The line of automobiles stretched down the winding road with their inhabitants waiting patiently (this is Japan after all) for the Twin Ring Motegi gates to open promptly at 8 a.m., signaling the start of Friendship Day.
The multi-functional facility atop the mountain – drenched 24 hours prior during the only day it’s rained here in the past month – was shrouded like the Smokey Mountains on this morning. But for the thousands of fans watching the move-in day garage activity, queued up for Takuma Sato– and Hideki Mutoh-guided track tours or wiping off seats in the main grandstand for driver Q&A sessions, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Mount McKinley.
It’s Sato’s first IZOD IndyCar Series race in his homeland, while Mutoh will be making his third start at the 1.5-mile, egg-shaped track. They’ve been on a whirlwind promotional tour for Honda and the event basically since the checkered flag of the Sept. 4 Kentucky Speedway race.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” said Sato, wading through a sea of fans wearing green/yellow No. 5 hats (selling briskly for 3,800 yen; about $42 U.S.). “The whole week has been about promotion and meeting the people, and it’s been very positive. Everyone I meet, they’re very excited about IndyCar racing coming to Motegi. It is busy, but in a nice way. We see already the massive amount of fans out there.
“I haven’t raced in front of the home fans in more than two years (2007 F1 event at Fuji), so I think they are ready for that, too. Roger (Yasukawa), Hideki and I racing here is such an exciting thing.”
Mutoh, giggling with a pack of grade-schoolers while explaining the workings of his No. 06 Formula Dream/Panasonic car, has experienced an extended Friendship Day.
“I had a day off yesterday, my first in the past 10, but though I’ve been busy I’ve had a very enjoyable time,” the Newman/Haas Racing driver said. “I’ve met many fans in Japan, and I think they’ll all either be at the race or watching on TV.”
It’s a busy day for everyone.
As the sunshine breaks through, Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti exchange stories during a fan luncheon.
Post-lunch, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Alex Tagliani are exchanging stories about their particular helmets — designs, safety, different models for different tracks — in front of a maxed-out amphitheater at the Honda Collection Hall.
No translation is needed as Kanaan contorts his nose — much to the delight of the audience — to illustrate how it could get hung up while removing his helmet too quickly.
That’s probably the most noticeable thing about Friendship Day — about fans in general in Japan — they’re respectful, energetic, fun-loving and thoroughly enjoy the behind-the-scenes opportunity. Just as the photo gallery illustrates.
The mid-afternoon autograph session in front of each corresponding garage is the highlight — for drivers, too. It might be the one place where the line for a photo/autograph of Sato is longer than Patrick’s.
“I think it shows how fans in Japan like IndyCar,” Sato says between signing one of his hats and a construction helmet with his car affixed on top. “IndyCar is growing in Japan.”