When you hear the name of this competition, we know what comes through your mind is fast Japanese cars burning rubber on the tarmac of the racing tracks. However, that’s the wrong idea.
Japan’s Auto Race is actually a very specific type of motorcycle racing, which has more in common with gambling-centric horse racing or greyhound racing, rather than any other motorcycle races. In fact, the most similar sport would probably be Japanese keirin.
So How Does It Work?
Auto Race is basically a sport created for gambling. Similar to keirin, it was created shortly after WWII, so that the government could raise more tax revenue from gambling in order to rebuild the country.
1950 was the year that first-ever Auto Race was held in Funabashi. However, during the ’60s, the traditional flat track dirt surfaces and speedways were banned by the government as they were considered to be too dangerous.
Unlike most sports, but similar to keirin, in the days before the race, the riders are sequestered to a dormitory with over 500 of their colleagues and cut off from the outside world. This was done to prevent race fixing, which was a problem for the sport during the times when the infamous Yakuza operated the sport. This Yakuza period hurt the reputation of the sport, and the crowds started getting smaller and smaller. It was not until 1967 that the Yakuza lost control of the sport, and it started blooming again.
Auto Race events are held on tarmac tracks, almost always have eight riders, and run for six laps. The difference in the surface of the course fundamentally changes the way the bikes are ridden, since the riders have to lean around the corners, unlike in conventional Speedway, where the drives just slide into the corners. The bikes used in Auto Race are standardized, and everyone has to use the same government-approved one. The bikes are 599cc and have a two-speed gearbox, they have no breaks and are designed with the left handlebar higher than the right, to help with the balance while leaning.
The Long Road To Auto Race
Even though Auto Race handsomely pays its riders, even better than their Western counterparts, Auto Race riders don’t get any endorsements and don’t have celebrity status. However, the road to becoming a professional Auto Race rider is a long and hard one. All of them are trained in government-controlled training schools, and they have to pass many examinations before they are able to actually become competitive riders.
The unique part of Auto Race is that everyone is allowed to become a rider. Therefore, you have female riders, elderly riders, young riders, all riding together and competing with each other. That’s why you have people like Maya Sato, who became a professional Auto Race driver at age 19.
Once they are qualified, all riders get a nickname, by which they will go by. In addition, the riders are graded based on their results. These grades are then used to determine racing positions, with the high-ranking riders starting in the back. Riders all have different numbers and shirt colors. Your typical riders usually spend half a year away from home. Between races, their bikes are held with other bikes, in order to stop any tampering.
While Auto Race is in many ways like a motorized keirin, it’s still a different beast. With its own rules, techniques, and idiosyncrasies.
Even though Auto Race is primarily a betting sport, it’s still a hoot to follow the careers of the various motorheads that just can’t seem to stop driving fast (possibly due to lack of brakes).