Japan Trip 2015 (Part 3)

Attending a Super GT race was meant to be one of the highlights of this trip, and it didn't disappoint. In fact, it turned out far better than we could have ever hoped and marked an unforgettable moment in our lives. As I said in Part 1, I had a few ideas in mind for making the trip as a whole special for Eric to show him how much help he'd been in my life. But the way everything came together was beyond anything we could have imagined.

Super GT Suzuka 1000km

It may have turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip, it didn't exactly get off to a good start. We thought we were supposed to transfer trains in a town called Kawarada. Turns out, we were wrong. We sat at that train stop - an empty platform in the middle of nowhere - for over an hour waiting for the next train to come through.

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We ventured away from the platform for a bit to see if there was anything to do to pass the time, but there was nothing close enough for comfort. We didn't want to go too far, lest we miss the train and waste another hour or more. So back we went to sit at the platform. Eventually the train did come, and eventually we did get to Suzuka Circuit.

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Super GT is a seriously amazing experience because there is so much for the fans to see and do. People can actually get up close to the cars, walk through the paddocks, and plenty of booths have interactive things for fans to try. Lexus, for example, had a car set up as something like a race car simulator so you could hear what it was like as if you were racing.

There are always plenty of cars on display - race cars, special edition production vehicles, and sometimes a car being used to commemorate something, like a bright yellow NSX people could write messages on. Eric, who owned an NSX for several years prior to selling it to buy an Aston Martin, did just that.

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Something found at most races are model-like women walking around with racing schwag like umbrellas and flags. They're called grid girls most places, but in Japan they're race queens. And for the fans, the queens rule supreme.

The race queens expect to be the center of attention, so it's often difficult to get pictures of the cars when they're on display in front of the team garages. It's actually quite annoying for those of us there for the cars.  I refused to take a picture of any race queens just on principle, but I did take a quick picture of a small idol group in race queen-inspired outfits performing near the entrance. Even they had guys crowded around for pictures.

In contrast, the cars on display in front of the circuit entrance get little attention. If you want to see some cars up close, it's your best bet. Just goes to show what the mobs of guys are really there to see.

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When the Stars Align

I made a point of getting Paddock Passes when we bought our Super GT tickets. I had wanted Garage Passes, but those were sold out before we got around to buying ours. I had a plan in mind, albeit a flimsy one, and the closer I could get to the teams, the better my chances of succeeding. Not getting Garage Passes was a setback, but that didn't stop me. 

Race teams stage their trucks in the paddock area, backed up to the rear of their respective garages. Between the trucks and garages is a walkway, and this is the path fans with Paddock Passes can stroll along to get an up-close look at the teams. It's a great behind-the-scenes view for fans, but it poses a bit of a problem for the teams. In order to get gear from a truck to a garage, crew members have to wait for a break in the crowd so they can get through.

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We followed the paddock pathway until we found the Goodsmile Racing garage. The team's mascot is a vocaloid called Hatsune Miku, and Eric is a huge fan of the character. When we got to Suzuka, we also found out that the team's car, a Mercedes SLS AMG GT3, was being driven by Nobuteru "NOB" Taniguchi - a driver both Eric and I had been watching for years in DVDs brought over to the USA from Japan long before internet video was a viable platform. We used to watch NOB compete in the D1 Grand Prix, JGTC (the predecessor to Super GT), and time attacks. And now we'd be seeing him in person racing at Suzuka.

I got the attention of one of the Goodsmile Racing crew members and told him we had traveled all the way from the United States and were hoping to get a closer look at the car. We were big fans of Miku and NOB, and seeing their car would be a huge treat. But it was for naught. He shook his head. Turns out, he didn't speak English and had no idea what we were saying.

But someone else in the garage did, and he came over and asked if he heard us correctly: that we'd traveled all the way to Japan just for a car race. I clarified that we were there for the race and also to see the Hatsune Miku concert in Tokyo the following week. Surprised to find American fans willing to travel so far for something so little-known outside of Japan, he let us into the garage and took us to see the car.

As Eric walked around the SLS, smiling at the Miku livery that adorned it, I stood to the side with our host and told him the rest of our story.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid a swath of destruction across the United States' Gulf coast. Eric lived outside of New Orleans and lost everything in that storm. The life he had worked so hard to have was washed away. He was left depressed, homeless, and alone. He slept on a friend's couch for a while, then found a job with FEMA. He moved around with them for a few years before settling in northern Virginia, where he built a new life for himself.

It was August 29th when we stood in that garage in Suzuka, and it was exactly ten years to the day since Katrina had devastated Eric's life.

I told our host that this trip was Eric's triumph. It was his way of showing that he'd beaten the storm. He lost everything, but rebuilt it all over the next ten years. I asked if Eric could get into the car. He obliged, opening the door and motioning for Eric to get in.

Eric looked at me, eyes lit up. I just smiled and said, "Well, get in."

He climbed into the car and put his hands on the steering wheel. Through the windshield he could see the Suzuka Circuit grand stands rising above the track's main straight. He stared through them, somewhere behind them. Somewhere in the past. This was his moment, sitting there in a race car driven by one of his favorite drivers, covered in the livery of his favorite character, in the team's garage at a race track in Japan. Never in our wildest dreams did we think this would happen.

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Taniguchi-san walked into the garage as we made our way toward the rear exit. Knowing we'd never have another chance like this, we got his attention and asked for a picture. He was happy to take one with us, but trying to chat with him got us nowhere. He didn't speak any English, but he excitedly nodded feigned understanding for the sake of an eager fan.

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Eric and I were both silent as we left the Goodsmile Racing garage and walked along the paddocks. We were each still registering everything that had just happened. Eventually I put my arm around his shoulder and said, "Happy ten years, buddy."

I never got the guy's name that let us into the garage. Eric later found him on a Goodsmile Racing webpage but looking for it now, I can't find it (even the Wayback Machine isn't coming up with anything). But Eric did get a picture of him while we chatted. If anyone knows him, please tell him thank you from the bottom of my heart for making the day so memorable.

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Nothing else could compare to those fifteen minutes with Goodsmile Racing, the rest of the weekend was still a great time. Of course for me there's always a mention of food, and trackside was no different. While not the best in Japan, the food at Suzuka Circuit was better than the standard grilled or fried American fare you'd find at a US race. On Saturday I had takoyaki.

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On Sunday, I opted for ramen. The vendor asked me what size I wanted, but I'd forgotten the Japanese word for "large" and found myself thinking in circles. I first thought grande, but that's Spanish. Then I almost said kabir, but that's Arabic. I kept drawing a blank, so I made an expanding motion with my hands and said sugoi. It's Japanese for "great" but he got the message. The vendor chuckled and proudly declared "sugoi-desu" ("this is great") while presenting me with a piping-hot bowl of ramen.

It's something of a tip when you know only limited amounts of a language and can't think of a word. Don't get too hung up on the one word. Rather, use words you can remember to describe what you mean. More often than not, a person is going to be receptive to what you're saying. And typically your word choice is going to be a bit odd, so it'll be entertaining for the other person. I've been in these situations on a few occasions, and it's almost always a great cultural exchange.

Soggy Suzuka

It rained on race day, but luckily the Japanese are always ready for it. There are umbrellas available just about everywhere in Japan and ponchos are usually for sale at race tracks, too.

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Suzuka Circuit is an interesting track. There's an amusement park area attached to it, which is neat, but more fun for us were the Intense Feel sections. These areas were relatively close to the track and gave you a closer view of the action. We went to the Intense Feel area on the inside of Turn 1 and watched from there for a while. During our short stay in the corner, something happened out on track. I couldn't tell exactly what it was from our vantage point - it was either a puddle leftover from the rain yet to dry, or someone had dropped oil - but the ultimate result was several cars spinning out right in front of us in quick succession. Luckily there weren't any serious accidents and no injuries, but it made for quite the spectacle.

At the end of the race, gates were opened to allow people from the Fan Seats onto the track's main straight for the awards ceremony. Not only can we say we've been to Suzuka Circuit, we can also say we've stood on it. We had no idea about this, and it turned out to be a great way to cap off one hell of a weekend.

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Click the button below for Part 4 of this feature, or the Gallery link to see more pictures from this part of the trip.