I'm deep into the 52-degree banked oval at Honda R&D's test track in rural Japan, piloting the decidedly non-high-performance 2006 Civic Hybrid in rain dumping from a thundershower overhead. Super Street editor John Naderi is sitting shotgun. I'm hoping to see what kind of top speed I can wring out of this environmental peace machine, but my balls run out long before my curiosity does. Midway through the turn at 98 mph, with the Michelin 195s as the only things keeping me from the guardrail grow larger in my peripheral vision, I lift.
"Uh, don't do that," Naderi cautions.
He's right. This is no time to back out. Back-out time passed a few seconds before. But Naderi's got his own agenda. Despite being in Japan, we're driving left-hand-drivers on a counterclockwise oval. He's sitting in what demolitionists call the forward impact zone. Actually, I don't know any demolitionists, so I can't say for certain what they call that non-gray area that ensures death or maiming upon entrance. This much is clear, however: if I lose traction, the Super Street job is mine.
Actually, that's not true either, for a number of reasons.
So I get back onto the throttle, calling upon my inner Brazilian through the rest of the turn and onto the back straight, where I coax 109 mph out of the little 1.8-liter hybrid. I decide to push my luck no further and bring it in. Naderi hops out, takes the driver's seat and heads back out, as if to imply I'm some kind of nancy.
I feel like more of a douchebag a couple of days later when I hold up Road & Track's Kim Wolfkill for about 10 seconds as we're flogging the new Civic Si at Twin Ring Motegi. For a minute, I sympathize with the despondency a Minardi driver must feel when Kimi Rikknen or Jenson Button comes up on his wing. Eventually, I find a spot to let Wolfkill by with some measure of dignity.
But it's all good the night before. We're sitting in the bar at the Hotel Twin Ring, downing cold sake and enjoying an amazing spectacle of lightning, thunder and rain outside the bay windows. Talk turns to motorsports and grassroots marketing. We kick around ideas about Honda's increased involvement in racing, in the scene, as it were. American Honda's senior vice president, John Mendel, an avid club racer and motorsports fan, solicits input from the journos and engineer/racing types at our two small tables.
Someone, I think it was me, suggests an all-oval series featuring the Civic Si, an idea met with scorn and derision from around the table. That's fine. We'll see who's laughing when I get Kanaan, Franchitti and Danica bumping Si fenders in the latest racing spectacle that my friend Tony George will underwrite. You're welcome to join the bandwagon once it's rolling, but I keep all commercial rights, OK? In the meantime, I decide to switch to water.
The good news is that in whatever form it manifests, Mendel's attitude toward racing, motorsports and engaging the next generation of racers means good things for the brand. We love Honda's commitment to building clean-burning, fuel-sipping cars for everymen like ourselves. We love the company's sense of social responsibility, envisioning a motoring future beyond petroleum (from here on out, it only gets more expensive to extract) and working with groups like Nagoya University to isolate the rice gene and increase crop yields.
But mostly, we like it when Honda goes out and owns everyone on the circuit. It's what brings us innovations like VTEC and Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. It what's gives us legends like Ayrton Senna and makes guys like Rubens Barrichello sign the dotted line to race for Honda. And it is what will make my all-Civic Si oval series the talk of the motorsports world and the fear of NASCAR rednecks nationwide. That's right, laugh now people. ...