Japan’s Indy 200: Remembering the first time IndyCars raced at Fuji Speedway

Japan’s Indy 200: Remembering the first time IndyCars raced at Fuji Speedway

Editor’s Note: Emiko Jozuka is a former Field Producer for CNN. She is the daughter of the Japanese photographer Joe Honda.

A determined Jim Clark, the world’s most famous racing car driver and reigning Formula One world champion at the time, gazes into the distance as he pushes his Lotus car through the paddock.

In another scene, IndyCars are lined up like dominoes on a newly built track, with sacred Mt. Fuji – a symbol of Japan, which is revered for its beauty – towering in the background.

These images, captured by Japanese photographer Joe Honda and on display at the Jim Clark Motorsport Museum in Scotland, highlight a forgotten but pioneering moment in motorsport history.

Jim Clark was the pre-race favorite among fans in Japan but couldn’t start due to a mechanical failure during practice. Honda recalled how he took the setback in his stride, acting as a mentor to younger drivers like Scotsman Jackie Stewart and Chris Amon from New Zealand instead. – Joe Honda Archive

New era

It’s October 1966, the first time an international American IndyCar-style race, featuring several British racing legends, came to Asia.

At that time, professional auto racing was still in its infancy in Japan.

However, Akira Jin – the promoter of the Indianapolis International Champion Race or Indy 200 – said he wanted to showcase an international IndyCar race in Japan to “spur technological innovations in the nation’s automobile industry,” according to Shingo Shiozawa, the race’s co-organizer.

Pulling off the exhibition race at the Fuji International Speedway road course, however, wasn’t easy. As the IndyCar teams were unable to take any spare parts to Japan, 11 of the 33 cars had mechanical problems in practice and could not start the race. Only 11 crossed the finish line.

While the race finished “quite quickly,” the sight of IndyCars racing for the first time was a novelty, said Riki Ohkubo, a journalist and former factory works driver.

“The spectators were surprised by how much more advanced they were compared to the family sedans adapted for racing in the domestic Japan Grand Prix,” he said.

Today, few remember the landmark IndyCar race, though experts say the event occurred amid a significant turning point in the country’s history.

With a sixth sense for where the action would be, Honda snuck into a pre-race briefing, capturing a candid shot of drivers – shots of rare access and intimacy that now would be impossible due to stricter regulations at the paddock. – Joe Honda Archive

Commercial opportunity

In the 1960s, Japan was emerging as an advanced and high-tech nation following its defeat in WWII.

The decade saw the birth of the world’s first high-speed rail and the hosting of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. These high-profile events gave the country an opportunity to move beyond its militarist past and instilled in people pride and hope in the future.

The nation’s automotive industry was also flourishing and helping to shift perceptions of Japan and the bad memories of WWII.

For instance, in America, Japanese automobile manufacturer Honda’s small bike sales were shooting through the roof, going from $500,000 in 1960 to $77 million in 1965 — fueled by a 1963 marketing campaign, with the slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” which inspired the Beach Boys’ hit song “Little Honda.”

Jackie Stewart, who won the Indy 200 race, waves at the crowd before a lap of honor around the Fuji circuit in the pace car. Honda said meeting the racer, who was the same age as him, spurred his decision to pursue his calling, capturing the world’s fastest drivers on film. – Joe Honda Archive

In Japan, the fascination with motorcycles was moving towards cars as Honda rolled out new models, and the Nissan Sunny became a low-cost favorite among Japan’s middle-class. This shift also saw enthusiasm turn from two-wheel racing to four-wheel racing as the nation started building permanent, professional race circuits.

In 1963, the first Japan Grand Prix for sports cars took place at the nation’s first full-scale road course, the Suzuka Circuit in Mie prefecture, drawing tens of thousands of spectators, said Shiozawa.

The following year, Honda announced its entry into Formula One, marking another milestone. Two years later, the third Japan Grand Prix was held at Fuji International Speedway in May 1966.

According to Jack K. Yamaguchi, who covered the 1966 Indy 200 race for Road & Track magazine, Jin – the promoter known for bringing prestigious foreign events like the Bolshoi Ballet and the Leningrad Philharmonic to Japan – had spotted a commercial opportunity.

“The groundwork for the Indy 200 was already laid by then, and the Japanese were ready and willing to pay for racing,” he said.

This non-championship 200 mile exhibition race was the United States Auto Club’s first event in Asia, and only the third time it had taken IndyCars overseas. Honda roamed the paddock and circuit freely, developing his own visual language as he experimented with composition and framing. – Joe Honda Archive

Technological revolution

The Indianapolis 500 is known as the “greatest spectacle in racing” and is considered as one of three events in the Triple Crown of Motorsport, alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Heures du Mans.

According to Indy 200 co-organizer Shiozawa, the danger, drivers and speed attracted Japanese spectators willing to pay for tickets almost as expensive as the average monthly salary of the time.

During the 1960s, the Indianapolis race, which began in 1911, was evolving.

The traditionally front-engined IndyCars underwent a technological revolution when Australian driver Jack Brabham reintroduced the concept of a rear-engine race car in 1961. Rear-engined cars had appeared in earlier years but with little success.

This breakthrough paved the way for F1 racer Clark to win the first Indy victory in a rear-engined car in 1965. British driver Graham Hill repeated the feat a year later.

Shiozawa said Japanese motorsports fans were more interested in F1 drivers and races, which only ran on street and road courses, whereas IndyCar racing took place mostly on oval circuits.

He added that fans recognized F1 drivers from the UK from film reel movies and posters displayed in local car dealerships. For example, Yamaguchi, the journalist, said he attended the race because Clark was taking part, and the newly constructed Fuji circuit was closer to Tokyo than the Suzuka circuit.

Rare intimacy

Five months before the Indy 200, Clark had been invited to test-drive the Fuji road course.

However, for most IndyCar drivers, it was the first time they had been to Japan. It was also the first time spectators experienced the noise of the car engines, the speed of the cars and the drivers up close, said motorsports journalist Ohkubo.

That curiosity comes across in photographer Honda’s behind-the-scenes shots. IndyCar drivers from around the world gather together in a classroom-like setting for a pre-race briefing.

Another photograph captures pre-race favorite Clark relaxing alongside friend, team owner and designer Colin Chapman while curious members of the Nippon Auto Club observe them in the background – images of rare intimacy that would be nearly impossible today due to stricter regulations in the paddock.

Clark’s mechanical problems during practice prevented him from starting the race, which was likely a “huge disappointment” for those who paid for tickets to watch the Indy 200, said Shiozawa.

However, he recalled how relaxed Clark and the other drivers were in the face of these challenges.

“I remember talking to (Clark) about it and he said, ‘No regrets,’” recalled Shiozawa, adding that younger drivers like Jackie Stewart, who went on to win the Indy 200, seemed more focused on victory compared to more experienced drivers like Clark.

Japanese spectators were more familiar with Formula One drivers at the time and were looking forward to seeing them race. For Honda, a chance encounter with racing stars such as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart from the UK at the Fuji International Speedway in 1966 inspired a lifetime dedicated to immortalizing the people, culture and developments of the global motorsports industry. – Joe Honda Archive

Cultural shifts

In 1966, no Japanese drivers or cars participated in the exhibition Indy 200 race.

The grandstands at the Fuji International Speedway were not filled to maximum capacity as tickets were so expensive, and multiple yellow flags were raised during what was more a “show” than a race, said Ohkubo.

He added that he was more impressed by how well the foreign teams coordinated pit stops and how drivers waved warmly to the fans than the race itself.

Others argue that the race resulted in cultural shifts that are better understood in retrospect.

Donald Capps, a member of the Automotive Society of Historians in America, recalled that while the event may not have been the spectacle organizers might have hoped for, it still paved the way for major developments in Japan and the world’s automobile industry.

“The irony here is that years later, Honda powers the winners of the Indianapolis 500.”

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