ROLEX 24 RETRO: Acura’s wild breakthrough Daytona win

Images courtesy of Acura

ROLEX 24 RETRO: Acura’s wild breakthrough Daytona win

IMSA

ROLEX 24 RETRO: Acura’s wild breakthrough Daytona win

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The scene in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway in 1991 was filled with wonderment for Acura and Comptech Racing.

Honda’s sub-brand, launched five years prior, was in its infancy in the marketplace, and like many auto companies, used auto racing as a vehicle to improve its positioning among buyers. Its efforts in IMSA’s International Sedan series — a 1980s forerunner of today’s Michelin Pilot Challenge championship — brought attention to Acura through Comptech’s considerable success with the Integra model, but racing in the lower rungs of the sport was never going to reach the masses.

And that’s where the decision to step up to the big show in IMSA’s GTP Lights class, akin to modern LMP2, gifted Acura an amazing story to tell 30 years ago in the SunBank 24 At Daytona. Held over February 2-3, Comptech scrambled to prepare its Spice SE90CL chassis for the season opener from its shop on the other side of the country.

Located on the outskirts of Sacramento, Comptech founders Doug Peterson and Don Erb, and a small group of mechanics and engineers, waited patiently as December arrived and the Spice continued to have an engine-size absence in the back of their GTP Lights machine. Time was running out for Acura’s factory debut at Daytona.

“When the engine showed up on the 8th of December, three Japanese engineers from Honda showed up with it, and they spent the rest of the month of December there with us,” Peterson said of the stout 3.0-liter V6 NSX engine shipped from Japan. “Just observing until it became time to fire the engine up and helping us with little stuff. And then Christmas Eve, I drove it around the parking lot of our shop in Rancho Cordova, drove it up and down Mercantile Drive!”

From the Spice-Acura’s first motion in Northern California to the waving of the green flag at Daytona, 38 days were left for Comptech to figure out its new prototype and do its best to ably represent Acura at IMSA’s grandest race in front of an estimated 55,000 fans.

“And then we tried to get Sears Point open for testing on Christmas Day and they wouldn’t,” said Peterson, who doubled as one of Comptech’s pro drivers alongside Parker Johnstone. “So, we went up the day after Christmas, beat the car around the track and then came back, looked it over, threw it in the trailer to head to the January test. We had no time and thankfully it all worked out. We did 900 miles of testing on that January three-day test with no major problems.”

Johnstone recalls being in hot water for venturing over to the Sonoma road course for the Spice-Acura’s maiden test.

“My daughter was born on the 24th, which was not very popular with my family to leave on Christmas Day to end up going testing at Sears!” he said. “But what I noticed immediately with the NSX engine was it had a very smooth, broad power band. It didn’t have the torque of the Buicks. It was a bit more difficult to handle just because of the increase in size and weight and where it was placed. But we get to Daytona, and I was invincible and there’s a synergy between me and my car.”

GTP Lights class founder Jim Downing and his Mazda rotary-powered cars were always the favorites when the race we know today as the Rolex 24 At Daytona arrived. General Motors and its massively powerful Buick V6 engines were popular choices for the category by 1991, and GM’s Pontiac brand was also represented with lightweight four-cylinder motors. In limited numbers, Ferrari V8s were heard in Lights, as chassis options from Spice, Tiga, and Kudzu populated most of the class. As newcomers, Acura’s positioning in Lights with Comptech wouldn’t be known until qualifying for the race took place in a severe downpour.

With Johnstone as the lead driver in a rotation that included Peterson, Steve Cameron, and Bob Lesnett, a notice of intent was sent by the end of the session. The No. 48 Spice-Acura, resplendent in its white and Dayglo orange paint that would become an iconic livery for the brand, took pole position by a ridiculous margin of 6.957s.

“For some reason in my brain at that moment, it’s like, ‘Well, of course, because that’s what you hired me to do. And this was what we’re paid to do, which is to win poles and win races,’ Johnstone said. “It was absolutely right for me. And so Daytona and qualifying, it’s just one of those things that I don’t remember a moment of being out of deep focus and concentration of just being on it, trying to bring the absolute most out of the car and put together a couple of great laps, actually. But one in particular was significantly fast.”

Johnstone’s IMSA successes in the Comptech Acura paved his way to CART with Honda in the 1990s. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Johnstone, who would graduate to the CART IndyCar Series with Comptech and Acura/Honda a few years later, came to learn his driving style and chassis setup preferences — complemented and amplified in the rain — were perfect for solo runs, but not necessarily for those who shared the car in endurance races.

“Doug had always said, and now it had been confirmed by Steve Cameron and by Bob Lesnett, that the car was horribly loose and how do I drive it that way? Which was just the balance that I liked,” he said of the oversteer.

“[They said] ‘You’re insane. How do you drive this thing?’ It’s like, ‘What do you mean? It turns in very quickly and you better be on the throttle.’ And they went, ‘You’re nuts.’ So, having never had a teammate in the same car until that point, I didn’t know that that’s how I set cars up. And so I got that dialed back for the race, but for qualifying, it was just wicked quick.”

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