Text and photos by Cheryl Tay
Japan has one of the most active and developed motor racing scenes in Asia and getting the opportunity to attend any race in Japan is always an eye-opener. This time, I made a trip to Kyushu for the Autopolis Super 2&4 2011 on 4th and 5th June.
The main race of the Autopolis Super 2&4 2011 is Round 2 of Formula Nippon, the highest level of racing in Japan, which was accompanied by two other events as well – Round 2 of the MFJ All Japan Road Race ST600 and Round 1 of the Honda Exciting Cup One-Make Civic Series.
The Civic has always been a racing favourite, but what made this race special were the drivers, in particular the four that I interviewed – Nobuteru Taniguchi, Kaneishi Toshihiro, Takuma Aoki and Shinichi Itoh.
He first made his name in drifting, when he won the first season of D1 Grand Prix in 2001. Given the nickname NOB which stands for No One Better, Nobuteru Taniguchi then went on to be involved in other types of motor racing. I have met him in several countries for different purposes – first in Singapore for Carrerista Jamboree in 2008 where he performed drift demonstrations, in Malaysia for the 12-hour Merdeka Millenium Endurance Race, Macau for the Macau Grand Prix, Japan for HKS Premium Day earlier this year and now this.
This year, the main focus for him will be in Super GT and Super Taikyu, while races like this Civic one-make race is more of an enjoyment to him, to keep him in training between races. “Although it is for enjoyment, there is still a responsibility for me as a driver. The intention to race may be different, but the objective is the same – to win. That is my task: to drive well and to win,” Taniguchi told me.
“There is more pressure to win in Super GT and Super Taikyu, and it is also tougher as there are two drivers to a car so we have to work in more strategy and teamwork,” he added.
Lately, Taniguchi has not been involved in competitive drifting, although he expressed interest in wanting to drift again should there be a chance. When he’s not racing, he does filming for drifting DVDs but I think it would be fantastic if someone could bring Taniguchi back into drifting, at Formula Drift Asia or something.
Hoping to race for as long as he possibly can, Taniguchi is one of the most responsible and professional drivers I have met. My last question to him was: Do you have any regrets about racing? To which he answered, “There have been moments where I do things I should and could have avoided in my past races, but such experiences lead to successes in future after you learn from the mistakes. Thus, I don’t dwell on regrets and just use the experience to make myself better.”
Conditions were wet on race day Sunday but that did not stop Taniguchi from winning the race from pole position, followed by Kaneishi in second out of 18 drivers. “On Saturday, the weather forecast predicted fine weather the next day. But when I woke up and saw the rain clouds I knew it was going to be a wet one. I’m sorry to the fans for the weather and thank you so much for braving the wet to come and support me,” he concluded.
Also racing in Super GT now, Kaneishi Toshihiro started racing in go-karts at the age of 10 before he moved to Formula 3 and Formula Nippon. The 33-year-old enjoys formula racing the most, having done it for more than a decade, but is now only racing GT cars.
“I like formula racing because it is just one driver to one car, unlike Super GT where you need two drivers to a car. When I win in single-seaters, the victory is purely mine and not shared with my co-driver. I don’t know when I will race until but I hope to continue as long as I have the right support,” Kaneishi said.
Single at the moment, I asked Kaneishi if in future, he would ever let his son race. He replied, “It costs a lot of money to race, as we all know, so it’s hard to say if I will allow him to race. One has to reach a certain level where sponsors come in to fund your racing. But I guess if it is his wish I will let him have a go at racing.”
Racing in cars requires a lot of physical fitness, especially with high cockpit temperatures that can cause heat stress to the body and affect performance. Hence when away from the track, Kaneishi spends a lot of time training for his fitness and improving his physical abilities.
Any regrets for him? “Nope, I don’t have any regrets. Yes there have been crashes, failures and mistakes on my part and I feel awful about them. But I just keep learning and building my spirit stronger. It is the failures of the past that make you who you are today so I don’t look back and regret anything.”
Despite being wheelchair-bound, Takuma Aoki never stopped pushing for the day he could return to racing. It happened in 1998 when Aoki was racing in motorbikes. He unfortunately fell off his bike during testing, resulting in a spinal injury that caused paralysis from the waist down.
“Since then I have been assigned to a wheelchair. I couldn’t ride but I could drive not too long after recovering from the incident. I wanted to go back into racing but I couldn’t do so due to licensing issues and not because of physical inability,” Aoki explained.
“I wanted to return to racing as soon as I could after the incident but the authorities were reluctant to issue me the licence to participate. I negotiated for a long time before I finally was given the green light.” Finally in 2007, Aoki was given the clearance to race and went on to take part in the Asia Cross Country Rally in Thailand. Later, he also took part in the Dakar Rally.
Aoki took part in a 30cc bike race when he was just eight years old and went on to be a Grand Prix motorbike racer, before taking part in the World Superbike Championship. Champion in the All Japan Grand Prix Super Bike Class for two consecutive years in 1995 and 1996, Aoki then finished fifth worldwide in the World Championship 500cc class in 1997 and was to continue for 1998 when the accident happened. His love for motorsports never ceased and he worked for Honda as a manager until 2003. In 2003, he started to teach children how to ride motorbikes (not how to race them).
“I am 37 years old this year but I want to go on racing until I cannot do so physically one day. I’m so happy to be back in racing. I believe I am the first handicapped person to take part in Super Taikyu and this Civic one-make race. This August I am going to do the Asia Cross Country Rally again in Thailand where I will drive 2,000 kilometres from Pattaya to Angkor Wat over five days,” Aoki told me.
Next year, Aoki plans to compete in the 24 Hours Nürburgring and in the future he hopes to make it to the grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I waited 10 years to get back into racing but all the way I never gave up. It is important to have a purpose and objective in life. Motorsports is my fate and I’ve been involved with it since I was nine years old. Once I get behind the wheel, I’m just a driver like everyone else and my condition doesn’t make me special.”
Out and away from the driving seat, Aoki teaches both adults and children at a motorcycle school.
Better known in the world of motorbikes, Shinichi Itoh raced extensively in bikes for a long time both in Japan and internationally. He is a three-time Japanese Superbike champion and has also won the Japanese 500cc championship before. A regular achiever at the Suzuka Eight-hour Endurance Race, Itoh has won it three times.
The 44-year-old winning biker started racing cars in 2003 but is still more of a race biker than a race car driver. “Racing bikes professionally is what I am good at, while racing cars is more for leisure. Racing bikes and cars are both challenging in their own ways but in cars, the set-up is more important. For bikes, even if the set-up is bad you can still do well. Unlike cars, riding bikes require a greater usage of physical ability so we can relatively manage the bike better compared to a car. In general, 70 percent of racing a car depends on the car set-up while 30 percent is the driver’s responsibility,” Itoh explained the differences between racing bikes and cars.
Riding bikes has always been deemed as more dangerous than driving cars, so what does his friends and family think about his bike racing?
“Of course my family and friends know bike racing is dangerous. I even know of some people who died in racing. But ultimately I love bikes so much that it has become my profession, so I will try to ensure that my family and friends understand my passion for bikes,” Itoh replied.
Itoh’s biggest accident occurred five years ago when he fell off a bike during pre-season testing and fractured his left thighbone, needing metal reconstruction. “I was out for three months then but I wasn’t too scared. I broke my collarbone too but I’ve broken that many times so it wasn’t a big deal. I understand that crashes are part of racing but at the same time we need to have a great responsibility to keep as safe as we can.”
This year, Itoh will be racing in the JSB 100 and the Suzuka Eight-hour Endurance Race. This Civic one-make race series is the only car series he is competing in for this season.
Father to one daughter, Itoh said he will never allow her to go racing but if he were to have a son instead, he might consider it if his son seriously insists. Running a car dealer shop in Japan when not racing at speeds over 300km/h on bikes, Itoh enjoys listening to music and his favourite bike is the Honda CBR 1000.
*This was first published in 9tro.