Ralph Sheheen
Ralph Sheheen

Sheheen: A Toyota, A Beast & A Living Legend

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Andy Graves is a competition engineering executive and technical director for Toyota Racing Development.

We bumped into our old friend on a flight to Los Angeles to attend the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

We inquired about the marketing plan behind Toyota’s 410 winged sprint car engine, which has gone to victory lane at the hands of James McFadden and Aaron Reutzel.

Graves, who has a passion for sprint car racing, explained that Toyota wants to be a good citizen of the sprint car community.

For that reason, many of the components used inside the Toyota sprint car engine can be purchased off the shelf from vendors already servicing the top sprint car engine builders. TRD was conscious of not taking business away from the racing community. Instead, the company is interested in producing more work for existing sprint car racing supporters.

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Honda Racing Development’s Beast hybrid at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. (Ralph Sheheen photo)

Graves says Toyota is not as interested in making money off the engine program as it is in participating at the highest level of American grassroots racing and making a positive impression.

Look for Buddy Kofoid’s Crouch Motorsports sprint car to begin carrying a Toyota engine soon. An official announcement was expected in early May.

■ This was the 48th running of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. It’s the longest running major street race in America.

With every grandstand seat sold and a weekend crowd just shy of 200,000, Southern California’s 200 mph beach party, definitely lived up to its billing.

Congratulations to Grand Prix of Long Beach President Jim Michaelian and his staff on another fantastic event.

■ It’s affectionately called the Beast. It’s a Honda Performance Development engineering experiment that ended up as a Frankenstein version of a Honda CR-V. Normally, the Honda CR-V crossover can be found in elementary school pickup lines and making weekend excursions to Whole Foods.

However, with IndyCar set to utilize hybrid assist units next season, HPD engineers started exploring the possibilities. This particular CR-V is a rolling test bed for some of those ideas. Needless to say, they weren’t working within the parameters of a rulebook.

Everything from the firewall back is all IndyCar — IndyCar chassis, Honda IndyCar engine and IndyCar suspension. Everything from the firewall forward is an Acura NSX GT-3 race car. Because it is a hybrid experiment, engineers attached an electric motor to the backside of the Honda racing engine.

It seemed a little strange to be standing next to a CR-V, granted one that is highly modified, and hearing the roar of a 700-horsepower IndyCar engine as the crew warmed up the power plant.

Right now, the electric motor only powers the Beast’s exit from pit lane. Eventually, it could be used as a push-to-pass option. The Beast is, however, constantly harvesting energy. Once off of pit road, the driver pushes a button and fires the traditional Honda HPD IndyCar engine. That’s when the Beast really comes alive.

My chauffeur for two laps around the 1.9-mile Long Beach Grand Prix circuit in the Beast was retired driver James Hinchcliffe. In between production meetings and other TV responsibilities, Hinchcliffe is the official Beast wheelman for Honda guests. I was thrilled when longtime Honda PR man Dan Layton asked if I would be up for a ride in the Beast.

Many — but not all — of the body panels are standard CR-V, including the sunroof. The rest, including the aero add-ons, are made from carbon fiber. The Beast has not been in the wind tunnel — yet. In fact, the word yet is used often by the crew that maintains the Beast.

They are open to ideas as what to do with the Beast and where to run it. There were lots of mischievous smiles as they considered the possibilities.

I’ve ridden in the Acura NSX pace car at Long Beach, which was a good ride. The Beast was on another level. Hinchcliffe hasn’t lost any of his skills since his retirement and he needs all of his reflexes and instincts to smoothly guide the Beast between the canyons of concrete that line the Long Beach circuit.

Up out of the hole of the previous corner, the Beast lunges forward onto the straightaways, quickly reaching warp speed as Hinchcliffe clicks his way through the paddle-shifted gearbox. Right when you sense that in full race mode Hinchcliffe would grab at least one more gear on Shoreline Drive, the Beast settles into an electronically limited triple-digit cruise. It is a ride setup to give guests of Honda a thrill, not to chase track records — yet.

The true thrill while strapped inside the belly of the Beast is the point-and-squirt blasts through the tight twisty sections of the famed SoCal circuit. This is where the power of the Honda HPD engine and the quickness of the Beast’s IndyCar and Acura NSX GT3 chassis and suspension really shine.

Look for the Beast at NTT IndyCar Series events throughout the season.

■ Speedway motorcycle racing legend Bobby “Bugaloo” Schwartz is 66 years old.

This year, the Californian is going to race his 48th consecutive season. Schwartz is a two-time world pairs champion. He won the 1981 title with Bruce Penhall and the 1982 crown with Dennis Sigalos.

The speedway season opened in late April at California’s Costa Mesa Speedway. Best of luck Bugaloo!


This story appeared in the May 10, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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