For years, we've watched Tom Elliott mix it up with racing idols like Dario Franchitti and Michael Andretti, command the stage at international auto shows, and belt out karaoke while entertaining Japanese execs at Torrance hostess bars. OK, not all true, but don't let the tweed fool ya; Elliott is the automotive rock star we all want to be.
In March, Elliott retired his post as Executive VP of American Honda Motor Company, capping a three-decade career at the company. During that time, he gave the green light to more hits than Paramount Studios, including the U.S. presence of the Civic Si and Integra Type R. In 1983, he launched Honda's entry into American auto racing with the establishment of Honda Performance Development, or HPD.
The early days of HPD were more skunkworks than glam, with Honda campaigning the CRX in the IMSA racing series. In '91, Elliott swung for the fence.
"We wanted to get into the Indy Car series as far back as the mid-to-late 1980s," said Elliott, who joined Honda in 1970. "But Japan was heavily involved in Formula One at that time. When Honda got out of F1, it had the resources to help us out, so we announced our CART program in January of 1992."
In '93, Honda signed Bobby Rahal to oversee Honda's test program for the Champ Car series, but it was with Chip Ganassi's team that Elliott and Honda found its ultimate success. Paired with exceptional talent such as Jimmy Vassar, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya, Ganassi and Honda dominated CART, claiming four consecutive championships including Montoya's Indy 500 win. In 2003, Honda threw in with Tony George's Indy Racing League and one season later claimed the championship. Things look good for a repeat performance in 2005.
Elliott leaves tough shoes to fill. Speaking from personal experience, no other automotive executive was more honest and gracious. He was good to the tall and the small, never detached and never forgot a name. He will be remembered by most for all of these wonderful traits. But for us, he'll always be known as having the coolest job in the world, while treating us like it was the other way around. We'll miss you, Tom.