Central Japan Revs Up for NASCAR

MOTEGI CITY, Japan (Nov. 19, 1998)The first engine has yet to be fired in preparation for the NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi -Coca-Cola 500, but it is crystal clear this tiny community in Central Japan and thousands of Japanese NASCAR fans are ...

MOTEGI CITY, Japan (Nov. 19, 1998)The first engine has yet to be fired in preparation for the NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi -Coca-Cola 500, but it is crystal clear this tiny community in Central Japan and thousands of Japanese NASCAR fans are eagerly anticipating Sunday's race at Twin Ring Motegi.

On Thursday, less than 24 hours before NASCAR teams will begin unloading their race cars and equipment from their shipping containers, the garage area inside the1.549-mile oval was quiet, except for NASCAR officials putting the finishing touches on the inspection bay and other sites.

It's doubtful things will be quiet much longer.

Motegi City, a community of 18,000, is awash in banners, proclaiming that NASCAR finally has come to central Japan.

A visiting American, who doesn't read Japanese, might be unclear on the specifics. But the message transcends language. Something big is going to happen at 12:35p.m. local time on Sunday (Saturday, 10:35 EST when the race is broadcast live to the United States by Superstation TBS) -- and it's nothing before seen in this part of the world.

Japanese fans, some of whom watched two previous NASCAR Thunder Special races at the famous Suzuka Circuit road course, finally will see a super speedway performance by, among others, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip.

"People will be surprised to hear all the noise," says Twin Ring Motegi spokesman Jyoji Azuma, who's been to the Daytona 500 -- the 'Great American Race' and stock car racing's signature event. "I explained to the Japanese media that it's a totally different, big, new sport as far as car races are concerned. The fans certainly can't compare it to the road races they're used to seeing. It sure won't be slow."

Twin Ring Motegi is a 640-acre, $400 million motorsports entertainment complex that opened slightly more than a year ago.

Motegi City comprises but a small portion of the slightly more than two million persons living in the north-of-Tokyo environs. The majority of Sunday's crowd will come from outside the immediate area, including many fans from 60 miles away, in Tokyo.

But the Motegi City community is excited -- especially the younger generation, even though the cars they drive on the largely two-lane area roads are much smaller than the 3,400-pound Chevrolet, Ford and Pontiac NASCAR Winston Cup stock cars competing in the NASCAR Thunder Special Coca-Cola 500.

They figure to be impressed, suggests Azuma, that a car that large can be maneuvered so well and in such close formation.

The cars, however, will be just part of the show. The Japanese, whose curiosity has been piqued by television coverage of NASCAR racing in the United States, are eager to know more about Gordon; the Earnhardts, father and son; and the other drivers -- including several of their countrymen-- who'll perform Sunday.

"They've heard a lot about Jeff Gordon and the Earnhardts," explains Azuma. "There will be many who come to see them personally."

Sunday's race figures merely to whet the appetite of the Japanese for super speedway-style NASCAR competition. And while NASCAR remains the fastest growing professional sporting attraction in North America, it probably won't be No. 1 in Japan for some time to come.

But don't bet against it happening, in the not-too-distant future.

"It's going to take some years," agrees Azuma, "but it's going to create a whole new group of fans."

FUJI-TV also will broadcast the race in Japan.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR-CUP