Japan’s motorsport history is like an iceberg, from which Takuma Sato and Kamui Kobayashi stand out above the waves.
Just below the surface of those waves, less visible to the outside world, are Super Formula and SuperGT. Japan’s answer to F2 and the GT3 class.
Further down, where sunlight is more scarce, are the All-Japan Road Racing Championship and D1GP, a motorcycle and drifting series, respectively.
Just a bit further down, toward the bottom of the iceberg, is a three-year period of NASCAR racing in Japan.
Japan doesn’t scream NASCAR, even with the American influence that took hold in Japanese culture following the second World War. Fuji Speedway was initially planned to be built as a Talladega-style superspeedway by the Japan NASCAR Corporation, before funding dried up and the project was taken over by Mitsubishi in 1965.
Fuji was completed as a permanent road course, and the idea of NASCAR in the land of the rising sun faded away for nearly three decades.
Until 1994, when Suzuka Circuit Manager Hiromishi Suzuki made an unannounced visit to NASCAR’s headquarters, and 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 the NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka at the circuit the following year.
It was decided that the NASCAR Cup Series cars would employ the eastern section of the Suzuka Circuit — about one half the length of the Grand Prix layout used by Formula 1.
Held as a purely exhibition race, with no points paid, the first running of the NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka took place on Nov. 24, 1996.
The race was divided into two 50-lap segments, after the first of which the top-10 finishers would be inverted. Rusty Wallace was absolutely dominant, leading 84 of 100 laps. Only Jeff Gordon (12 laps) and Terry Labonte (four laps) touched the lead throughout the day.
Of the 27-car field, four Japanese drivers stepped behind the wheel.
Suzuka-native Hideo Fukuyama nearly grabbed a top-10 finish at his home track before being spun into the wall by Wally Dallenbach Jr. with 10 laps remaining.
Keiichi Tsuchiya, known as the Drift King in Japan, widely credited with advancing drifting to international recognition, drove his way to a 15th-place finish in 1996, and an 11th-place run the next year.
In 1997, the race distance was extended to 125 laps around the same layout used the year prior. Mike Skinner took the win with Mark Martin in second and Randy LaJoie in third.
By all measures, these were proper road course races, even though road courses were more scarce in the 90s than they are today. Both races featured close racing, hotly contested track position, and a few instances of avoidable contact. Proper 1990’s stuff by NASCAR’s standard.
However, in 1998 the event took an even more traditional swing and moved to the Twin Ring Motegi oval circuit. Constructed just one year prior, Motegi features both a road course and an oval circuit, and the two cross over each other twice through the course of a lap.
This race, dubbed the Coca-Cola 500, saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. share the track for the first time in Cup competition. Mike Skinner took his second win in Japan in as many years; his only two wins in his Cup career.
While the Japanese fervor for sports is beyond question, attendance was less than optimal, and getting the series to Japan from the United States was a logistical and financial headache. No … more like a migraine. Ultimately, NASCAR never returned to Japan after 1998.
In 2017, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Chief Operating Officer, said several groups in China have expressed an interest in working with NASCAR, but questions of sustainability and return on investment have left NASCAR leadership hesitant to this point.
Breaking into the international sphere of motorsports will likely remain difficult in the future. The American passion for oval racing is almost exclusive to these United States. Not many countries used former horse racing tracks as motor racing venues, and comparably low budget avenues into the sport such as dirt racing don’t exist in abundance outside of the United States.
While NASCAR’s Whelen Euro Series performs well, the truth remains that this is a NASCAR series in spirit, and a stock car – sports car hybrid in practice.
Outside of North America — where NASCAR already works on its presence in Canada and Mexico — the next logical destination for NASCAR to venture overseas would likely be in Europe, where motorsport has long and entrenched history. However, money and time still pose a challenge that NASCAR has not come close to conquering since its adventures in Japan.
Cars and their equipment had to be loaded up and shipped to Japan four to eight weeks in advance to make the event possible, and trust me, the 15-hour flight from Detroit to Osaka is not a pleasant one. Couple that with less than ideal turnout, and the NASCAR-Japan coupling’s fate was sealed as quickly as it began.
While the prospect of NASCAR drivers throwing the Next Gen car around a modern track like the Yas Marina Circuit or the Bahrain International Circuit, the question of logistics and a tolerable payout still stands in the way of NASCAR doing any consistent globetrotting.
Further information on NASCAR’s foray into Japan can be found in the 2017 mini documentary Made in Japan, available for viewing at foxsports.com.
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