Japan’s motorsport history is like an iceberg, with Takuma Sato and Kamui Kobayashi emerging from the waves.
Just below the surface of these 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 scarcer, are the All-Japan Road Racing Championship and D1GP, a motorcycle and drift series respectively.
Just a little further down, at the foot of the iceberg, is a three-year NASCAR racing stint in Japan.
Japan doesn’t cry out for NASCAR, even with the American influence that took root in Japanese culture after World War II. Fuji Speedway was originally intended to be built as a Talladega-style superspeedway by the Japanese NASCAR Corporation before funding dried up and the project was taken over by Mitsubishi in 1965.
Fuji was completed as a permanent street circuit, and the idea of NASCAR in the Land of the Rising Sun faded for almost three decades.
Until 1994, when Suzuka Circuit Manager Hiromishi Suzuki made an unannounced visit to NASCAR headquarters and suggested that NASCAR take advantage of Suzuka Circuit’s growing popularity and hold an exhibition event in Japan.
After an inspection visit by NASCAR leadership to Suzuka, 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 use the eastern section of the Suzuka Circuit – about half the length of the Grand Prix layout used by Formula 1.
The first round of the NASCAR Thunder Special Suzuka, which was held purely as a show race without points, took place on November 24, 1996.
The race was divided into two 50-lap segments after which the top 10 finishers reversed. Rusty Wallace was absolutely dominant and led 84 out of 100 laps. Only Jeff Gordon (12 laps) and Terry Labonte (four laps) touched the lead all day.
Four Japanese drivers took the wheel from the 27-car field.
Suzuka native Hideo Fukuyama nearly clinched a top 10 finish at his home track before being slammed into the wall by Wally Dallenbach Jr. with ten laps to go.
Keiichi Tsuchiya, known as the Drift King in Japan and widely credited with bringing drifting to international recognition, finished 15th in 1996 and 11th the next year.
In 1997 the race distance was extended to 125 laps using the same layout as the year before. Mike Skinner took the win with Mark Martin in second and Randy LaJoie in third.
By all accounts, these were proper street races, although street courses were less common in the ’90s than they are today. Both races featured close racing, hotly contested track positions and a few instances of avoidable contact. Proper 1990s stuff by NASCAR standards.
In 1998, however, the event took on an even more traditional twist, moving to the oval Twin Ring Motegi circuit. Built just a year earlier, Motegi features both a road course and an oval course, and the two cross twice over the course of a lap.
This race, dubbed the Coca-Cola 500, saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. share the course for the first time in cup competition. Mike Skinner claimed his second win in Japan in as many years; his only two wins in his cup career.
While the Japanese passion for the sport is unquestionable, attendance was far from ideal, and bringing the series from the United States to Japan was a logistical and financial struggle. No… more like a migraine. Ultimately, NASCAR never returned to Japan after 1998.
In 2017, NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell said several groups in China had expressed interest in working with NASCAR, but issues of sustainability and return on investment have made NASCAR leadership hesitant to this point.
Getting into international motorsport will probably remain difficult in the future. The American passion for oval racing exists almost exclusively in this United States. Not many countries use former racetracks as motor racing venues, and comparably inexpensive routes into the sport like dirt racing are not plentiful 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 production/sports car hybrid in practice.
Outside of North America — where NASCAR is already working on its presence in Canada and Mexico — the next logical destination for NASCAR would be to venture overseas, probably Europe, where motorsport has a long and deep-rooted history. However, money and time still pose a challenge that NASCAR hasn’t come close to meeting since its adventures in Japan.
Cars and their 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 flight from Detroit to Osaka is not a pleasant one. Couple that with a less-than-ideal turnout, and the fate of the NASCAR-Japan tie-in was sealed as quickly as it began.
While the prospect of NASCAR drivers tossing the next-gen car around at a modern racetrack like the Yas Marina Circuit or the Bahrain International Circuit, the issue of logistics and an acceptable payout still stands in the way of NASCAR making a consistent run around the world .
For more information on NASCAR’s foray into Japan, see the 2017 mini-documentary Made in Japan, available at foxsports.com.
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