From the birth of the Nissan GT-R to the first Japanese F1 Grand Prix through Nismo, J-tin, and everything in-between—if you’re searching for the soul of Japanese racing, you’ll find it huddled in the shadows of Mount Fuji at the Fuji Speedway, now laser-scanned and flawlessly recreated for Project CARS 2
The Fuji Speedway was created for one purpose alone—to provide a home for what was, fifty years ago, the embryonic phase of the Japanese motor industry. Half a century later, the heroes, cars, and behind-the-scenes motoring culture that evolved beneath Japan’s tallest mountain have made ‘FISCO’ a vital and largely undiscovered motoring jewel—a mythical stretch of road with enough drama, tragedy and heroism to be entered into anyone’s ledger of legendary tracks.
It is Japan’s Monza—a fast, forbidding place where the special ones were crowned ‘Gurachan’ and the rest—those who survived, and the many who perished—just plain heroes. In common with Monza, it too has an abandoned banked turn—once the most feared corner in all of motorsports.
To gaijin, Fuji registers distantly as the final reel of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship (and the movie ‘Rush’) when Niki Lauda, his face disfigured by still-fresh burns and seven weeks on from hearing his last rites, withdrew his Ferrari early in the monsoon-affected Grand Prix through which James Hunt paddled to secure the championship. It registers, too, as the opening stanza in the fable of Gilles Villeneuve and his monstrous accident here in 1977—a scar that saw F1 abandon Japan for a decade, and Fuji for 30 years.
But to insiders, the Fuji Speedway is where Japan created their own motor racing heroes and myths, here at this gloomy, often mist-shrouded place with the snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji serving as jaw-dropping backdrop.
When a Speedway is anything but …
By the time the Fuji Speedway was built, Honda’s Suzuka circuit was already up-and-running. Back then, though—in ’62—Suzuka was seen as more of a biking circuit, given that Honda was still a year away from building its first motor car.
No-one, however, ever mistook Fuji for a biker’s circuit. The initial plan was to build a four-turn oval superspeedway modelled on the Daytona Speedway. The intent was to bring some NASCAR-style racing to Japan. This link to NASCAR was not only in spirit—it also featured cold-hard cash: the officially licensed ‘Japan NASCAR Company’ set about building the superspeedway in the foothills of Mt Fuji in late 1963. By 1965, they projected, Japanese NASCAR-inspired big-horsepower, big-noise sedans would be trading paint, banging wheels, and drafting around the four 30-degree banked turns all the way into the hearts, minds, and wallets of a nation ready to produce, sell, and buy made-in-Japan motor cars.
That dream ended when work on the first of the four banked turns went deep into the red. With one turn complete, and the budget depleted, the decision to abandon the concept of the superspeedway was inevitable—there wasn’t enough money to carve the rest from the disinclined foothills of Mount Fuji.
The project, instead, retained the one banked turn, from where it was extended out into a series of super-fast turns to create a classic, flowing road circuit. Under the auspices of the newly-named Fuji Speedway Corporation—FISCO, which is how the track became known to the old-timers—the Fuji Speedway went green in December ’65. By mid-’66, it had already developed a reputation as not only one of the fastest tracks in the world—but also one of the most deadly.
The Legend of Daiichi
In the fog and rain which is synonymous with the Fuji Speedway, this track can be both ominous and daunting. In Project CARS 2, real-world weather has been weaved into the latest LiveTrack technology, so you’ll soon discover just how miserable and wet it gets here. All four seasons are now accurately reflected in the sim, too, which means that, yes, you can drive Fuji in the snow in December in your favorite Japanese hotrod … if you’re crazy enough …
Its reputation back in the ’60s and ’70s, as a killer circuit, was well-earned, and Daiichi—the name conferred onto the banked turn (meaning the ‘Big One’)—well-chosen: whether it was in honor of the attachments of the pilots, or the consequence of what happened when your bravery eclipsed your talent (a fairly common occurrence in the early days), the Big One was not to be trifled with. At Daiichi, the men and the boys were separated at full-throttle and the brave from their mortal coils even faster.
Double Le Mans winner ‘Quick’ Vic Elford has some vivid memories of that banking: he spent months testing the 5-litre V8 Toyota 7 at Fuji in the late ’60s, and recalled, “The reason that banking was so horrific was that at the end of the straight we went over a blind crest at around 190-200mph, and then dropped into the banking. One of the results was that, although there were many brave Japanese drivers, there were not too many with great skill, and the death toll from that one corner was horrendous.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—its reputation, it took hardly no time at all for the Fuji Speedway to attract major international competition: In ’66, it held a non-championship Indy Car race (Jackie Stewart won that), as well as a non-championship F1 race. A year later, it hosted the first of the fabled Fuji 24 Hours.
But its international reputation has always been something of a distraction for the real meat-and-potato local series that were born here. The myth-making of Japanese racing began at Fuji in the early spring of ’69 with the JAF Grand Prix; the race that was won by a car dubbed the ‘Hakosuka’ Skyline—you know it as the Skyline GT-R, the granddaddy of the GT-Rs you’ll soon be racing in Project CARS 2. That Hakosuka Skyline GT-R won 49 times on the way to making it a legend in tin-top racing, and will set you back close to $200,000 nowadays—or about double what you’d pay for a new GT-R.
Grachan–the Fuji Grand Champion
In ’71, Fuji began hosting the ‘Fuji Grand Champion’ racing series—a national series that would crown, each year, Japan’s Champion, the ‘Grachan’. All races were held at Fuji—five rounds, beginning in early spring and ending in early fall—in single-seater CanAm-style cars (March, Chevron, McLaren, and Lola provided the chassis) that featured all-sorts of big-horsepower engines, (F1-derived Cosworth DFVs and V12 BMWs), all tuned and run by Japanese shops and driven by Japanese drivers. As a way to create a foundation of motoring specialists, this was a short-cut to world domination.
The speeds were enormous, the heroes larger-than-life, and the engineers and tuning shops destined to become household names for decades to come. But there was tragedy mixed in too—like in ’74 when Hiroshi Kazato and Seiichi Suzuka lost their lives in a fireball-wreck into Daiichi. The tragedy was a hard one to take; both were immensely popular drivers. Fuji acted decisively by chopping off the banking, and inserting a first-gear hairpin in its place.
Daiichi was no more.
The change made the circuit safer, but not safe; Fuji has always conveyed hero status reluctantly, and only to the brave. Over 100,000 fans would descend from all corners of Japan to watch the Fuji Grand Champion series and the wildly popular support races where local hotshoes mixed it up in cars fans could buy from their local dealership the next day and have tuned locally.
Legend has it there was more mechanical eye-candy in the parking lots than on the track itself in those early days. The support races became a car-culture phenomenon, especially after ’79 when they sprouted wings and colossal bodyparts as part of the Group 5 silhouette formula. This era was the defining moment for what has gone on to become known as the Bōsōzoku-style of tuning and mods. On race weekends, all sorts of crazed motoring mayhem occurred off-piste to spice up the show. (It got so wild that nearby residents came within a court ruling of shutting the whole place down in the mid-’80s because of the hooning and illegal street racing).
But the early days of the series—the ’70s—is where the legacy of Japanese motorsports was born. Legendary battles between Toyota (turbo) Celicas and Mazda (rotary) Capellas whipped up the crowd before the very real thunder of V8 and V12 fire-breathing monsters went at it to crown the yearly Japanese champion.
In ’72, for the second round of the championship, it was Ferrari 512 M versus McLaren M12 Chevrolet versus Lola T290 Mitsubishi versus … a Fairlady?
The Fairlady was Nissan’s signature car when it debuted in ’69 and you’ll be getting your hands on the 1973 version in Project CARS 2, the race spec’ 240ZG GTS-II. That’s the car that raced in the wet and beat the Ferrari, McLaren, and Lola on the way to sealing both the win and the legend of the Nissan Z series.
But then, that’s how legends are born, aren’t they?
When a Fairlady is anything but …
Ask the question—what car is the essential one for Japanese motorsport history? The answer is this, the Nissan Fairlady. The Z432 version with its S20 engine (it powered the Nissan Skyline GT-R) won on debut in the ‘Race de Nippon 6 Hours’ in 1970. In July that year, it was entered—as a Datsun Sports 240Z, and now with the export-spec’ L24 engine—in the ‘All Japan Fuji 1000KM’ race with the inimitable Kunimitsu Takahashi (who never saw a turn that couldn’t be taken without a power-slide, he is the original drift-king) and Motoharu Kurosawa counter-steering the wheel. It won at a canter. Success in the Fuji Grand Champion series followed in the early ’70s, and it was still winning in ’78—Haruhito Yanagida claiming the title with the 3-litre version.
The car was phenomenal both in the rain and on every loose surface. Given Project CARS 2 will come with dirt, snow, rain, and mud, this may well become your go-to racer if you’re into some three-pedal, no assists, row-your-own gears fun. It ran in the Safari Rally of ’73 in Kenya and won—and then finished 5th at the snow-and-dirt Rally Monte Carlo. Back in the US, Pete Block ran his 240Z in the SCCA Championship and won the title two years running in ’70 and’71, before Bob Sharp took his to the title in ’72 and ’73. Serious dominance.
You’re going to want to spend some quality time with this car. The Project CARS 2 version is the top-of-the-line 240ZG with its 190mm long ‘G’ nose, headlight covers, over-fenders, and stripped-out for racing. This was the official test car for the Ōmori factory—the legendary home of Nismo, before they decamped for Yokohama—and has the L28 engine with crossflow combustion chambers. (That means your fire-spitting will be happening under your doors). The L28 pushes 300bhp at 7600RPM from an inline 6, 3-litre engine. That’s good. The drum brakes at the rear (discs at the front), meanwhile, is not so good, unless you’re into plenty of sideways action. Sliding this thing around Fuji on a wet day in the fall, with snow-covered Mount Fuji and the desiccated trees in full Fuji gloom whipping by—that comes with Kunimitsu Takahashi’s full seal of approval!
The Rising Sun!
The folding-up of the Fuji Grand Champion series in ’89 heralded the fall of Fuji as the centre of Japanese motorsport. Other tracks had expanded and surpassed the speedway, now forty years old and in obvious decline. By the late ’90s, Fuji was tired, haunted by its past.
Toyota took over management of the track in 2000, throwing some money at the legendary (as in so awful they, too, were internationally renowned) facilities. This was when Toyota was heavily invested in international motorsport, and stealing the F1 race from their chief rival, Honda (and Suzuka), seemed a good investment. They brought in Hermann Tilke to design a track to F1 standards. This new track opened its doors on April 10, 2005, and is the circuit in Project CARS 2—laser scanned and accurate to within a centimetre.
The circuit hosted its first Formula One race in 2007. Not surprisingly, it was held in monsoon-like conditions. The turn-out was poor—Fuji has always preferred its heroes with closed wheels—and they went back in 2008 for a final time; by 2010, the world had fallen into a recession, and Toyota was cutting budgets. Fuji as host of an F1 event was no longer viable.
As part of the renovations, most of Daiichi was demolished. Some of it is still there though, hidden in the bramble and debris, rotting in place, a scar akin to its distant cousin on the outskirts of Milan.
Despite the numerous changes, Fuji remains the fastest circuit in Japan, and continues to host top-tier international series. The turns, too, remain named in the traditional Japanese way—after their radius in metres (27R, 75R, 100R, and so on).
The years may pass, but there will always be local heroes at Fuji—‘the man’ nowadays is Yuji Tachikawa, who has won the 500km race seven times. It’s a safe venue, too, Daiichi mostly forgotten, the heroes who fell trying to conquer the Big One but a distant memory from a different time. But if you sit in your Nissan Fairlady in Project CARS 2, with the rain and snow dipping from a moist November sky onto your windscreen, you’ll find it hard not to remember the heroes who made this place the heart and soul of Japanese motorsport.
Project CARS 2 will be released late 2017