DRIVETRIBE FEATURE EXCLUSIVES: FUJI SPEEDWAY IS A JAPANESE WONDERLAND
Presenting DRIVETRIBE FEATURE EXCLUSIVES, a new content series featuring exclusive material produced for DRIVETRIBE by key global Tribes and Tribe Leaders. Kicking things off, we're partnering up with classic race and road car aficionados Frank Liew and the team at Blackbird Automotive out of Hong Kong. For the first of these DRIVETRIBE collaborations we threw Frank and his team on a giant metal bird, bound for the land of robot restaurants, vending machine, GT-Rs and talking toilets - Japan. This is what they came back with. Look out for more over the coming weeks.
Over to Frank Liew and Blackbird Automotive…
The idea that Japan is a global cultural phenomenon isn’t exactly a hotly debated one. Let’s be honest – no other country is so universally admired and closely emulated.
It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s… well, it’s Japan. Where else has its own adoring world-wide fandom, its legion of otaku imitators and well-meaning cultural appropriators? What are weebs? And yet, for all its lauded geek culture, Bōsōzoku biker gangs and supposed used-panty vending machines (that was a one-off, by the way), Japan and its 127 million inhabitants still keep the rest of the world at a (polite) arm’s length, a measure of personal space that affords the country its fair share of mystery.
So, it’s no surprise that much happens here without the rest of the world knowing about it, especially when it comes to the realm of Japanese automotive culture and motorsport. Due to the language barrier, the inherent stoic-ness (normally disguised as shyness?) and reluctance to embrace the digital realm in the way that the “West” has, Japan remains incredibly insular - the process of finding out about the events that take place around this country tends to happen “ye olde” way, through phone calls and magazines.
While Fuji Wonderland Fes, held earlier this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fuji International Speedway, did its best to buck that trend, it barely registered a blip on the international radar. Considering the importance of this event, the incredible machinery on display and its popularity locally, this seemed downright criminal. It’s lucky then, that we heard of the event through a mutual contact and decided to make the trip over from home base in Hong Kong to witness it in all it’s eardrum-bursting glory.
One Toyota 2000GT sighting is normally enough for one to start pondering one's life choices. There were 12 at Fuji. On the track, together.
The rather location-appropriate named Fuji Wonderland Fes celebrated five decades of legendary Japanese motoring history at this iconic circuit. To the converted, these are hallowed grounds that have throughout all the various layout changes, tragic accidents and keystone moments, bore witness to Japan’s unbridled climb from post-war recovery to become one of the great automotive powerhouses of the world, all under the ever-watchful eye of Mount Fuji, that most Japanese of icons.
You couldn’t write a grander legend even if you tried. This story was told over the weekend by Japan’s most well-known circuit weapons and many of their original drivers, a good proportion of which had been pulled out of museums and private collections (the cars, not the drivers) and race-prepped especially for this event, ready to do battle once again under the all-seeing eye of Fuji-san.
To see so many hero cars in one iconic place, at one time, all wheel-to-wheel at full-chat, was an almost indescribable experience for any self-professed Japanese car aficionado (present company included, of course). The track action stretched back to the early touring car rivalries that saw rotary-powered Mazda RXs grinding it out with their mortal enemies, the Skyline “Hakosuka” GT-Rs and screaming Celicas, before giving way to circuit heros like the thundering Group 7 Nissan R381 and Toyota 7 racers, Formula Nippon heroes, a bevvy of 2000GTs, then onto the mighty Group C endurance kings in the guise of Mazda’s wailing 787B and Nissan’s R90CP championship winner.
Masahiro Hasemi, at 71 years old, drives the probable car of your childhood dreams after over 50 years of racing experience.
Throw in Masahiro Hasemi battling JGTC stalwarts down the front straight in his iconic flame-spewing Tomica DR30 Nissan Skyline Super Silhouette and I’m just about to announce my retirement and finalise my will.
All this Japanese motorsport geekery would be more than enough to keep everyone happy, but the the team at Fuji Speedway planned one final cherry on the top - a reenactment of Fuji’s first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix. It was of course the 1976 season finale, a race that will forever go down in the books as one of F1’s most tense and exciting thanks to abysmal conditions and the final championship-deciding bout between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, as dramatised in Ron Howard’s 2013 film ‘Rush’.
All the usual suspects were there, including Lauda’s Ferrari 312/T2, a Hunt-spec McLaren M23 and the iconic John Player Special Lotus 77 that eventually won the race with Mario Andretti behind the wheel.
A local entry, the extremely quick Kojima KE007, as driven by Masahiro Hasemi to 11th place in '76 also made an appearance, accompanied by a handful of F1 cars – including the rather unlucky Maki F101 from that similar period just for a bit of fun. While getting comfortable on the couch and firing up a copy of Rush certainly gives you a good appreciation for these machines, to see and hear them fire up in the pits a few feet away and burst out onto the front straight at full noise is an entirely different dimensional experience.
As far as motorsport events go, Fuji Wonderland Fes is perhaps the most accurately named of all time. Perhaps, if you grew up in Europe and were fed a steady diet of Ferrari, BMW and Jaguar, you might be asking; “so, what’s the big deal”? But for enthusiasts and self-proclaimed geeks like myself, born of the eighties, raised in the nineties and educated via a healthy syllabus of Gran Turismo, The Fast and The Furious and bad copies of old Option videos found on Limewire and Kazaa, a wonderland “fes” this truly was.
WORDS by Peter Kelly.
PHOTOS by Kimio Ng.