Is A Japan Race Really Necessary?
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.