Speed Special: Wherein We Attempt to Qualify for the Indy Grand Prix on Honda’s Racing Sim

Speed Special: Wherein We Attempt to Qualify for the Indy Grand Prix on Honda's Racing Sim


Throttle flat, the TURBO V-6 keening, I’m whistling along at more than 150 mph in sixth gear, running the wrong way over the famous yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the 400-foot marker, I boot the brakes with every erg of lower-body strength I can muster. The horizon jumps a notch, my belts inflict pain as I click the left paddle four times. There’s a puff of smoke from the right-front tire as I ease off the brakes and wrench the steering into a tight 90. Across the apex, the wheel chatters understeer.

Honda Performance Development (HPD) has pitched me into the deep end of the IndyCar pool three days before the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix. I want to believe this exclusive simulator drive is the just reward for a strong finish scored by Car and Driver’s ’88 Honda Prelude in a recent LeMons race.

Speed Special: Wherein We Attempt to Qualify for the Indy Grand Prix on Honda's Racing Sim

Bottom right: Honda driver Simon Pagenaud, who won the inaugural Indy Grand Prix, says Don Sherman talks like a dog with peanut butter on the roof of its mouth.

HPD’s mission is to nurture the Honda racing spirit in categories ranging from B-spec club racers to the Verizon IndyCar series. It built this simulator during 2012 and 2013 using Formula 1 trickledown technology. The upper portion of the rig only looks like the kiddy racers sold at Toys “R” Us. In fact, it’s a real Dallara tub outfitted with authentic pedals, a steering column, and adjusters for the brakes and anti-roll bars. Three projectors using laser-scan data taken from circuit surveys provide the 180-degree video. Below, six computer-controlled ball-screw legs whip the cockpit in three directions and through roll, pitch, and yaw excursions. One motor simulates steering torque, and two others yank the belts.

This simulator is nothing like the centrifuges that gauge an astronaut’s physical limits. Facility manager Ben Schmidt explains: “The brain quickly filters out sustained g-loading, so we trick a driver’s inner ear by using the rate of change of acceleration.” With no scorn intended, physicists call that first acceleration de­riva­tive a “jerk.” Most of the action occurs in the yaw (horizontal) plane, where subtle jerks signal the loss of cornering grip and the risk of a snap spin.

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Sensing and reacting to those jerks is the easy part. The tough stuff, in ascending order, is doing jumping jacks on the unassisted brakes, arm-wrestling 22 pound-feet of torque through the steering wheel, learning a 14-turn race course in one brief simulator session, and reading the braking markers at speed through bifocals. After five laps, I slow to study my line. After 20, I’m drenched in sweat from the concentration and exertion.

My relief driver, Simon Pagenaud, a ringer for Talladega Nights’ Jean Girard, explains why the simulator works for him: “What I most enjoy about Honda’s simulator is trying different lines, braking points, and car setups to determine exactly what works best . . . without negative consequences. We also run full-race-length endurance tests. What I call ‘clean the bush’ is like gardening. By doing the fine trimming in the simulator, I’m fully prepared to race when I arrive at the track.”

Speed Special: Wherein We Attempt to Qualify for the Indy Grand Prix on Honda's Racing Sim

About Don Sherman