For the first time in three years, it looks like Bonneville Speedway in northwestern Utah will be suitable for the upcoming Speed Week put on by the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). In case you have no idea what Speed Week is – think roll racing, but instead of on a runway it’s run on salt flats, and instead of a half mile or mile it’s got a short course of five miles and a long course of eight. They’ve been land-speed racing on the salt since the early 1900s, in everything from motorcycles to jet-powered cars, touching north of 400, 500, even 600mph, and this year a special team from Honda in Japan will attempt to make its mark in the Utah desert.
Team Honda R&D is campaigning a streamliner – that is, a long, slender, custom built, high-speed vehicle with enclosed wheels – in the BFS class (Blown Fuel Streamliner) that is powered by a turbocharged, 660cc, three-cylinder kei car engine. While in America, the unique machine and its crew are headquartered out of Honda Performance Development (HPD) in Santa Clarita, Calif., and recently made the short hop south to Wilmington where it was hooked up to the Dynapacks at Church Automotive Testing for a final tune before setting off for Utah.
In addition to the helping hands at Church’s, Hondata’s Doug Macmillan is chipping in his expertise, Macmillan himself a seasoned land-speed racing veteran in addition to having a deep understanding of Honda engines and tuning; with a goal of roughly 280 mph, Team Honda R&D will need all the help it can get. We recently visited the shop while the race car was getting sorted out and had a few questions for Macmillan about the unusual one-off project.
Honda Tuning: How did you get involved with this effort?
Doug Macmillan: October of  I was doing some racing at El Mirage dry lakebed and two guys turned up who were Japanese speaking and saw the CRX we were racing. One of them gave me a business card and it was from Honda Japan. They were two engineers who were not coming to look for us but they stumbled upon us. I told them, we’re going to be on the starting line in about 20 minutes, give me your mobile number and I’ll give you a call.
Got to the start line, gave them a call, and then five Honda engineers turned up, and I thought, why are five Honda engineers on the El Mirage dry lakebed miles away from home? You could figure out they had a secret plan to go land-speed racing. I threw two of them in the push truck and we went down the course and they got to see what it was like from inside [the push truck] pushing the vehicle.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when I get a call from the secretary of the Southern California Timing Association, who says, “Ok, we’ve got an entry from Honda here. What do we do with this?” Meaning, we don’t have any Japanese speaking expertise, so I started liaising a little bit more with them to help them with the rules because you’ve got a rulebook written in English they’re trying to translate into Japanese. We wanted to make sure they came here with all the correct equipment and safety settings so they can get a clean run down the salt.
HT: I imagine your own experience running on the salt has been a plus.
DM: Certainly, it is. For example, [the engine] was misfiring before so we closed the plug gaps. This isn’t something we think this engineering team would have had experience with – running this level of boost on this engine. Our experience in land-speed racing was, ok, it’s misfiring, let’s pull the plugs out, check them, and close the plug gap.
HT: In this type of racing, you have to qualify for different speed classes.
DM: You don’t go out and do 300mph straightaway. To start you off, you’ve got to do 100 to 125mph, 125 to 150, 150 to 175, 175 and above, and it’s to prove to race organizers that you can do as your told, but also it’s a new car, so they need to keep a close eye on the vehicle, watch its behavior as it goes up and down the speed ranges. Quite often officials will follow the car down the course for the first wee bit and just observe the car’s behavior, making sure it’s stable, because safety is their number one priority.
HT: Will this team have to go through that vetting process?
DM: They already did a run about two weeks ago. It was a small event. They went out there and raced and found certain things they needed to improve. One of them was driver visibility; the driver had difficulty seeing the course. In the past, you follow the black line down the middle of the course, but that was a tar line that was painted and environmental regulations don’t allow that anymore, so they’ve got two lines down the left and right sides of the course now made out of biodegradable dye. But the driver couldn’t see those so they had to modify the cockpit a little bit to do so.
It’s a big ask for someone to come from a different country, particularly a non-English speaking country, to get this right the first time. It’s hard work. There are a lot of variables. So we’re all here helping. They’re doing everything right, meaning they’ve been up there, they’ve done a test run, they’ve found things that don’t work. They’re doing all the right things. I just hope that we’re doing it fast enough.
Speed Week is August 13 to 19. Keep an eye on this space as we monitor the team’s attempts to go almost three large – go, Honda!