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Lost Kawasaki circuit paved way for Japanese auto racing

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Staff Writer

On a mildly humid, but pleasant, sunny June Saturday, many people flocked to the large area near the Maruko bridge, which crosses the Tama River in Shin Maruko, in Kawasaki’s Nakahara Ward, to enjoy an early-summer weekend.

There were little boys playing baseball on the fields, college students practicing football and some residents using the space to jog. Nearby, others were enjoying their barbecues and beers.

The majority probably weren’t aware of the legendary Tamagawa Speedway, which existed here, just outside Tokyo, during the prewar period.

The 1.2-km oval course was inaugurated in May 1936, and had its first official four-wheel competition on June 7, 26 years before the world-famous Suzuka Circuit opened.

On May 29 this year, a memorial ceremony was held at the site to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Tamagawa circuit’s opening, and a white memorial plaque was installed at a spot right in front of where the seats stand. The organizers also brought out some of the classic cars that were used in those days. The track’s seats, which are made of concrete and still remain, are the only obvious trace of the old speedway left.

It may surprise some, but motor racing competitions have been held in Japan since the 1920s. At that time, there were no motor racing-only courses, so temporary venues, such as vacant lots and horse racing tracks, were used.

Tamagawa Speedway Society vice-president Taiju Kobayashi poses for a photo at the site where the circuit existed 80 years ago.
Tamagawa Speedway Society vice-president Taiju Kobayashi poses for a photo at the site where the circuit existed 80 years ago. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Taiju Kobayashi, vice president of the Tamagawa Speedway Society, which was formed two years ago and has about 20 members in order to keep alive the circuit’s legacy, told The Japan Times that the idea of building a permanent track was introduced by Gunji Fujimoto, a Seattle-raised Japanese auto fanatic who returned to his native country in the ’20s.

Fujimoto came up with the grand idea of creating Japan’s first motor racing circuit. He allegedly persuaded the Tokyu Corporation, a private railway operator and land developer, and the Hochi Shimbun newspaper company to establish a federation to run the speedway.

According to Kobayashi, whose late father Shotaro was a noted automobile journalist, a total of 24 cars ran in the first event in 1936. The participants weren’t fully professional drivers. In Kobayashi’s words, they were mostly guys who were “crazy about cars and racing.”

Many of the facts of that race remain obscure. The attendance of the speedway’s first event was allegedly as high as 30,000, but the true figure is uncertain (some reports said the seats were filled while others said only about 10,000 were in attendance). Admission was ¥1, which, according to Kobayashi, would be valued as much as ¥4,000 to ¥5,000 today.

One of the car-crazy participants was Soichiro Honda, who would later become a worldwide auto industry giant by founding his own company, Honda Motor, Co., Ltd., in 1948. Honda has also been involved in motor racing activities, including Formula One and MotoGP.

A young Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Co. Ltd., crashes during the first four-wheel competition held at Tamagawa Speedway in 1936.
A young Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Co. Ltd., crashes during the first four-wheel competition held at Tamagawa Speedway in 1936. | TAMAGAWA SPEEDWAY SOCIETY

In the first competition at the speedway, Honda, who had already opened a repair shop in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in 1928, drove with his younger brother Benjiro beside him as his mechanic in a two-seater “Hamamatsu” racecar. He was forced to retire after the car collided with another machine. Nevertheless, Honda returned three months later for the second event at the speedway.

Masayuki Takayama, of Honda’s corporate communication division, said that though the company’s founder raced as an individual, the races at the speedway increased his desire to make better automobiles.

“We believe it gave him the driving force for his challenging spirit,” Takayama said. “And it’s not an overstatement that it was the starting point for both our activities in motorcycle racing and F1 racing later on.”

Meanwhile, Nissan Motor Co., Ltd, also had its factory team compete in the first race at Tamagawa Speedway, which occurred in the third year after Nissan was founded.

It is said that Nissan’s cars finished behind vehicles from the Ota automotive manufacturing company, which was one of the largest in the country at the time. This made Nissan’s then-president Yoshisuke Ayukawa furious. Because of its president’s “strict order,” a Nissan car went on to win the second event.

“Our participation in the competitions at Tamagawa didn’t directly have an influence on our postwar motor racing activities from a organizational and technical standpoint,” a Nissan spokesperson said. “However, as a company that took part in postwar motor racing activities, you might be able to say that the prewar stories could have provided psychological strength to us and incubated our pride as Nissan.”

A group including Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda (far left), Tamagawa Speedway Society vice-president Taiju Kobayashi (second from left) and TV personality Masaaki Sakai (third from left) look at a race car used in the prewar period at a memorial ceremony for the 80-year anniversary of Tamagawa Speedway in late May.
A group including Kawasaki Mayor Norihiko Fukuda (far left), Tamagawa Speedway Society vice-president Taiju Kobayashi (second from left) and TV personality Masaaki Sakai (third from left) look at a race car used in the prewar period at a memorial ceremony for the 80-year anniversary of Tamagawa Speedway in late May. | YOSHIO FUJIWARA / MOTOR PRESS

Neither Honda nor Nissan took part in legitimate motor racing until the 1950s.

The organizers of the competitions at Tamagawa Speedway had to be discreet in prewar Japan, which was in a volatile state at the time.

The inaugural race, for instance, took place just a few months after the “2/26 Incident,” an attempted coup d’etat organized by a group of young Imperial Japanese Army officers on Feb. 26, 1936, and with the country under martial law. Since it could not be held solely for entertainment, the hosts needed to present the races as a means of boosting national prestige. In fact, some army generals allegedly attended the opening ceremony for the first event.

At the same time, as some later described F1 as the auto industry’s laboratory, the competitions at the speedway helped foster the development of the Japanese motor vehicle industry.

“Motor racing back then wasn’t just for amusement, it also served as a major method to develop the auto industry,” Kobayashi, of the Tamagawa Speedway Society, said. “Many of the people who were involved in those races assumed major roles in the auto industry in the postwar era.”

Nevertheless, Tamagawa Speedway has an obscure presence today because its lifespan was so short.

According to Kobayashi, the circuit hosted only six four-wheel events, the last of which was on April 17, 1938, as the nation entered the second Sino-Japanese War that same year.

The races were required to help enhance the national prestige in the controlled economy before and during the war effort. Gasoline was distributed through the rationing system. Kobayashi said that under the circumstances, the competitions at Tamagawa Speedway could not continue.

During times of food scarcity during the wars of the era, the location was used as a potato field.

“It’s all about the wars,” Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi introduced the following hypothesis: Had the wars not taken place, the races at the speedway would have continued and Japanese motor racing might have followed the American example, with races at oval tracks like Tamagawa instead of European-type circuits such as Suzuka.

“And Japanese motor racing circles might have set competing in Indy(Car) instead of F1 as their biggest goal,” Kobayashi said with a smile.

It’s unclear when the curtain officially fell on Tamagawa Speedway. It just faded away. According to Kobayashi, a driving school was started there in 1955, and that could be considered the unofficial time the circuit disappeared.

The Nippon Ham Fighters used the baseball field, which was installed after the track was gone, between 1961 and 1997, including the days the team was called the Toei Flyers and Nittaku Home Flyers, as their farm/practice facility.

Today, the area is for the public and used as a park. The majority of those who go there likely don’t know the speedway existed and that a young Soichiro Honda raced there.

But for those who know of its legacy, the speedway isn’t just a short-lived circuit from decades ago, but the roots of Japan’s motor racing and automobile industry.

“It’s certainly attractive to look back at it in retrospect,” Kobayashi said. “But we also think of what would have happened had it not existed. We don’t think it would have been the same.

“I told this Hirotoshi-san, who’s a son of Honda-san (and the founder of Mugen Motorsports), at a photo exhibition (about the speedway). And he said to me, ‘you can say that as a fact, not a hypothesis.’ ”


Kawasaki wins 120K Auto Race

[The following story was originally published in the June 9, 1936 issue of The Japan Times]

Before an enthusiastic crowd of 30,000 fans, Jiro Kawasaki, driving an Invicta, won the 120 kilometer race, the feature event of the automobile races staged at the new Maruko track at Tamagawa Sunday under the auspices of the Hochi Shimbum. His time was one hour 45 minutes 32.8 seconds.

Shinichi Sakakibara, in a Curtis, was second in one hour 46 minutes 15.6 seconds. A total of 22 cars were entered in the event.

Only one accident occurred when Honda, driving a Ford, ran into Morita’s Chevrolet from behind in the first race of the day. The latter car overturned and Morita was seriously injured.

The results follow:

General Motors Cup Race, (18 kilometers) — Won by Teisuo Maruyama, Mercedes; 2nd, Kenzo Tada, Bentley. Time, 13:52.4 minutes.

Ford Cup Race (19 kilometers) — Won by Yutaka Kawagoe, Hupmobile; 2nd, Yasuji Kimura, Ford. Time, 12:41.8.

Domestic Car Race (12 kilometers) — Won by Yuichi Ota, Ota; 2nd, Sukeshige Ota, Ota, Time, 10:43.8.

Bosch Cup Race (30 kilometers) — Won by Shinichi Sakakibara, Curtis; 2nd, Gunji Fujimoto, Bugatti. Time, 21:00.8.

Commerce and Industry Minister’s Cup Race for Domestic Cars (36 kilometers)–Won by Yuichi Ota, Ota; and, Takeo Sawaguchi, Datsun. Time, 36:14.8.

Hochi Cup Race (120 kilometers) — Won by Jiro Kawasaki, Invicta; 1:45:32.8 hour; 2nd, Shinichi Sakakibara. Curtis, 1:46:15.6; 3rd, Kenzo Tada, Bentley, 1:53:45.6; 4th, Yuichi Ota, Ota; 5th, Shigeo Ozaki, Chrysler; 6th, Kiyoji Naito, Ford; and 7th, Yutaka Kawagoe, Hupmobile.