The Honda Civic Si Factory Race Car Is Thrilling—and Terrifying
All it took to find the fear of God and the weakness of my human limits was a gutted cabin, a steep banking, and some R-compound Hoosiers.
“Hey Victoria, I have a question.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
This was a question a friend of mine asked me recently, and I wasn’t quite sure how to answer it. Of course, the answer is no, right? The answer has to be no. I wouldn’t be able to do this job if I hadn’t built up the confidence in myself to drive cars well, and I have a solid track record of safe driving. I just step into cars and go do my thing; I find familiarity with the basic mechanics of how it responds, how the brakes bite, what the turn-in feels like, and once I’ve got a rhythm built up, I think more deeply about what the car evokes, how it makes me feel, what that confidence builds up to. That’s how I can write a review. If I were nervous, it wouldn’t make for compelling writing.
And yet here I am, sitting in the pits of Nashville Superspeedway in a Nomex race suit, staring through the windshield of Honda’s TC-ready Civic Si, able to feel every single pulse of my heartbeat in my ear canals. This car is not like the other cars, and yeah, I’m nervous.
Honda Civic Si HPD TC Specs
Powertrain: 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four | 6-speed manual | front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 200 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 192 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm
Curb weight: 2,600 pounds
Quick take: This thing is way faster than I am, I can tell you that much.
The Car That Made Me Nervous
This started out as a brand-new 2022 Honda Civic Si, a car I’ve reviewed previously and adored. The Civic Si was one of my first-ever reviews and it ended up being the perfect vehicle for me to evaluate, given my well-established love of the Honda Civic and my general inclination toward Japanese tuner cars. I didn’t need to imagine an ideal buyer or role-play wealth to envision the target market; I got in, drove it, loved it, and wrote that directly to the page because I am the target market. It’s also a forgiving front-wheel-drive sports sedan that allowed me to drive hard without fear of snap-oversteer reprisals because it’s meant to give a 20-something like me confidence. Honda’s poor press car really got a workout when I had it.
But the car I’m driving here is no longer just a Civic Si; this is the Honda Performance Development program’s take for TC homologation: touring car racing. Gone are sound deadening, thermal insulation, interior comforts such as a full dashboard or speakers or infotainment screens, catalytic converters, exhaust silencers, the sunroof, the street car’s summer Goodyears, and three-point seat belts; added to the package are a fuel cell, an FIA-spec roll cage, Motec engine and fuel management, Bilstein coil-overs, massive Wilwood six-piston brakes, bucket seats, genuine R-compound Hoosiers, and five-point harnesses. In theory, it makes around the same 200 hp from the 1.5-liter turbocharged inline-four out of the street car, and that power is delivered via the same six-speed manual gearbox.
Despite the formula used to create the HPD Civic Si only consisting of basic addition and subtraction, the entire equation changes drastically. Road cars are usually tamed before they hit the streets; a little understeer is dialed in, some twitchiness is dialed out, and the whole package can still be quite fun, but they’re tuned for a gentler demeanor. That way, the 20-somethings buying them stay out of the hedges and remain on the blacktop, all while building up their confidence to drive well. (There are exceptions, of course.)
The HPD Civic has none of that gentle nature left because friendliness is slow.
Watching a Pro at Work
On top of this, the track for my race-car adventure is Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.3-mile long trioval course with a 14-degree banking used for NASCAR races. Slow it is not, and today I’ll be driving it as a roval with 11 corners, so I can’t just keep the go pedal planted and let the R-compound Hoosiers guide me to success.
To start off the day, I take a ridealong with a professional driver who actually knows how to drive a race car. I carefully analyze her corner speeds and driving lines, trying desperately in two laps to study her technique in some vain hope that I can absorb her skill through osmosis. I keep doing this reasonably well until we get to turn eight, which puts the fear of God in me; it’s an off-camber downhill right-hander with runoff approaching extremely rapidly solely in the form of grass, and it comes immediately after the back straight where we’re doing 90-plus mph. Rational thought has fled.
The entire corner has the demeanor and forgiveness of an Old-Testament God dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah. She handles it with deftness, smacking the outside exit curbing with the driver-side wheels, and we continue through at somewhere around 60 mph. From the passenger seat, however, turn eight feels like the first hill of a roller coaster from the lead train car. I’m just anxiously looking down the precipice at what feels like an insurmountable drop, waiting for physics to kick in and adrenaline to flood my nervous system.
The rest of the laps are more of a blur from there; analysis and adrenaline don’t actually pair well. We definitely approach 110 on the back straight as the turbo 1.5 fills the cabin with deafening noise, but the hormones saturating every nook and cranny of my gray matter have papered over the intense sensations of speed. I’m simply watching with disconnected awe as we slam the front tires—still on the throttle!—off the banked front straight and back into the infield section, with not so much as an errant twitch from her hands on the wheel. Alright, I’ll just do that when it’s my turn, I guess.
After a brief interlude driving the new Honda CR-V [Ed. note: Review forthcoming! –CT], it is my turn in the HPD Civic. I put on a shockingly flattering Nomex race suit, and the Honda team makes sure I’m strapped sufficiently into the driver seat. Another one of the professional drivers Honda has brought along hops into the passenger bucket to help guide me through the course (and ideally keep me from binning the car); we aren’t timed, and there’s no race. And yet my pulse has actually become a noticeable physical attribute. I could very easily not take this car above highway speeds, braking hundreds of feet before upcoming corners demand it. This could just be a quick little checkmark on my bucket list—drive a racecar, done!—but I also know that’s not what I’m here for, and my heart rate knows it too. What kind of self-respecting automotive journalist gets strapped into a five-point harness on a closed race course and doesn’t feel a little bit of a death drive kick in?
As we’re released from the pits, my co-driver reminds me to check the brakes to make sure they’re still biting after a long day of Superspeedway laps. Yeah, not a bad idea; quick tap as I head down pit lane, and yes, they are indeed still working. Nashville’s pits exit directly into the first roval section of the course, which is composed of two consecutive hairpins and two 90-degree corners. Easy.
The tires are already up to temp thanks to that long day of laps, so I just dive straight in, braking late and trying to see how close I can get to the limit of grip. Turn two approaches, a very even hairpin with great sightlines, and I head in at what I expect the limit to be. I am not even close. Street tire compounds are roughly linear, in my experience; a set of 200-treadwear Potenzas are 50% grippier than a set of 300-treadwear Kumhos, which are 50% grippier than 400-treadwear Dunlops, and so on. R-Compound tires do not obey the same laws of physics. The Hoosiers don’t even appear remotely close to breaking a sweat, even after being heat-cycled all day long. I spend the rest of my out lap pondering the incredible advances of tire technology.
After my out lap, I start pushing harder and I finally get the front tires to scrub with understeer on turn three; at last, found the limit. There is absolutely no indication that I’ve passed the limit until the car is headed straight and my hands are at a 90-degree angle, at least to me. The bucket seat and tight five-point keep me firmly in place, and the car is absolutely communicative, but everything happens so fast that I feel like I’m on a ten-second delay between physical sensation and mental processing.
Headed into turn four, foot on the mat, I try to look ahead of my line. Keeping your eyes on where you want to go, not where you are, is the most basic performance driving technique. And yet the Honda’s got so much grip, I’m doing 70 mph through a right-hand turn and I feel like my eyeballs cannot saccade fast enough to keep up. All of a sudden I’m on the back straight, slamming it into fourth gear doing 90 mph and, oh hey, there’s turn eight coming up fast and wow did that elevation drop become even more biblical now that I’m driving? But I can tell where the braking zone is thanks to the rubber left on the track, and I watched Honda’s pro demo driver handle this earlier like she was headed to pick up a latte. Do it, Tori.
I slam onto the brakes at what feels like the last possible moment, my stomach falls out from me as the ground drops away and I throw the wheel to the right. The car glides through the corner with ease. I push it onto the curbing—more to feel cool than to actually maximize my line—but I know I could’ve come in 15 mph faster.
On my second and final lap, as I make the transition from turn five into turn six, the rear end steps out as I over-excitedly jerk the wheel from right to left. It’s not enough to put me in danger, but it’s enough to remind me that race cars will kill you if you’re not smooth. “Sorry," I scream to my co-driver over the noise of the gutted cabin; he waves to say “keep going,” and I do.
I do not try to enter turn eight 15 mph faster.
So, how was it? Great question. As a woman into fast cars, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever driven. A Lamborghini wishes it could instill the same adrenaline rush. I have been daydreaming about the experience continually since it happened.
As a reviewer? Well, I mean, it’s very fast. For $55,000 if you don’t need a VIN, it seems like an absolute steal of a car; the powerplant and six-speed are fantastic, the handling is superb, and the roll cage alone would be a $10,000 proposition if you tried to slap one into a street Civic Si. I still cannot tell you if it’s actually fast though, because I am still slow, and this car taught me that very vividly. When the fear kicks in and your eyeballs can’t keep up with the cornering speeds, it’s a little hard to be a reviewer.
For what it’s worth, though, I still loved every damn second.
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