What was originally supposed to be nothing more than the final appearance for the IZOD IndyCar Series in Japan; has become a tragedy, a controversy and a supposed symbol of hope to a nation that has been devastated by earthquakes, a tsunami and radiation exposure.
When it was announced that this would be the last appearance at Twin Ring Motegi, most IndyCar fans were elated. Each year, this race was a major inconvenience to the teams, a needless expense for most sponsors and a pointless television production that always threatened to set a record low for viewership.
Twin Ring Motegi was constructed on the top of a mountain in 1997. The facility gets its name due to the fact that there are two separate overlapping tracks on the premises – a road course and an oval. While driving for Pat Patrick, Adrian Fernandez won the first CART event on the 1.5-mile egg-shaped oval in April of 1998. CART ran at Motegi from 1998 through 2002. In 2003, the Indy Racing League made its first appearance. The IRL ran at Motegi each spring from 2003 through 2008, when Danica Patrick won her only IndyCar race. In 2009, the race was moved to September for reasons that are still beyond me.
Familiar names such as Michael Andretti, Kenny Bräck, Scott Sharp, Tony Kanaan, Bruno Junqueira, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon have also graced the top step of the podium at Motegi, along with Ms. Patrick.
This was never an exciting race. Perhaps it was because it was always run around midnight (US time) and it was hard to stay awake. It could also be that the track produced bad racing. I’ve never understood why oval tracks that are wide and promote passing can be known for boring races, but Twin Motegi generally has. I cannot remember a single race at Motegi over the past thirteen years that held much excitement at all. At the end of each race at Motegi, I always turn off the television in the wee hours of Sunday morning, thinking I could have been sleeping. But I’ve watched every one.
When it was announced in June that this year’s race would be run on the road course instead of the oval, due to damage from the earthquake that took place on March 11 – I made the mistake of going to Twitter and expressing my displeasure that the series was losing another oval and picking up another road course. This made the balance 10-7 in favor of road courses. Silly me.
I was immediately besieged with nasty comments on Twitter by people that I normally get along with. I also received direct (private) messages via Twitter from others that at least had the good taste to not blast me in public while disagreeing with me. These weren’t people that were road course devotees. These were people claiming I was insensitive toward the Japanese people; uncaring and selfish to be worried about racing when there was something much bigger at stake here and pretty much represented everything that was bad about the human species. Hence the ongoing jokes from commenters on this site claiming that I hate Japan and am a proud supporter of Godzilla (which was one of the best I’ve read in quite a while – good one, JB).
So, for the record…I don’t hate Japan. My heart goes out to them as they try to rebuild after such devastation. My comment was simply bemoaning the fact that an oval was lost off the schedule. Had the series planned to race at the oval at Homestead and then decided to race on their road course instead – it would have gotten the same reaction. But because of the earthquake involved, I was portrayed as Archie Bunker.
Not to stir up any more controversy – but my opinion was and is that the race should have been cancelled. I’m not sure that having this race on the road course is really going to bolster the moral of the Japanese people. Under normal circumstances, this track was very difficult to get to. With damaged roads and more pressing matters, I question how well this event will be attended.
What I was hoping would happen was that another oval track be found in the US, that would be willing to hold a benefit race in its place and that all proceeds be donated to Japanese relief efforts. That obviously didn’t happen. I know if there were another oval available, the series would already be racing on it. Ovals don’t just magically appear, but that was my hope anyway.
For once, I’ll agree with Danica Patrick who expressed her concerns about going into a region exposed to radiation. Danica also publicly questioned the safety of the food and water in Japan. I’ve heard all the claims that there is more radiation in Rome than at Motegi and that over a four-day period, the teams and drivers will be subjected to the same amount of radiation received from two chest X-rays. Still, I would be very uneasy about going there. Call me ignorant and an uninformed redneck (or worse), but I would be very concerned about going. I think those that would criticize the loudest would be those that have no intention of actually setting foot over there.
Many drivers have admitted serious concerns about going, but those drivers, their teams and INDYCAR officials have made the trip regardless. I’m not sure I would be so brave. My hat is off to them.
But they will race. The track is not supposed to be a great track for passing, but that’s nothing new. From what we saw at Baltimore, Team Penske has reversed its summer swoon. I look for that momentum to continue across the globe. It would be ironic that the race that threw me into so much controversy would be the one to bring me my first correct pick so late in the season, but I would be foolish to pick anyone else on a road course that no one has raced on before. Therefore, my pick to win the final Indy Japan is Will Power, who will return stateside in the points lead – with two ovals to go. October will be good.