It was a gloomy April afternoon when I “won” my first “race”. Hours before, I had stood among a nervous, shuffling group of men as Tommy Byrne, the mercurial, self-destructive, and inhumanly talented Competition Director of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, had explained what we would need to do to survive his “comp school”: Don’t crash the car, make sure you follow the rules, and don’t drive too slowly. Simple as that. I did not know at the time that I would finish the season with a controversial demotion down the podium of the NASA National Championship, and I certainly did not know that not all of the men around me would survive our first year racing together. I just knew that I wanted to win everything I could.
My car for that comp school was #26 in Mid-Ohio’s fleet of five-speed, four-cylinder Acura TSX A-Specs. (Correction: this was a six-speed. I never got it up to sixth. Thanks to hans007) Although I’ve raced other Hondas since, from the Pakistan Express ’89 Civic Si to the Compass 360R Mugen-motored Grand-Am ’08 Civic Coupe, that tough little sedan is burned into my mind. With this week’s announcement that Mid-Ohio has returned its fleet of 2006 TSX A-Specs to Honda, I thought I would take a moment to share my memories of the car with you. It’s depressing to consider, but in many ways that TSX was the last truly good Honda to come to these shores.
Comp School started with lead-follow exercises to make sure we all understood the “basic line” around Mid-Ohio and could maintain an acceptable pace on-track. I chose #26 at random, climbed in, and looked around. The TSX was a product of Honda’s decision to split the Accord’s development for different markets. There would be “wide-body” and “standard-body” variants. The United States received “wide-body” Accords and the Acura TL, which was a wide-body derivative. Japan and Europe received a “narrow-body” car which was more compact all-’round. The split happened in 1998. This is a photo of a narrow-body Accord of the ’98-’02 generation I took in the Bahamas:
It’s easy to see how the TSX was a successor to this car, and indeed, the Acura TSX is fundamentally the Euro Accord with a 205-horsepower “K24A2″ 2.4-liter engine. The interior of the Mid-Ohio School cars was relatively intact, although parts of the dashboard and interior panels were cut out to accommodate the bolt-in rollcage. The selector for the manual transmission was loose, wobbly, and long-throw; I’d arrived for school in my Porsche 993 and was not quite prepared for the will-it-or-won’t-it nature of the TSX’s shifts.
I fell in a few cars behind Bryne and was immediately taken aback by his pace. I thought I was quick around Mid-O, but Byrne knew both the car and the track far better than I did. Eventually most of us managed to come up to speed. Another instructor, American Iron racer Aaron Bambach, picked up the stragglers in his TSX and herded them along.
After a variety of drills and “van-arounds” in which Byrne told us exactly how fast the TSX could handle each corner of the track when approached perfectly, we had a race from a rolling start. I began mid-pack, attacked from the flag, and finished well ahead of everyone else. On its Goodyear F1 GS-D3 tires, the TSX didn’t have much natural understeer and was very responsive to mid-corner corrections. Momentum driving was the name of the game, however, because the KA24 was utterly gutless. Let it fall anywhere beneath 5500rpm and the silver Acuras behind you would flash-zoom into your rearview mirror. I could not believe how slow the TSX was in a straight line. If Byrne wanted to make sure we never candy-assed it into a corner, using these cars was a solid way to discourage said behavior.
The next race was from a standing start, and I went from about eleventh to first in three laps. Bambach had mentioned that “trail braking is mandatory, not optional, for top drivers” and the TSX rewarded it in spades. His suggested entry speed for Turn 1 was 89 miles per hour, and at that speed there was a nervous, dancing energy to the Acura’s balance. For the last lap of the race, I diced with a Spec Miata which had also shown up for school; in the Esses I couldn’t see the Miata’s roof when it was on my right side. No sheetmetal was bent, however, and it was time for the final event.
This time, Bambach placed me at the very back for the rolling start. I moved forward with authority (enough so for one student to complain online afterwards that I had risked his life with a late pass) and found myself in third place. In the rear-view mirror, a TSX appeared, faster and surer than mine. It was Bambach, who had come out of the pit lane for the sole purpose of screwing with me. Over the right-hander in Nine, the TSX drifted the rear wheels all the way down the hill as Bambach’s car mirrored mine in a 100-mph angry ballet. He moved for the inside on Eleven. I shut the door without equivocation. I was starting to love the car… to enjoy it, anyway. These little Hondas took any direction you could give them except for “fast forward”.
The checkered flag flew with me still in third, having held off Bambach. No doubt Aaron wasn’t trying very hard, but I was pleased as punch. At the end of the day, the Acura felt as fresh as it had at the beginning, and over the course of five years and 330,000 miles in service, the fleet did not suffer a single engine failure. Make no mistake: these were high-quality cars in the authentic Honda tradition, and although they felt flimsy to drive, they were clearly built to last a long time.
We’d done it. We had graduated Comp School. Tommy shook our hands and told a few stories from his days as an Indy Lights and Formula One driver. I went home that day an authentic racer, surrounded by men whose spirits were as high as mine.
The TSXes are gone now, returned to American Honda as part of a lend-lease operation that prevents them from falling into the hands of nostalgia suffers such as myself. They were appliances, but they were good ones. Quiet, reliable, friendly around the track. In their place now, there are thirty-seven examples of the new “beaky” TSX. It weighs more than the old car and doesn’t seem to have any more power, so I wouldn’t look to beat my TSX times in it. Still, I’m not sure there’s any better way to start your racing career than with Tommy’s school.
I’m ashamed to say that I did not particularly notice John Engle on that April day. He was one of the quiet men; older, reserved but friendly. He was neither particularly fast nor particularly slow. Four months later, he was involved in an incident on Mid-Ohio’s back straight. The rumor is that he did not survive the helicopter ride. He is gone now, like the fleet of silver Acuras, gone to who knows where, never to return.