INDIANAPOLIS, April 1, 2003 --There's just a week to go before the IndyCar Series holds its first overseas event at Twin Ring Motegi in the middle of nowhere, Japan, but already Roger Yasukawa has returned to the land of his forefathers to prepare for the event, the rookie's third IndyCar race.
Yasukawa, injured in a nasty crash at Phoenix International Raceway - after leading five laps - just a week ago Sunday, checked out of the hospital the day after the Purex/Dial 200 and has been in Japan for a week now. When we spoke with him today, it was 2am in Tokyo, noon in Indianapolis.
While confirming that he's back on his training regimen, Yasukawa did admit that he has not yet been cleared to compete in next week's Indy Japan 300 at the 1.5-mile egg-shaped oval. "I expect Dr. Bock will clear me when he arrives," Yasukawa said. Despite his early departure from the Phoenix race, Yasukawa leads Bombardier Rookie of the Year standings.
The team Roger Yasukawa drives for this year, Super Aguri Fernandez Racing was formed in December 2002 by Adrian Fernandez, Tom Anderson and former Formula one competitor Aguri Suzuki, to enter the Indy Racing League with Honda power.
The #55 used by Yasukawa is a personal favorite. It also the number used by Suzuki in his F3000 career ten years ago and, by coincidence, the number adopted by New York Yankees left-fielder Hideki Matsui. Yasukawa wears a fifty-yen and five-yen coin on a chain around his neck.
"We have a long working relationship with Honda," managing director Tom Anderson noted. "We wanted to continue that relationship. I had worked with Honda since 1996 (when Anderson managed Team Target's championship CART campaigns for Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya)) and Adrian had a relationship with them as well. We simply wanted to continue that."
Realizing that opportunities were available in the Indy Racing League, Fernandez Racing chose to hook up with Aguri Suzuki and his ARTA program, which offers scholarships to Japanese drivers or, in this case, a Japanese- American driver such as Yasukawa.
No stranger to the world of big league motorsports, Yasukawa grew up in the industry. His father Minoru has worked in Formula One since Roger was young and is currently a member of the West McLaren Mercedes team, winner of this season's first two F1 events.
Born in Los Angeles, Yasukawa went to elementary school in Japan from ages 6-12. He also schooled at the American School in Milan, Italy and speaks both Italian and Japanese fluently. "I have lived most of my life here in the US, so I felt more comfortable competing in American motorsports," he admitted.
It was a big unknown for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing, choosing someone like Yasukawa to pilot the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda/Firestone IndyCar entry. After all, the 25-year-old had only a partial season of Toyota Atlantic experience in 2002 and had come up through the Barber/Dodge amateur and pro ranks, not exactly the Road to Indy.
"There are a lot more people on a team like this and the entire process is much more involved," Yasukawa explained. "The driving aspect is pretty much the same, aside from the higher speeds, but things are pretty much what I expected. I still have a lot to learn," he said.
"I'm very pleased with our progress thus far," Anderson noted. "The bulk of our team is carried over from the two last years in CART, when we ran Shinji Nakano. We moved over with Honda to the Indy Racing League and one of the best additions we made was the hiring of John Dick, race engineer for Alex Barron last year at Blair Racing. We have been able to capitalize on John's experience and he is a tremendous asset to our team."
Anderson has been pleasantly surprised by his rookie driver. "John and Roger hooked up immediately and get on extremely well. Roger actually has more talent than I thought and I think you'll see us doing better than we originally planned.
"Roger has natural talent; there's a lot he can do with a car. I'm pleased with his consistency in the car. He also has a good mechanical understanding of what a race car does and understands how to work with his sway bars and weight jacker. Even more important is his mental capacity.
"He'll go fast and then think about the mechanical aspects of the car and how to improve it. He's calm, ready to assist to fix problems and go forward." Coming from Tom Anderson, that's high praise, indeed. "I was really amazed. The kid has lots of talent."
There will be plenty of pressure for Roger Yasukawa over the next week and a half in Japan, where he's doing promotional work for the League, for Honda, his team and its high profile sponsors. "I don't look at the pressure, because I think I will have an advantage with friends and family at the track to cheer me and the team.
"I'm looking forward to it. This is the first time for the IndyCar Series at Twin Ring Motegi and I'm anxious to see the crowds, to see what kind of acceptance we'll have. Thus far, I see a great deal of enthusiasm for the series," he said.
Both Yasukawa and Anderson realize there's a lot of pressure on them to perform next weekend. Although it was Honda who built this magnificent circuit out of the side of a mountain at a cost generally thought to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the engine maker has never won a major race at their own track. In five events, Ford took the first four while Toyota vanquished their heated rival last year in the CART series.
"There's plenty of pressure from Honda to win here, just as there's pressure from Panasonic and from Bridgestone, the parent company of Firestone that's located just down the road," Anderson said. "Of course there are many challenges to running this international event, but it's also a treat for us to go to Honda's home track."
Anderson has plenty of experience preparing race cars and equipment to travel overseas and it's coming in handy this week. The cargo planes leave tomorrow from Indianapolis for Japan and Super Aguri Fernandez Racing has prepared about 8000 pounds of equipment and two covered chassis for transport. "The international manifests prepared to ship equipment abroad are handled by the Indy Racing League. We just have to make sure the list we've prepared equals the equipment in our boxes," Anderson explained. "It's a very involved process."
The buildup to the event is one thing, but the actual competition is another. "We've proved, thus far that we are quick, but now we must finish well," Yasukawa said. "I need more experience and I need to run up front and finish up front. I'm really not surprised to be competitive" this early in the season.
This is Yasukawa's second year with Autobacs, the Suzuki scholarship plan. "This provides the spark for Japanese drivers to succeed. When I was younger, I followed other Japanese drivers and I am good friends with Tora (Takagi) and Shigeaki (Hattori)."
The driver Yasukawa most admires is Michael Andretti. "It's an honor to race with him and I hope to battle with Michael before he retires." He has competed in karts against Buddy Rice and George Mack, along with Alex Barron, who spotted for Yasukawa at his first two IndyCar Series events.
Anderson will take over that job at Twin Ring Motegi as Barron drives in relief of Gil de Ferran at Marlboro Team Penske. "I've only spotted once before for Jimmy Vasser at Homestead/Miami Speedway and we won that race," Anderson declared. He could be Yasukawa's lucky charm.
Although Anderson and the bulk of the Super Aguri Fernandez Racing team have competed at Twin Ring Motegi before this year, he doesn't feel they had any advantage. "These new cars are very unlike the CART cars we used before. Everybody's on simulation programs from the track and from Firestone. I think it's going to be an even playing field."
For the rookie "there is special relevance to this Japanese race because I think for our team it will be one of our biggest other than the 87th Indianapolis 500. I just hope I can finish up front. Tom and John have made my learning process quicker and there are a lot of experienced people on this team. I just have to prepare myself to do the best job I can."