Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
New Auto Operations VP Steeped in Racing
One of the on-going pitfalls ofNew Auto Operations VP Steeped in Racing auto racing is that whenever a new boss comes in, there's always a chance he won't share his predecessor's interest in the program.
There are no such worries at American Honda Motor Co.
The new sheriff enjoys motorsports so much you figure he might be wearing Nomex underwear.
Make no mistake, John Mendel boasts a savvy business resume and is well-versed in product development, marketing, advertising, public relations, government relations and all the logistics for automobiles.
But, as the Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations for American Honda, he's also just as comfortable re-building an engine as he is hosting a board meeting, and that's good news for Honda Performance Development.
"Yeah, I got hooked when my dad took me to a track and I got to take a ride with Ken Miles in a sports car," said Mendel. "I grew up racing go-karts and, because of my size, Ialways carried excess ballast.
"Then I started drag racing while I was going to college."
Balancing books and burnouts required some creativity and John showed plenty of it at an early age.
"My dad worked for Ford and he said I could lease any car I wanted as long as I paid for it," recalled the 51-year-old native of Richardson, Texas. "So I got a 1973 Mustang with a351 cubic - inch engine which looked kind of tame on the outside. But what my father didn't know was that I hopped it up with a four-barrel carburetor and four-speed transmission.
"I had a job at Paul Harvey Ford's shop and I was always interested in taking things apart and rebuilding them, so that was a great place to work."
While attending Austin College in Sherman, Tex. as a business major, Mendel minored in NHRA drag racing at nearby Green Valley Raceway -- driving his leased car.
"My dad never knew I raced until my senior year," said Mendel with a chuckle. "I got lucky and won an event known as the King of the Hill. My parents were living in Indianapolis and somehow my win made it into the Carmel Topics newspaper.
"My dad called me and asked, 'What is the King of the Hill?' I stuttered for a few seconds and he yelled, 'You're racing that leased car?' I admitted I was, but I didn't tell him about the street racing we did from time to time."
From 1972-80, the Mendels attended the Indianapolis 500 and that further fueled John's passion for auto racing. He was a big fan of Mario Andretti and Peter Revson.
Mendel's first job out of college was in New Orleans as a technical service engineer, and by the late '90s, he'd worked his way up the corporate ladder to Director of Marketing for Ford of Europe.
"We lived in England and I got to go to the British Grand Prix several times, as well as the British Touring Car Championship, which was under my direction. We won it with Alan Menu and that was some great racing."
Mendel also became aware of another young racer from the USA during that time.
"We watched Danica [Patrick] when she started running Formula Fords in England and she toughed it out," he said. "She handled that situation so well, just like she's handled everything this year, and she really is an anomaly to a certain degree."
As is Mendel. He's run several drivers' schools and, because of all his travel, must continually update his SCCA license. He's run production cars with his sons, Clayton and Trevor, and has some plans to continue that bonding.
"When I left Ford and came to Honda last winter, I had to sell my Mazda, but we're going to build a Honda Civic Si to run in the SCCA," he vowed.
In replacing Tom Elliott, Mendel knows he's got a lot to learn about Honda's culture.
"Obviously, I'm new to Honda and Tom was Honda, probably employee number 4 or so, and I'm number 23,378. Everybody knew him and a lot of people don't know me yet. But I do know that the spirit of Honda is racing and Honda's success in open-wheel is the very core of its DNA.
"It's about squeezing the most out of what we've got."
Asked if this marriage of racing and business is his dream job, Mendel nodded and said: "It's more than a benefit, it's aprivilege, and I'm looking forward to our future."
In passenger cars and race cars.