Soft-spoken and comfortably not indulging in his own ego, Doug Peterson can likely tell you more about Honda's initial American racing efforts than just about anyone. Efforts that began with the company's first American-based race car—an SCCA-prepared GT-4 CRX—and that culminated into the infamous NSX-powered IMSA Camel Lights Spice car as well as a stint with IndyCar. Driver, builder, engineer, team and company owner, Peterson's played nearly every role and has arguably done his part in furthering the Honda performance cause, not just on the race track but behind the garage doors of the Northern California company he'd co-founded in 1979—Comptech—and later, at CT Engineering. It was at Comptech, though, where Peterson helped usher in an era of high-end, high-performance components designed specifically for Honda and Acura loyalists. Comptech wares weren't among the least expensive, but their ability to perform as expected as well as their durability were rarely questioned. There, Peterson helped develop some of the first and most renowned high-performance NSX goods as well as what are considered among the most thorough forced induction solutions entry-level Honda owners have been privy to. The story of Honda's American automotive racing efforts starts now.
HT: You raced all sorts of cars before getting involved with Honda. How did that begin?
DP: In 1973 you had to be 21 to get an SCCA racing license, so as soon as I [turned] 21 I went to driving school. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the SCCA Runoffs were a big deal. There wasn't the dilution of stuff that's out there now from NASA to all of these track day events; nothing like that existed. If you wanted to road race in the United States, SCCA was it. I [raced] a [European] Ford Escort MK1 and then a Mini. We were on the pole at the Runoffs in 1981 with the Mini and that caught the eye of Renault. They were really big back then; they were [racing] IMSA and were making a big push to have the Renault Cup series. They asked Comptech to build a GT-4 Le Car. That was factory support. Holy cow! They actually gave us parts and an engine. We built the car, went back to the Runoffs the next year, and won easily. In 1983 we went back and won again, and then in 1984 I won with the Mini. We [also] built a Renault Encore and [finished] second in GT-4, all in one year. I was going to take 1985 off until Carroll Smith called me out of the blue and said, "Hey, I've got some customer from Mexico who wants to build a Renault Alliance. I don't know anything about them. Do you want to build the car for him?" At the time, Carroll was a [production car] consultant for Honda and had previously worked for Carroll Shelby and managed Ford's race team when they won Le Mans in 1966 and 1967. We built the car, and when it was all done I called Carroll up and thanked him for the contact. That was it, but in the midst of all of that, we'd heard rumors that Honda had built a GT-4 CRX.
HT: I'm guessing this is where the Honda story begins for you. What happened next?
DP: As it turned out, Carroll's son, Chris, was driving [the CRX]. In June the phone rings and it's Carroll. Honda had rented Laguna Seca for [the weekend] to test the car. He asked, "Would you come down and teach my son how to drive a front-wheel-drive car?" Well, I was quicker in the car than Chris was, so on Tuesday I got a call [from Honda]: "Can you come down to Willow Springs for a day?" I got out to Willow Springs, tested the car all day, and it went really well. On Thursday I got another call: "Why don't you come down to the race at Laguna Seca this weekend and bring your helmet and suit?" It was the most awkward thing. Basically, Chris was supposed to drive the car for one session, I would drive the car for another session, and whoever was quicker got the ride. It was awful. I was quicker. I got the ride. Carroll was really upset, but fortunately our relationship survived that. It was extremely awkward, but that's how I got involved with Honda. It wasn't like I had a goal to get that ride. They came to me.
HT: You ultimately did more than just drive the car. You took over the GT-4 CRX program. How did that transpire?
DP: Honda was introducing the upscale Acura brand in 1986 and wanted to impart a performance image through racing. A decision was made to run an Integra in the IMSA International Sedan series. While we were finishing the season with the CRX, Dix Erickson and Charlie Curnutt began building an Integra at Honda Special Projects. Sometime in December a decision was made to base the Integra project offsite. In the course of driving the CRX and winning the Runoffs, [Honda] got to know what we were capable of at Comptech as far as engine and chassis building, and Dix was told that we were taking over the program. Dix was upset. I think he believed I had gone around him to steal the deal away. That wasn't the case at all. I was thrilled to death just to be driving. We finished the car and were lucky enough to win the 1986 drivers championship against factory efforts from Chevrolet, Dodge, and Mazda. Honda Special Projects continued running the CRX in 1986 with Parker Johnstone driving and again won the Runoffs. In 1987 we took over racing the CRX and Don Erb, my business partner, ran the car from 1987 through 1990, winning the Runoffs in 1989. The car ended up with three Runoff wins and six pole positions from 1985 through 1990.
HT: How did the CRX compare to the Ford, the Mini, or the Renault?
DP: It was a very conservative car. It was a pretty conventional car but they'd done a beautiful job building it. Mugen built the engine, so [Honda] actually had an in-house [Mugen] engineer, Takashi Uno, who came to the U.S. and worked at Honda. He rebuilt the engines, did the work on [them], and came to all the races. He was very conservative on the engine; it only made about 165 hp, but it was easy to keep the speed up in the corners. Charlie built shocks for it. We got pretty sophisticated with it. It was just a very good car. The short wheelbase, it was quick transitionally, and it handled really well. Even at the Runoffs where I was against cars with probably 30 more horsepower, we'd qualify on the pole and win the race. The car was just really well balanced.
HT: What else can you tell us about that CRX?
DP: The initial engines that Mugen built were pretty impressive. They used beautifully polished, stock connecting rods. They still used cast—high-compression, but cast—pistons. [They had] stock crankshafts and Japanese-spec heads. The U.S.-spec heads weren't nearly as good. They were still three-valve heads and Mugen designed their own cams for them. They fabricated a manifold to use the 44mm Mikuni carburetors and a beautiful header. We actually met the [supplier] who made it. He had this little shop that made these hand-bent headers. It was old-school; he'd sand-pack the tubing so it wouldn't crumple and then heat the tube up and bend it. These headers were a work of art. They were four-into-one, and the four primaries would come down and [merge] into a flat collector.
HT: What was it like visiting Mugen in the mid-1980s? How did that influence Comptech?
DP: Obviously, it was a thrill just to go there in the first place, to meet Hirotoshi Honda, and to see the original Mugen [facility]. They've since tore it down and rebuilt it. The original place was pretty basic. They had three separate buildings, and this one room that we were in had three dyno cells and a small manufacturing area. It was inspiring. We went through their parts area and [saw] the body kits, dry sump pumps, and all these little parts they made for various Hondas at the time. I said, "Wow. Maybe you can make money doing this" [laughs].
HT: How was Comptech formed? What did you specialize in initially?
DP: I was sort of your parents' worst nightmare. I'd taken engineering classes at school and quit to go earn money so I could race [laughs]. I worked at an automotive machine shop in Palo Alto [California] for three years while I was racing my Escort and the Mini, and then in 1978 I decided that I just wasn't going anywhere so I quit. I spent about six months racing and figuring out what to do and decided to open my own machine shop. I met my future partner, Don Erb, at the previous machine shop. I was initially going to do it on my own but eventually asked him if he wanted to join me. He did, and we started up in 1979.
HT: What sort of machining were you doing at first?
DP: We were doing anything that [came] in the door. We were doing a lot of mundane stuff but we were also doing V12 Ferrari engines, 911 Porsche, BMW—a lot of oddball stuff. We were doing aluminum heads when a lot of places didn't want to. Even back then we were having cranks and pistons made to sort some of those old engines out.
HT: How did Comptech transition into a race shop?
DP: From 1980 through 1984 we worked on the race cars at night and earned money during the day. It really wasn't until I started driving the CRX that things took off. We kept the machine shop but started morphing into more of a race shop. The Acura deal allowed us to get more involved with the racing side and the race engine building. It wasn't until we [started] running the Camel Lights car in 1991 that the aftermarket parts thing even seemed [possible]. We started getting NSX owners calling us for parts because we were racing a car with an NSX engine in it. Gradually, starting in 1992, we began developing camshafts, an air intake, headers, and an exhaust. It was really small-time, very much an aside to the racing effort.
HT: Were those initial NSX parts one-off, special-order pieces or were you doing small production runs?
DP: It started as one-off development parts and transitioned into small runs, but it was really low volume. I don't remember the scale of it, but it was small.