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NASCAR's connections to Japan tragedies felt on both sides of the Pacific

March 17, 2011, Rick Houston, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Rusty Wallace celebrates after winning the Thunder Special 100 at the Suzuka Circuit in November 1996. (Getty Images)

NASCAR's connections to Japan tragedies felt on both sides of the Pacific

Rusty Wallace will never forget the sack of cash he scored after winning the 1996 Suzuka Thunder Special, the first of three NASCAR exhibition races held in Japan during the late 1990s.

In Victory Lane that afternoon, Wallace was given the choice of how he wanted his $130,940 in winnings. He could have a check or cash; of course, he took the cash. There was only one small problem -- the bills were Japanese yen, not American dollars, and they came in a large paper bag. A rather stunned Wallace handed the money over to Don Miller, who ran Penske Racing's NASCAR program at the time, to let him worry about it as he made the day-long trip back to the United States.

"It is a big, terrible disaster beyond the imagination. Restoration will take considerable time."

--HIDEO FUKUYAMA

Any other time, the tale might be humorous. Not now. Nothing whatsoever seems funny about the things Japan has experienced in the past week. A ferocious earthquake, striking March 11 at a magnitude of 9.0, was the fourth-largest ever recorded. That, in turn, trigged a tsunami so powerful that it obliterated entire villages. Strong remnants made it all the way to the West Coast of the United States, thousands of miles away. And maybe worst of all, the world fears a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant damaged in the quake.

What else does Wallace -- and virtually everyone else in NASCAR with a connection to the country -- remember about Japan? The friendliness of its people, that's what. Recent reports out of the ravaged country say that there has been no looting in the disaster's aftermath. How could this possibly have happened to a people such as this?

There are no answers to that and so many other questions, with death tolls already at about 3,000 and some 20,000 still missing.

"The thing that stood out to me the whole time ... these people are so damn nice, it's unreal," Wallace said. "They're so kind and gracious, always wanting to help you. That's the thing I remembered. I'll never forget winning the race, coming home and going, 'Wow. That was a neat experience because of the kindness of everybody.'

"They were always wanting autographs. They were always smiling, and everybody was always happy. That's the thing that was so refreshing when I was there."

Despite the widespread damage in its home country, the events of the past week aren't expected to impact Toyota's presence in NASCAR. There's no way of knowing what tomorrow might bring, but at the moment, that's the plan. Well before the manufacturer's entry into NASCAR, the sport and the country had shared a connection.

Tiny Lund once won a race there, as did Wallace in 1996 and Mike Skinner in both 1997 and '98. Suzuka Circuit, site of Japan's first two NASCAR exhibitions, is some 420 miles southwest of the failing nuclear plant. Twin Ring Motegi, however, is just 97 miles or so away. Reports are that the facility received no significant damage, but its April 24 MotoGP motorcycle event already has been postponed until Oct. 2.

Hideo Fukuyama competed in all three NASCAR showcases in his native country, with a best finish of 17th in 1998 at Twin Ring Motegi. He then came to the United States to try his hand at the Cup Series level, and wound up qualifying for a total of four events for car owner Travis Carter -- two in 2002 and another couple the following season. His best finish was a 33rd at Las Vegas in 2003.

Signing his autographs in Japan as "Smokin' Joe" in deference to Carter's R.J. Reynolds Co. sponsorship, Fukuyama was a popular figure in the garage on both sides of the Pacific. Today, he lives in Suzuka, and came through the disaster feeling only "a little" of the quake's immense force.

"It is a big, terrible disaster beyond the imagination," Fukuyama said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Restoration will take considerable time."

"I got over 100 e-mails and personal messages from U.S. friends and NASCAR people. I really appreciate people that said they're praying for my family and also my country. "

--SHIGE HATTORI


_______________________

"I think Japan needs all the help they can get right now, whether it's donations or mental support. It's going to be years, mentally and financially. "

--CHARLES CHEN

Kindred spirits

Fukuyama wasn't the only person with deeply seated NASCAR connections to have experienced at least some of the disaster first-hand.

Shige -- pronounced "shiggy" -- Hattori ran 10 races in what is now the Truck Series during the 2005 season, and he also made several starts on the CART, IndyCar and Indy Lights tours. Although he now lives in Mooresville, N.C., the city of Okayama in the southern part of Japan is home. He has fielded K&N East Series and ARCA entries for drivers Miguel Paludo and Sean Caisse in the past few years, and was actually in Nagoya, Japan for meetings with his sponsors when the quake hit at 2:46 p.m. local time.

"We felt something moving," Hattori said. "We didn't know then there had been a huge earthquake in the north of Japan. They brought me to the train station, and I tried to go back to Tokyo. But all the trains were closed down."

Two of Hattori's children are university students in Tokyo, and instead of an ordinary 20-minute train ride home, they had to walk and finally made it home at 2 a.m. There continue to be strong aftershocks, mandated power blackouts and of course, concern over the situation at the nuclear facility about 150 miles to the north.

He has lost friends and others are missing. Quakes are not uncommon in Japan, and one that measured at a magnitude of 6.8 in January 1995 killed approximately 6,434, including about 4,600 alone from the city of Kobe. The most recent seismic event, however, was much stronger.

"Japan has had many problems, political, etc.," Shattori said in a text message. "But we have a terrible disaster now, and I'm seeing both good and bad things -- poor politics and strong people. The quake brought chaos to the country, but people are thinking about other people, even the victims of the tsunami. They have lost families and many friends, but are still thinking of other people and helping.

"I have found out some things. Nothing is more powerful than nature, and this country is still OK."

During a 20-minute interview, the one time Hattori's voice seemed to perk up was when he discussed his time in NASCAR.

"It was great," said Hattori, who also made the field for the Indianapolis 500 in 2002 and '03. "I love NASCAR a lot. I got over 100 e-mails and personal messages from U.S. friends and NASCAR people. I really appreciate people that said they're praying for my family and also my country. I really appreciate those friends and NASCAR people."

Such was that love for stock-car racing that he started his own team. The past few terrible days has thrown his plans for 2011 into disarray. He's still in Japan, and may not return until next week.

"This last week, everything has changed," he concluded. "Some of my sponsors, the quake has damaged their office. Also, one of our big sponsors, over 10 of their employees lost their homes to the tsunami. I don't know for this year. Hopefully, we'll be able to do something for ARCA and K&N this year, too."

Charles Chen owns the Tokyo-based Speed of Japan, a marketing and management firm for several of the country's motorcycle, endurance and IndyCar competitors. He was meeting with a client when they felt a tremor, which when it began, seemed to be no big deal. Yet at a magnitude of 5-plus, it was big enough.

Everyone, Chen said, took to the streets. Damage during the Kobe quake in 1995 was severe, but limited to a relatively confined place. This time, though, the piggy-backed disasters have had a much wider sphere of influence.

There remains in place a three-hour blackout every day to conserve energy. For a city that relies heavily on the mode of transportation, train service also has been cut in half. Many gas stations are out of gas, and those that do are limiting purchases to maybe three gallons. Those are minor inconveniences, however, compared to the crisis growing almost hourly at the nuclear plant.

"We are all devastated," Chen said Tuesday night. "I'm sure you're aware of the nuclear power plant problem. People don't know what to do. I keep telling people with the resources I have -- Facebook, Twitter and our blogs -- people shouldn't panic. There are a lot of bogus e-mails going around, so people don't know what to believe."

Chen says life will someday return to normal in his country, but adds that it's going to take a very long time.

"I was in the office [Monday], and we're located in central Tokyo," Chen continued. "The streets were like a ghost town. Not many people were out walking. A lot of shops and a lot of offices were closed. People are scared that things will run out if another earthquake hits. We've had a couple of big aftershocks, so people are scared. A lot of my friends from overseas -- American friends, European friends -- are heading back to their countries. Nothing is normal here right now.

"Literally, the east coast of the north part of Japan is damaged. It's not like a couple of buildings fell. Because of the tsunami, there are whole villages gone. It's gonna take time, and it's going to be a very slow and probably a painful experience to rebuild this whole thing. I think Japan needs all the help they can get right now, whether it's donations or mental support. It's going to be years, mentally and financially."

How can citizens of other countries help? The Red Cross has raised more than $1 million to date, and Japanese SuperGT and Formula Nippon champion Juichi Wakisaka has started a relief cause.

"I think the most important way is to let the Japanese people that you are all behind us," Chen concluded. "We are all grateful to hear to about the relief forces coming from all over the word, and for messages on Facebook and Twitter. No. 2 is that the disaster area is still lacking a lot of food, a lot of medication, a lot of daily stuff. The Japanese government, as well as a lot of non-profit organizations, are starting up relief funds, and if the American people can donate to those funds, it will help."

Michael Waltrip poses with his young fan. (Courtesy Michael Waltrip)

Back in the states

Joe Gibbs Racing is without a doubt Toyota's flagship operation, with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano in its stable of hot-shot drivers. J.D. Gibbs, president of the organization, says the manufacturer's presence in NASCAR more than likely won't be impacted by the disasters.

"Obviously, it's just a huge issue you're dealing with, across the board," Gibbs said. "Having people you work with and that you know overseas, it was scary. For a while, we didn't know anything. From Toyota's standpoint, none of their operations suffered any serious damage. But a lot of people around there [have been affected] and now dealing with the nuclear issues, there's just a lot of concern. They're just seeking all the thoughts and prayers they can get. They really appreciate it.

"As far as the racing part here, while it's not on the front burner, it's obviously a concern to what we do here. The NASCAR operations are here in Charlotte, and they're in Costa Mesa, Calif. [home of Toyota Racing Development]. I think because the [Japanese] plants didn't have any serious damage, I don't think there will be much of an impact from that. But there's no issue on the NASCAR side ... I'm not concerned about that. Right now, we're just thinking and praying for everyone in Japan as they try to put the pieces back together."

The faith of the Gibbs family has been well-documented, but when it comes to something like what's happened in Japan, it's nevertheless hard to put into perspective.

"For me personally, it's heartbreaking when you see it," Gibbs said. "Then, when you know people that are over there going through it, that makes it difficult. Going through any kind of natural disaster is difficult. From our standpoint, all you can do is just pray."

Michael Waltrip is another well-known Toyota team owner, fielding teams for Martin Truex Jr., David Reutimann and a part-time effort for himself. This past November, Waltrip made a week-long trip to Japan for a Toyota Motorsports event. He won't soon forget the reception he felt from the Japanese people.

"I'm a little bit bigger than most people over there," said Waltrip, who also raced in all three of NASCAR's Japan exhibitions in the late '90s. "So I probably stick out and look a little bit like I'm lost. But it enabled me to always get a smile and a bit of direction if we could somehow come to communicate. I'm a huge race fan. It's what I've done my whole life. I just love sharing what I do with others."

The line for autographs was a very long one, and Waltrip will never forget one youngster in particular.

"There was a little Japanese boy in a NAPA Auto Parts/Michael Waltrip uniform," Waltrip said. "He was probably 5 years old, and he was in his little driver's uniform. I saw him, so I went and got my picture made with him. That's real flattering, considering the distance between them and us, that we make enough of an impression on them that they care enough to do something like that."

As for the calamities that have destroyed so much of the country, Waltrip says he has not considered what impact they might have on his business.

"Anyone with compassion for fellow human beings is hurting right now," Waltrip said. "I like to think that describes 99 percent of Americans. They care, and they want those folks to know that they're in our hearts. The reason why maybe it hits a little closer to home for me is because I feel like I know them. I feel like they're part of my family. That's the way they treat me, and that's the way I treat them. It's very sad.

"I haven't even thought about that. Human beings rally together, and we help each other. My concern is more about the well-being of the people, and not so much exactly what it's going to do to me. My family's safe, and I know where my daughters are. I just wish that for those people."

The cover of the official program for the 1996 Thunder Special.

The exhibition races

The journey to Japan for the exhibition races was a long one. Some boarded planes in Atlanta and didn't walk off until landing in Tokyo 14 hours later. Going to Suzuka, which included a layover, connection flight and bus ride to the motel at the track, the journey took every bit of a full 24 hours.

It was a tough haul, but no one will ever know if it in some way contributed to health problems suffered by two high-profile NASCAR participants. Elmo Langley -- a longtime independent driver, team owner and NASCAR's pace car driver at the time -- suffered a fatal heart attack prior to the 1996 event while giving former driver Buddy Baker a tour of Suzuka Circuit. The very next year, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. had a mild heart attack while in Japan for the race.

Those are bad memories, but there also were plenty of good ones for Wallace and Skinner. Wallace made two separate trips to Japan before the first exhibition race, primarily to drum up publicity. Then, once it came time to actually have at it on the track, there was the desire amongst competitors to earn bragging rights by being the very first to score a NASCAR checkered flag on foreign soil.

Everybody wanted to win it. Another Cup champion, amongst others, tried using a little strategy to do just that.

"When the race started, I started just running the hell out of my car," Wallace remembered. "I led and ran up front, and I kept watching Dale Earnhardt fading to the back. They were gonna take the top-10 cars and invert them for the second segment of the race. I watched him fading, trying to get in that position."

Suddenly, Wallace's car developed a brake problem and he, too, started dropping back. Just five laps after the Lap 50 restart, Wallace was back in the lead and he stayed there the rest of the way. Waltrip, during the days leading into that first race, was having a time getting adjusted to the culture. He tried ordering from a menu in one eatery, pointing to item number four and holding up the appropriate number of fingers.

He got the meal, all right. Four of them. His buddy Sterling Marlin tried another approach.

"Me and Sterling went to dinner one night," Waltrip began. Any story that begins that way is going to be a good one. "I had to explain to him, it didn't matter how many times he said something or how much louder he said it, they still didn't understand what the hell he was saying. He thought if he ordered a filet and they didn't get it the first time, if he just kept saying it, eventually it would sink in."

Skinner finished eighth in the inaugural exhibition, and like many others, would've given most anything for some familiar food while in the country. He came back to sweep the next two Japanese races. After the first, he stopped at the finish line and made a beeline for the grandstands.

"I pulled the steering wheel off the car, and I jumped up into the crowd," Skinner said. "They just ate it up, because a NASCAR driver wanted to be close to them and wanted them to celebrate a win with them. I just did it. It was just an emotion. I just was so happy that I jumped up into the crowd, was shaking hands, putting my arms around people and taking pictures with people."

The next year, Skinner got the royal treatment. Because of his success, Skinner would later joke that he wished NASCAR would race two or three times a year in Japan.

"When we went back, I was like a rock star over there. I felt like Jeff Gordon," Skinner admitted. "We were a big deal in Japan. It was kind of crazy, because we didn't really expect that and never really wanted to be a big deal. We were recognized everywhere we went. The people were so, so nice."

After the quake and its resulting devastation, Skinner is stuck for a way to help. Where do you even begin? Skinner has driven for Toyota ever since its entry into the Truck Series in 2004, so the personal connection is very real.

"I feel helpless," he concluded, expressing an emotion that's now all-too familiar to many around the globe. "It's been a huge emotional thing for us. Angie [his wife] and I have done a lot of praying for those people. In a way, they're my family. They're humans. It's devastating. What can I do? Whether you like [President] Obama or not, it really doesn't matter. He said when he talked to them, 'Hey ... whatever you need. Let us try to help you.' "

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