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Motegi: Newman/Haas Racing preview

Motegi: Newman/Haas Racing preview
Sep 15, 2010, 4:28 PM

Hideki Aims For Top Finish at Home in Japan; Graham Aims for Another Podium Newman/Haas Racing will compete in their seventh race at the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi course and second since 2002. Last year, in their return to the track after a six ...

Hideki Aims For Top Finish at Home in Japan; Graham Aims for Another Podium

Newman/Haas Racing will compete in their seventh race at the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi course and second since 2002. Last year, in their return to the track after a six year hiatus, the team finished third and fourth with Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia, respectively. In the team's five CART races on the unique, egg-shaped oval from 1998-2002 they earned one win with Michael Andretti in 2000, while Christian Fittipaldi finished third in 1999 and fourth in 2001 but were contenders for the win at least two other times. (NHR race engineer Martin Pare (Rahal) engineered Danica Patrick's history-making first Indy car victory for a female here in 2008 with Andretti Green Racing. Graham Rahal will pilot the No. 02 Quick Trim Honda-Dallara-Firestone entry while Hideki Mutoh will pilot the No. 06 Formula Dream/Panasonic Honda-Dallara-Firestone entry for NHR.


Mutoh, 27, who was born in Tokyo, Japan on 10-6-1982, will be one of three drivers to race in their homeland when the green flag flies for the 200-lap Indy Japan 300 on Sunday, September 19. KV Racing Technology driver Takuma Sato will also compete in this year's event as will Roger Yasukawa (Conquest Racing). Mutoh will make his third IZOD IndyCar start at this track and first with NHR after competing here for two years with Andretti Green Racing. In 2008, he started ninth and finished 11th and was joined by Roger Yasukawa who finished 14th. In 2009, Mutoh was again joined by Yasukawa as well as Kosuke Matsuura and earned the highest finish of his countrymen of 14th despite racing with a severe headache after a crash the day before on his second of what would have been four qualifying laps and started 22nd. He has made comparisons of the reaction of fans in the United States to those in Japan. Although the Japanese fans are less-expressive, their action gave him strength to finish in 2009.

"We struggled a lot in practice last year. For some reason we didn't have the speed so we trimmed the car a lot in qualifying because I really wanted to start in the top-six for my home race. On the second lap I just lost the back end of the car and hit the wall quite hard. I hurt my leg and I think I hurt my head too. It was the home race so I needed to race the next day. I was not 100 percent physically and I was wondering if I should park the car in the race. On the last yellow I had to decide if I was going to park the car or not because I was dizzy. I could see a fan waving a flag and that really gave me power to finish the race. That was the first experience like that. I respect fans but the fans actually gave me power to finish the race. I had a bad race but it was a good memory. I believe I have extra power because of racing in my home country."


Although Hideki is expecting an exciting race, he believes it will be less "pack racing" as in previous events due to the track layout and conditions as the race progresses. "You can't run side by side as much, especially in Turns 3 and 4, because a lot of marbles build up high on the track so there is only one line through there. You won't see much pack racing; it will be morespread out. We have made improvements to our race car setup for the 1.5 mile ovals and I hope the Formula Dream/Panasonic team can have a good race in Motegi. I hope to be able to fight with the top group which would be good for the fans. It doesn't matter where we finish if we can fight with the top group and give the fans some excitement. I think we have a good qualifying car but I hope I'm not only a "Saturday guy." We will work hard to be a factor on Sunday too. It would be huge if a Japanese driver won the home Grand Prix. I could live with that experience for the next 20 years if I won the race. It would be huge; it would change everything. We will work hard to have the best finish possible but it would definitely be the highlight of my career to win the race."


Twin Ring Motegi is a 1.5-mile oval that is egg-shaped. This separates the track from the other four 1.5-mile ovals the series competes on.

"The track is slightly different compared to other 1.5-mile ovals," said Mutoh. "It has less banking on the track and also because Turns 1 and 2 and Turns 3 and 4 are different. I like the fact that the turns are different. It is a very smooth course with a big bump between Turns 1 and 2. You need a ride height adjustment because the bump is quite big." His teammate Graham Rahal added: "Twin Ring Motegi is a great track. While it is an oval, it is a mix because one end is a Super Speedway that is extremely wide-open but the other end is much, much tighter; kind of like a short oval. You have to setup the race car to be able to balance both of those things. It's the only track like it of the season. It's a lot of fun."


The 2010 event will be the second at Twin Ring Motegi for Rahal. Last year, he qualified fifth, led eight laps and finished third. He also came as a spectator with his father, Bobby, in 1999. His third place finish matched his best result on an oval in the series (3rd - Richmond, Japan -- 2009). Rahal is looking forward to his return and has the same expectations this year. "The Quick Trim team expects to do extremely well; last year we finished on the podium. We had one of the best cars out there and had a lot of fun. I will be disappointed if we are not on the podium again this year. That's where we were last year. A lot of guys struggled in the race and we were extremely good. We ought to be able to run right up there. The Ganassi guys finished 1-2 and maybe they were a little bit better than us but I would expect that we can improve it and be right there again this year. I think that, a year later we can be a little bit quicker in qualifying and start a little higher up and be able to stay right with the Ganassi guys. Last year we got caught out on the last restart. We had a lapped car between us and that gave them a little bit of a gap. Otherwise I think we would have been able to challenge them a little bit more."


Ohio native Rahal competed in his "home race" a few events ago at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, one of 13 races in the United States of 17 this season. He acknowledged the pressure of competing at home as well as the possibility of extra pressure due to having only one race in your home country all season. "There is always a lot of pressure, I think mainly from yourself," said Rahal, 21. "You want to perform well when you're at home. Sure, there's pressure from the people around you because they want to see you do well and shine at your home event too. To that end, it's tough. You want to perform and the whole team knows that they need to perform. It makes a short weekend a very long one because you always feel that everyone is paying attention to exactly what you are doing every minute.

"I'm sure Hideki probably feels more pressure simply due to the fact that there is only one race in Japan all year. The whole country basically is focused on him alone and only a couple of other Japanese drivers. A lot of weight is put on his shoulders to perform. At my home race there are still a lot of drivers for the fans to cheer for but in Japan it's very obvious that there is a lot of emphasis on the Japanese drivers. They are definitely under a microscope.

"There is always pressure every weekend. If you're mentally strong it's pretty easy to put it behind you and do what you need to do to succeed. For some it's got to be tough though. Especially Hideki since it's the one race that he has at home and whatever impression he leaves his fans with there is what's going to stick with them for a whole year so I'm sure it's difficult to erase that from your mind. For me, the best way to look at it is that if you have a good or bad weekend, there's always another one coming up a couple of days later so you have to focus on the big picture. As I said though, this is the only one of the year for him in Japan. We were competitive last year in Japan so if we can continue that this year, we both should have a good weekend."


Mutoh's father, Eiji, will be able to see his son race an Indy car in person for the first time ever -- in Japan or otherwise. His father operates the family's Hotetora shop in the famous Tsukiji fish market that has been in the family for approx. 110 years (three generations). Due to this responsibility, he has been unable to see his son race an Indy car until this year's race in Japan. The 2010 race falls on a national holiday translated as "Respect for the Aged Day" that was established in 1966 as a day to respect the elderly and celebrate long life. It was originally held on September 15 but in 2003 it was changed to the third Monday of September. The Hotetora shop will be closed Saturday, Sunday and Monday in observance of the holiday. J

"This will be the first time my dad can see me race an IndyCar ever," said Mutoh. "I'm very happy to see him and because the race was on Saturday previous years he never had the chance to come. It is a national holiday. Some day I have to run the fish market because this is generational and cultural. 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 and 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 watch 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. My grandpa is still questioning me. I'm the only one to replace my dad, so maybe in 20 years I have to."


Mutoh has been busy making appearances for Honda and the event since he returned to Japan almost two weeks ago. Rahal will arrive with the series contingent on Thursday of race week but will leave immediately following the event due to a family celebration. "I don't know if I'm going to get too much time to enjoy Japan," said Rahal. "Ideally some day I would love to spend more time in Tokyo but I'm going to have to leave right after the race to fly to my mother's wedding in England. When I was a kid I went to Japan to see my father (Bobby Rahal) race. I love the Honda Museum at the track. Fortunately last year I got to go visit the Museumagain. It is a great collection and I am looking forward to getting back there again to see what other, if any, cars have been added or taken away from the collection." While Rahal is flying to England, Mutoh may be a tour guide. "One of our engineers Chris (Cantagallo) wants to go to Mount Fuji after the race so I might go with him. I came to Japan right after the Kentucky raceand I will stay here until one week after the Motegi race and return to the United States the week of the Miami race. I will be able to spend some time with family just relaxing."

-source: nhr

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