Akinori Ogata arrived in the United States from his home country of Japan in 2003 with the goal of becoming a successful NASCAR driver.
Despite knowing little about American culture at the time, Ogata had always been fascinated by the vibrant atmosphere of NASCAR. He wanted to add his name to a long and prestigious list of winners in the sport that included Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and many more.
Nearly two decades of hard work and determination to reach that goal finally paid off for Ogata on Saturday at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he picked up a cathartic victory — his first on American soil — in the track’s Limited Late Model division.
FLORACING: Weekend Late Model highlights from Hickory
For Ogata, the pivotal milestone could not have come at a more perfect location with Hickory holding its reputation as The Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars.
“Hickory has such a great history behind it,” Ogata told NASCAR.com. “So many drivers started their own careers there. I’m a Japanese driver, but I want to be like the American racers. If I want to race in the Cup Series one day, I need to win at the local tracks so people know Akinori Ogata is a good driver.”
We made it to win in the race tonight @hickoryspeedway
I believe that you never seen Japanese racecar driver had a win in the American Stock Car Racing Series. Definitely today is special moment. Thanks for all of my sponsors and your support🏁#NASCAR @NASCARRoots @NASCAR pic.twitter.com/xCCO7h3zeR
— Akinori Ogata (@AkinoriOgata) April 10, 2022
There were many days when Ogata wondered whether his leap of faith into NASCAR would work out.
Back in Japan, Ogata had established himself as a solid driver in multiple forms of motorsports. He claimed 30 victories as a motocross rider and even visited Victory Lane at Twin Ring Motegi driving a dirt Midget back in 2007.
Transitioning to full-time auto racing in the United States served as a clean slate for Ogata. He had to get acclimated with competing inside a full-bodied stock car all while trying to build relationships in the industry with a limited understanding of the English language.
Those challenges for Ogata were only compounded when he moved his family to Mooresville, North Carolina, back in 2010 so he could devote more time and energy toward getting comfortable with NASCAR.
“Moving to North Carolina was hard, because we honestly didn’t know anybody here,” Ogata recalled. “I could not speak any English, and it was difficult to understand what other people were saying. My English is much better now, but it was so hard when we first moved here.”
RACING REFERENCE: Ogata’s career NASCAR stats
Ogata admitted that adjusting to racing in the United States would have been more difficult without the assistance of people like Billy Larrimore, who was his first crew chief when he started racing at Concord Speedway in 2003, as well as his current crew chief Zach McDaniels.
Being able to regularly compete at Hickory has also helped Ogata find a comfort zone in becoming a staple of the track’s Saturday night festivities, even as he occasionally branches out into the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series, as well as the ARCA Menards Series East.
Hickory track operator Kevin Piercy has seen Ogata come close to winning on so many occasions and was thrilled to finally see the driver take home a checkered flag of his own.
“Akinori is a very respectful driver to his competitors,” Piercy said. “He will race you hard but clean, and I think he has a lot of grit. Akinori is a tough customer who digs in week in and week out, so I was really happy to see him finally fulfill this opportunity.”
Piercy added that the Japanese driver’s victory Saturday reinforced Hickory’s history of producing diverse winners. Last year, current ARCA Menards Series driver Rajah Caruth joined Chris Bristol as a Black winner at the track. Annabeth Barnes-Crum, Gracie Trotter, Katie Hettinger and Kate Dallenbach are among the women drivers to find Victory Lane throughout Hickory’s storied history.
Yet what Piercy enjoyed the most about seeing Ogata add to that legacy was how popular the win was amongst not only his fellow competitors, but also the local fanbase that had watched him grind over the years.
The crowd response even surprised Ogata himself.
“It was so great and emotional to see American people cheering for me,” Ogata allowed. “I never imagined people would cheer for a Japanese driver, so that was such a great moment to have those people celebrate with me at the track.”
Piercy added that Ogata more than deserved the positive response from drivers and fans because of his dedication and hopes to see him remain a focal point of Hickory’s culture by one day contending for a track championship.
“I would love to see Akinori have an opportunity to move up to Late Models,” Piercy said. “He needs a genuine chance to win a NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series championship. It would be a great honor for him to go to the banquet and accept that trophy.”
Ogata has no intention of slowing down the momentum from Hickory even as he continues to deal with challenges on and off the track.
Staying in touch with his wife Eniko and two children Ken and Ryo has been difficult, as they now reside in Japan again, but he knows they are supporting his journey. He is eager to celebrate his first win with the family soon.
With his program making significant strides, Ogata is confident that he and his family will have plenty more to cheer about once the 2022 season ends.
“The car feels good, and the driver feels good,” Ogata said. “Everyone on the team is working very hard on the car, so I definitely believe we’re going to win more races at Hickory in the future.”
Outside of Hickory, Ogata is still dreaming big about what he wants to do with his NASCAR career. He still plans to make his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series sooner rather than later and is hoping to at least have an opportunity to race in the Daytona 500 before he eventually decides to retire.
As someone used to overcoming adversity, Ogata remains determined to pursue that Cup Series ride and keep alive a dream that has been ongoing for nearly two decades.