Legend's words fuel driver's dreams; first Japanese driver attempts to qualify for NASCAR Winston Cup Series points race. DOVER, Del. (Sept. 19, 2002) -- "You should come to America and race. Your driving is very good." Those words still...
Legend's words fuel driver's dreams; first Japanese driver attempts to qualify for NASCAR Winston Cup Series points race.
DOVER, Del. (Sept. 19, 2002) -- "You should come to America and race. Your driving is very good."
Those words still echo in Hideo Fukuyama's mind as he recalls a conversation with the late seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt. That meeting took place in 1996 after the Suzuka Thunder Special 100 NASCAR exhibition race in Japan and Fukuyama has traveled 6,813 miles to do just that at this weekend's MBNA All-American Heroes 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Fukuyama, who has been racing in Japan and Europe for more than 25 years, will be piloting the No. 66 HAAS/CARTER Motorsports Ford Taurus during Friday's practice and qualifying sessions. The Owase, Japan, native tested twice at the one-mile oval and posted competitive lap times.
"I was impressed with Hideo when he drove for me in Japan and continue to be impressed with his ability to adapt and drive these race cars," said HAAS/CARTER Motorsports co-owner Travis Carter. "We only had two days of testing at Dover and he made great progress.
"He's very methodical and thinks things through," Carter continued. "There were a few times during the test that he didn't look at any data. He would just sit in the car for 10 minutes or so, go back out on the track and run faster. Although we know the times will pick up for this weekend's qualifying, he did run a few laps that were fast enough to make last year's race here. That gives me confidence and should give him some, too."
Confidence is one thing; conversation is another. While the No. 66 crew has been working to prepare the team's Fords for Dover's 400-mile event, Carter, Crew Chief Teddy Brown and Fukuyama have spent a lot of time just talking.
"He understands more words than he can speak," Carter said. "We've worked on specific words and what they mean. He's very intelligent and knows what's going on and can communicate how the car is handling. He also works well with our spotter. He's very safety conscious and has placed extra mirrors on the car -- mounted on both A-posts so he can see down the sides of the car."
Racing at Dover requires a great deal of on-track awareness for veterans as well as rookies.
"This was my first time at Dover," Fukuyama said through his interpreter, Chizuko Motooka. "The track was very fast and requires a lot of energy for each lap. I was very surprised at the speed and respect the braveness of the other NASCAR drivers."
Respect is something that Fukuyama has earned from his peers. He is a five-time champion in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship: 1979 F5000 class;' 92 Touring Car; '96 N-1 Super Endurance;' 97 GT 300; 2000 GT 300. He also won the GT3-R/LMGT class in the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans. Fukuyama is also the only Japanese driver to complete all three NASCAR exhibition races, with an average finish of 17th. He has also competed in two NASCAR Winston West races with an average finish of 17th.
"I have wanted this for many years," Fukuyama continued. "First of all, the conversation I had with Dale Earnhardt in Japan made me focus on this dream. Secondly, I also believe there is so much that Japanese racing can learn from NASCAR. With the support of so many people, my dreams are coming true."
Should Fukuyama qualify for Sunday's race, crew members from the No. 10 Busch Series, Grand National Division team will stay over and pit for the No. 66 Ford. The car will not bear a sponsor's logo, rather it will have an American and Japanese flag on the hood with Hideo Fukuyama in Japanese characters on the rear quarter panels and TV panel.
Carter plans to enter Fukuyama at the upcoming Winston Cup races at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (Oct. 20) and North Carolina Speedway (Nov. 3).