Fukuyama Ready For Banzai Run

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Hideo Fukuyama has waited for this for six years. What started with a casual conversation with a NASCAR legend has turned into a chance to drive a Winston Cup stock car.

Back in 1996, the Japanese driver was talking to the late Dale Earnhardt while NASCAR was in Japan for an exhibition race. Fukuyama impressed Earnhardt so much that the seven-time Winston Cup champion made a suggestion.

“You should come to America and race,” Earnhardt told him. “Your driving is very good.”

Fukuyama has finally come to America to race, and Haas-Carter Motorsports is giving him a chance. They’ll field the No. 66 Ford in this weekend’s MBNA All-American Heroes 400 at Dover International Speedway, where Fukuyama will try to qualify today at 2:05 p.m. (ET).

If he makes the race, Fukuyama will become the first Japanese driver to make an official Winston Cup event.

“I have wanted this for many years,” Fukuyama said through his interpreter, Chizuko Motooka. “First of all, the conversation I had with Dale Earnhardt in Japan made me focus on this dream. Secondly, I also believe there is so much that Japanese racing can learn from NASCAR. With the support of so many people, my dreams are coming true.”

This isn’t simply a promotional stunt. Fukuyama has some talent, as he’s proven in Japan and all over the world. He’s a five-time champion in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car series, winning titles in four different classes since 1979.

Fukuyama was part of the winning GT3-R/LMGT team at the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the three NASCAR exhibition races in Japan, he had an average finish of 17th in cars that were as foreign to him as Japan is to Americans.

To get accustomed to the heavy stock cars, Haas-Carter tested Fukuyama at Dover last month, where he was said to have posted some competitive speeds.

“I was impressed with Hideo when he drove for me in Japan and continue to be impressed with his ability to adapt and drive these race cars,” Haas-Carter co-owner Travis Carter said. “We only had two days of testing at Dover, and he made great progress.

“He’s very methodical and thinks things through. There were a few times during the test that he didn’t look at any data. He would just sit in the car for 10 minutes or so, go back out on the track and run faster. Although we know the times will pick up for this weekend’s qualifying, he did run a few laps that were fast enough to make last year’s race here. That gives me confidence and should give him some, too.”

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Fukuyama and the team is the language barrier. It has been joked that Virginian Ward Burton and New Yorker Tommy Baldwin don’t share the same language, but Fukuyama communicating with crew chief Teddy Brown is another matter entirely.

Fukuyama has been working on his English, but it’s a slow process, as anyone who has studied another language can understand.

“He understands more words than he can speak,” Carter said. “We’ve worked on specific words and what they mean. He’s very intelligent and knows what’s going on and can communicate how the car is handling. He also works well with our spotter. He’s very safety conscious and has placed extra mirrors on the car – mounted on both A-posts so he can see down the sides of the car.”

Fukuyama has traveled 6,813 miles from his home to race at Dover, but he’ll get two miles to make Sunday’s race. He was impressed with Dover during his test.

“This was my first time at Dover,” Fukuyama said. “The track was very fast and requires a lot of energy for each lap. I was very surprised at the speed and respect the braveness of the other NASCAR drivers.”

Fukuyama’s car is unsponsored but will bear American and Japanese flags on the hood, with “Hideo Fukuyama” written in Japanese characters on the rear quarterpanels and TV panel.

Fukuyama will also enter the race at Martinsville on Oct. 20 and Rockingham on Nov. 3.

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