Is A Japan Race Really Necessary?

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This weekend, the IndyCar Series travels half a world away when they travel to Motegi, Japan. With many of the IRL based in or near Indianapolis, this is a little more difficult than a race weekend in Chicago or Kansas. Every full-time team has to pack up their cars, backup cars, spare parts, wheels, pit equipment and tools. In addition enough engines and tires for the entire weekend must be flown overseas.

This requires two cargo-converted 747’s packed full of everything needed to put on a full-scale race weekend. And on top of that, crewmembers, drivers and team personnel must be flown over creating one massive case of jet lag. All this to satisfy a major partner of the IndyCar series and a few thousand Japanese fans who are willing to travel the narrow two-lane highway to see the race. My question is…is it really worth it to go to this much trouble just to please Honda?

I will be the first to admit that Honda has been an outstanding partner for the Indy Racing League. While other manufacturers pulled out, Honda stepped up and reluctantly agreed to provide enough engines to all of the teams so that the series could continue. That was no small task that they undertook. They did so with certain restrictions to help save money and engines. The biggest change they made was to de-tune the engine in order to keep the engine from running on the ragged edge. Horsepower was cut to insure reliability and save engines. An unintended consequence of that was that the “blown-engine” suspense factor has essentially been removed from IndyCar racing.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that the only reason that the IndyCar series goes to the trouble and expense of traveling to Motegi each season is to please Honda. If the series raced before overflow crowds there, I would understand the rationale.

This whole thing started in the late nineties. Honda built the facility known as Twin Ring Motegi in 1997. It is called “Twin Ring” simply because there is a separate road course and oval on the same property. The track itself is a 1.5 mile egg-shaped oval, similar to Darlington and Gateway. Once in Japan, the track is extremely hard to get to. Train access from Tokyo is limited and hotel accommodations are sparse except for a hotel on the property.

Honda was quickly building a history of success in CART. After their less than stellar debut in 1994, Honda regrouped and won their first race in 1995. They had already won the CART championships in 1996 and 1997 when Twin Ring Motegi hosted its first CART race in 1998 – which was won by Adrian Fernandez driving a Lola-Ford Cosworth for Pat Patrick. Fernandez repeated his Motegi win in 1999. Michael Andretti continued the Ford domination in 2000 driving his Lola-Ford to victory for Newman/Haas. Kenny Bräck continued the Ford domination on the Honda-owned track in 2001, driving his Team Rahal Lola-Ford to a win.

The ultimate embarrassment for Honda came in 2002, when Bruno Junqueira committed the unthinkable when he drove a Toyota-powered Lola to victory lane at Motegi for Chip Ganassi.

The following year was the landmark season when Honda and Toyota both fled CART for the 2003 IndyCar season. The change of series did nothing for Honda’s fortunes however, as Toyota won again at Honda’s facility. This time, the embarrassment came at the hands of Scott Sharp driving a Dallara-Toyota for Tom Kelley. Keep in mind, Honda had been successful at other tracks but they somehow managed to be shutout on their home turf.

Finally, the Honda power was simply too much to overcome. In 2004, Dan Wheldon drove his Andretti-Green Dallara-Honda to victory at Motegi. Honda officials seemed more relieved than jubilant. Wheldon repeated the feat for AGR and Honda in 2005, on his way to winning the Indianapolis 500 and clinching the 2005 title. Helio Castroneves won at Motegi in 2006, but by then the accomplishment for Honda had been minimized. All of the cars in the field were powered by Honda as they are now. Tony Kanaan finally won in 2007. He and Helio Castroneves hold the distinction of having raced in every single open-wheel race held at Twin Ring Motegi. In case anyone needs reminding, Danica Patrick won the 2008 event.

The course must be difficult because it sure seems to have its share of crashes. Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan crashed there in 2003 causing Kanaan to break his wrist. That injury is what led Mario Andretti to consider qualifying Kanaan’s car at Indy before an airborne excursion ended that idea. Marco Andretti has had considerable trouble at turn two of the facility. His car has crashed early in two of his three races in the exact same spot.

Although she won the race in 2008, Danica actually drove a much more impressive race in her rookie year of 2005. Benefiting from being one of the few Honda powered cars, she qualified on the front row and raced Sam Hornish hard in the opening laps. She ran a strong smart race for a rookie in only her fourth race and finished fourth. Last year, she won by conserving fuel and gambling on pit strategy.

Getting back to my question…is it really worth it to go to this much trouble just to please Honda? Personally, I don’t think so. Unlike Brazil – where they presumably will open next season – Japan is across the International Date Line. Tonight’s race will finish after midnight on the east coast, but it will be Saturday afternoon at Motegi. There is only one full-time Japanese driver in the series, and Honda basically places him there. Very few of the primary sponsors for the teams have any presence in Japan whatsoever. The potential US viewing audience will mostly be in bed asleep or away from their sets, even if those sets don’t have DirecTV and still get Versus. Be prepared to have the worst ratings in IndyCar history this weekend.

The logistical expense of this endeavor must be enormous. I don’t know the cost and am not exactly sure who funds the bulk of it, but I would guess that the league does. All this to satisfy Honda who supplies the engines and Firestone’s parent company Bridgestone – who is also based in Japan. The thing is, Firestone is based in Nashville and they certainly didn’t hold the league’s feet to the fire to make them race here – and Nashville is a little easier to get to than Motegi. I also have heard nothing of Dallara insisting that an IRL race be held in Italy, in order to show off their “beautiful” chassis.

No one from the league has asked me but I’ll give my opinion anyway. Unless I’m missing some key financial angle that completely justifies why the league should continue running in Japan, I believe they should discontinue this trip. But then, when did the IRL ever really listen to the fans? It’s probably just as well. More than likely, they would remove this oval from the schedule and replace it with Belle Isle.

George Phillips

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22 Responses to “Is A Japan Race Really Necessary?”

  1. All good points George. IMHO I would think that it is necessary. I would just consider this race a single factor in the reciprocal relationship the IRL has with Honda.
    When the exodus of all engine suppliers left and Honda stayed, I think the IRL became almost an extension of Honda. (Bare with me here) All engines were Honda, and still are. Honda is a title sponsor for a few races. If you have ever been to Mid Ohio, you will see just how proud Honda is to be a part of the IRL. The drivers go to 3 different Honda plants all within a 50 mile radius of eachother for autograph sessions. They even setup shop at a Honda Credit Union. These are for Honda employees and family only. This is just the beginning. All employees get 2-4 general admission tickets for friends/family. Even suppliers for the plants get tickets. Whether these people are fans or not, they come and watch. It’s a big deal. I think this race is kind of the same concept on a more corporate level. If it takes giving Honda one race to satisfy them enough to keep being the awesome partner that they are, I say do it.

  2. I don’t know if it’s because of the Japan race, but the whole ending of the IRL season is designed for failure. 2 races in 40 days–the last two races of the year–is no way to gain fan support, publicity or momentum for their race to the championship. They manage to take a series that is already lost in the hinterlands to begin with and instead of building to the last race they just sorta let it fizzle out.

  3. I think it is necessary to hold onto Motegi for similar reasons to ones Brad mentioned earlier, but the one change I would make is to have it alongside the Brazilian race and get the two fly-aways done quickly. From there, a trip to the North-west / West coast perhaps??

  4. Snortegi is always a boring race, but you gotta keep Honda happy so you gotta go there. Pretty much the long and the short of it. Maybe if there are multiple engine makers then the IRL can afford to cut Japan. Until then, sorry.

  5. Just Wondering Says:

    The answer oilpressure dude is simple, the race comes with the engine deal, period. The IRL wants Honda’s engines, they race in Japan it’s in the contract.

  6. On a totally un-race related note, because of the Motegi race the town of Speedway has become a “sister city” of Motegi. We have a group of middle school kids over there right now and they will attend the race. We alternate years where either our kids go over there or their kids come over here. The kids stay with host families and just get a taste of life in another world. It is just kind of a fun side note to this race. I hope we keep doing it so my kids can have that opportunity some day!

    • that’s actually really nice; surprised the the IRL isn’t smart enough to bring that kind of story up for at least a fluff article on the website.

  7. tim nothhelfer Says:

    Besides Indy, I would love to go to the Motegi race, to be part of that.
    Honda also has an awesome museum there.

  8. Screw Honda. It would be nice if Ferrari was in, and demanded Monza, GM/Ford demanded Michigan Internation Speedway, and Rolls Royce demanded Silverstone. Honda needs to at least pick better tracks to be home tracks, because Mid Ohio and Montegi DO NOT CUT IT.

  9. Screw Honda??? Yeah pi$$-off to a company who has loyally supported the ICS the last few years (despite declining numbers) :( :( As for your asinine Ferrari Dreams… GEEZ! I want to date Playboy Playmates too (but it s not likely to happen unless Hefner adds me to his will.

    Why does the ICS go to Motegi????? HONDA & also FIRESTONE!!!! You can NOT run race cars without ENGINES & TIRES, eh.

    • Could be worth a try. Might be a little dull, but…

    • I’m just saying, Montegi Sucks, and So does Mid Ohio. THat’s why having multiple engine manufacurers is a must. I’d like to see Gm, or Ford, DEMAND Michigan International Speedway.

      • Dylan,

        Have you ever been to Mid – Ohio? The weekend is one heck of a spectator event. Granted it doesn’t translate well to television, but it is a really enjoyable experience. Not all events need to be the same cookie cutter experience. Indy of course has a superbowl feel, the ovals seem like an NFL game, and Mid O (and I am presuming the Glen) seem like an outdoor concert or a picnic with a race going on. I have done four races this year and MO is a very nice change of pace from the others – not sure I would have made the effort of attending a fourth oval.
        One of the appeals of AOW for me has always been that it is not cookie cutter (except for the cars right now). Variety is the spice of life. Remove it and you have, well, nascar. Next time you go to the grocery store, take a look around, there’s flavors other than vanilla! ;-) Cheers – keep up the good work at planet-irl

      • Dylan: I’ll give you that Mid Ohio could be widened (to encourage more side by side) but I’ve seen plenty of solid races there! Also, if you are a spectator & you feel Mid Ohio “SUCKS”, then you (1) Have NOT been to the track or (2) must secretly HATE racing.

        Mid Ohio can be enjoyed from almost any of their 14 corners :idea: & its two-tiered paddock garages allow fans incredible access to the cars, drivers, & teams :idea: :idea:

  10. You’re entitled to your opinion, Dylan,, but I don’t see GM or Ford coming or coming back to IndyCar anytime soon. BTW, it’s MOTEGI, not MONTEGI.

    I agree to a great extent with what you’re saying, George, regarding having to fly around the world, and the race starting so late on the East Coast and the issues with the location and access to the circuit. However, the issue is Honda, and if they want this race, until other manufacturers are willing to come along and provide the kind of support Bridgestone and Honda are, sometimes you have to play nice to get something back. Personally, if Honda wants a showcase for their work in IndyCar, I’d prefer they raced at the also Honda-owned Suzuka.

    • Honda has stated before… Motegi is their preferred venue for Indycars. They have numerous , national OW series that race on RC… the ICS showcases Honda & OW on ovals. The trophy is almost a replica of the Borg Warner :idea:

      Again dylan…. why do you think Ford or GM would be all hot to get back into AOW? GM just went bankrupt & they left Indycar when they had $$$ (because they couldn’t match Honda & Toyota). Ford chose CCWS so they don’t seem welcomed @ Indy.

      Plus… ISC controls ovals like MIS. They could careless what Ford or GM wants … unless these two dropped an obscene amount of $$$ for a race (which given the economy, they will NOT).

  11. might be cool if they could have an overseas prelude to the stateside season–start early in Japan, maybe go back to Surfer’s Paradise–a lot of people seem to miss that course–then a race in Brazil and maybe Mexico and a Canada race before going to Florida and continuing as before…

    that way we get a longer season that starts earlier, ends without delay, keeps major sponsors happy and grows the league outside the U.S.

  12. George,

    I think the race overall is a good thing, I just wish it was earlier in the season. I like the variety the track brings – half Chicago and half Milwaukee. The scheduling for TV really wasn’t much different than the silly scheduling of Chicago. IndyCar has very few sponsors or corporate supporters right now and you really have to show them you appreciate it. I think it sticks out in a 17 race season but would blend better into a 24 race season which to me is the aspirational goal.

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