By now most people have heard the term DWA or Driving While Asian. If not, look it up in the Urban Dictionary and take it for a spin on Youtube. Chances are you have been a victim of a DWA. While it can be construed as being a racist claim, I tend to look at life through a humorous lens and find it rather amusing. Living in San Francisco, being able to quickly identify a DWA in progress can be a matter of life or death. It’s amazing how the human evolves and develops an acute awareness of potential threats in their environment. Like the prehistoric man who had the ability to tap into all five senses to learn of the presence of a predator, the modern city dweller can spot a DWA upwind at 200 hundred yards while texting and watching an episode of Breaking Bad at a bus stop.
A .2 second example of the brain at work processing a DWA:
Car three blocks away going 18mph and straddling two lanes, just ran a red light
Driver behind the wheel: short, dark hair in bangs, over-sized glasses, Asian features, torso too close to wheel, no spatial awareness
Conclusion- RUN for Cover!
Sure it’s fun to laugh and celebrate all things DWA, but RWA or Racing While Asian, now we are delving into another matter altogether. In fact, is there a more noble pursuit than RWA? Particularly the brave men who risk life and limb to race under the Flag of the Rising Sun. In my humble opinion, a Japanese F1 driver is to be cherished and held in the highest buzzardly regard.
For years I’ve been waiting for a Japanese driver to arrive on the scene and take F1 by storm. Some sort of mythical character with rock star sensibilities and a nasty cigarette habit plucked out of the drift car wars of the Tokyo underworld and hand delivered by Honda to the McLaren young driver program. So far, I’ve had to be content with just a few podiums spread out of the years.
It’s a head scratcher as to why this hasn’t happened yet. Japan is a car crazy nation with a passionate F1 fan base. Honda, and to a lesser degree Toyota and Yamaha, have played a major role in the sport the last 30 years. They have a multitude of sophisticated national racing series with big horsepower and high downforce. When their economy is healthy, drivers are able to find sponsorship money. But still no Akira Senna.
One would probably need a PhD in Sociology to unlock this answer, so in the name of time and money, I will grant myself an honorary degree from Texas Southern University and volunteer three of my own theories:
Theory 1: Japan, like the USA, doesn’t have the level of karting that is prevalent in Europe and Brazil. The average 14 year old kart kid running the CIK-FIA series all over the European continent is essentially a professional driver. Making F1 by 20 is just the natural progression for those with skills or huge bucks. By the time the Japanese driver hits the scene in his late teens, he’s already too far behind the development curve catch up.
Theory 2: Even if a Japanese driver has all the natural abilities in the world, the cultural polite factor and the language barrier between driver and engineers is just too big of an obstacle to overcome. I just haven’t seen a Japanese driver with the me first mentality of say, a Nigel Mansell, be the dominant personality within the team and dictate to the engineers exactly what he needs the car to do in order to get results. Look at all the greats and you will see an enormous personality orchestrating the entire operation like Leonard Bernstein presiding over the New York Philharmonic.
Theory 3: I have a friend who lived half her life in Japan explain that in school Japanese kids are taught to strictly memorize and recite. Improvising and thinking outside the box are not encouraged. When applied to this conversation, there could be something there. After all, isn’t driving an F1 car on the limit with constantly changing conditions best suited for an improvisational artist ala Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost or Michael Schumacher? In watching the Olympics from Sochi, I see Japanese athletes winning medals in figure skating and ski jumping, sports that require extreme repetition. But where are the Alpine skiers, a feat that is all improvising on the ragged edge?*
*Authors internal debate: Ahh maybe there are no Japanese winning downhill skiers because they don’t have great skiing mountains??
Even if a single F1 driving championship never materializes, Japan’s place in the history books is secure. From the Godfather Satoru Nakajima, to Aguri Suzuki to the current ace Kamui Kobayashi, here are my 5 favorite Japanese F1 Drivers or カーレーサー:
5. Toranosuke “Tiger” Takagi: Tora burst on to the international scene in 1998 as a driver for legendary team owner Ken Tyrrell with enough hype to whip me into a frenzy. He had The Godfather, Satoru Nakajima, proclaiming him as the best yet to come from Japan. He had a mullet. His name was just plain old fun to say. I was sold. I’m still sold. When I first laid eyes on Tora Tiger Takagi at the 1998 Canadian GP, I was instantly a fan. His Friday morning hairpin exits reminded me of a 1980’s high school kid in a ‘69 Camaro leaving the AM-PM after receiving word of a keg being tapped just two miles away. He was all right foot and blackies through 3-4 gears. In two seasons in subpar equipment, Triple T never managed to score a world championship point, but you always had the sense that he was giving the car a proper thrashing. After returning home to capture the 2000 Formula Nippon title, Tora raced Stateside for two seasons in a deep CART field, managing a couple of 4th place finishes and a Rookie of the Year at Indy.
4. Hideki Noda: Noda first caught my attention when I read in Autosport that he had won a round of the British F3 series, becoming the first Japanese to do so. (Funny to think that the only way to get motorsports news just a few years back was to wait for magazines to arrive in the mail) What really sold me on Noda wasn’t the fact that he drove in 3 GP’s for Larrousse to close out the ‘94 season, it was a quote in Autosport from his race engineer proclaiming him the hardest braker in F1 history. Supposedly his telemetry showed him pulling over 4g’s in the heavy braking zones. Whether that claim has any validity or not, it was all the ammo I needed to be a fan for life. And to add the icing on the cake, I was fortunate enough to witness Noda score a brilliant Indy Lights win in the wet at Portland in ‘97 over the likes of Castro Neves, Kaanan and Da Matta. In honor of the feat, a friend even managed to invent “The Noda Dance” that left a few Pacific Northwestern open wheel fans scratching their heads in the grandstand that day.
3. Kamui Kobayashi: I’ll admit, I was slow to warm up to Kobe. Watching him languish as a backmarker for two seasons in GP2, I wasn’t very excited when Toyota promoted him to replace the injured Timo Glock for the 2009 Brazilian GP. But by the end of the race he had won me over after a spirited battle with the ‘09 champ, Jenson Button. Button was driving to secure the title and Kobe couldn’t care less. He fought Button for every inch of track like he was trying to take the crown for himself and had Button yelling into the radio that Kobe was “mad” and “crazy”. As a fan, I always want my drivers to be first and foremost, mad and crazy! From that day on Kobe has not relented. He is a master at finding a way by under braking. Hamilton and Alonso often get credited as being pass masters and rightly so, but Kobe is the best in the business.
2. Takuma Sato: Sato had my buzzard antennas on full alert when he won the British F3 title, Macau GP and Zandvoort Masters in 2001. I remember his engineers at Carlin Motorsports claiming that they had never worked with a driver who was better through the high speed stuff than Sato-san. In his first season in F1, he scored a glorious 5th place finish in his home GP in a poor Jordan chassis that essentially saved the beloved team from having to close their doors. I like to give myself credit for being somewhat of a good luck charm, or lucky buzzard, for Sato. I was at Indy in 2004 when he scored a podium for BAR-Honda. I was at Montreal in 2007 when he scored a remarkable 6th place for Super Aguri, highlighted with an outside pass of Alonso with just a few laps left! And just this past year, I got to witness Sato win the Long Beach GP with an inch perfect drive.
1. Ukyo Katayama: I fell hard for Katayama in ‘94. A year when my unrelenting thirst for buzzardry may have equaled or surpassed my interest in women. A year when on track tragedy left us vulnerable and looking for something to latch on to. Ukyo, with his helmet bouncing around like a bobblehead in the cockpit, became my salvation. His speed in the Tyrrell- Yamaha was a thing of beauty and he was regularly getting the better of his highly regarded teammate, Mark Blundell. I was in the Hockenheim stadium marveling at his commitment as he qualified 5th, sandwiched between Schumacher and Coulthard in the mighty Williams. His style always looked ragged, like a rodeo rider hanging on to a wild bronco. I recall Schumacher being astounded how Katayama could go into a fast corner, turn it into a 3-4 apex mess, and still come out flying on the exit. He is a one of a kind and worthy of a place in the buzzard hall of fame.