IRL: Motegi: Homecoming for four series drivers

MOTEGI, Japan, Wednesday, April 9, 2003 -- Until Hiro Matsushita joined the CART series in 1991, there had never been a Japanese driver in open wheel Indy-type racing. When the green flag is waved for the start of the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring...

MOTEGI, Japan, Wednesday, April 9, 2003 -- Until Hiro Matsushita joined the CART series in 1991, there had never been a Japanese driver in open wheel Indy-type racing.

When the green flag is waved for the start of the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi on April 13, however, three Japanese natives and an American of Japanese descent will push on the throttle and seek victory.

Japanese fans attending the Indy Racing League IndyCar^Ù Series' first visit to their country will have plenty to cheer for, and their names are Shigeaki Hattori, Shinji Nakano, Tora Takagi and Roger Yasukawa.

Hattori finished 13th in final 2002 IndyCar Series standings and drives the EPSON Dallara/Toyota/Firestone for four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and team owner A.J. Foyt Jr.

Nakano and Takagi are both Formula One veterans and competed in CART in 2002. Nakano is driving the Beard Papa's/Auto Project Honda Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Beck Motorsports, while Takagi drives the Pioneer Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone for Mo Nunn Racing.

American-born Yasukawa is a rookie in the IndyCar Series and has already displayed his skills in qualifying, having qualified 10th in the two races conducted thus far in 2003, at Miami and Phoenix. He drives the Panasonic ARTA Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing.

For Yasukawa, the race in Japan is something special. He spent some of his formative years in his ancestral country yet chose to pursue a career in American oval racing rather than in Formula One.

"The race in Japan will be one of the biggest (in my mind), together with the Indy 500," he said. "It will be one of the important races for us because, obviously, my parents being Japanese and with Mr. Aguri Suzuki being involved."

Born in Los Angeles on Oct. 10, 1977, Yasukawa resides in West Hollywood. He began kart racing in 1990 and won the Junior California State championship the next year.

In addition to attending school both in the U.S. and Japan, he also was a student at the American School of Milan. He speaks English, Japanese and Italian.

However, when it came to pursuing a career he took the route most American drivers are accustomed to, competing in the Skip Barber Dodge series for four seasons and then stepping up to the Toyota Atlantic series last year.

"That is mostly because I was born in the USA and I spent pretty much most of my life there," he said. "And I have been watching the American series more than the European series, in general."

The fact remains that Yasukawa has progressed up the racing ladder because of the backing of Aguri Suzuki. Yasukawa calls the backing a sort of scholarship program for aspiring Japanese drivers.

"He has tons of drivers in Japan, also in Europe," Yasukawa said. "And basically he makes efforts for a lot of drivers in different kinds of series and it is certainly the biggest racing team project in Japan.

"And I think Mr. Aguri Suzuki is contributing a lot to Japanese motorsport. For me to be part of it, especially in the IndyCar Series, I hope that it will give a lot more attention to the people in Japan to look to the IndyCar Series and American motorsports in general."

Yasukawa finished 14th in his IndyCar debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished 17th at Phoenix due to an accident.

Hattori is a 39-yaer-old native of Okayama, Japan, who lives in Hermosa Beach, Calif. He commenced his IndyCar Series career at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000, starting 26th and finishing eighth.

Nakano, 32, drove in Formula One for Prost and Minardi. His team owner at Motegi, Greg Beck, also prepared a car for Hideshi Matsuda at Indy four times during the 1990s.

Takagi, 29, finished 12th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his first IndyCar Series start. Born and raised only 50 miles from Fuji Speedway, Takagi began racing karts in 1987 and by 1997 had shown enough skills to be hired as test driver for the Tyrrell F1 team.

He drove in F1 for Tyrrell and the Arrows team the next two seasons, won the Japanese Formula Nippon title in 2000, then moved to CART for the next two campaigns. He lives in Los Angeles.

-irl-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Shigeaki Hattori , Tora Takagi , Shinji Nakano , Roger Yasukawa , Skip Barber , Aguri Suzuki , A.J. Foyt Jr. , Mo Nunn , Matsuda Hideshi