Akinori Ogata
(Photo: Logan Riely/Getty Images)

From Japan to America: Akinori Ogata seeing hard work pay off with victories

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.

Almost two decades of hard work and determination to reach that goal is finally paying off for Ogata, who tallied his first three victories on American soil this year at Hickory Motor Speedway.

For Ogata, getting that elusive first win back on Apr. 9 could not have come at a more perfect location with Hickory having a storied 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 that Akinori Ogata is a good driver.”

RACING REFERENCE: Ogata’s career statistics

Akinori Ogata
Akinori Ogata walks the grid prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Go Bowling 250 at Richmond Raceway on Sept. 11, 2021. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

There were many days when Ogata wondered whether his leap of faith into NASCAR would ever 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 said. “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.”

Ogata admitted 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 in 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 with him occasionally branching out into the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World 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 during his tenure and has been overjoyed by the amount of success the veteran has experienced in 2022.

“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 happy to see him finally fulfill this opportunity.”

Piercy added that Ogata’s consistency reinforces the idea of Hickory as a track where anybody can win regardless of nationality or skin color. Rajah Caruth joined Chris Bristol as a Black winner at Hickory last year, while Annabeth Barnes-Crum, Gracie Trotter, Katie Hettinger and Kate Dallenbach are among the women who have found Victory Lane throughout the track’s storied history.

What Piercy enjoyed the most about seeing Ogata add to that legacy was how popular the win was not only amongst his fellow competitors, but also the local fanbase that had watched him grind over the past several years.

As Ogata continues to add wins in Hickory’s Limited Late Model division, Piercy hopes the driver’s dedication will allow him to contend for a Late Model Stock championship within the next few years.

“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.”

Akinori Ogata
Akinori Ogata pictured during East Series competition at Georgia’s Gresham Motorsports Park on June 9, 2012. (Photo: Kevin Liles)

The confidence Ogata had from Hickory gave him extra motivation heading into first Truck Series start of the year at Darlington Raceway, where he drove a Mike Skinner tribute scheme for Reaume Brothers Racing.

Unfortunately for Ogata, he struggled to find speed with his truck in qualifying and found himself out of the race before the halfway point after a collision with teammate and owner Josh Reaume just eight laps into the event.

“[Darlington] was a tough weekend,” Ogata said. “I was disappointed, because I felt I had momentum from the Late Models and thought I was in for a good race. We started slow and then we got into Josh on the track, so it was frustrating.”

Despite the rough outing at Darlington, Ogata is still dreaming big on his racing aspirations in the United States even as he continues to deal with challenges on and off the track.

Staying in touch with his wife Eniko and two children in Ken and Ryo has been difficult since they now reside in Japan again, but he knows they are supporting his journey and is eager to celebrate his on-track success with them.

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.

“Now that I have three wins, I want to try and win the [Limited Late Model] championship at Hickory,” Ogata said. “I also want to keep moving up through NASCAR, but my goal is to keep having great performances wherever I race.”

Ogata 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 almost two decades.