MOTORSPORTS IN JAPAN: INDY-CAR RACES, PARIS-DAKAR, AND MOTORCYCLE RACING DEATHS

MOTORSPORTS IN JAPAN

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Motegi race track
Honda Motor company built the $350 million Twin Ring Motegimachi Motorsports Complex in Tochigi (60 miles north of Tokyo). It is the world's only combination theme park and race track capable of hosting European-style Formula One road events and American-style oval track Stock Car and Indy car racing events. Motegi has said it will no longer host Indy car races at the track after 2011. Damage from the March 2011 earthquake resulted in the final Indy race being held on the road course rather than the oval track.

Suzuka in Mie Prefecture is operated by Mobilityland Corp., a subsidiary of Honda. The 2010 Formula One race in Japan was held at Suzuka. The 2011 and 2012 races will be held there too.

Fuji International Speedway in Shizuoka Prefecture is a subsidiary of Toyota. It hosted Formula One races in 2007 and 2008 but stopped hosting the race when Toyota withdrew from Formula One in 2009 to cut costs.

The Audi Sport Team Goh, sponsored by the Japanese millionaire Kazumichi Goh, won the 24 hours motor race in Le Mans in 2004. It was the first Japanese team victory since 1991 . Seiji Ara became the second Japanese driver to win the race (his team mates were a Dane and an Italian). Masanori Sekiya won in 1995.

Toyota pulled out from Le Mans in 1999. It plans to enter with a hybrid in 2010 with the aim of proving that fuel efficiency can be as important in winning a car race as speed. The car is expected to have a storage battery like that found on the Prius as well as a condenser that can rapidly generate and store electricity. Toyota hopes to reduce fuel consumption by around six percent and adapt the technology for passenger cars.

Good Websites and Sources: Formula One---Japan Official Site formula1.com/races/in_detail/japan_820 ; Moto Racing Japan motoracing-japan.com ; The Japan Biker esmartweb.com/bikerfaq-toc ; Suzuka Circuit mobilityland.co.jp/english/suzuka ; Fuji Speedway fsw.tv/english/index ; Twin Ring Motegi Motor Sports Complex Website: Mobilityland mobilityland.co.jp ; Indy-Car Racing in Japan indycar.com ; Toyota Motorsports toyotaracing.com/ Links in this Website: SPORTS IN JAPAN (Click Sports, Recreation, Pets ) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; AUTOMOBILES AND DRIVING IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TOYOTA CARS, RACING AND ROBOTS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;HONDA CARS, PLANES, ROBOTS AND RACING Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Motorsports, Radiation Fears and 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

Twin Motegi, where the 2011 IndyCar race and the MotoGP motorcycle race were scheduled to be held, is only 120 kilometers away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where meltdowns occurred after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Not much of deal was made about radiation at Japan’s Formula One Grand Prix, which was held at Suzuka in October 2011, which was 500 kilometers from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, compared to Motegi, which is only 120 kilometers away.

Formula One drivers did various kinds of promotions to help draw attention and bring in donations of the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. McLaren drivers Jenson Button sported a helmet that said Ichiban (“No.1") in Japanese, Button has a Japanese girlfriend and a deep affection for Japan.

On the other hand motorcycle riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo said they wanted the Moto GP event in Japan to cancelled because of concerns they had about radiation at the Motegi track which is north of Tokyo but several hundred kilometers south of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. "People are very scared," Rossi, the seven-time champion, told AP, "The problem is, for example, that I don't really know what the real danger is. "Everyone that I know in the paddock thinks the same, that they would prefer not to go to Japan. Let's hope we can reach a consensus and not go." Lorenzo intends to persuade his fellow riders to boycott the race in Motegi, which lies north of Tokyo but several hundred kilometers south of the worst-affected radiation zones in northeastern Japan. "To be asking yourself (for) your entire life if (the radiation) will affect you doesn't sit well with me," the defending world champion said from the Catalunya GP. "I'm going to try to convince as many riders as possible not to run in Japan." He added in El Pais newspaper: "I don't want to go. I'm very young and I don't want to be asking myself if in 20 years I'll have some kind of reaction or if my children will be born with some kind of deformity." [Source: AP, June 4, 2011]

MotoGP postponed its April race until October because of concerns stemming from the Fukushima crisis. But IndyCar went forward with its event. It couldn't run the race on the oval because of safety concerns, so the race was shifted to a road course.

In September 2011, Associated Press reported that Indy race car driver Danica Patrick said she is concerned about traveling to Japan for the Sept. 18 IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi. "I don't want to make anyone mad, but heck yeah, I'm concerned," Patrick said at Richmond International Raceway. "MotoGP has made a big fuss about going there, and their race got delayed, and is still after ours next weekend. They had a study done that seemed it was relatively safe. The radiation seems OK."

But Patrick said she is concerned about the food and water, as well as the earthquakes that have occurred since the March disaster. She and her husband plan to pack as much food and water as possible. "They say don't eat beef, which probably means don't eat vegetables and fruit," she said. "I read something about nine times the radiation in mushrooms so far out of Fukushima in that area. And there's earthquakes every week. It seems every other week there's a pretty big one." Her only victory in the IndyCar Series came at Japan, in 2008, on the oval track.

"I think there's a general concern for the safety of being over there," she said. "I'm told IndyCar has an emergency plan if something happens and we need to all get out. Which is terrible to think about it. I guess it's that we've compromised on the track, (and) IndyCar isn't going back after this year anyway...It just seems like a lot of forced things to make it happen. I'm just a driver and I show up where I have to show up."

Stock-Car Racing, Toyota and Japan

American promoters have attempted to introduce Stock-Car and Indy-Car racing to Japan. In 1996, about 35,000 Japanese paid up to $70 a ticket to see popular American drivers such as Dale Earnhardt in the Japan's first stock-car race.

Toyota entered NASCAR in 2004 and competed it first top level NASCAR Stock Car race in February 2007 with Michael Waltrip as one of its drivers. Only one non-American car had won a stock car race in the United States before then and that was in January 1954. In 2006, Toyota won 12 of 25 events in the NASCAR truck racing series.

Toyota debut NASCAR season in 2007 was less than impressive. Some called it a disaster. In 2008, Toyota did better with a team of 11 Camrys and drivers Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch and alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch was head in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series before the Chase with seven victories, 12 top five finished and had a 262 point leader driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In January 2009, Toyota said it would cut its NASCAR budget to save money in the wake of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009.

As of January 2009, Toyota had 51 victories in 125 races and was in its third year with Joe Gibbs Racing, whose drivers gave Toyota ten victories. Toyota has also won the last three manufacturing championship. Competitors have said that deep-pocketed Toyota has won by outspending its rivals.

Indy-Car Racing Teams and Japan

Honda and Toyota are leaders in making engines for the 20-race CART FedEx Championship races. Honda won its forth manufacturer's title with 348 points in 2001 (the others were in 1996, 1998 and 1999). In 2001, Helio Castronevs won the Indianapolis 500 with a Honda engine and Gol de Fettan won his second consecutive CART driver season championship with a Honda engine.

Toyota and Honda cars occupied the first 17 positions in the 2003 Indianapolis 500. That year Toyota debuted at Indy and Honda returned after eight years away. Their engine are more powerful than those of General Motors, the top U.S. manufacturer. Many members of their CART teams moved to Indy Racing League (IRL).

Honda won its first Indy pole and first Indy win in 2003 and its first Indy championship in 2004. A.J. Foyt’s Ford team used Honda engines in its IndyCar race cars.

Japan’s Hideki Mito placed 2nd ib 2008 and 3rd in 2008 at Iowa Corn Indy 250.

Indy-Car Races in Japan

The first Indy Racing League (IRL) race in Japan was held in 2003 at the on the 1.5-mile oval track. Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi Prefecture. Indy races have been held there every year since then.

The Indy Japan 300 is run at the Twin Ring Motegi is a 300 mile race involving 200 laps around the track. The race was held in April for a while and was the led up race into the Indianapolis 500. Bu now there are other races in the United States between the Japanese race and the Indianapolis 5000.

In April 2007, Brazilian Tony Kanaan won the Bridgestone Indy Japan 300, beating Englishman Dan Wheldon. Another Brazilian, Helio Castroneves, won the race on the 2006. In May 2004, Wheldon won, leading 192 of 200 laps, to give Honda its first ever won at its home circuit at Motegi.

The Indy Japan 300 race at Twin Ring Motegi in April 2008 was won by female driver Danica Patrick. With the victory Patrick became the first female winner in IndyCar history, taking the race when the top contender were forced to pit for fuel in the final laps. Patrick’s victory made her the first female driver to win a major closed-course auto racing event.

Helio Castroneves won the Japan Indy 300 in September 2010. Japanese drivers finished near the end of the pack. Scott Dixon of New Zealand won the Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi in September 2009, with an average speed of 202.031 mph.

In September 2011, the last Indy car race was held in Japan at Twin Ring Motegi. The race was won by Scott Dixon of New Zealand. The earthquake in March 2011 damaged the oval at Twin Ring. The race was held on the fixed up and modified road track.

In June 2008, Hideki Muto had the best placement ever for a Japanese driver in Indy car racing with a second place in the Iowa Corn Indy 250.

Takuma Sato

The Japanese driver Takuma Sato drove with Jordan-Honda in 2002 and Lucky Strike BAR. Honda in 2003. A former university bicycle racer, he was a sensation on the Formula 3 racing circuit in Britain and hoped to be the first Japanese to win a Formula One race. In 2002, he collected his first Grand Prix point when he placed fifth in the Japan Grand Prix.

Sato had Japan’s first podium finish in 2004 when placed third in U.S. Grand Prix. He was he was forth at the Japanese Grand Prix in October. In 2004, Sato replaced Villeneuve as a full time driver at BAR Honda. During most of the 2003 season, he was his team’s test driver. In 2003 he finished sixth at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Sato left BAR Honda in 2005. He had been widely criticized by other drivers, Michael Schumacher once called him crazy and said he should be barred from racing after Sato forced him into a crash the driver Jarno Trulli. Schumacher said, “The problem with Takuma is his misjudgement, he never understands when something is possible and when it isn’t.”

Sato drove for Super Aguri in 2006 and 2007, his six and seventh year of racing. With Super Aguri’s demise in 2008, Sato was left without a team. In 2009, he failed to make the Spanish Toro Ross team and turned down reserve rolls for the two Red Bull teams, He tried out but failed to earn a spot on the 2010 Lotus team.

Sato spent seven years in Formula One and finished eighth in 2004 with 10 top-10 finishes. His greatest achievements were in British Formula 3, where he won 12 races and won the Class A championship in 2001. In 2010, Sato switched to the Indy car series in the United States. In June 2011, he became the first Japanese driver to win a pole position in an Indy race (in Newton, Iowa) but finished 19th after his car hit a wall at the track’s second turn. In August 2011, Takuma Sata finished a personal best of 4th on the IndyCar circuit at the Mid-Ohio race in Lexington, Ohio. He earned the pole position at two races.

Sato Almost Wins Indy 500 Bur Crashes Instead

Sato almost win the Indianapolis 500 in 2012. ESPN reported: “an Wheldon couldn't win his third Indianapolis 500. Dario Franchitti did it for him. Franchitti won a wheel-to-wheel, last-lap battle, sailing away to the checkered flag when Takuma Sato spun out trying to make one last pass on the inside and slammed into the wall. Sato was going for the lead. [Source: ESPN, May 28, 2012]

The race had shaped into what was expected to be a duel to the finish between Franchitti and Dixon. But when the Scot made his final pass of Dixon with two laps to go, he pulled Sato with him and it sapped Dixon's momentum. So the last-lap pass attempt was Sato's for the taking, and he couldn't pull it off as he hugged the inside white line through Turn 1. His wheels appeared to touch Franchitti's, he spun hard into the wall, and Franchitti sailed past for the win---this one, just like the first two, under caution. [Ibid]

"It looks like he didn't give me enough room to go there," Sato said. "I was a little below the white line. I had nowhere to go." Sato said the cars never actually hit but the white line marking the inside of the track "was less than touching my own car---so, you know, I mean almost on the grass." "I was side by side with Takuma," Franchitti said. "We hit and I managed to keep it out of trouble."

Sato Finds a Way to Podium Finish at Sao Paulo 300

In April 2012, AP reported: “Japan's Takuma Sato had almost everything go wrong in the Sao Paulo 300. He just kept pressing, though, and somehow found a way to his first podium finish in IndyCar. Sato had a remarkable drive on the streets of Sao Paulo, being aggressive and taking advantage of pit strategy after starting in the last row and overcoming a drive-thru penalty early in the race. He crossed the line just a few seconds behind winner Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Sato's previous best finish was fourth in Mid-Ohio in 2011. [Source: AP, April 29, 2012]

"It is a fantastic feeling to finish third. It was an eventful race starting from the back of the grid. I needed to fight back so hard to get the positions back," Sato said. A podium finish was the last thing Sato expected to get considering the way his weekend started. He got only a few laps of practice because of a gear box problem, and couldn't post a time in qualifying after having to change his engine. He was penalized 10 spots on the grid and started 25th. "After a difficult weekend, it is a relief to get this result and I am really pleased to bring the team a third place and see the first checkered flag of the season. It was a great day," said the 35-year-old driver from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. [Ibid]

Sato was set to make his first podium in IndyCar two weeks before in Long Beach, but he was spun by Hunter-Reay on the last lap. IndyCar assessed a 30-second penalty on Hunter-Reay because of the accident. Sato was still eighth, his best finishing position this season. Sato got the all the luck he needed in Sap Paulo, though, especially by avoiding going a lap down early in the race because of a drive-thru penalty. He just made it back to the track in front of the pace car and was able to charge to the front from there. [Ibid]

Using a three-pit strategy, one more than the leaders, Sato had to be aggressive to make up the lost time on the track. "The first part of the race was really hard, not necessarily on the overtaking but to follow the strategy, and at one stage we had a pit speed penalty but we gradually moved up. One-by-one we overtook cars, which was very exciting." Sato had led the race in Brazil last year after also betting on a different pit strategy, but in the end it didn't end up working and he was eighth. [Ibid]

The restarts also were key for the former Formula One driver. On the second-to-last green flag, Sato made a bold move to pass Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti at the first corner to move from fifth to third. "There is always opportunity on a restart but you never know until you hit the brake because there is no plan basically," he said. "When Helio and Dario were in front of me, two wide, initially I thought there was no chance but when I saw their braking point was earlier than I expected I saw a little opportunity to dive inside. I was confident that I would make the corner so I was very excited."

Paris-Dakar Rally and Japan

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Mitsubishi at dakar
Japanese drivers and manufacturers---especially Mitsubishi--- have done well in Paris-Dakar rally Mitsubishi has won seven manufacturer titles in a row between 2002 and 2008 and took 12 titles in in its 29 years in the sport.

Mitsubishi won the driver’s tittle at Dakar four consecutive years from 1996 to 1999 and the manufacturer’s title in 1998, with Pajero/Monteris placing 1-2-3 for two years in a row, in 1997 and 1998. Eleven 11 Mitsubishi vehicles finished among the top 20 in 1998. In 2002, Mitsubishis won 9 of the 10 top spots.

Kenjiro Shinozuka won the Paris-Dakar in 1997. The first Japanese to win the race he had been involved in rally racing since 1967. In 2003, at the age of 54, Shinozuka survived a serious crash that left him in a coma and with serious facial injuries. His truck roled over while negotiating turns in sand dunes on the 727-kilometer stage between Ghat and Sabha in Libya. His co-driver had two broken legs. Shinozuka returned to the race the next year.

Hiroshi Masuoka, at the age of 41 and driving for Mitsubishi, won the 2002 Paris-Dakar with a time of 46 hours, 11 minutes and 30 seconds, and more than 22 minutes ahead of the second place driver. In 2001, he lost the lead on the last day with overly careful driving after leading much of the race. He began rallying in 1979. He was Japan’s off road champion in 1983-84 and competed in his first Paris-Dakar since 1987. During much of his career he was in the shadow of Shinozuka,

Masuoka won the Dakar rally in 2002 and 2003 and was second in 2004 but was forced to retire in 2005. In 2006, at the age of 45, he was 2nd after the third stage. On driving at such a late age he said, “Experience makes a difference. I can now develop a good course strategy. I’m much better at that now than I was.”

Withdrawal of Japanese Teams from Rally Racing

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Suzuki rally car
In December 2008, Subaru and Suzuki announced they were going to withdraw from the World Rally Championship because of money worries associated with the global financial crisis.

Subaru was a onetime champion in the world rally championship. It won three straight world championships in 1995, 1996 and 1997 and helped nurture champions like the Briton’s Colin McRae and Richard Burns and Spaniard Carlos Sainz. Subaru used rallying to transform its brand image. It last won the world title in 2003 with Norwegian driver Peter Solberg. But it didn’t win anything on 2006, 2007 and 2008.

In February 2009, Mitsubishi said it would longer compete in the Paris Dakar rally In 2009 defending champion Stephan Peterhandsel and two Mitsubishi team mates pulled out in the first week of the race held in South America as their diesel-powered Lancers were no match for the Volkswagen cars.

Motorcycle Racing and Japan

Japan also has several world class motorcycle racers and many world class rider from other countries ride on Japanese-made bikes. On Japanese streets and on mountain roads there are a lot of riders who dream of glory and drive around like maniacs.

Honda has been involved in Grand Prix motorcycle racing since 1959. It won its first race in 1961 and won all three classes---125cc, 250cc and 500cc---in the 2001 MotoGP season for Grand Prix motorcycle racing. In 1985 Honda won the motorcycle championship in the 250cc and 500cc class with a single rider, something previously thought impossible.

In 2001, World Champion Italian Valentino Rossi, on 500cc bikes, and Daijiro Katoh, on 250cc bikes, rode for Honda. Rossi, the most successful motorcycle rider in modern times switched from Honda to Yamaha in 2003. As of 2009, he and top rider Jorge Lorenzi of Spain were with Yamaha. Danio Pedrosa rides for Honda.

The 5.8 kilometer Suzuka track hosts the Japan Grand Prix motorcycle race, traditionally one of the first races in the Grand Prix world champions season. On the track, Katoh said “Suzuka is not similar to many tracks in Europe. Corner speed is very important because there are many fast and long corners---you don’t ride out of so many corners sideways like you do at some other tracks.”

The Motegi race track in Tochigi also hosts MotoGP Grand Prix motorcycle races. A lap on the the 4.8-kilometer course is covered in about 1 minute 48 seconds.

Seven-time MotoGP champion Valentino Rossie spent seven years with Yamaha before switching to Ducati for the 2010-2011 season.

Casey Stoner of Australia won the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi in October 2010.

Honda and Motorcycle Racing

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early Honda motorcycle racing
Honda has been involved in Grand Prix motorcycle racing since 1959. It won its first race in 1961 and won all three classes---125cc, 250cc and 500cc---in the 2001 MotoGP season for Grand Prix motorcycle racing. In 1985 Honda won the motorcycle championship in the 250cc and 500cc class with a single rider, something previously thought impossible.

In 2009, Honda said it would also scale down its motorcycle racing.

World championship contender Dani Pedrosa from Spain has ridden with Honda his entire career.

Deaths of Daijiro Katoh and Shoya Tomizawa

Japan’s top rider Daijiro Katoh was the 250cc world champion in 2001 when he broke a record by winning 11 races in one season and accumulating the greatest point total ever. Handsome and boyish looking, he made his racing debut in 1992 and first made a name for himself when he finished third in a 250cc race at Suzuka behind Max Biaggi. In 2000, he missed winning the 250cc title in the last race. Overall he won four 250 races at Suzuka. In 2002, he the finished seventh over all in the MotoGP division, premier class and placed second in one race.

Katoh died tragically in April 2003 two weeks after a horrible crash at Suzuka in which he spun off into a tire barrier. The crash left Katoh in coma with heavy head, neck and chest injuries. He was immediately airlifted by helicopter to a medical center but never regained consciousness. He was 26. It was the first death in the sport since another Japanese rider Nobuki Wakai was killed at the1993 Spanish Grand Prix.

The crash occurred in dry but windy conditions. Katoh was trailing the main pack of six riders in the first race of the world championship season at Suzuka when his bike veered off the course with its rear wheel in the air. There were no mechanical problems. The crash was partly blamed on the placement of the safety barriers. Katoh hit a gap between the two barriers at 170kph.

Promising young rider, Shoya Tomizawa, was killed in the 250cc event at the San Marino GP motorcycle race in September 2010. The 19-year-old lost control of his bike and hit his head on the track as his bike flipped over. While on the track he was hit by two other riders going at full speed. A message released on the MotoGP website said he died of cranial, thoracic and abdominal trauma. One of the riders that hit him, Alex De Angelis, said, “I’m truly devastated by what happened to Shoya...I saw Shoya fall in front of me. It is the worst ever incident in my career. I tried everything I could to avoid him and his motorbike.” There have been 46 recorded deaths in MotoGP since the series was founded in 1949.

Norifumi “Norik: Abe won three world championships in grand prix motorcycle racing. He died in November 2007 when he motorbike collided with a truck making an illegal U-turn near his home in Kawasaki.

Image Sources: 1) Motogei track 2) Japan Zone 3) 4) 5) Toyota 6) Honda 7) Mitsubishi 8) Suzuki 9) Honda

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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