The very brief but still exclusive first drive

Recalling the day I won the race into the driver’s seat

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Kurt Antonius was not happy. The head of media relations for American Honda had invited a handful of editors from the buff-book car magazines to Japan for an early peek at the S2000, Honda’s new sports car. 

We arrived in the very early morning at Honda’s Twin Ring Motegi motorsports complex, which is only 65 miles but nonetheless a 3-hour drive north of Tokyo, for what was to be just a walk around and photo session with a pre-production S2000 prototype.

Upon our arrival, the car was in one of the track’s more-remote parking lots and, as I recall, a photographer suggested the car be moved to a more photogenic location. One of the local Honda staffers pointed to an elevated location. To get the car there, someone had to drive. The assumption was that one of the Honda staffers would move the car. 

Honda staffer and former motorcycle racing champion Mike Spencer was put into the driver’s seat to return the S2000 to its position after the photo shoot | American Honda photos

However, noticing the ignition key in place and seeing the red start button awaiting a press, the race was on. And was quickly won, by me. I took a position in the driver’s seat, edging out another magazine’s editor, who settled unhappily for the shotgun position, though he was much less disappointed that others of our ilk who were left standing as we drove away. 

OK, so I only drove the car across the parking lot and then up a runway where Honda landed corporate planes at the motorsports park. I parked at the elevated end of the runway, where the others caught up with us.

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“I better not see any sort of ‘Exclusive First Drive!’ headline,” Antonius threatened. 

No worries, Kurt. “Quick Spin: Honda provides a peek at its S2000 roadster” was the headline on my AutoWeek cover story, though in the text I did report that I had driven the car, albeit briefly.

You might think it strange to fly halfway around the world just to look at a car, but there was more to this trip than an early — and welcomed — exposure and the reporting, at last, of details about the S2000 (and did you know that it’s new 4-cylinder engine spun counterclockwise, and thus in the opposite direction of seemingly every other automotive powerplant on the planet?).

Our visit was timed so we also could report on Honda’s big 50th birthday party and parade, with some 50,000 people filling the Motegi oval-track’s grandstands to see such vehicles as the 1966 BG18 Grand Prix racer, driven again by none other than Jack Brabham, to see Freddie Spencer back on the RS 1000RW he’d ridden to victory at Daytona, and to give a warm and extended greeting to motorcycle and car racer John Surtees.

An unexpected highlight of the program was the impromptu donut competition started by Satoru Nakajima in a Lotus 100T, and joined by Jonathan Palmer in a McLaren Mp4/6, and then clearly won by Nelson Pique in a Williams FW11.

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Twin Ring Motegi complex includes the Honda museum

The big party over, the visiting Americans got their turn on one of the Twin Ring tracks, albeit one that twists and turns for only 6/10 of a mile per lap and in an unusual formula-style racing car.

Visitors to the Twin Ring facility can pay around $75 for an hourlong rent-a-racer program at the North Short Course, where they were briefed about safety and about the formula-style car before getting about 20 minutes to track time in a Honda Side by Side racer. As Honda guests, we didn’t have to pay the $75.

The Side by Side was an 850-pound open-wheel racer created by none other than Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the former Formula One racing engineer who had recently retired as Honda’s president.

The Side by Side took its name from architecture that placed the engine, the V-twin usually found in Honda’s XRV750 Africa Twin motorcycle, just to the driver’s right rather than in front or behind. The goal was better balance and weight distribution, not to mention the safety of novice drivers.

The engines generated only 60 horsepower, but they redlined at 8,000 rpm and were linked to a 5-speed manual gearbox. The package was gutsy enough to push the Bridgestone passenger-car tires to their limits through the turns, and the track was wide enough that we could run three abreast down either of its two straightaways, just like they do — at much higher speed and risk — at Indy.

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It looks like I’m in the lead, but I think was actually being lapped


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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ooh- you got to meet John Surtees, “Fast” Freddie Spencer, and Jack Brabham; got to drive the prototype S2000, and have a car guy’s dream trip- and you got paid?
    I’m in the wrong job.
    FYI- I think you dropped the “t” in Nelson Piquet’s name. He’s brilliant, btw.
    Loved the article. Keep on.

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