Getting Dusty With Japan’s Hot Rod Dirt Racers


You can’t stop progress. The world keeps turning, the past soon becomes history, and new and shiny replaces old and rusty. At least, that’s how society usually plays it. Thankfully though, some aren’t so quick to forget.

During my recent visit to J-Garage, owner Sehoji-san told me about an upcoming dirt racing event featuring around 20 hot rods. Seeing my eyes light up just at the thought of it, he graciously invited me out to Motor Cross Offroad Park in Kagoe, Saitama so I could experience the spectacle firsthand.

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When the day arrived, I was pretty exicted. Motor Cross Offroad Park has a few tracks for both motorbikes and cars, and after arriving at the former – and then driving another 25 minutes to the correct circuit for cars – I found Sehoji-san in a paddock full of old pick ups, vans, roadsters and coupes.

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I’ve never been to the Burning Man festival, but stepping out of my Impreza into the dry spring air, I immediately thought about friends’ holiday snaps and wished I had brought a bandana, aviation goggles and a psychedelic parasol.

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Cars were lining up for runs in basic circuit formation, running three or four laps, one at a time. It was only a very small track so I suspect that’s why they weren’t racing in pairs.

This was a first for me. Sure, I’ve watched vintage cars race and I’ve seen plenty of hot rods at events across the globe, but this was something else.

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This event was hosted by self-proclaimed “semi-pro” hot rod shop Side Motors, a local garage out of Saitama. As you might expect from any event in Japan, everything was extremely well organised. The day’s running was structured and drinks and lunch were available, and even offered to photographers.

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I think it would be fair to say that 90% of these cars fall in to the rat rod category of hot rod subculture – especially those with engine swaps, chopped roofs and missing  body parts. Others were just in good, old original condition; they were by no means museum pieces but far from being junkers.

Regardless of their condition, I was surprised to see classic cars of this vintage out on the dirt, ready to be thrashed.

But dirt racing like this has been going on in Japan for as long as the automobile has been guzzling dinosaur juice. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the Fords in attendance had been built at Henry J’s factory in Yokohama.

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While Toyota was still building sewing machines, Ford had a monopoly on car manufacturing in Japan from 1925 to 1934. Considering Japan’s reputation for high quality manufacturing, I wondered if the Ford cars assembled in Yokohama were of a higher standard than their America-assembled counterparts…

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Back then, owning a car in Japan must have cost a pretty penny. Truth be told, annual costs still make the eyes water, so to be out racing in the late-1920s and ’30s would’ve really only been for the wealthy and upper class.

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It’s funny to think that 100 years ago, with automobiles in their infancy and traveling at speeds no faster than Usain Bolt at maximum stride, people still felt that racing each other was only the natural thing to do. You can’t change human nature, I guess.

Initially, people were racing each other on horse racing tracks or fields and even land fills, but as momentum gathered a dedicated circuit needed to be built.

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Around this time, Soichiro Honda (yes, that Honda) was a 15-year-old student mechanic lending his hands to build race cars. He and the team of mechanics at Art Shokai were motorsport enthusiasts when Tamagawa Speedway, the first permanent circuit in Asia, was constructed.

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Now, before you get too excited, Tamagawa Speedway is long gone, although the grandstands remained until very recently. Because of the speedway’s riverbank location and the subsequent urban build up which now utilises the land, government officials deemed the flood barrier created by the historic grandstands was no longer safe. Like I said, you can’t stop progress. When I heard about the removal of the grandstands I was a bit disappointed, but the safety of thousands obviously outweighs the teary nostalgia of a few petrol heads. Thankfully, they did save a small section of about three meters in width and relocated it a little further away from the danger zone.

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Rewinding back to our story with a very young Soichiro Honda… By the early ’30s, automobile racing was in full swing in Japan, and finally in 1936 with ¥70,000 (US$565) in backing from Tokyo-Yokohama Electric Railway and ¥30,000 (US$245) from Mitsubishi Group shareholder Masami Iida, the country had a purpose-built facility. Honda-san competed in the first ever race at Tamagawa, entering his Hamamatsu, a modified Ford which famously clipped another car, rolled, and ended his racing career. All clouds have a silver lining though, because giving up racing gave the so-called ‘Edison of Hamamatsu’ plenty of time to make some pretty cool stuff.

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So as you can see, dirt racing is as much a part of Japanese automotive history as the great Soichiro Honda himself. Unfortunately, there weren’t any open wheelers with Curtiss ‘Jenny’ A1 biplane engines fitted at the event I attended, but there was plenty of American V8 muscle filling the air with glorious roars.

In a way, this kind of event is probably closer to the kind of dry lake racing that made hot rods popular in the late 1940s and ’50s in the US. Or at least that’s what I thought…

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It turns out the lakes racers fought long and hard to distance themselves from the hoons racing hot rods on the streets of Southern California. When young lads started racing on the dry lakes, accidents weren’t uncommon and police began paying some unwanted attention to the new sport.

But in 1937 (around the same time as the dirt track in Japan opened) the Southern California Timing Association was formed and still exists to this day. In fact, the SCTA run a little competition on the Bonneville Salt Flats that you might have heard of before.

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It’s fascinating history and so many of these stories have connections all over the world. There were quite a few Japanese hot rodders in the Southern California area, one prominent racer being Danny Sakai, a second-generation Japanese-American who broke land speed records four times in his open wheeler.

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With the advent of WWII, it’s sad to note that many young Japanese living in the US were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. It’s a dark time in the world’s history, but there is some warmth in knowing that many of the Japanese-American’s hot rods were kept safe by American friends until their owners were released from the camps.

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Displaced from their homes, the Japanese-Americans who returned to American society after the war tried to mend their broken social networks and from that, various automobile clubs where born. Clubs like the Shogans and the Squires helped a lost generation of Japanese-American youths find some identity, and look pretty damn cool while doing it. Think white t-shirts, Levi’s and flathead Fords.

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So, it turns out that driving big ol’ American cars around a dirt track isn’t just about driving big ol’ American cars around a dirt track. This is deep. Proper, peeling back the onion deep.

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As we come to the end of our story, let’s forget the history lessons and talk a little about this colourful event. After the first round of single car loops around the track, the next bit of fun was a round of doughnuts. Not the glazed type.

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Most of these old girls barely managed a wheel spin, but others sent clouds of dust high into the atmosphere and rocks hurtling towards my camera. Regardless of how rowdy the doughnuts were, the grins from the drivers were sweet enough.

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The cars really gave me a taste of the kind of open wheelers that Honda-san would have raced back in the day. I can understand how he might have clipped another car on the circuit at Tamagawa Speedway, because seeing these cars in action showed just how wild they are on the dirt, even at relatively low speeds.

There’s plenty of power coming from these old V8s (can you imagine what a Cummins airplane engine could do…) and next to no traction from the old period-correct tyres. Throw into the mix dust clouds and goggles caked in dirt and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

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The next round was a slalom and a figure of eight course, and I’m genuinely surprised that more traffic cones weren’t destroyed. The way the old cars rocked and rolled through the corners was straight out of a ’50s Disney cartoon.

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After lunch it was time for me to head out on the track to shoot a couple of feature cars, which I’ll show you next time. My tracking car was pretty wild.

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Laying in the back of the rust-riddled Ranchero was definitely up there with my most memorable shoots. Bouncing over the dirt track with some random guy holding my ankles while getting caked in dust makes life worth living. When I got home, I was blowing dust out my nose for a few days. But each time I did, it made me think of those, past and present, who make days like this special.

Toby Thyer
Instagram _tobinsta_
tobythyer.co.uk





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