Thursday, October 16, 2008

Japanese Open Wheel warriors

Hideki Mutoh
Interestingly while the mighty Auto manufacturers of Japan have reigned supreme in all forms of motorsports, including Formula 1, CART/Champ Car and the IRL; Japanese drivers have never quite attained the success of their country’s industrialists.

Japan and Formula 1

With this year’s Japanese Grand Prix having just been contested once again at Mount Fuji, the Toyota owned circuit, and having already panned the Formula 1 driver’s landscape previously in Japan and Formula 1, I thought I’d continue on with a very brief look into the Stateside racer’s, to whom I’ve had the privilege of viewing live in action.

Hiroyuki Matsushita (1990-98)
As far as I can tell, the pioneer for Japanese talent to test the waters of Open Wheel Racing stateside was none other than Hiroyuki “Hiro” Matsushita, who made his foray into CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in 1990.

Yet, Matsushita began his racing career on two wheels instead of four, racing motorcycles in Japan between 1977-79, before moving to the United States, where he made his Formula Ford debut in 1986. Hiro then work his way up the ladder system, culminating with capturing the 1989 Toyota Atlantic crown, (Pacific Division) where he crushed the competition by recording the largest point’s margin along with four victories.

And as the grandson of Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co, (1918) which is more commonly known today as the Panasonic Corporation, Hiro enjoyed the might of financial backing from Panasonic throughout his racing career.

Hiro also was the very first Japanese driver to race at the Indianapolis 500 in 1991, yet quickly garnered a reputation as a “Tail Gunner Charlie,” by continuously running at the back of the field, as he was always outperformed by his teammates at Dick Simon Racing, Walker Racing, Arciero/Wells and Payton/Coyne Racing, in which he made a total of 117 starts for, with a career best finish of 6th in the 1994 Marlboro 500 at Michigan.

And for years I thought a friend of mine(?) was “Ah-so” very clever by always telling me the following story of how he earned his nickname “king Hiro.”

King Hiro:
“Matsushita earned the nickname "King Hiro" from Emerson Fittipaldi, who was complaining about Hiro's reluctance to cede track position when getting lapped by the leaders.[ The nickname came about as a result of Emerson's habit of pressing the "talk" button on his radio about half a second after he'd started speaking, thereby cutting off the first syllable of the first word he used. Fittipaldi, allegedly, had intended to say "F%%king Hiro!”(Nickname source: Wikipedia)

Naoki Hattori (1999)Unfortunately, I simply do not remember this driver, who is also an Automotive Journalist, yet Naoki must have some talent as he was the Japanese Formula 3 Champion in 1990, before very briefly trying to make his mark in Formula One, where Naoki made two unsuccessful attempts to Pre-qualify for races in the minnow-esqu Coloni team in 1991.

He then subsequently spent time sharing a second car with Memo Gidley alongside Walker Racing primary driver Gil De Feran in 1999 without any major results, before dropping out of Champ Car racing.

Naoki is not related to Shigeaki Hattori.

Shigeaki Hattori (1999-2003)Another of the unknown to me Japanese faces in Open Wheel Racing, as Shigeaki had a less than stellar career in CART, where he earned the dubious distinction of having his racing license revoked by Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach Sr. upon having pirouetted his Bettenhausen Motorsports entry a massive 18 times in only seven starts during 1999.

Shigeaki then moved to the IRL in 2000, driving for Treadway-Vertex Cunningham Racing and later Bradley Motorsports and AJ Foyt Enterprises; Huh? (I didn’t know that ‘Ol Super Tex liked Sushi…)

After his brief Indy Racing League career, which included two starts at Indy, (2002-03) Shigeaki spent one unsuccessful season racing in the Craftsman Truck series for Germain Racing, before retiring in 2005.

Shinji Nakano (2000-02)Not to be confused with the current MOTO GP rider Shinya Nakano, Shinji Nakano like most current Open Wheel racers, cut his teeth in go-karts and won several Karting Championships before moving onto single seater racing, where he competed in Japanese Formula 3 & 3000, along with the European Formula Opel series.

Joining the revolving door of aspiring Japanese Grand Prix piloto’s during the mid 1990’s, Shinji made his Formula One debut in 1997 for the Prost team, which was powered by Mugen/Honda engines that season. The following year, Shinji was forced to take refuge at Minardi when Prost elected to campaign Peugeot engines instead and struggled with the perennial back markers. For 1999, Shinji occasionally tested for the Jordan Grand Prix team, who were using Mugen/Honda “lumps.”

In 2000, Shinji tried his hand in Champ Car racing, driving for Derrick Walker in CART as a paying driver, yet Shinji did quite a respectable job before moving onto Fernandez Racing, where he scored his career best 4th place finish in Toronto in 2002, ultimately making a combined 56 starts, before capping his Open Wheel career with a one-off drive at Indy in 2003 for Beck Motorsports.

Toranosuke Takagi (2000-04)
Billed as the next great Japanese hope in Formula 1, Toranosuke “Tiger” Takagi was spotted by Satoru Nakajima as a future F1 star in 1994 and spent considerable time racing for Nakajima’s race team, before being selected as a test driver for Tyrrell in 1997. Tiger then graduated to a full time race drive for “Uncle Chopper’s” (Ken Tyrrell) squad in 1998, becoming the sixth Japanese driver to compete in Formula One.

For 1999, Tiger joined Jos “The BOSS” Verstappen for his second and final season at the faltering Arrows Grand Prix team, before leaving F1 and contesting the 2000 Formula Nippon series for mentor Nakajima.

Following a very successful campaign in Formula Nippon, He copied fellow countryman Shinji Nakano’s example (literally) and moved onto racing stateside, where he replaced Nakano at Walker Racing from 2001-02 and scored a career best 4th place Champ Car finish in Houston.

For 2003, Takagi moved onto the Indy Racing League for Mo Nunn’s squad, and starting seventh and finishing fifth, was named the 2003 Indy 500 Rookie of the year. His second season in the IRL was less fruitful and he returned to Japan in 2005 to contest the Japanese GT series.

Roger Yasukawa (2003, 2005)
Roger Yasukawa began his racing career in go karts in Southern California, winning the state Junior Championship in 1991, before progressing to single seaters, where in 1998 he won the Barber Dodge 2.0 liter title. Yasukawa has also spent considerable time “Across the Pond,” where he raced go karts in Italy along with competing in Formula Vauxhall and contesting the inaugural Formula Palmer Audi Championship in 1999, before returning to compete in Skip Barber and the Toyota Atlantics Championships.

In 2003, Aguri Suzuki chose Roger to drive for the newly created Super Aguri/Fernandez Racing team which was making its debut in the IRL that year and would ultimately become Yasukawa’s best season, upon finishing runner-up in the Rookie of the year Championship behind some spiky haired, shiny tooth dude named Dan Wheldon...

Yasukawa then spent a fairly unproductive year in 2004 with Rahal/Letterman Racing, where he only competed in two events, before finding a full time ride at Dreyer & Reinbold for the 2005 IRL campaign. Since then, Roger has struggled to find sufficient funding for a full time ride and has largely become an Indy 500 “Specialist,” as he raced at the Speedway in ’06 for Playa Del Racing, was the third Dreyer & Reinbold entry in ’07 and attempted to make this year’s race for Beck Motorsports second week program, but failed to qualify after having raced in Motegi as a tune-up for Indy.

An interesting tidbit is the fact that Roger is the son of Minoru Yasukawa, who worked as a Marketing executive for the McLaren and Leyton House Formula 1 teams.

Kosuke Matsuura (2004-07)Having won the Formula Dream title in 2001, Matsuura gained the attention of Aguri Suzuki and was immediately placed in Suzuki’s driver development program, where he competed in Formula 3 and Formula Renault with good results before being selected as Roger Yasukawa’s replacement at Super Aguri/Fernandez Racing for the 2004 IRL season.

In his debut IndyCar season, Matsuura won both the leagues Rookie of the year honours as well as that year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the year and spent the 2004-06 seasons driving for Super Aguri/Fernandez before joining Panther Racing alongside Vitor Meira in 2007 after Aguri Suzuki had transferred allegiance’s. Yet, the 2007 campaign was a rough slog for Matsuura, as persistent rumors about his career future dogged the likeable Japanese driver, who got my vote for dropping the “F-Bomb” of the year when the IRL censured Kosuke for his post race antics on the IMS Radio Network. Adding further insult to injury, Dario Franchitti rammed the hapless Matsuura at Kentucky on the cool down lap, upon failing to realize that the chequered flag had been displayed...

With the arrival of new Honda “Golden Boy” Hideki Mutoh at Andretti Green Racing, Matsuura’s time in the IRL spotlight had come to a close and Kosuke has returned to Japan to take up residence in the Formula Nippon series.

Hideki Mutoh (2008-2010, 2011)
Like earlier aspiring Japanese youngsters, Mutoh was fortunate enough to be signed to the Honda Formula Dream driver development program and ultimately won the Formula Dream title in 2002, before progressing up the ladder of single seater racing.

In 2007, it was announced that Aguri Suzuki’s Autobacs Racing Team Aguri would contest the Indy Pro Series Championship in conjunction with Panther Racing and Hideki as the team’s driver. With Mutoh winning that year’s IPS event at the Speedway during the USGP weekend.

At the end of the year, Hideki made his Indy Racing League debut at the Chicagoland season finale aboard a third Super Aguri Panther entry and finished an impressive eighth, further fueling rumours of Matsuura’s IRL demise.

And in what seems a perfect irony, Hideki was announced as 2007 IndyCar Champion Dario Franchitti’s replacement at AGR on Halloween, as Franchitti was off to greener(?) pastures in NASCAR…

Hideki finished 10th overall in his rookie IndyCar series season and held off Justin Wilson for the series '08 Rookie of the year honours, helped in part by his second place finish at the Iowa Speedway, then the highest ever finishing position for a Japanese driver in the series history, besting Takagi’s third place finish in Texas in 2003.

Yet the '08 season was to be the highwater mark of his Open Wheel Racing career, along with his second place finish at Iowa his IndyCar career best result. As AGR was on a Downslide with its quartet of TK' Follow-your-Schnoz! Kanaan, Queen Danica, (Patrick) Marco Andretti and Mutoh going winless for the year, in 2009, with Ryan Hunter-Reay replacing Hideki for the 2010 season, who ironically was the '08 Indy 500 rookie Of the Year - when Mutoh was one of the 13 Rookies at Mother Speedway that year.

Mutoh ran one further full season IndyCar campaign for the financially struggling Newman Haas Lanigan Racing team, with Graham Rahal his team-mate for portions of the year whilst scrambbling to find sufficient funding, in what apparently was a largely unforgotten season.

Hideki then returned home to Japan and moved onto driving Super GT Saloons' in 2011, having passed the Japanese IndyCar Driver Baton to Takuma Sato, who was driving for the KV Racing Alphabet Soup Gang of Top Jimmy' (Jimmy Vasser) and Kevin Smiley Face' Kalkoven.

On a trivial note, Mutoh (10/10/82) and Yasukawa (10/10/77) share the same birthday...

Mutoh capped his IndyCar career with a One-off' return engagement for Sam Schmidt Racing alongside Alex Tagliani in what apparently is Japan's final IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi, albeit held upon the circuit's Road Course in 2011 due to the Oval having been damaged during that year's monstrous Tsunami, which notably wreaked havoc upon Fukushima's Nuclear facility! Not to mention the country overall...

(This page was modified on: 9/25/17)

Hideki Mutoh Stock photograph source: