It gets really cold in Wisconsin this time of year. Local race fans are more focused on the revelry of the holidays than in the silenced roar at Road America, Blackhawk Farms Raceway and Autobahn Country Club. Not that they aren’t just as passionate about racing — it’s just hard to race slick-tire equipped cars in the deep, deep snow. At RealTime Racing in the village of Saukville just north of Milwaukee, former champion driver and CEO, Peter Cunningham and his team are ready to embark on another season. For 2017, RealTime will run the Acura NSX factory effort in the Pirelli World Challenge series.
Ironically, cold weather has been good to Peter Cunningham and his team. In the beginning, RealTime ran Honda Civics in the International Ice Racing Association series — a series that attracts very serious drivers — and took titles in 1987, 1989 and 1990! So began a long and prosperous journey in racing with the Honda factory, and ultimately, at the time, the “new” Acura brand that has remained steadfast for three decades.
Thirty years is a long time. It is an especially long time when you consider the fickleness of corporate commitment to racing at various levels. Cunningham, RealTime and Honda/Acura have almost transcended that paradigm with a combination of success and relationship. “Winning championships has helped,” Cunningham explains, “but there is more to it. I think it has as much to do with how we conduct ourselves and how we represent the brand, as a team, both in and out of the winners’ circle.”
Cunningham looks humbly to the beginnings of this relationship, “From the very start, there was never really any long-term commitment. It was just one foot in front of the other. After I won the ice racing championship in ’87, I was invited to come to the first ‘summer’ event of the year at Sebring to test. There was really no guarantees past the one race, and I didn’t screw anything up, so they invited me to the next one and I didn’t screw anything up there, and it kept going. It was very informal. Things became a little bit more formalized when we started the SCCA ProRally in 1992, then the World Challenge in 1993.”
Cunningham won the national championship in the production category of the SCCA ProRally driving an Acura Integra GS-R in 1993, running the series for two years. Also in 1993 RealTime ran a Honda Prelude in its first season of the SCCA-sanctioned World Challenge Championship where Cunningham placed second in points in 1993-94. But, during this period, for four years straight, RealTime brought home the manufacturers’ championship to Honda. They would win the drivers’ championships in 1995 for Cunningham and 1996 for Michael Galati.
“When the Acura program began in 1996, things began to get even more formalized,” explains Cunningham. “Throughout the years there has been no ‘secret sauce’ or special recipe, it has just worked out this way. They have continued to go with the incumbent.”
Cunningham began autocrossing at Milwaukee County Stadium (now Miller Park) from 1980 through 1988. “From a very young age, my dad would let me drive — beginning in the family (Oldsmobile) Vista Cruiser. From the age of eight, I was driving them everywhere… I was just drawn to it. When I was eleven, he traded that car for a Pinto station wagon, then I learned how to drive stick shift.” Considering today, less than ten percent of the American (adult) public is capable, that is quite a feat! In high school, Cunningham drove a SAAB 99. “All my friends were driving Camaros and Mopars.” He would get teased about running the headlights on the SAAB during daylight hours, back before this was a recognized safety feature stateside.
“There was no sportscar background in my family, when I met a man in a parking garage who was working on his Porsche 911. He told me about autocrossing, where you can take your streetcar and drive around pylons against the clock and compete,” remembers Cunningham. This certainly piqued his interest — which would lead to experiencing more races. “So I showed up in my 1978 SAAB 99 EMS and fell right off the deep end — winning my first event. Needless to say, I was completely enthralled, and attended races at Road America such as the Pabst 500 where he was taken with Jack Baldwin racing the Mazda RX-7s and the (SCCA) June Sprints.”
So after a few autocross wins and observing the pro and top amateur racers locally, Cunningham took a leap of faith again. “I was a young kid who felt he had some talent, for my local successes, but really wanted to give racing a shot.
In 1982, Cunningham acquired a Mazda RX-7 and began running races at Road America, Blackhawk Farms and a few other places through 1983. In 1984 he raced another SAAB — a 99 GLi — as it became eligible for Showroom Stock C. So began the first major successes as Cunningham won the Central Division Championship, including the June Sprints and placing 11th in the SCCA National Championship runoffs. Incidentally, the 99 GLi was the first front-drive car to finish in the group.
Ice Racing, rallying and more road racing would follow. Because most of the racing was done with Hondas, mainly Civics, Honda took notice and began supporting the young team. As Honda introduced its luxury/sport brand, Acura, they looked to RealTime to begin campaigning those cars in SCCA Pro events. More success and championships emerged and the ball just kept rolling forward.
By 1996, Acura and RealTime’s partnership harvested much fruit. The next several years would be great for RealTime Racing. The 1997 season saw the beginning of running the Acura Integra Type-R in the World Challenge Touring Car championship and running the NSX full time in Touring 1, now known as the GT class. The Integras did quite well. Drivers Pierre Kleinubing, Michel Galati and Cunningham took championships in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2002, while winning the manufacturers’ championships in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002.
Back in 1990, Cunningham went to work with American Honda Special Projects to develop the first-generation NSX. Twenty-six years later, they are developing the second-Generation NSX for 2017 competition. Cunningham remembers, “I was the lucky kid who did the development for racing on the first generation NSX back in the fall of 1990. It was very informal, nothing like it has been this go-around.” The first-gen NSX only ran one race in 1991, however.
“We ran one race in May of 1991 with the NSX and finished third behind a Corvette and a Lotus (Esprit),” explains Cunningham, “at the time, while it was a competitive package, Acura decided they did not want to race the car. It was put in mothballs for four years. But in 1996, we came back with the NSX.” The NSX required development, but ended up with the team winning the last two races of the ‘96 season, then in 1997 they won the GT championship, a crowning achievement for the Acura supercar. They would continue to campaign the car in 1998 as well. The car then made a return in 2001 and 2002. RealTime ran the NSX, this time with a supercharged engine and finished second in the championship both years.
In 2003 RealTime developed the Acura RSX racecar and scored three wins for the championship runner-up spot. Then in 2004, the RealTime Acura program began campaigning the TSX. More Touring Car championships were won with Cunningham in 2005 and 2008 and Kleinubing in 2006 and 2009. As the series evolved, Cunningham won another title in the inaugural year for the GTS category. After losing out in the following season to the higher horsepower Mustangs and Camaros, RealTime upgraded the TSX to the V6 engine netting Cunningham his seventh (and RealTime’s 14th) World Challenge drivers’ championship in 2012.
Early in 2014 it was announced that RealTime would move up one step to the fastest class of World Challenge to field a pair of all-new Acura TLX-GT machines. With all-wheel drive and twin turbochargers, these four-door sedans went toe-to-toe with the top sportscars in the GT category, including McLaren, Bentley and Cadillac. This era was certainly the team’s most challenging to date but managed to win one race in 2015, its first full year in the hands of new hire Ryan Eversley.
In 2016, the series allowed the TLX-GT an additional year of eligibility with a forced switch to rear-wheel drive. RealTime won both races at their home track at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, “It was definitely the highlight of the year — perhaps the highlight of the last three years!”
For 2017, the second-generation NSX will debut and Cunningham and RealTime have again, in a much more formal way, helped in developing the car for North American competition. Cunningham couldn’t be more excited, “Twenty-six years later running the second generation Acura supercar is very cool.” The two racecars should arrive shortly to the shop in Saukville, but they have been working with a test mule for the past several months since May. Bringing things full circle, a recent test of the car and its handling was done in the parking lot of Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team — it was almost 40 years previously that Cunningham was running autocrosses in the same lot that was Milwaukee County Stadium. He has undoubtedly come a long way.
“I won’t be driving the NSX in the series,” laments Cunningham, “With so much going on with the team, I need to step aside and let some of these younger guys take the driving duties.” GT3 Rules in World Challenge only permit rear-wheel drive cars, so despite the technology advances in drivetrain — the street NSX, for example, is an all-wheel drive with additional electric motors to the wheels — the racecar will be straight rear-wheel drive. “The same goes for the Audi R8 and the Nissan GTR in this particular category. We do have the stock, turbocharged engine, but rear-wheel drive and no hybrid technologies,” explains Cunningham.
Despite not actually competing in the series moving forward, Cunningham has had a great deal of seat time in testing and gives his impressions: “The car is very easy to drive. Much easier than what it takes to get the TLX to go around the track, based on the layout of the package. It has also been near 100 percent reliable, and we are hopeful that type of reliability will help make it a good racecar. Its gone through an evolution since May (2016) and we should be ready to go for the start of the Pirelli World Challenge season at St. Petersburg (March 10-12, 2017). In the meantime, our friends at Michael Shank Racing will be running the IMSA GT3 NSXs at Daytona so we are not far from the NSX racing debut.”
MSR will run two GT3 NSXs with IndyCar stars Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal joining team regulars Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Ozz Negri and Jeff Segal. In November and December, the cars ran a cumulative 2,000 trouble-free miles in testing at Daytona and Sebring so the team is hopeful for the coming Rolex 24 in January.
With the level of success that RealTime has had in racing, it makes some wonder why they have not moved into other, perhaps ‘bigger’ series. “Actually, in America, we have a lot more fans than WEC has. There was no master plan that World Challenge was where we always would be. At the end of each season we would evaluate things and there were considerations for other series. At different points along the way I have personally driven for other teams and manufacturers, but RealTime has always stayed with Acura and World Challenge.”
Being the big fish in the pond has worked well for the team. “In the beginning we were a small team in a small series, but we have become a bigger team in a bigger series. I think that for GT3 racing in North America, the Pirelli World Challenge is the place to be because of the formats and the overall victories — you are not playing second fiddle to two or three other categories. When you cross the finish line first, you have won the race.” He is also enthusiastic about the fan base and the schedule. “Half of our races are with IndyCar and half are stand alone events. The crowds we had at COTA and Utah were tremendous!”
Thirty years of a great relationship with a top OEM. Championships galore. One of the hottest new supercars to come along to a hungry automotive audience in the racing stable. Peter Cunningham and RealTime Racing transcend all of the motor racing roadblocks and bumps and show that passion, skills and professionalism can take a kid from autocross to one of the most successful racing teams in American history.