SR Archive: Behind the Doors of HRC

Sport Rider goes inside the top-secret confines of the Honda Racing Corporation

This article was originally published in the 1999 December issue of Sport Rider.

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Sport Rider got an inside look at just what goes on behind the HRC doors.Photography by Bill Greer

In the world of motorcycle racing, there's a three-letter acronym that strikes fear and awe in the hearts of competitors everywhere: HRC. The very mention of these three letters (which stand for "Honda Racing Corporation") conjures up visions of a top-secret, nondescript building with ultratight security equal to Fort Knox, sterile labs full of CAD/CAM design computers with dozens of calculator-equipped engineers scurrying about, and a futuristic manufacturing facility stocked with robotic assembly lines. Some of the most innovative and incredible racing machines in motorcycle sport trace their lineage back to this building. And yet, while many people have heard the name, few have ever seen the place. What's it really like inside the facility the RC45 superbike and the NSR500 Grand Prix racebike call home?

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
HRC headquarters located in Asaka, Japan.Photography by Bill Greer

As I sit waiting to be formally greeted inside Honda Racing Corporation headquarters in Asaka, Japan, I notice a poster on the wall of the employee break room that proclaims, “Good people make GREAT engineers.” I begin to wonder just what kind of people inhabit one of the most revered racing companies in the world. Where do they look for potential employees? How do they advance within the organization?

My train of thought is broken as Ryuichi Nakajima, HRC's Senior Public Relations Representative, and his translator Rika Fujita enter the room. A vital component in the coordination of this fantastic opportunity, Nakajima quickly gets started after the usual introductions, walking us past an NSR500 on display that was ridden by current and five-time 500 GP World Champion Mick Doohan, as we head toward the service area. As Naka­jima slides his security card through the magnetic-strip reader and opens the door, my mind is racing with antici­pation. How will it look inside? A shop with near-surgical sterility? Giant CNC-milling machines everywhere?

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
As we walked through the building we walked past an NSR500 on display that was ridden by Mick Doohan.Photography by Bill Greer

Not quite. The service area is basically a large room divided in half lengthwise by tall rows of toolboxes and racks holding covered engines. We’re immediately met by Chief Engineer Syuhei Nakamoto, who explains that the room is divided in half because Honda views the process as two separate operations: engine assembly and everything else. On an elevated stand is a motorcycle chassis being swarmed by four mechanics. When asked what bike they are working on, Nakamoto replies, “Suzuka Eight-Hour machines. We’ll have four works bikes there plus three satellite teams this year.” Do you get the feeling Honda wants to win the Suzuka Eight-Hour race?

Sitting on the worktable next to the mechanics is a large, three-ring binder with color photographs of every piece of the RVF/RC45 in both assembled and exploded view. Every nut, washer and bolt of the chassis is laid out on the workstation in the same sequence. Why the homemade assembly books? “Our mechanics work on all HRC engines,” reveals Nakamoto, “sometimes it is easy to get confused. When we hire an HRC mechanic, we start them on our in-house training program where they’ll work three years with senior project leaders. They must learn all of our machines, the 500, 250, 125 [Grand Prix bikes] and superbikes. Due to the speeds involved in roadracing, one minor mistake can lead to a loss of life.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Two HRC mechanics at­tend to a works RS125 GP racebike, while a customer’s A-kitted RS250 racer (a production model with special HRC kit parts installed) awaits service in the foreground.Photography by Bill Greer

Interestingly, out of the 179 employees at the facility, only 40 of them work directly for HRC. A section of Honda R&D (a separate entity that handles research and development for production Hondas) is actually located on the same grounds and employs about 40 engineers at the facility, while the rest work for the factory's production department. Engineers are rotated between the three organizations every few years. "We must nurture their growth as engineers," explains Naka­moto. "They come to us from college with many good ideas and sound skills. We rotate them to expand their knowledge base and become more knowledgeable with all aspects of the motorcycle; not only engine but also chassis and suspension."

With only 40 actual employees to deal with, keeping a tight grip on corporate secrets is a fairly easy job. “We feel that with 40 employees we have the time to build relationships and understanding with our staff,” says Nakamoto. “Our culture wouldn’t allow us to use harsh methods of security, so we must establish trust within our staff. Our total number of employees is much less than, say, the automotive department—which is huge by comparison.

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
A bank of trick fuel-injection throttle bodies destined for a works RC45 waits on a lift bench next to a pair of alumi­num gas tanks with Suzuka-style dual-feed receptacles.Photography by Bill Greer

“Additionally, just because you’re an HRC employee doesn’t mean you have full access to all areas. Each employee wears a color-coded name card with a magnetic strip on the back. This is predominately used for time and attendance accountability, but it also records who entered which rooms and when. Our access is color-coded within the different areas of HRC; a green card staff member isn’t allowed access to a yellow-carded area. However, a yellow card has full access to both. With a small number of employees made smaller yet by access restrictions, a leaked secret would be easy for us to trace.”

I then notice there aren’t any CNC mills, metal presses or any other fabrication machinery anywhere within the facility. “We don’t make anything in-house. Everything is outsourced through contractors,” says Nakamoto. “We draw up the design and make the blueprints, but the contractor actually makes the pieces. We only check the component specifications and assemble the engines.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Just your average carbon-fiber Repsol Honda NSR500 fairings waiting to be installed on the works machines. Some unfinished NSR250 and RS125 fairings sit alongside in the background.Photography by Bill Greer

But how do they control the quality of the parts being made? And how do they know the contractor isn’t selling their secrets to somebody else? “Our contractors are solely contracted to Honda. We’ve had a long-standing relationship with them,” confides Nakamoto. “They know our standards, if anything negative like that ever happened they would lose our business. There are 28 different contractors used to make motor­cycles—some are [contracted] solely to Honda; others, like Showa, make suspensions for many companies. When you consider the electrical components and engine internals, many pieces must work together. Most of our contractors have been with us since before HRC was even established.” There are also “contracted” mechanics at HRC who are only short-term workers and have very limited exposure to sensitive issues.

We walk to the other side of the room where the smell of cleaning solvents is overwhelming. There are 10 pairs of tables (workstations) in a single-file line with two mechanics at the far end working away. Before them is a disassembled NSR500 engine. The block of the engine is bolted to a stand; I note some porting on the intake side of a reed cage manifold. Between the two mechanics sits a crate with broken and worn parts that they’ve replaced. One sits with a connecting rod and emery cloth, polishing away the casting marks. The engine pieces sitting on the table are all gleaming like fine silverware, not a nick or casting mark anywhere. The other mechanic is turning the gears of the transmission, using cleaning solvent and a Q-Tip to clean between each tooth. These components are so clean you could eat with them.

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
One of the force-feed refueling stations commonly used at the Suzuka Eight-Hour endurance race sits ready for testing behind the HRC service area. The Suzuka Eight-Hour is considered vitally important for the Japanese manufacturers—especially Honda, who owns the Suzuka circuit.Photography by Bill Greer

Unfortunately, anything dealing with the NSR500’s internal components is so sensitive that photographs are not allowed in the engine-assembly area. When I inquire about the red armband Nakamoto is wearing, he replies, “Photography within HRC is very sensitive. Authorization is only granted to senior staff to escort photographers through here. If I wasn’t wearing this band, our security would be very upset.” With visions of machine-gun-toting security guards dancing in our heads, we decide to put away the cameras.

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Two works RC45s destined for the Suzuka Eight-Hour race begin to take shape inside the service area of HRC. Note that many fasteners and components are carefully laid out on a white sheet that is so clean your mother would be proud.Photography by Bill Greer

We leave the shop area and walk to a conference room, where we’re met by Masaharu Ujiie, Honda’s Superbike Project Leader. An amiable 42-year-old engineer with a long history at Honda, Ujiie is not only directing the development of the RVF/RC45 (and its future replacement, rumored to be the new VTR1000SP V-twin), he also has the ’83 RS250 and ’85 RS125 GP racebike designs to his credit.

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Honda Japan’s senior PR rep, Ryuichi Nakajima, knows a good read when he sees one.Photography by Bill Greer

While explaining how the close proximity of HRC and Honda R&D has benefited the RC45’s rapid development (R&D was previously housed in a building more than 850 yards away), Ujiie shocks us with his disclosure of HRC’s quick response time between an engineering idea and a ready-to-test prototype. “At HRC, when an idea is proposed [and] it is agreed upon we’ll assign team members to head the project. Three months later, the project is ready for testing. Remember we have many ideas running concurrently. If you have a ‘great idea’ today, tomorrow someone else may have another. Our communication starts long before anyone sits at a drafting table. This allows HRC, R&D, Engineering and Honda an opportunity to have their concerns reflected before anyone starts a project. All requirements must be observed, from racing and new technology to other commercial concerns.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Two HRC mechanics take a quick break to answer my relentless questioning. Interpreter Rika Fujita (left) helps to ensure they don’t get confused and think I’m asking why the men’s toilet doesn’t have a throttle installed.Photography by Bill Greer

The biggest revelations come when we inquire about the relationship between two-strokes and streetbikes. When he’s asked why Honda didn’t one-up Bimota and come out with a “V-Due” of its own, Ujiie replies, “I don’t want to speak ill of Bimota, but I don’t think their engine was as clean as they described. Honda’s CRM 250AR (a domestic market two-stroke dual-purpose bike) is much cleaner-burning than the V-Due we bought for testing. The drivability was also extremely sensitive—we cannot release such a machine to the public. [Being] leaders in the motorcycle industry, it would first have to meet our own standards before it was ever released.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
An HRC mechanic begins the “ground-on-up” construction of a Suzuka-spec RC45, beginning with careful hand-assembly of the rear subframe. HRC technicians work on all of the firm’s machines (both two-stroke and four-stroke), so all of the racebikes are put together meticulously.Photography by Bill Greer

He then reveals, “Actually, R&D already possesses [the] technology [to produce an emissions-legal, two-stroke sportbike]. However, we must consider many factors when we think toward a production 500cc two-stroke [streetbike]. If we made this production 500cc two-stroke, it could easily have 130–140 horsepower and weigh little. Take into consideration today’s tire technology, and a motorcycle with this level of performance would be risky for the ordinary user to be riding [it] on the street. Products released for the street are viewed as company statements. There­fore as a company, we’ve decided not to release such a motorcycle.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Masaharu Ujiie is the Superbike Project Leader for HRC, meaning he’s respon­sible for development of the RVF/RC45 and its successor (rumored to be the hot-rodded version of the Super Hawk V-twin). A long-time veteran of HRC, Ujiie was also the project leader for the ’83 RS250 and ’85 RS125 production GP racebikes.Photography by Bill Greer

Pity—but don’t give up hope completely. Ujiie reiterates, “We are always experimenting with [two-stroke] en­gine design and parameters.” And don’t write off bikes like the NR750, either. “We may no longer race an oval-piston engine, [but] we continue to refine it [in testing] so we may again use it in the future.”

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
The two empty workbenches are reserved for foreign HRC-sponsored team mechanics to assemble their machines. Note the lack of machining and fabri­­cation facilities; all of RC’s components are made on an outsource basis. Not visible is the engine-assembly area, where our cameras were strictly forbidden.Photography by Bill Greer

As the afternoon comes to a close, I thank everyone—especially Mr. Naka­jima, who has put up with my badgering to make this tour happen—for their patience and hospitality. While leaving the area, I glance back over my shoulder and think of the sign: “Good people make GREAT engineers.” Everyone we’ve met has been busy but cheerful. And who wouldn’t be? How many people get to work for an organization whose primary concern is expanding the knowledge of its employees, while they’re designing and working on the trickest racebikes imaginable?

Sport Rider Behind the Scenes of HRC
Three HRC mechanics swarm over a works RC45. Note the dual-sided swingarm (replacing the previous single-sided version) with “captured” rear sprocket carrier, which facilitates quick rear-wheel changes during the Suzuka Eight-Hour race.Photography by Bill Greer