Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe, and Takuma Sato

GREENSBURG, Indiana — It’s become a much-anticipated tradition in the month of May, when associates at the Honda Manufacturing of Indiana plant have the opportunity to interact with Verizon Indy Car Series drivers who rely on Honda power in their race cars.

Drivers James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and Takuma Sato visited the plant Wednesday and answered questions from associates, received an up-close look at quality control in the development of the CR-V and Civic passenger vehicles the plant produces, then signed autographs.

Leave it to the people-pleasing Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, to provide amusing answers during the Q&A session.

What would these drivers be doing if they weren’t racing?

“I’d deliver pizzas really fast,” Hinchcliffe said, prompting laughter from a room of 30 associates.

What technological development in race cars would they like to see implemented into normal cars?

“Push-to-pass,” Hinchcliffe said without hesitation.

The meet-and-greet reinforces a connection that associates have when they cheer for Honda drivers on race day.

“Since I’m working here, you want the Honda engines to do better,” said Tony Fain, 54, who has worked at the plant for nine years and grew up near Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’m on the engine line, and even though our engines are for the normal person (in passenger vehicles), you want to think you had something to do with Hinchcliffe winning, even though I don’t, because he’s driving a Honda.”

The drivers acknowledged their connection to the associates, too.

“We’re all part of the same Honda family,” said Kimball, driver of the No. 83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “It’s really interesting hearing the volume of production that’s done here, running two shifts, 500 cars per shift per day, and then you go to the vehicle dynamics part and they’re doing leak tests on the car to make sure there aren’t wind noise leaks in the welding and sealing. The quality is significantly higher than I ever imagined.”

Verizon IndyCar Series drivers have been visiting this HMIN plant since 2010. Like Kimball, they’re amazed to learn that two shifts of more than 2,400 associates produce 1,000 vehicles each day and 250,000 vehicles in a year. This 1.3-million-square-foot plant is situated on 1,600 acres and is one of five in the United States. Civic sedan production began in 2008 and CR-Vs started in February. HMIN also sourced more than $2.4 billion in original equipment manufacturer parts from 57 suppliers last year.

“Ever since I was 16 years old, I dreamed of working for Honda and I’m actually here, so it’s kind of cool,” said Mike Markiewicz, 27, who moved to Indiana from Milwaukee three years ago to accept a job at the plant as a product quality engineer on powertrains.

Markiewicz is planning to race in a Rally America event in a Ford Focus, but is working on a Honda Civic race car.

“I would love to hang out with those guys,” he said of the drivers.

The driver autograph session was timed for the change in plant shifts, so associates arriving for second shift could join the cafeteria line for signatures.

A Honda connection to racing is evident on the Cafe One plant cafeteria video board, which displays several images of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Cafe One title page has checkered flags on each side. The hours of operation appear on a picture of the famed IMS “yard of bricks.” Daily breakfast specials appear on a picture of an Indy car at IMS.

“It really is a morale boost for the associates,” said Honda spokesperson Yolanda White. “Every year, they know in the month of May we’re going to have racers on site. They look forward to it. They ask, ‘When are the racers going to be on site?’ It’s only a few seconds, but it means a lot to our associates.”

Fain has been fortunate enough to have his name selected in a drawing to attend Indianapolis 500 qualifying in the Honda suite the past two years.

“I love that. Any time I can get out there, it’s a good time,” Fain said.

One display of particular interest to the drivers was seeing an engine installation in 48 seconds.

“Normally two hours is a pretty good time for us,” Hinchcliffe said of his race team.

He couldn’t resist a good-natured joke about the time difference between race mechanics in his garage and associates in this plant.

“We’re a little bit upset at our team’s current pace for an engine swap,” Hinchcliffe said with a smile.

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