Autopolis, Japan

All Japan Road Race Series

Kawasaki Media Tour
May 28, 2007

Words and Picture by Sam Quarelli Fleming

As part of the good will junket of Japan by Kawasaki the collective American journalist contingency was treated to two days at Kawasaki’s magnificent race track: Autopolis. The first day was a during the fourth of the seven round Japanese national race series. The second was a track day for interested journalists. 

Diligent readers of this paper were introduced to Autopolis in your correspondent’s review of the ZX-10 in December 2005. The geographic grandeur, utopian architecture and evocative macadam make Autopolis one of my three favorite race tracks in the world (the other two being Mugello in Italy’s Tuscany and Phillip Island in Australia’s Phillip Island). Autopolis is the legacy of hubris and exuberance of the Japanese economic bubble of the early 1990s. The construction of Autopolis is rumoured to have cost upwards of $300 million but the track and four star hotel on its premise never opened as the construction was completed just as the world’s investor did a collective “WTF?” at the valuations of Japanese stocks and real estate (at the time a single sky scraper in Tokyo was valued more than the entire stock exchange in Australia).

The tumbling asset prices (both securitized and un-securitized) created economic hardships from which the Japanese economy has yet to recover. Assuming 7% loans with a twenty year term the original owners would have been looking at payments of about $2,335,896…per month. That’s, roughly,$77,530 per day. Unable to find the 1,000 track day riders PER DAY that they would need to meet those notes the track went into default.

The track was largely abandoned for the next fifteen years. Kawasaki ended up buying it for a song (rumors say $10,000,000, they’d only need about 30 track day enthusiasts per day to pay that note) tore down the vacant hotel, painted the corner stations and started using it for testing and races.

My previous visit had been to a ghostly empty venue that seemed more like a study in neutron bomb after effects rather than the heady humanistic cocktail of adrenalin, fear and exhilaration that courses through the pits of an active track. Eighteen months later I am back on the rim of an extinct volcano surveying the vibrant pits filled with racers, families and enthusiast. Steeling myself against an insurmountable language barrier and armed with a VIP pass and my camera (finally) I delved into event.

Autopolis, (translate into greek?) before the hotel was razed in November 2005.

Autopolis sans hotel with a portion of the day’s 20,000 spectators. As real income has
dropped in Japan the attendance by both racers and fans has been slowly dropping at
the motorbike races.

The AJRR series is the only national roadrace series in Japan. The classes are all
actively contested and are as such: Superbike 1000s, ST-600s, GP 250, GP 125
and GP Mono. The 1000s are allowed reasonably comprehensive modifications
including cams, transmission, headwork, exhausts, suspension, frame bracing,
replacing the brakes, swingarm, wheels, suspension and ECU. The 600s are
basically superstock machines with optional ECUs, suspension and exhausts.
Bigger teams get to use the garages, smaller teams are in the next lane back.
Many teams were racing out of crowded van without so much as a three-rail
trailers. The transporters are small but the riders are fast.

Daigo Fukuoka (the last name is also the name of a city in Japan) in his Elf hat poses
with a competitor and his 250cc 4-stroke GP bike. I am sure if I spoke Japanese I could
have heard him espouse on the virtues of racing 
pure bred GP machinery which are easy
to work on and how the GP riders all stick together in the pits. These bikes use custom
frames housing modified versions of the 250cc four stroke single engines the big four
produce for dirtbikes. As a GP class the modifications seem to be pretty unrestricted
beyond four stroke single and displacement. These bikes are available in a ready to
race format from a variety of suppliers for about $10,000.

Top view of Fukuoka’s Kawasaki GP-mono bike with the carburetor removed for a re-jet. 
Dirt bike technology means old fashioned coil ignition (boo-hiss) but with huge sparred
frame and lightweight. This one is powered by a KX-250F motor fitted to a MARS original
frame. I believe the whole package is available from Miyawaki. It puts out about 39ps
and has a top speed of around 180 kph.or about 115 mph. These look like they would be
very fun to ride.

I am not sure if even a heavy breathing single needs a breather box quite as large as
this one but perhaps without an airbox it’s a good idea.

With a weight of only about 80 kg (176 lbs) a single four piston Brembo is fitted to the
front of most GP-Mono bikes.

The GP-Mono bikes are fitted with massive flat slide carbs.

The typical racer cookout in Japan features (from the back) a ricer maker, a tea maker
and an electric skillet.

I have no idea what the deal is with these little dolls but many of the big teams were
giving away little umbrella girl figurines in the pits.

This is pretty existentialist if you stop to think about it. Even winning multiple 
championships and winning the love of his high school sweetheart will not end
his challenge. There will be no contentment in this young man’s life until the grave.
I salute you number 56.

This group, as far as I could tell, are in their early thirties and all rode their motorcycles
to the track for the races. At least one of the women was riding her own streetbike. One
of them is a journalist, another is a mechanic for automatic sushi machines, another works
for the municipal government and another works in a record store. They were mainly riding
naked 1000s. The entire exchange of information was conducted mainly through sign
language and smiling so really whatever you make up could be just as accurate as what
I wrote down.

Trick Star is a top ten 600 team. They ran two bikes in the race. This is their truck.

One of Trick Star’s 600s on the grid for the 600 race. In a tribute to efficiency Japanese
racers can purchase “White Body Machines”. This allows them to buy a bike straight from
the factory floor without any of the street equipment which would be summarily tossed
during the race preparation. The “White Body” bikes come with no lights, no registration
and no exhaust pipe. Kawasaki sells about ten to fifteen ZX-10s and about thirty ZX-6s
each year in this state. This saves racers a bit of money on the up front costs as well as
bypassing the regulations governing the sale of powerful motorcycles in Japan.

The women of Trick Star. Two are full-time, two are temps.

Tools are universal.

Every garage in Autopolis has a TV with the current running order and scoring
information. The top six positions are fixed while the rest of the display scrolls
through the results. On lap 13 of 16 a Yamaha runs in first (there is no way to
know that from this display) while the top Kawasaki runs in 6th. Naoko (number 99)
runs in 24.

A Trick Star mechanic relays timing and scoring to his rider.

Post race debrief.

After each race the pits were opened up spectator to talk through and take pictures
of the riders, the bikes and the models.

This is the generator for one of the big teams. I’ve seen guys show up to track days
in the US with more gear than some of these top Japanese Superbike teams had.
That said, Japan is a nation of about 150 million people (roughly half the size of the
US for those of you who have not been paying attention) so the fastest racers in
Japan are very fast.

Racer’s van for a top rider.

This is Naoko Takasugi. She is thirty years old and, although she has been racing for
ten years, she has only been riding 600s for four. Her 600cc bike will remain a mystery
because its manufacture did not drop $10,000 for my 
trip. She, however, is a total bad
ass. She weighs 88lbs and stands about five feet tall. She qualified in the middle of the
grid out of 40 entries and was turning consistent 2:00 lap times. For comparison the
fastest lap in the race was a 1:57, the fastest any of the US racer/journalists went the
next day (granted on stock bikes with only so-so tires) was in the 2:06 range.

Japan’s state religion was Shinto until 1945. This is a combination of state/emperor
worship combined with the appreciation of gods’ work in natural beauty or process.
The Emperor of Japan is a direct descendant of the religious leader who settled Japan
with his followers from the mainland and, until a formal renouncement of status in
1946, the emperor claimed to be a living god. This ancient religious practice influences
Japanese traditions of culture, art, architecture and community. Besides selfless
obedience to the state/emperor a central tenet of Shinto is the reverence and love
for natural artifacts. At Autopolis this philosophy manifests in appreciation of some
fine Japanese ass in black vinyl high heels.

Nassert-Beet is a Japanese manufacturer of what appears to be some very tasty
exhaust pipes and rear-sets. Although they mainly focuses their racing efforts on
the eight-hours of Suzuka they are running a few of the superbike rounds on
their ZX-10.

The Beet bike with a race KYB shock, some sort of trick linkage, folding shift lever
(endurance legacy), quick shifter, engine breather box (in front of shock) but a
conspicuously stock swingarm and pivot placement.

Beet racing gridded for the superbike race.

32 year-old Koji Nazaki expresses self-incrimination over the scuffed fairing of his ZX-10
superbike. Koji works as a test rider for Kawasaki based out of the testing department
located in Building 38 of the Akashi works. His co-workers help with the team hence the
name “Team 38”. His bike puts out 186ps, tops out at about 290 kph and weight 187 kgs
(dig the magnesium rims). His best finish to date is a 16th.

I don’t know who built it or what handling problem it was installed to cure (grip? bump steer?)
but this is a back of the grid superbike with a custom swingarm.

You have to really want to lower your swingarm pivot to hand build offsets and run an
undersized pivot axle.

Akira Yanagawa qualified 2nd and finished 2nd after leading the
race for about half distance and a long dual with two Suzukis.

Typically endurance racers are the most mechanically paranoid and
pessimistic. Apparently Akira’s mechanic used to endurance race since
he brought a spare shock and ECU out to the pre-grid.

Akira’s view of the start of the superbike race.

The Japanese take food very seriously. Being at the racetrack is no excuse to slum in
the cooking and eating departments.

Akira leads on lap three.

Valentino fan.

Running in fourth this rider made a desperate two position pass up the inside into turn one.
From 200 yards away it was clear he was not going to make it stick. He tagged the rear
wheel of one of the leading bikes and cart wheeled into the gravel trap.

Even the bike goes in the van to the track. The fold down rear seat bed should be
immediately adopted by Ford.

On the Monday following the races our press flack handlers had arranged for a track
day at Autopolis. Apparently this lead to some complicated cultural negotiations since
a ‘track day’ in Japan means hanging out at the track with your friends drinking beer
and smoking cigarettes. A track day in the US means riding pretty motorcycles around
in circles. Fortunately everyone was able to get the semantics worked out and we had
two ZX-6s, a detuned ZX-10 and a ZX-14 between a dozen or so of us for the day.

All alone at Autopolis; I don’t even want to know what this lap is costing.

A turret house at Kumamoto castle. It is a stretch to 
include a
picture of Kumamoto castle in this story 
because it 90 minutes
from the track and has nothing 
to do with Kawasaki or racing
but since it is unlikely 
that I will ever have the opportunity to
use this picture 
at a later date, here it is. Consider it a Shinto
of natural beauty and state power.




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