It may be tiny and it rarely hosts major circuit championships these days, but Japan's Tsukuba is one of the most recognised circuits in Japan thanks being immortalised in countless video games. Known for being the home of time attack, Tsukuba is in fact these days two courses which enjoy year round popularity.
Tsukuba is one of the few Japanese circuits located in a metropolitan area, close to Tokyo, which has likely been key to its success and longevity. While one of the shortest tracks in the country, it has a seemingly endless stream of car enthusiasts on its doorstep, all keen for somewhere to show off their machinery.
The track was conceived in 1966, though it took several years to be ready for racing, finally opening in June 1970. The 1.271-mile course is U shaped, folding back on itself through a variety of hairpins and medium speed bends, with a final (seemingly never-ending) fast curve leading back to the start/finish. It is also billiard table smooth. Initially, the course had an even shorter variant, which cut out the final hairpin but this fell out of use in 1990 when a new chicane was added at the same spot for use by motorcycle racers only.
In its heyday the circuit hosted rounds of the All-Japan F3 Championship as well as the Japanese Touring Car series, both hugely popular events. Both series eventually moved on elsewhere, but on two wheels, it continues to host the All Japan Road Race Championship, better known these days as a heavily manufacturer-backed superbike series.
It was the sport of time attack which ensured Tsukuba's enduring popularity. Japan's car tuners began using the circuit to test their modifications almost from its outset and soon obtaining the fastest lap around the course became a badge of honour. Time attack competitions began being organised in the mid-1990s and Tsukuba became its holy temple.
In 2001, a second circuit was built alongside the main course, when the former mini-bikes circuit was completely renovated. The new course is used for a variety of events including driver training and also some club racing events. Known as 1000 course (after its 1km length), its opening caused the original circuit to be renamed the 2000 course to differentiate it.
The advent of video games like Gran Turismo, where time attack modes were a staple, meant that Tsukuba became widely known to an audience who almost certainly would never set a foot in the real circuit, let alone drive a lap in anger! Accordingly, Tsukuba has achieved near-mythical status and, despite now largely abandoned by major car and bike competitions, is as busy as ever and seems to have a long future ahead of it.
Fuji Speedway began life in unusual circumstances, when plans for a NASCAR-style oval set in the foothills of the famous mountain were put forward in the early 1960s. With Honda's Suzuka test track already established, the new facility would also provide the other manufacturers of the burgeoning Japanese motor industry another track to test their two and four wheeled machinery.
Despite being as far removed from the Deep South as it could possibly be, the plans had serious intent, with the formation of the Japan NASCAR Corporation in 1963. An exclusive contract to host the stock cars in the Far East was also secured.
By June 1964, a 1.5 million square metre site had been identified and bought, with construction beginning almost immediately. The design took its inspiration from the Daytona Speedway and was to feature two long straights connected by banked corners. The first of these banked corners was well under way when a visiting Stirling Moss, invited by the Japanese to view progress, told circuit bosses that he thought it was unrealistic to complete an oval circuit in such mountainous terrain and had some reservations about the design to date.
History doesn't record whether this was a decisive intervention; with construction costs mounting, there wasn't enough money to complete the second banking even if they had been determined to do so. Plans were revised and the circuit completed as a road course, overlooked by a giant grandstand on the long main straight. The change in plans forced an abandonment of the NASCAR contract, although the Speedway name remained. In October 1965, the Mitsubishi company acquired a controlling interest in the project.
Despite now being a more conventional road course, the original Fuji was still fearsomely fast. The almost mile-long straight lead onto the banking in a clockwise direction. Unusually, the cars rose over the crest of a hill before dropping down into the banked right hand corner. Only a layer of armco barrier at the top prevented complete disaster – and often didn't.
The circuit opened in December 1965, though racing did not get under way until the following year. Among the first international stars to sample the course was Jim Clark, who was flown in to take part in a Formula Three race. The American connections remained, despite the loss of NASCAR, in the shape of the USAC Indycars, which held the Fuji 200 exhibition race in October 1966. Jackie Stewart took victory ahead of Bobby Unser. Can-Am also visited in 1968, choosing to run the course in an anti-clockwise direction, possibly to alleviate the dangers of the high-speed entry onto the banking.
Unlike many other international top-level tracks Fuji has always encouraged the sport of drifting, allowing the D1 series to run one or two rounds there each season. Furthermore Fuji Speedway also offers a small separate drift track inside its grounds as well as a smaller "Short track" which is used for track day events and driving courses.
As well as national-championship events, Fuji also hosts the popular Nismo Festival and Toyota Motorsport Festival and the circuit is available for enthusiasts to lap when no racing or testing events are being held.