Just yesterday: NASCAR in Japan

The history of motorsports in Japan is like an iceberg from which Takuma Sato and Kamui Kobayashi rise above the waves.

Beneath the surface of those waves, less visible to the outside world, are the Super Formula and SuperGT. Japan’s response to the F2 and GT3 class.

Furthermore, where sunlight is more scarce, is the All-Japan Road Racing Championship and the D1GP, a motorcycle and drift series, respectively.

A little further, toward the bottom of the iceberg, is the three-year run for NASCAR in Japan.

Yes, Japan.

Japan doesn’t scream NASCAR, even with the American influence that took hold in Japanese culture after World War II. The Fuji Speedway was initially planned to be built as a Talladega-style superhighway by Japan’s NASCAR, before funding dried up and Mitsubishi took over the project in 1965.

Completed as a permanent route, the NASCAR idea faded into the Land of the Rising Sun for nearly three decades.

Until 1994, when Suzuka Circuit Director Hiromishi Suzuki made an unannounced visit to NASCAR headquarters, he suggested that NASCAR take advantage of the Suzuka Circuit’s growing popularity and host an exhibition event in Japan.

After an inspection visit to Suzuka by the NASCAR leadership, a deal was signed in 1995 to host NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka at the track the following year.

It was decided that NASCAR Cup Series cars would employ the eastern section of Suzuka – about half the length of the Grand Prix scheme used by Formula 1.

The race was held as a pure show, with no points paid, and the first NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka run was held on November 24, 1996.

The race was divided into two parts of 50 laps, after the first of which the top 10 riders would be flipped. Rusty Wallace was absolutely in control, leading 84 of 100 laps. Only Jeff Gordon (12 laps) and Terry Laponte (four laps) touched the lead throughout the day.

He left four Japanese drivers behind the wheel of 27 cars.

Hideo Fukuyama of Suzuka nearly snatched 10th place on his home circuit before being swept into the wall by Wally Dahlenbach Jr. with 10 laps remaining.

Keiichi Tsuchiya, better known as Drift King in Japan, who is widely credited with advancing the Drift to international recognition, led his way to 15th place in 1996, and 11th place the following year.

In 1997, the racing distance was extended to 125 laps around the same design used the year before. Mike Skinner took the win with Mark Martin in second and Randy Lagoy in third.

By all accounts, these were decent races on the road, although road courses were rarer in the ’90s than they are today. Both races were marked by close races, a hotly contested track position, and a few instances of avoidable contact. The 1990 NASCAR Fit Stuff.

However, in 1998 the event took on a more traditional swing and moved to the Twin Ring Motegi oval. Constructed just a year ago, Motegi features a road track and oval, the two of which intersect each other twice during the lap track.

This race, dubbed the Coca-Cola 500, featured Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. For the first time in a cup competition. Mike Skinner scored his second win in Japan in several years. His only victory in his career in the Cup.

While Japanese enthusiasm for the sport is unquestioned, attendance was less than optimal, and moving the series to Japan from the United States was a logistical and financial headache. No… more like a migraine. In the end, NASCAR never returned to Japan after 1998.

In 2017, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief operating officer, said several groups in China expressed interest. Working with NASCARBut issues of sustainability and return on investment have left NASCAR leadership hesitant up to this point.

Breaking into the international field of motorsports is likely to remain challenging going forward. The American passion for elliptical races is almost exclusive to this United States. Many countries have not used former horse racing tracks as motor racing locations, and there are no relatively low-cost routes in the sport as dirt racing in abundance outside the United States.

While NASCAR’s Whelen Euro Series does well, the fact remains that this is a NASCAR Series in spirit, and a stock car – a hybrid sports car in practice.

Outside of North America – where NASCAR already has a presence in Canada and Mexico – NASCAR’s next logical destination for an overseas adventure is likely to be in Europe, where motorsports has a long and well-established history. However, money and time remain a challenge that NASCAR has not come close to overcoming since its adventures in Japan.

The cars and equipment had to be loaded and shipped to Japan four to eight weeks in advance to make the event possible, and believe me, the 15-hour trip from Detroit to Osaka is no fun. A couple with less-than-ideal turnouts, the fate of the NASCAR-Japan pairing was determined by the speed with which it began.

While the prospect of NASCAR drivers throwing the next generation car around a modern track such as the Yas Marina Circuit or the Bahrain International Circuit, the question of acceptable logistics and rewards still stands in the way of NASCAR making any consistent global ride.

More information about NASCAR’s invasion of Japan can be found in the 2017 mini-documentary made in Japanavailable to view at foxsports.com.


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