Standing in the parking lot of our friend's apartment, with time dwindling for us to do a first test ride on the bike we are supposed to race in the morning at Fuji International Speedway, we have just one question on our minds:
"Uh… Where's the key?"
Earlier that day, our friend Jason, from AFG Motorsports foolishly (?) handed us the keys to a 50th anniversary Honda Cub. Or so we thought. Luckily, it was a quick ride off the Air Force base to fetch keys from his shop.
That left only enough daylight to circumnavigate the parking lot in front of Chris's complex on the new 50 cc Cub and practice using its custom-built, three-speed rotary “race shifter.” Trying to get into third gear before the end of a 50-foot lot was, well, clunky. I tried to learn the race shift pattern — up-shifting is down-shifting and down-shifting felt damn near impossible, at least in motion. We rode around in circles and figure eights for 15 minutes, and then joked about how we’d return home from the race either covered in glitter or covered in blood. Only Chris's wife managed to take the Cub for a serious spin. The rest of us needed to hit the hay, ASAP. Wake-up call was at 5 a.m.
We were on the road by 6 a.m., a relatively late start, all things considered. But, that's just evidence of our general unpreparedness. Justin and Chris remained confident (in what I'm not sure). I, on the other hand, was mildly concerned that I would be more a hazard than help, and perhaps not much of a competitor. Nonetheless, I was pretty damn excited to be going racing in Japan!
Race day. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was the breakfast sandwich from 7-11. Most likely it was the five gallons of gasoline a few feet from my face in the van, but my stomach churned. We weren't far now, and it would be just a couple more hours before our “racing skills” would be put to the test. Was I ready? No. But there was no turning back now. We were 20,000 yen deep, and obligations to ourselves and our sponsors (read: generous friends) needed to be met.
An eager crowd of riders turned to us during the pre-race briefing and began to clap. Clearly, the coordinator announced over his microphone that “gaijins” were on the track, and they should keep an eye out. He made a joke, I think, because laughter and cheers followed. It was a great way to break the ice. Even if Justin, Chris and I had no idea what anyone was saying.
After what seemed to be a 20-minute speech on the rules, regulations and some basic instructions, we approached the whiteboard for a custom, “short and sweet” (literally three-minute) summary in broken English.
I kept thinking, "Thank God the guy who runs this race can translate for us!" Without him, we would have been lost. The maps, the rules, even our trophy (oh yes, we received a trophy!) were all written in characters we recognized as ”maybe a house?” “Is that a phone?” It was hopeless.
In regular Japanese fashion, we were aided by a number of smiling faces while prepping for the “Cub Cup,” known to everyone else as “Kabu Kappu!” Exclamation point: essential.
After free practice and qualifying, the race began with a “Le Mans” start. Justin zipped by half the racers fumbling to fire up their Cubs, but unfortunately our stock (unmodified per the rules), fuel-injected Honda couldn't keep up down the straightaway. The chicane saved us, and this dance went on throughout his turn — Justin passing folks on the curvy bits and becoming casually outdistanced by them on the straight.
Anxiously, I awaited my turn. The plan was to switch riders every 30 minutes during the three-hour endurance race. We settled on 20-minute intervals. Too much time in the pit with short sessions on the track dropped our rank. Which was hardly a concern.
“The damned foot pegs are too long!”
Every quick turn became a hazard as the rubber scraped or bounced off the ground. Chris nearly high-sided at one point, which would surely have created a pile-up. Buzzing and growling from approaching adversaries stirred up the butterflies in my stomach. These guys go for it like I’ve never seen! Bodies swung back and forth over seats as they dragged their knees through the apexes. Super Cubs, here, are handled like MotoGP racing bikes, and for some, the race was taken just as seriously. Save for us and one man in a plaid shirt and bubble visor hipster helmet, almost everyone was wearing one-piece racing leathers. In this competition, our ICON Raiden kit was worn with pride.
Crashes occurred within the first few laps, then the next few. That rhythm didn’t slow until the finish. No one was going to let a few accidents hinder their pace. Like hell if it cracks their determination. Naive to racing, I was amazed by their sheer willingness to overtake me — or anyone — lap after lap. Coming so close at times I could almost feel the tattered leather of their second-hand racing suits brush against my hips as they blew past. One guy bumped me forward with his bike, another rode next to Chris down the straight and patted his butt in encouragement. It was an intense challenge that we had once considered a little silly. More than that, it was one hell of a great time! Really, this was some of the most fun we’d had on motorbikes... ever.
Following the race, we were politely shuttled in front of the crowd without the slightest idea of what was happening. Someone handed me a beer (the cheap champagne was reserved for the top three finishers) to shake up and spray on anyone who got in its path... at least that’s what I told myself.
Despite averaging 49 seconds per lap during practice, we managed a blazing 46-second average in the endurance race. Cue the balloons and confetti! An accomplishment for which I was not much help, though I was applauded and congratulated, nonetheless. We weren't even last. We were second to last! Not too bad for a trio of first-timers.
Eighth place felt way better than you'd expect. There was no glitter, even less blood, but to our surprise, there was a trophy — the kind you'd expect for a day of racing that costs a $200 entry fee. And it was worth every penny!
We packed up Chris’ Honda Stepwgn (Google this), pounded some cold cans of coffee and said our goodbyes. It was an experience that maybe no one will care about except for us. Yet we’ll retell the story over and over until we have another opportunity to race for glory.
“Next time, seventh place!”
To which the race coordinator responded cordially, “Maybe… Or maybe more practice?”
Our celebration was held at a 7-11 parking lot about an hour outside of Tokyo. We reflected, rejoiced, then ate noodles and drank a beer.