Days 3 and 4 – Off to the races

The SuperGT race this weekend is one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Japan, and why I ended up staying in a relatively unknown city like Okayama to begin with. Did it live up to the hype? Oh hell yes.

For those unfamiliar, SuperGT is a Japanese touring car racing series, which in my opinion has some of the most exciting racing around. Two classes of cars on the track at the same time, over 40 cars of all makes and types. You have Mercedes AMGs racing against BMW M6s and Toyota 86s and Porches and Ferraris and Bentleys and Nissan GT-Rs, and all else in between. There’s even a few few racing Priuses!

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My team is the #4 Hatsune Miku AMG run by Goodsmile Racing. My good friend Nathan got me into the racing series, and I never looked back. They won the 300-class championship in 2011 and 2014, but hadn’t won a race since then. Could 2017 fit the pattern and lead to another championship in the making?

That was one question on my mind as I hopped onto the train to take me towards the racetrack. No more bullet trains here, this is local light rail, and I step onto a fairly crowded car of pretty much all locals, I’m the only foreigner as far as I can tell.

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The train clattered its way out of Okayama and into the countryside, where the scenery became rusty and sparse. 40 minutes later I’m deposited at a tiny station called Yonshinaga at the foothills of the mountains where the racetrack is buried.

I follow a small herd of people around the corner where a shuttle bus is waiting to carry us up to the raceway. Another 30 minutes of slow driving through narrow mountain roads finally brings me to my destination: Okayama International Circuit, home of the first round of SuperGT 2017.

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I make my way inside just as free practice is getting underway. The track is slightly damp, but it’s only the finest mists of rain, and the cars all seem to be out on slick tires. I sit along the main straight to watch the practice together with a bunch of other Racing Miku supporters. The #4 car is immensely popular, and you can see people wearing their colors anywhere you look.

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After practice ends, I head on over to the official team store to pick up some merch, for myself and for a friend. It’s actually not too badly priced compared to, say, Formula 1 gear, but I’m thankful that this is one of the few places in Japan that actually accepts credit cards.

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After splurging on some indulgences I meet up with two new friends of mine, Nick and Carl, (different Nick and different Carl from my high school friends) who are US marines stationed just on the other side of Hiroshima. We wander over to the paddock area and I lurk around the back of the Goodsmile garage until I spot one of the drivers, Tatsuya Kataoka (T.K. for short) and he’s kind enough to sign my pass and take a selfie with a dweeb like me.

I join a large mass of people waiting in line for the pit area to open up, and after about an hour of standing in the crowd, they finally open the gates and let fans spill into the garage and track area. People all rush and swarm towards their favorite teams to take pictures, grab free swag, and get autographs. In the Goodsmile area, the car waits patently in its garage for qualifying to come, and the pit wall is decorated with a hundred different Miku dolls. I manage to get the other driver NOB, and the team manager to sign my pass and my flag as well, and snap a few more shots of the track while I have the chance.

During qualifying, the #4 Racing Miku car is beaten to pole position by a tenth of a second, but we will start #2 on the grid for the race, which is an excellent position. It seems one of our main rivals this year will be another Mercedes, the black AMG of Leon racing.

After taking the shuttle back to the station and taking the train into Okayama, it’s fairly late. Nick, Carl, and I pop into a nearby ramen place and enjoy some nice warm food. Tomorrow is when the real action will begin.

On sunday we make our way back to the track to find there are a lot more people showing up for race day than qualifying. All of the prime seats have been claimed by the early birds, but we manage to find a patch of hill near Turn 2 that allows us to see a good portion of track and the video board that will show the live TV broadcast. My friends have gotten their own Racing Miku gear and we’re ready to cheer on our boys to victory!

The race is insane. During the formation laps a Honda NSX, the polesitter in the 500 class, breaks down for no apparent reason. Then another NSX, then ANOTHER NSX. Some chronic problem strikes the cars just before the race begins, and mechanics scramble to push them back into the garages to make repairs.

When the race does finally begin, we’re right on the ass of the Leon car. It’s several laps of intense battling before we finally make a move stick, and take the lead of the race! We pit early to refuel and change drivers, changing only the tires on one side of the car in a gamble to reduce the pit time and maintain our position in front.

The race is fraught with more chaos. A Subaru catches fire, a Toyota spins out in the middle of a crowded hairpin, and a Ferrari crashes into the wall right beneath where I’m sitting. It litters debris all over the track and brings out another lengthy safety car period as the driver is evacuated and track workers rush to sweep away the damage.

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When the race resumes will pull ahead with a comfortable gap to the second place car, which is slowed by the very tight battling it must do to defend from the third place car behind. When the checkered flag is waved, it’s the #4 Goodsmile Racing AMG in the lead! Our first win in nearly 3 years!!!

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Frank, a Dutchman who was watching the race with us, is also pleased. We were talking shop about cars through much of the race and we exchange email addresses to catch up later. Another new friend for another new day.

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Rather than stick around for the victory ceremonies, I rush to beat the line to the shuttle buses. A wise choice, as the weather is getting cold, windy and wet, and there are thousands of people vying to get onto buses that only hold a few dozen at a time on 50 minute round trips. The line stretches well beyond what’s shown, up the hill and into the circuit.

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I’m exhausted and sunburnt, but overjoyed at the win. I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting race or a better result. You can watch it for yourself over at NISMO TV’s youtube channel

Tomorrow, I will finally leave Okayama back to Osaka, one of the big cities of Japan. It will be a little sad to leave this place because it’s already given me a bunch of great memories, and was starting to become very familiar, but the show must go on.

More updates to follow. Stay tuned and thanks for reading! You can follow along at my twitter account too at @thewaywardgeo for snapshots along the way.

Cheers,

Geoff

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