed by other outlets to be accurate.
Still, groupthink is a hard thing to overcome, and there are still those out there who can’t shake that initial impression of the new NSX as being a plodding, overly styled supercar which strayed too far from the original’s legendary design.
So what better way to silence the critics than to go racing against the world’s most well respected brands like BMW, Porsche, Ferrari, and Audi—and win? The NSX GT3 was imagined to be able to do just that.
(Full Disclosure: Acura needed me to drive the NSX GT3 so badly that they flew me to Grand Rapids from my home in the Bluegrass and provided accommodations in lovely South Haven, Michigan for an evening.)
The stringent rule set for IMSA and WC competition means that the GT3 has to be rear-wheel drive only, unlike the all-wheel drive street version. All that hybrid electric power? Gone. The nine-speed automatic transmission? Replaced by a six-speed sequential gearbox.
The suspension is completely customized for the GT3 as well. And, of course, you can’t win an endurance race without the ability to carry enough fuel to get you to the finish, so the NSX GT3’s fuel cell is double the size of the road car’s tank, with the ability to fuel from either side.
The rules also state that the main visual character of the road car has to be maintained, but aerodynamic enhancements are permitted. Building the GT3 side-by-side with the road-going version in Acura’s Ohio factory makes that easy, keeping many common surfaces between the cars. That being said, the aerodynamic changes to the GT3 result in a whopping 500 percent increase in downforce and 300 percent increase in aero efficiency.
Most impressive, perhaps, is that the twin-turbo V6 engine from the NSX available at a dealership near you is exactly the same powerplant found in the NSX GT3, complete with the same intercoolers and airboxes. Only the exhaust has been modified.
And even though the additional horsepower of the street car’s hybrid motors is missing, the nearly 1,000 pound weight savings in the GT3 mean that the 500 horsepower thundering from that V6 means that the race car has a significantly better power-to-weight ratio.
So what’s it like to actually drive, then? Well. But before we go full racecar, I’m invited to spend an hour or so getting acclimated to the road course in the excellent NSX road car. Acura has limited this drive to a small, select group of writers with significant racing experience, which means that there is an extremely favorable ratio of cars to drivers. (I’ll also add I’ve personally had a bit of luck racing Acuras, as well, piloting a NSX to one of its first motorsports victories ever in the Sports Car Club of America Targa event in 2016, competing with everything from Lotus Elises to Shelby Mustangs to tube-frame, purpose-built race cars.)
And, friends, if all this event had been was an hour at Gingerman Raceway with the 2017 Acura NSX, it would still have been a rip-roaring success. There is no lead/follow, no engineer ride-alongs. Just me and an hour with one of the best cars in the world at a wickedly fast race course with a pleasant lack of nasty walls to punish me for any overaggression.
The NSX’s brilliance in this setting cannot be overstated. Since my initial impressions of the car at Thermal Raceway over a year ago, I’ve had over a thousand miles in the driver’s seat, and I’ve learned to love the way it paints its path around a track. After the Pirelli tires come up to temperature, the car transforms into a boisterous, snarling, oversteering carnival ride, rewarding you for early throttle inputs and late braking.
Including cool-downs, I joyously take over 30 laps of the circuit, running nearly the equivalent of a Lemons or ChumpCar stint in a $200,000 supercar.
But, as glorious as this is, it’s merely a warm-up for the headliner. Peter Cunningham, a man who’s won over a dozen championships as a racing driver and team owner, is visibly nervous as his two NSX GT3 cars are prepared by his RealTime Racing crew. It’s not hard to see why—each car is worth over half a million dollars, not to mention millions more in R&D. “Try to keep it on the track, please,” Cunningham says with a smile. “We’ve only got two of these things, and we’ve got a race in three days.”
Even though the lap timers are turned off inside the car, there’s a bit of pressure involved in driving a car that’s worth as much as your house around a racetrack while dozens of people, including the car’s owner, driver, and pit crew, watch you do it.
“Don’t worry,” says Ryan Eversley, friend of Jalopnik and the GT3’s driver in the Pirelli World Challenge series. “It’s a really easy car to drive.” For you, maybe; you’re a professional racing driver. I’m a soccer dad who does a few endurance races a year. Nevertheless, I’m ready to learn as Eversley walks me through the operation of the race car. “You won’t have to mess with any of these buttons.”
As I strap myself into the racing bucket of the NSX GT3, I’m suddenly aware of how hyperbolic the word “cockpit” is when used in the context of the average street car—the average Dreamliner pilot could hardly have more buttons to fiddle with. The wheel of the GT3 contains more adjustable settings than the average car forum member’s dream robot girlfriend.
Everything from Traction Control to ABS to fuel consumption can be controlled by the driver on demand to adjust for track and weather conditions as well as position in the race. Acura has, wisely, turned up the TC and ABS for me before I head out to the racing surface, and I’m glad that they have. I do NOT want to be the guy who loops this fucking thing.
Luckily, I’m not—another journalist beats me to it, throwing up a cloud of dust in Turn 5, which is, unfortunately, in full view of the group of Acura PR and Honda Performance Development staff on hand.
Nevertheless, I’m cautious as I settle in for my first of two sessions in the car. I flip the ignition switch, press the start button, and the familiar sounds of the NSX’s engine rumble to life. The E-Clutch system makes for a bit of a rocky, lurching motion as I start the GT3 down pit lane toward the track, but I quickly settle in and start taking inventory of my surroundings.
The GT3 car couldn’t feel more distant from the street NSX’s Accord-like accessibility. Visibility is poor and everything is uncomfortably loud. And while the steering rack is OEM spec, the actual steering is lighter and nimbler than I anticipated it would be.
The full race slicks and steel brakes take a bit to warm up, and as such, I damn near run the thing straight off in Turn 7. Luckily, I’m saved the embarrassment by a last second ABS engagement, and I continue on my way, taking the wider-than-comfortable line through Turns 8 and 9 to set up correctly for 10.
There are a few moments in my life that I consider truly unforgettable. The birth of my children, for example, or that one time my Dad hinted that he might be proud of me. Moments like that.
The act of streaking down the Phoenix Flat straightaway toward Turn 11 at full throttle threatens to displace most of them from my memory.
I have been fortunate enough to drive some of the world’s fastest cars on track—McLaren 570S, Ferrari 488, Audi R8 V10 Plus, Corvette Z06, and Porsche 991 GT3 among them—and the NSX GT3 makes them seem like mere child’s playthings. The sheer volume of downforce means that the faster the go, the more courage you screw together, the harder the car sticks. I know that I’m entering the braking zone for Turn 11, the final turn on track, at over 140 MPH. I don’t dare to look at the speedometer mid-corner, because there’s an OHMYGODWALL right at corner exit, but it feels faster than anything on four wheels has a right to be.
It’s hard not to feel like your firesuit should have an “S” on its chest when you drive the NSX GT3. It’s the first car I’ve ever had do exactly what I tell it to do. Brake here. Trail off there. Accelerate now. Stick here. Go flat through this kink. After two laps in the car, I have the sensation that I can make miracles happen, simply by wishing. After five, I’m convinced of it.
And, yet, I know that I’m likely many, many seconds off of Eversley’s pace. The NSX GT3 is so friendly, so benign, so damned easy. As I exit the car, the word rattling around my skull is, surprisingly, “safe.” If anything, the GT3 feels like it might understeer a bit—a far cry from its road car cousin, which threatens to kick the rear end lose at a moment’s notice. I suspect that the suspension geometry is set up this way on purpose to prevent amateurs from shitcanning a $500,000 car on this press drive, but nevertheless, it inspires immense confidence.
There’s a lunch break between the first and second sessions, and despite the catering, my mind wants nothing to do with eating. I can only think of one thing: When can I drive that magnificent car again?
The answer is: Soon, but in the meantime, why don’t you take the street car back out again?
“I’ll twist your arm and make you do it,” says Art St. Cyr, head of Honda Performance Development, with a smile and a wink. Fine. If I must, I must.
Only now, as I run the Valencia Red Pearl NSX back out on to the track, it feels… wrong. The grip is shockingly loose, the steering sloppy. I feel disturbingly unstable in the driver’s seat as I slide around the smooth leather surface.
Of course, nothing has changed. Nothing, that is, except my mental programming. Once you drive a purpose-built race car, your expectations shift. I’m reminded that no matter how great a road car may be—and, no doubt, the NSX is greatness brought to life—it’s not a race car.
Fortunately for me, however, my second session in the GT3 awaits. A breathtakingly short five laps, but five laps that I’ll be certain to digest slowly and sweetly. The challenge of Gingerman is no less—Turns 5 and 6 are so tricky that Honda has replicated them at their test facility—but my confidence is much greater. The controls, completely foreign only hours before, now seem familiar. Each downshift of the sequential shifter kicks me hard, but it rotates the car through corners like a carousel horse. The grip levels are now predictable, and I make a valiant effort to push them, hoping that I know the ledge.
I needn’t have worried. The NSX GT3 is much more car than I am driver.
But my heart betrays me—and I mean my actual heart, as my FitBit is convinced that every moment I have spent driving HPD’s wondrous creation is “peak exercise.” I have no shame in admitting that driving this car is thrilling, exhilarating, and inspiring, even for a jaded, nearly middle-aged auto-writer.
The RealTime team is impressively deft and efficient in their evaluation of the car. Moments after I exit the driver’s seat, the car is up on jackstands; wheels off, computers plugged in, data being carefully evaluated. Not long after, the cars are loaded back onto their trailers, having safely survived the day, and headed to their next race.
Just two days later at Belle Isle, Katharine Legge and Andy Lally will pilot the Michael Shank Racing NSX GT3 to its first IMSA win in only its fifth start. It’s obvious that in the NSX, Acura has a potential champion on its hands.
As for me, spending the day with the RealTime Racing NSX GT3 has reminded of two things. First, I’m never, ever going to be a professional racing driver. Sad.
Second, that no matter how great any road car is, there’s no substitute for a race car that’s designed to compete toe-to-toe, lap after lap on the most challenging circuits in the world. And by using the magnificent Acura NSX as its basis, the NSX GT3 has the potential to dominate any series it enters. If that doesn’t shut up this car’s haters, I don’t know what will.
Mark “Bark M.” Baruth has several podiums and wins in endurance racing series at tracks across the country, and is the proud owner of a Ford Focus RS, which is already on its second set of tires and brakes. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.