A funny thing happened last September at the NASA National Championship-Bernardo Martinez easily won the Honda Challenge H1 championship. But more to the point, he did it in a highly developed, extremely well sorted, Hasport-owned Integra sedan. Its fresh HyTech K24 engine had forged S2000 pistons and was built to the absolute limit of the rules; some would say beyond the limit. The funny part was the Internet sh*t storm it started.
There was talk of cheating, talk of a protest and talk of not allowing him to run with an engine that "must have been" illegal with 30 hp more than the nearest competitor. But when the dust settled at Mid-Ohio-after two qualifying races, multiple tech inspections, a mandated dyno session and a do-or-die championship race finale-not a protest was filed and not a single rule was broken. The rest of the H1 field had been beaten, plain and simple.
Bernardo is a tough competitor. He is the kind of guy who races against himself as much as he does the other racers. He held nothing back in his march to victory. The car was built to the fullest extent of the rules-it was fast, well prepared, reliable and superbly driven. The combination was championship material, if ever there was such, but few people credited any of this to the metal of the competitor. No one was talking about what it took to get there; the teething pains, previous DNFs or the engine failure during development. No one remembered his regional victories and how fast he was with the old OEM-spec engine. The many trips to the dyno or the two years of development with the engine builder were rarely discussed. From an outsider looking in, it was just too easy and it didn't seem fair.
In the post-race Internet chatter, there has been much talk about "the engine"-ways to slow it, ways to ban it and ways to make it easier for the rest of the H1 field to stay competitive without building one just like it. It's a difficult situation. Do you penalize a competitor for abiding by the rules too well? Do you change the rules to exclude a winning combination just because it's challenging or expensive for others to match? Racing history is full of similar instances of what Mark Donohue called "the unfair advantage." Some examples: Jim Hall's Chaparral 2J "sucker" Can-Am car, Gordon Murray's Brabham BT46 "fan car" that was banned after its one and only race and victory, Penske's 1994 Indy winning "pushrod" Mercedes engine or Smokey Yunick's NASCAR Chevelle. All were built "just" within the rules, all raised the bar to a higher level and all were banned or otherwise regulated out of competition.
It comes as no surprise that the '08 Honda Challenge rules have been rewritten with severe restrictions to the K-series, which is the engine family that Honda bases the majority of its current four-cylinder FWD passenger cars on. Bernardo's championship winning K24 (with S2000 pistons) is now useless in the Honda Challenge. It has been outlawed from the one HC class because it's said that it encouraged creative engineering.
K-series engines are now required to run stock pistons and K-series compression ratios will now be limited. The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" has been perceptually narrowed. Those who are content to run the same combinations they have for years will again be lulled into a sense of security and reassurance. They'll spend their winter watching football and will sleep well knowing that the combination that beat them this year will not be allowed next year. They'll rest assured that the entire outcry was worth it and that Honda Challenge rules have been saved. But it's a false security because there's much more to a championship than an engine.
Hasport and Bernardo are already at work tuning the next engine and developing a totally new car. This time it's a K24 powered Prelude. Whatever the rules, whatever the weight penalties, whatever the performance adjustments, the new car will be built to optimize them all. That's just how they roll and that's how championships are won. - Thawley