‘Made in Japan’: Inside NASCAR’s historic exhibition race overseas in the 1990s

Video Details

Get an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at NASCAR's historic journey to Japan in the 1990s in the first installment of the Beyond the Wheel short film series.

NARRATOR: For almost 50 years, NASCAR has represented the best in American motorsports. Today we're taking a bold new step into the future.

[PHONE RINGING]

- Good afternoon. NASCAR.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- We decided that the next best step was to go over there, visit the Suzuka Circuit. And so we went on this trip with Ken Clapp and Brian France, and really were just blown away.

- People in America didn't realize what they had over there. They had some incredible race tracks.

- We knew it was going to take a lot of money to do it. So we did make a deal, and it was quite a satisfactory deal.

- My knee-jerk reaction was, oh, my gosh. We're running a 33 or 34 race schedule. The last thing we want to do now is go to another race, and, oh, by the way, halfway across the world.

- I'm like, hell, I don't care if we're-- if there's a race, I want to go.

- Well, other than the travel and the 14-hour flight that they said it took to get over there, I was excited. You hear about Japanese people embracing Western cultures. Maybe NASCAR was next for them.

- Japanese people fell in love with Formula One first, so they didn't try hard to get to know American sports.

- Everybody ask me what is NASCAR.

[RECORD SCRATCHING]

OK, this is a true story. NAS-- NASCAR. NAS means eggplant in Japanese. CAR means question mark, question raised. NASCAR sounds like, it is an eggplant? So that's a huge culture gap.

- It comes through here and comes back, right?

MIKE HELTON: The first moment on the course was a fan weekend.

- The first time on a right-handed steering wheel. Is there something wrong with this picture?

- Dale Sr. went over and drove some laps. Logged some data that we could use and pass on to everybody else. He was a bit of a rock star over there. To hear the PA introduce him.

ANNOUNCER (ON PA): [SPEAKING JAPANESE]

[CROWD CHEERING]

You could understand the Dale Earnhardt part of it. It was pretty impressive.

- This is pretty neat, huh? Race fans everywhere. The fans over there were really excited about seeing an American race car. It looked like a dinosaur compared to what they're used to racing. That first race is going to be the learning stage for them. But once they see it, and they get a taste of it, can sort of touch and feel, I think they'll be full hardcore race fans that we have here in the United States.

- All of the cars and equipment had to leave-- be loaded in a container to be loaded onto a ship 4, 5, 6 weeks out from actually racing over there.

- We built a race shop inside of these metal containers. You open the door to the container, you look in and you went, oh, my gosh, I can't believe we did what we did.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Can we go home yet?

- Everybody really came loaded for bear. They were prepared. Going that far, I wanted to do well. And that thing being the inauguration in Japan, I wanted to win that race so bad and everybody wanted to win that race so bad.

- At the track I just remember it being a very friendly environment and a lot of people excited for us to be there. We were excited to be there.

- The good thing about American motor racing is the distance between the driver and fans are very close. It's totally opposite from Formula One. Everything was really different, and that's what the people really enjoyed.

- Dale Earnhardt is my hero. I got autograph and his cap. So I'm really excited.

- They're all real friendly. I mean, it's hard to understand them, but some of them can speak English a little bit and some can't. You know, they just grin at you and nod.

- Arigato, right? Thank you.

- Arigato.

- OK. Ohayou gozaimasu. Good morning.

WOMAN: Yep, that's right. You got it.

INTERVIEWER: Who do you think handled the chopsticks better?

- See, I've done a lot of chopsticks, so I enjoy the chopsticks. I eat with chopsticks at home when I get a chance. So we'll have to have a competition or something maybe before we leave. I'll admit the food was a challenge.

- Here, Jeffrey.

- I'll eat it. Uh, take the head off though. That's pork, right? Pork?

- Chicken.

- Maybe chicken.

- I've never seen chicken look like that. I embraced it, and it was a challenge. I heard a lot of people going to McDonald's.

- You're a little intimidated because you go to McDonald's-- OK, so how am I even going to order? The great thing internationally, at least at McDonald's, a number one is a number one. It doesn't matter if you're in Charlotte, North Carolina or Suzuka, Japan.

- Once you got on the track it was kind of driving and racing as usual.

NASCAR machine not easy. High power, but small brakes. No stopping. Too hard making.

ANNOUNCER: Konichiwa. Youkoso, Suzuka. Yes, welcome, and a good day here from this beautiful road course. Here on this Sunday in Japan, it looks like a new beginning for NASCAR. Let's take a look at the format. Two 50-lap segments. But here's the interesting part. The top 10 in the first segment are inverted for the second, like an old Saturday night special.

- I'm with Mr.-- oh! Dale Earnhardt. I believe this guy likes Japan a lot, right? So can you eat sushi several times?

- Yeah, sure. Love it. That's why I came back.

- How about sake?

- Nah, I'm easy on the sake. I got to drive today.

- OK.

- There was definitely a lot of buildup and hype. I wanted to win on Japanese soil. I thought that would be really cool.

- When it came time to race, we really put our head to it. We really focused a ton on that.

- With great anticipation for a wonderful race and many thanks to our Japanese host, gentlemen start your engines!

[CROWD CHEERING]

- [SPEAKING JAPANESE]

ANNOUNCER: Wallace in the lead. And look at them doubling up.

INTERVIEWER: If you win this first segment, you're going to start 10th in the second. Is that OK with you?

- Well, I don't know. We're going to take a look at what's happening about the 40th lap and then we'll make a decision.

ANNOUNCER: Down into turn number one. It's Jeff Gordon scooting into the lead.

ANNOUNCER: I really believe that Rusty Wallace is going to go back to that 10th spot so he can start on the front. He knows has to--

ANNOUNCER: You think he's working a pass?

ANNOUNCER: You can see him. He's dropping back and they're letting him go back.

- It was a smart move. We're not stupid. We're not going to throw this race away. We got fast cars. We're not going to get jammed in the back.

- I was just going out there and racing as hard as I could. I wanted to win every segment there was, even if there was an inversion.

ANNOUNCER: And that's the end of that first segment, with Gordon winning.

INTERVIEWER: Rusty, you started backing up there a little bit. How are you?

- --go up there right now. It's just I was trying to loosen the front brakes and I started to lose one. I said, man, it's no use pushing. I mean, get in the pit to see what they can do with it. We cooled the brakes off on the brake. And we went out and everything was fine after that.

ANNOUNCER: Now Wallace tries again on the inside. And he's there. Fukuyama in the 23 coming by here.

ANNOUNCER: Oh! Fukuyama has hit it big time. Full course caution out for Fukuyama.

ANNOUNCER: That was a hard hit. But you can see him getting out under his own power, so he's OK.

ANNOUNCER: We're getting a white green. Headed for checkers.

ANNOUNCER: Boy, this outta be wild.

ANNOUNCER: Gordon is right there. Rusty Wallace looking back at the field.

ANNOUNCER: OK, what he has to do now is exactly what he's doing. He's putting the bumper to him just a little bit to move Earnhardt to the outside. Jeff Gordon's fighting on the inside.

ANNOUNCER: Here they come for the checkered flag. Wallace coming down. Gordon on the inside. And as they come to the line, it looks like Earnhardt may have pulled it off. Wow. Rusty Wallace has won, and the battle for second place goes right to the wire.

- We all got to show some really good speed and some road racing skills. And the people of Japan got to see a great race, I thought.

[CROWD CHEERING]

- Had we filled the stands full of people, then I think it would still possibly be happening. But I think a lot of car owners basically said, hey, this is costing us a lot of money to come over here. Do we really belong here?

- We were able to display our product on a global, international type basis. I think that might have inspired the growth that we experienced back in the United States. Because of facilities between Vegas, and Homestead, and Southern California, Texas, all of those were being inspired and built and developed, and that gave us a great run of opportunity.

- We still have a good number of people watching NASCAR race on television now.

[SPEAKING JAPANESE]

- This is for you-- a present.

- What? Thank you.

- It's kind of like a peace offering from 1996.

- Thank you. Good memory.

ANNOUNCER: Hideo Fukuyama, Suzuka City, Japan driver who's out here in the 66 car.

- Even though I don't think it was commercially a big huge success, it did happen.

- I'm worried about this being forgotten. I'd like to see them do it again.

- I think we still have to say it was a milestone in the history of NASCAR. I mean, we went to Japan and raced.