This weekend, the IZOD IndyCar Series makes its second and final trip outside of North America for the 2010 season. Teams have loaded their equipment up in crates for shipment to Japan, where they will run at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in the Indy Japan 300, the series' penultimate race.
Motegi was built during a much different time for American open-wheel racing. Engine supplier Honda built it in 1997 as a way to attract the powerhouse CART series to learn more about their cars. It features two tracks: the only purpose-built superspeedway oval in all of Japan, and a road course built through and around the oval. The oval most closely resembles American track Darlington Raceway, as one of its corners is pushed in tighter than the others.
Though their entry into CART with Bobby Rahal in 1994 had proven unsuccessful, Honda were a championship-winning manufacturer by their third season, winning the 1996 championship with Jimmy Vasser and Chip Ganassi Racing. The success of Honda, as well as the entry of Japanese competitor Toyota, generated interest in a Japanese race for the CART series.
The first race at Motegi was held on March 28, 1998, between events at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Honda driver Vasser took pole for the inaugural event, but Adrian Fernandez won in a Patrick Racing Reynard-Ford. Fernandez also took the victory in 1999.
For 2000, the race was moved to the middle of May, conflicting with the IRL and Indianapolis 500 time trials. Michael Andretti won the event that year, in his final season with longtime owners Newman/Haas Racing. The next season, ex-IRL champion Kenny Brack won the race driving for Team Rahal. This meant that the first four Japanese CART events were all taken by drivers in Fords.
2002 would prove no better. Bruno Junqueira won the race driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, but by this time the ex-Honda powerhouse had switched to rival Toyota power. The top Honda in the race, driven by Dario Franchitti, finished one lap down in third. A bright spot of the weekend was the strength of Tony Kanaan, whose Mo Nunn Racing Honda sat on the outside pole and led 72 laps, more than any other driver did in the race. Kanaan finished 15th, however, as his engine gave out after 121 laps.
2003 marked the debut of the Motegi event as an IndyCar event, switching allegiances as Honda left CART to join the less expensive IRL and once again compete in the Indianapolis 500. Toyota had Honda's number for much of the season; while Honda driver Gil de Ferran won the Indianapolis 500 with Team Penske, Toyota won the series title with Scott Dixon, and the Indy Japan 300 with Scott Sharp.
It would take seven years for a Honda to finally win a Motegi event, as Dan Wheldon took the victory from the pole. Hondas prepared by Andretti Green Racing finished 1-2, as Kanaan took second in the event. Since this groundbreaking victory, Hondas have never failed to win the Indy Japan 300 (although many of the past few seasons have featured only Honda as the engine manufacturer).
In 2005, the last year of multiple engine manufacturers in the IRL, Hondas took the top six spots at Motegi, a banner day for the manufacturer. Up to that point, her fourth-place finish at Motegi in 2005 was the best of Danica Patrick's young career.
2006 and 2007 saw wins by Helio Castroneves and Kanaan, respectively; Kanaan's was marked by a conservative fuel strategy that allowed him to win the race by drafting other cars since the start and coasting to the win as others had to pit.
2008 marked the first year of open-wheel reunification, but scheduling issues meant that not everybody in the IndyCar Series would be running at Motegi. Instead, the former Champ Car World Series teams would be in Long Beach, contesting that series' final event and sending off their Panoz-Cosworth machines in style. The IndyCar mainstays would head to Japan and contest the race.
Once again, fuel strategy was the name of the game, and once again, an Andretti Green car would take victory. This time, however, it was Patrick, scoring the first win by a female driver in major professional open-wheel racing. It remains her only career race win to date.
Last year the event was moved to September, yielding to the longer-established Long Beach event. It was the first time the event had been held any later than May 19. Scott Dixon won from the pole, followed by teammate Dario Franchitti, the two Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing machines of Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia, and Mario Moraes of KV Racing Technology. That race marks the last appearance of Servia in an open-wheel racecar to date.
Motegi races have also featured a number of Japanese drivers (or drivers of Japanese heritage) in one-off deals. Last year, Kosuke Matsuura made his first IndyCar start since Chicagoland in 2007, finishing 17th for Conquest Racing. Meanwhile, Japanese-American Roger Yasukawa frequently puts together one-race deals to drive at Motegi. He finished 14th in 2008 for what is now Team 3G, and 20th last year in a third car for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. This year, he will take his talents to Conquest, alongside their lead driver, Bertrand Baguette.
This year's event will also feature the Motegi debut of another Japanese driver, KVRT's Takuma Sato. Sato spent the majority of eight seasons in Formula 1, all in cars powered by Honda. Sato will have a different spotter for the event, however, as Yasukawa has been serving as Sato's eye in the sky for the majority of the season while working on race deals.