Last December Team honda Research (ThR) took two examples of honda's latest performance car, the S2000 CR, to the 25 hours of Thunderhill. we spent some time with team leaders Lee Niffenegger and Chad Gilsinger to learn more about the car, the team and their strategy for the race.
The effort's obvious focus was to highlight honda's venerable, S2000 sports car Club Racer edition. Entering its ninth year of production, the S2000 has long been rumored to be due for replacement. honda PR manager and ThR enduro driver Sage Marie was tight-lipped about the platform's production future but did say that S2000 fans should have nothing to worry about. According to Sage, the CR was created as "a nod to honda enthusiasts, sports car enthusiasts and to track enthusiasts." he says it's, more or less, a way to re-invigorate interest in the S2000.
"It's a lightweight, edgier, track-ready version of the already high-performance S2000," Sage says. "It was something our customers asked for and we thought it was appropriate." So they built it.
Horsepower junkies breathed a collective yawn when official news of the CR became public late in 2007. Its 237 hp and 162 lb-ft output is identical to the base model. But that misses the S2000's purpose entirely. It's a nimble driver's car, built more like a dancer, less like a weightlifter. The CR package is all about handling.
One of the CR's major design goals was to keep it classed where S2000s currently compete. SCCA T3 and NASA Performance Touring-C rules were given due attention throughout product planning stages. The rules call for factory suspension in T3, with the exception of dampers.
The CR's standard equipment list does away with air conditioning, an audio system, even the soft top. Even the spare tire's replaced with a tire repair kit. Show up to an autocross minus the CR's standard aluminum hardtop and you'll find all you'll save is a paltry 100 pounds when compared to base S2000s. Suspension tuning is all new. Front and rear antisway bars, shocks and bushings are all firmer. Spring rates are 70 percent stiffer than base trim. The steering ratio has been quickened. The front spoiler and rear wing were wind tunnel designed in japan to reduce the car's overall lift by 80 percent up front and 70 percent less overall and 255/45-17 rear tires are up a size from the 245s used on the base model.
The two cars ThR raced at Thunderhill were remarkably stock. The team removed the passenger seat for obvious weight savings allowed under NASA's PTC rules. Custom valved, single adjustable h&R shocks were fitted with the stock CR springs. An Exedy clutch was installed for durability insurance and Goodridge brake lines, Cobalt pads and ATE brakes stepped up the braking capabilities needed for 25 hours of punishment.
The race started just after 11 a.m. Saturday morning. The team had barely settled into a groove when a minor "off" in the yellow car turned into a race-ending "gentle roll" onto its roof near the fourth hour. A drainage ditch in the runoff area was close enough to the racing surface to trip the car over, damaging it beyond reasonable race day repairs.
The black car had better luck. It vied for the E1 class lead from the beginning. For most of Saturday's daylight they traded the lead with a fast, professionally backed Mazda Mx-5 but when darkness fell, ThR's pace slowed. The cold track and freezing temperatures prevented the CR from maintaining enough tire heat o keep up. They remained in second place throughout the night. Predictably, with the sun and warmer track temperatures on Sunday morning they began swapping the lead with the Mazda again.
A controversial stop-and-go penalty near the end was honda's kiss of death during the tight battle. A corner worker called race control saying the CR had passed under yellow and the of- ficials immediately brought the CR in for penance. Second place was hardly where the team wanted to finish but it was still a great accomplishment.
After 25 hours and 628 laps, ThR had more than proven the metal of the CR. It ran hard and handled like a race car-it stayed together and it was fast-ThR's best time for the race was a full second faster then the professionally driven, class winning Mazda Mx-5. At the end of the race, despite the penalty, the black S2000 CR took the checkered flag only 1.5 seconds behind.
The CR edition looks to be just what honda club racers had asked for and for tuners looking for more power, it's just a great car to start with.
THR team leaders Chad Gilsinger (in Nomex) and Lee Niffenegger were in tactical mind meld. when asked about their race strategy they responded in unison: "Don't hit anything." Although all ThR team members are honda employees, they are not paid to race or work on the cars. All work is done off the clock. They also miss the huge company Christmas party held every year on the same weekend, a point they are very aware is unpopular with their wives.