Tom Elliott Leaves Indelible Mark On Honda Racing Program
3/1/2005 7:17:50 PM
When he began his career in 1970, Tom Elliott couldn't have envisioned Honda becoming a major player in American motorsports and passenger cars. "We were selling a two-cylinder, aircooled car called the N6000 and we had 32 dealers," he recalled. "My first job was to call every dealer every day to see how we were doing. We sold 4,000 cars that first year.
"And we were still 13 years away from doing any racing."
Elliott chuckles when he considers that Honda sold 1.4 million cars in the U.S.A. last year and Honda Performance Development's engine dominated the Indy Racing League and captured the 2004 Indianapolis 500.
"Yes, we've come a long way," he understates.
And Elliott, who is retiring in March after managing the American Honda Motor Co. and creating HPD, is one of the main reasons this little Japanese entity blossomed into a bully on this country's race tracks.
Starting with the Honda CRX in 1983, Elliott steered Honda through its infancy in sports cars. With Parker Johnstone and Doug Peterson doing the driving, the GT4, Acura and Spice all found success in IMSA from 1986-91.
But Elliott, a former drag racer, had his eye on the big time.
"We wanted to get into the Indy-car series as far back as the mid-to-late 1980s, but Japan was heavily involved in Formula One at that time. But when Honda got out of F-1, they had the resources to help us out, so we announced our CART program in January of 1992.
"We signed up Bobby Rahal and he and Mike Groff ran our test program in 1993. Then we began racing in 1994."
That first season turned out to be humbling, as neither Honda qualified at Indy, yet Elliott wasn't all that shocked. "Sure, missing Indy was surprising, but we knew the realities of what we were up against and I think Bobby's expectations were a little higher.
"I still think if he'd have stayed with us he'd have won the '95 championship."
But Rahal departed after '94, so Elliott turned to Steve Horne's team. At the '95 Indy 500, Scott Goodyear was leading late when he passed the pace car on a restart and was penalized. "Obviously, we should have won and that was probably the toughest moment for me," admitted Elliott. "But we came back to win our first race at Loudon with Andre Ribeiro and then things took off."
It was Chip Ganassi's Target team that launched Honda to new heights but Elliott originally went after Paul Newman and Carl Haas.
"We had been negotiating with Newman/Haas and finally we just got fed up so about that time Chip came up to me and said, 'What am I, chopped liver?' and we started talking. We put a deal together and I'd say it went pretty well."
Elliott's distinctive laugh resonates at that last statement. Pretty well? Yeah, four straight CART championships with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya and 41 wins during the next four years might qualify as pretty well. When Roger Penske climbed on the Honda train in 2000, Gil de Ferran captured back-to-back titles to run Honda's streak to six CART drivers' championships in a row.
When Honda moved to the Indy Racing League in 2003, the wheels had already been turning. "We were negotiating with Ilmor to build us an Indy engine for some of our CART teams who wanted to run Indy only," continues Elliott. "Then CART got screwed up, so Indy became our primary program."
And last year, 10 Mays after suffering that devastating setback at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Honda made it to victory lane with Buddy Rice - driving for Bobby Rahal, no less. "It wasn't easy getting back together with Bobby but it was a business decision and it strengthened our program," said Elliott, whose teams went on to win 14 of 16 races and claim the IRL title with Tony Kanaan. "I told Robert [Clarke, HPD vice president and general manager] I don't think he's got the budget to top last year and I think we caught some people flat-footed."
As he prepares to embark on a "see the USA" trip with his wife Anne and their new motorhome, Elliott is leaving Honda in a very good place. HPD has gone from 25 employees to over 100 and is now going to design, develop and build its own engines in Santa Clarita, Calif., while Honda's engine has dominated American openwheel racing for a decade.
"I don't have any one great memory per se," closes Elliott. "I think it's been the people you meet and that's been the best part. That and a chance to get inside bigtime racing. I'll miss that part." And the Honda family will, no doubt, miss its patriarch.