Early history of car racing in Japan

Early history of car racing in Japan

History of Japan’s Auto Racing



1937  Tamagawa Speedway.  Japan’s first permanent auto racing circuit.


Automobile racing, or motor racing has been around almost since the beginning.  As soon as the gasoline fueled internal combustion engine was invented in the 1880’s, racing was born and cropped up all over the world.  Racing is a professional and amateur automobile sport that takes place on tracks, closed circuits and open roads.  Much of today’s generation has gotten the racing itch after watching blockbuster movies like the “Fast and the Furious” movies that glorify racing and the subculture that surrounds it.  What these kids don’t realize is that racing has been around forever.  Whether you watch or participate in karting, drag racing, stock-car racing, sports-car racing or even the Grand Prix, it all came from the same humble beginnings. 


The first organized automibile competition took place in 1894 and went from Paris France to Rouen France which was a distance of about 50 miles and the racers topped out at a speed of 10.2 miles per hour.  That’s all it took- people were hooked and the racing fever spread.  First through Europe, then through America and finally it made it’s way to Asia.


Japan has had auto racing since the 1920’s.  Because there were no built courses at the time, temporary sites like horse racing tracks, empty lots, and sleepy streets were used to race.  Eventually, there were built out sites that started to dot the country.  The idea of building a permanent track for racing was the brainchild of a Japanese auto fanatic that had been raised in Seattle but returned to Japan in the 1920’s  his name was Gunji Fujimoto.  He was determined to see his idea executed so he went around petitioning newspapers, railways’s and land developers to establish a federation to run the speedway and maintain it.  He was successful and one of their most historical racing sites was born; the Tamagawas speedway that sits right outside of Tokyo. It was open May of 1936 and ran the countries hottest races until the world-famous Suzuka Circuit opened twenty six years later.  The first race in 1936 had just 24 cars that were driven by regular guys that simply had a love for cars and adrenaline. 


Most don’t know that the world-renowned car company Honda (which was started by Soichiro Honda) got it’s early start on the Tamagawa Speedway. 

The founder of Honda Motor Co. Ltd., crashes during the first four-wheel competition held at Tamagawa Speedway in 1936.


Honda history buffs can attest that it was racing at the speedway that gave Honda the burning desire to make better automobiles.  The speedway was absolutely the starting point of Honda’s long standing presence in F1 racing and motorcycle racing. 


So much has changed in the 82 years since it opened.  The speedway has drifted into obscurity.  It hosted only 6 events before it was closed in 1938 because of the second Sino-Japanes war that took the attention, resources and time of the racers who were headed to war and the area became a potato field to try to feed the hungry masses during the war-era food scarcity cycles. Most people don’t even know the speedway existed, but for those that know- they still consider this speedway to be the roots of the country’s prolific automobile industry and motor racing.   It was memorialized for it’s 80th birthday and if you go visit the site now, you may find the white memorial plaque that was hung and the concrete seats that still remain as a haunting reminder of racing in days gone by. 


Drifting was most definitely made popular by the “Fast and the Furious” franchise.  It started as an illegal activity done in the darkness of night by those who lived on the fringes of society, but it has become a globally recognized sport that is done by professionals.  This change has occurred in the last 30 years.  Most people don’t understand the origins of the sport and a lot of misconceptions and misinformation is given.  The sport has a lot more to do with the traditional motor sport that became popular during the 1920’s vs. the large spoilers, over-acting, and big neon painted cars like Hollywood portrays. 


The practice of sideways driving has always been around.  It started at the same time that regular racing did.  The origins of drifting seem to be always attributed to Keiichi Tsuchiya who was known as the “Drift King” and set the foundation for drifting as we know it today.  He was a big racer during the 1980’s that was able to master the art of drifting. 

Kunimitsu Takahashi before he switched to cars

Drifing may have been mastered by the “Drift King” in the 80’s but it actually got its start much earlier in Japan.  Kunimitsu Takahashi was a race car driver who started professionally racing motorcycles.  He was the first winner of the motorcycle Grand Prix from Japan in 1961.  He sustained a terribly injury in 1962 and so we switched to cars in 1965 and raced cars for the rest of his career.  His driving style caught the attention of Japanese street racers in the 1970’s and alas, the sport of drifting was born.


Well known NASCAR and stock car racing both got their start from what started as illegal activities and drifting is no different.  Japanese street racers illegally raced the roads in a bid to see who could set the fastest times.  The drift style of racing started because they were racing up very windy mountain roads and needed to figure out how to maintain a fast speed while making sharp turns.  Drifting was born and to this day, drifting remains…though in most places it’s not quite the taboo, illegal activity that it once was.

Auto racing hasn’t been without it’s fair share of controversy.  It’s still a gambling sport and still dangerous and not without significant inherent risk to the drivers and sometimes spectators as cars have been known to lose control and end up in spectators laps.  Flat dirt surfaces have been banned by the governemnt and other authorities because they have been deemed too dangerous.

Another interesting little tid bit is that even today- because of the gambling that accompanies the sport, prior to race day the riders are required to shack up together in a dormitory to avoid the outside world.  Sometimes there are over 500 riders residing in the same place and they are all prohibited from contacting or speaking to the outside world.  This is done to try and prevent race-fixing which historically has been a scandelous blemish on the sport that originated from the early days of racing.  The motorcycle federation actually took over the sport in 1967 to try and clean up it’s reputation and win back the loyal spectators that had dwindled due to the race fixing.  Since that time, the sport has developed into a beast that is pretty exclusive to Japan in regards to the form and execution.  Other countries have jumped on the band-wagon and have come close to replication, but nothing is quite like the original Japanese form of auto racing.

The sport has evolved for sure.  What started as a bunch of normal people who had a love of cars has evolved into professionals that are officially trained in training schools and have to pass a qualifying examinations before being allowed to become competative riders (at least for motorcycles).  It’s clear that the sport isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  It will continue to evolve and change so that generations of people in days coming will be able to fall in love with the sport like so many that came before them. 


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