Sturbin: Notes On Racing IndyCars In Japan

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 16 2010

The welcome to Motegi, Japan for the IZOD IndyCar Series' annual visit is always warm and colorful. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Utsunomiya, Tochigi, Japan – When I was a big-time boxing writer, Europe was my playground.

Actually, Europe was the playground of undisputed welterweight (147-pound) champion Donald Curry of Fort Worth. Curry’s career became my “beat” in the early 1980s while I was a sports writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  As such I became an unofficial member of the David Gorman’s Gym/Top Rank Inc. entourage that regularly visited Las Vegas and Atlantic City, with the occasional jaunt to Europe.

On the night when Curry won the World Boxing Association version of the title before an adoring crowd at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Cowtown, veteran Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels pulled me aside.  “(Promoter) Bob Arum and Top Rank have big plans for Donald,” Samuels said. “Jump on this train and ride it to the end of the line.”

That I did, and by time Curry’s career ended with a defeat in Palm Springs, Calif., in the early 1990s we had barnstormed through London and Birmingham, England; Genoa, Italy; Grenoble, France along with a couple of visits to Paris.

So what’s all this got to do with the coverage of motorsports? Well, on one of those visits to France, I met and worked with a sports writer for The Associated Press named Salvatore Zanca – a nice New Jersey boy! – who basically was living out of a backpack while covering all sorts of major events. Sal hooked myself and two media friends up with credentials for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1989, fulfilling one of my motorsports fantasies.

And on that trip to Birmingham, England, in January 1985 – when Curry carved up Welshman Colin Jones in four bloody rounds – I ended up “smuggling” six-seven small items in my suitcase for the mid-1960s Jaguar XKE my hometown buddy, Mike Burth, was in the process of restoring. Given the heightened security levels that are the norm today at airports worldwide, I wouldn’t want to try explaining to a TSA agent what a set of chrome Jag mirrors was doing tucked inside my dirty underwear on the flight to DFW.

Which brings me to today, and my first trip to Japan to cover this weekend’s IZOD IndyCar Series Indy Japan 300. Having survived approximately 13-plus hours on two plane flights and a three-hour van ride from Narita International Airport near Tokyo to the Richmond Hotel here, I intend to take Lee Samuels’ advice…and ride this bus to the end of the line.

IndyCar teams have landed:  Any way you measure it, moving the IndyCar Series’ equipment from Central Indiana to Twin Ring Motegi is a gargantuan task.

The 13,000-mile round-trip for the 25 series entrants competing in Japan began at the Indianapolis International Airport, where they unloaded their cars and equipment from transporters onto metal car racks. Placed at a staging area on the airport tarmac, the cars and the team’s equipment was swallowed by two behemoth Nippon Cargo Air 747-400B airplanes.

The IndyCar shipment isn’t the heaviest (both planes can total up to 450,000 takeoff weight) that Nippon Cargo Air deals with, but it is among the highest in volume. Forty-five race cars, pit and garage equipment and consumable items are meticulously packaged, arranged on a pallet and wrapped in plastic by teams for the trip.

The three Holmatro Safety Team trucks and the Honda Accord Safety Car took separate scheduled flights, while Honda’s engines and Firestone tires were shipped across the Pacific Ocean on a freighter.

“It was as smooth as it could have gone,” said Bill Van de Sandt, director of operations for the Indy Racing League, who oversees the move on both sides of the journey. “All the entities involved, from the IRL officials to the ground crew to the teams have been working great together. It made things very easy and we finished about two hours before we had planned.”

Upon arrival at Narita International Airport, the freight was transferred to trucks to continue the journey to Twin Ring Motegi. Manifests were checked and spot customs inspections conducted at the track in time for team personnel to unpack Friday, and begin preparations for the weekend.

Before the champagne is uncorked in Victory Circle Sunday afternoon – Saturday night in the United States –  packing will be under way for the return trip.

“It’s a difficult process, but it’s very well-organized,” van de Sandt said. “The cooperation of the governments, the freight forwarder and the airlines works very well. It’s a process that is very effective and efficient.”

Dad will see Mutoh race at Motegi: On his typical work day, Eiji Mutoh is at the Tsukiji Market at 3:30 a.m. to inspect the fresh catch – from seaweed to caviar – available for auction two hours later. He repeats the process six days a week, acquiring the freshest and most select for the family’s century-old Hotetora retail shop.

Because of his responsibilities, Eiji never has watched his only son, Hideki, compete in an IndyCar Series event in person. That will change this weekend. The Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi – located about three hours north of the family’s home in Tokyo – will be held on a national holiday weekend entitled “Respect for the Aged Day.” The holiday was established in 1966 to respect the elderly and celebrate long life. The Hotetora shop will be closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday in observance of the holiday.

“I’m very happy to see him and because the race was on Saturday previous years, he never had the chance to come,” said Hideki, driver of the No. 06 Formula Dream/Panasonic Dallara/Honda fielded by Newman/Haas Racing.

Mutoh has adopted his father’s appreciation of automobiles, paging through magazines at home while he should have been finishing homework. He began racing karts at age 12 and quickly climbed the ladder to cars in various formula series in Europe and Japan.

A graduate of the Honda Formula Dream Project, Mutoh moved to North America in 2007 to compete in Firestone Indy Lights. He finished second in the championship and was named Rookie of the Year. Mutoh also made his IndyCar Series debut in the late-season race at Chicagoland Speedway. More awards were bestowed in 2008, his first full season with then-Andretti Green Racing, after seven top-10 finishes.

Back in Tokyo, his father continues to open and close the doors to the Hotetora shop. Someday it will be Hideki’s responsibility, but for the past 15 years he has received his father’s blessing to chase a dream.

“Someday I have to run the fish market because this is generational and cultural,” Hideki said. “I think my dad understands because racing was what I really wanted to do. He could have easily said, ‘No, you have to sell fish.’ But he released me from that kind of culture, and I’m sure he had a very hard time because grandpa was pushing him, ‘Oh, what’s your son doing?’

“I really appreciate my dad. He gave me everything. We are not rich people, so at the beginning we struggled to find money to race. I have no words for my dad. He’s an old-style of Japanese man, but he let me go racing. He doesn’t watch the races when people are around him, but he just watches the races on DVD quietly when he’s at home with no one around. He never talks much about racing, but at the same point he never stopped me. It’s understood, his support. He doesn’t have to say much.”

Mutoh, who has two sisters, says he’ll know when it will be time to stop racing competitively and take his place in the family business. But it won’t be because of pressure from his father.

“I’m the only one to replace my dad, so maybe in 20 years I have to,” said Mutoh, who turns 28 on Oct. 6. “Racing, I cannot do forever. But I can run a fish market until I’m 70. I think my dad understands that.”

Cafés do Brasil to sponsor season-finale: The Brazilian coffee industry will sponsor the Oct. 2 IndyCar Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in its first major sports sponsorship in the U.S.

The 200-lap race will be known as the Cafés do Brasil Indy 300, and the sponsorship will be used to raise consumer awareness for its name and logo. Brazil produces more coffee than any other nation but trails Colombia in terms of consumer awareness.

The sponsorship, one of the first significant partnerships signed by Cafés do Brasil, was developed through IndyCar’s partnership with Apex-Brasil, which promotes natural resources and investment opportunities in Brazil. The government-funded agency got involved with IndyCar in 2009 to promote Brazil’s ethanol industry.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 16 2010
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