Not your typical victory celebration
MOTEGI, Japan -- Dan Wheldon wore more than a smile as he celebrated his victory in the Bridgestone Japan Indy 300 at Twin Ring Motegi. He wore champagne, beer and cake as well, courtesy of a blowout celebration at the Honda hospitality pavilion.
Wheldon and Andretti Green Racing finally achieved something that Honda had failed to do for seven years: victory at the shrine that the Japanese company constructed to celebrate its involvement in American motorsport. Wheldon and his AGR teammate Tony Kanaan overwhelmed Helio Castroneves and the rest of the IRL IndyCar Series field to finally deliver Honda the win on home soil.
The reaction was a combination of relief and release. Honda dominated CART Champ Car racing from 1996 to 2001 but never won its own race. So when that elusive win finally was in the bag, the Honda brass cut loose like their drivers did on the victory podium.
"I've never seen a celebration like that," observed Kurt Antonius, who has served as Honda's U.S. public relations chief since the mid-'80s. "Especially at a Japanese event where everything is so prim and proper."
That's because there was so much at stake. Honda invested tens of millions of dollars to build Twin Ring Motegi, a state-of-the-art racing facility that features a world-class oval and an FIA-standard road course. The company's investment over the last decade in its CART and IRL engine programs is many times greater.
Yet despite Honda's track record in American racing over the next decade, it always went wrong for them at Motegi. Honda drivers took several poles at the Japanese oval and finished second and third many times, but circumstances always conspired against the home team. Ford-Cosworth won the first four Motegi Champ Car races before the unthinkable occurred and Toyota was the victor in 2002.
When Honda followed Toyota from CART to the IRL in 2003, Toyota had the upper hand and won again at Motegi. But the balance of power in the IRL could be changing. Honda drivers have claimed the pole for all three 2004 IndyCar races and secured two victories. But nothing will match this magic Saturday for a long time.
"Obviously Indianapolis is the biggest race in the U.S., but for Honda, winning this race is as big as Indianapolis," remarked Tom Elliot, American Honda's executive vice-president and the man who instigated Honda's U.S. racing activities in the late '80s. "We went seven years without winning, in some cases just through unfortunate luck. It's really nice to win this one finally and get the mantle off us and we look forward to the next one.
"This is just a race that kind of eluded us for years so it was finally nice to get it behind us. Now we would like to win Indianapolis."
Elliott established Honda Performance Development, the company's California-based engine building facility, in 1993. His point man running the show, Robert Clarke, also expressed relief at Saturday's result.
"I don't think we've yet realized what just happened here," said a champagne-soaked Clarke, who is HPD's general manager. "I guess I could only compare it to our first CART win and our first championship. It's been so long in coming and so much has gone into trying to win it, so it's hard to put into words what it means. Everyone put their heart and soul into this project getting ready for this race. To finally realize it is unbelievable. It was a superhuman effort.
"The thing about racing is that there is no limit to what you can put into it," Clarke continued. "So you just put more and more, and it includes a lot of personal sacrifice, time away from your family and friends. There is so much dedication to the project, but that's what it takes now at this level of competition to win."
A key element in Honda's Motegi breakthrough was Andretti Green Racing. When Michael Andretti joined Team Green prior to the 2001 CART season, he was motivated by two factors: he wanted Honda power behind him and he wanted to ultimately own his own team. With Honda's help, Andretti achieved his dream of team ownership, and with four cars, AGR is the IndyCar Series' flagship team. Though he was unable to deliver a Honda win at Motegi as a driver, Saturday's result was his biggest accomplishment yet on the business side of the equation.
"It's huge," Michael said. "We know how important this race is to Honda, and because it's that important to Honda it's important to us as a team. We came prepared, they came well prepared, and Dan and Tony and their teams did an awesome job. It's just a great day for us."
It was also a good day for the IRL. Saturday's attendance was announced at 76,000, exceeding the 72,000 that attended the final Motegi Champ Car event in 2002. The turnout pleased IRL founder Tony George, who was on hand for the victory but managed to avoid the flying champagne.
"It's been a great week," George noted. "The weather has been great and the people at Twin Ring Motegi worked so hard at making this a big event. We enjoy coming here and it's a great win for Honda at their home track.
"They really have worked hard at trying to integrate into the league over the last couple of years and they have proven to be great partners in support of this event and the entire series. They have really stepped up and we couldn't ask for more from an engine partner."
This was the final race for the IRL's 3.5-liter engine formula, and some observers believe Honda may have emphasized that lame-duck program for the past few months in its quest for a Motegi victory at the expense of longterm development. The test will come next month at Indianapolis when the IndyCar series debuts its new 3.0-liter engine formula.
"At Indy we'll see who has been focusing on what," Clarke said. "We've done our best to put equal emphasis on both programs. For now we're just going to enjoy what we all worked so hard to earn."
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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