Success is hard won in the world of elite motorcycle racing, something rider Hikari Okubo learned the hard way on his path to one of the world’s premier production bike categories.
Despite having no race wins to show from his first year in the Supersport World Championship, Okubo learned that riding for the love of it is enough to sustain him through a long, and often trying, season.
“For some, the idea of talent is something that they feel they are naturally good at, but for me it is something you can really like and work toward with passion,” said the 23-year-old Okubo, who in 2016 had a best single-race finish of 10th in the second-tier production bike championship in which he was the first Japanese to compete in six years.
Despite feeling that he needs to make constant and significant improvements to maintain his racing career’s upward trajectory, Okubo’s foundation, built through hard work, effort and his abundant reserves of passion will serve him well.
Born in Kodaira, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Okubo’s introduction to motorbikes came when he mounted his cousin’s mini-bike when he was just 3, and very soon after he knew he was at the start of a long, two-wheeled journey.
He first took part in junior racing at the age of 4, but that was just for fun, “at first I never thought of becoming a professional or even participating in a race,” he said.
About two years later, however, when at the world-famous Suzuka 8 Hours race with his father, he saw his first race bike and immediately knew that his passion had found its focus.
“When I looked at the bikes in the race, I was fascinated by their speed and decided there and then that I want to ride one,” he said, calling the emotional response it elicited one that he has “no words to explain, a feeling that still is in my heart.”
In 2014, he lined up on the grid for his so-far lone Grand Prix start at the Motegi track in Tochigi Prefecture.
But as is the case with many of the world’s top motor racers, the costs, both in terms of finances and time, were more daunting than the speeds at which Okubo now regularly reaches on the back of his bike.
Coming from a family which did not lead “a lavish life,” Okubo says he did not have the opportunity to receive professional instruction, rather he learned his race craft from watching his heroes on television, and others riding in practice.
His race bikes were not exactly cutting edge either, and repairs, of which there can be many when one is learning to race, had to be done on the cheap.
“I had a bike that my dad bought for me, but never got it repaired as it would cost too much,” he said.
It was his father, Yasushi, who made deep sacrifices to allow his son to pursue his dream, from the very early days needing to take out loans to get his son on the track.
But with the big sacrifices behind him, Yasushi knows it was all worth it: “I am so proud of him now,” he said.
Indeed, Yasushi has reasons to feel pride, as his son not only won the All Japan Road Race Championship when he was a second-year high school student in 2010, he followed that with an Asia Dream Cup championship in 2012 before deciding to run his own team from 2013 through 2014.
The task of managing a team is often done by retired veteran racers, but Okubo built his own team at the age of 19 and went out to find sponsors. While Okubo says his sole purpose was to run a championship on his own and take a “new challenge,” his fellow riders saw how tough it was.
“While most of his contemporaries came from well-off families, he was the one who had sponsors and therefore was always under pressure,” said Arai Masakazu, a fellow professional racer who has known Okubo since the early days. “He made his own team and went to look for sponsors as well, it is very rare. Look at his (race) suit, it’s covered with the names of his sponsors, from small to big ones.”
With the number of Japanese top-level racers having fallen precipitously in recent years, Okubo is concerned about the future of the sport, saying, “watching bike racing may be popular in Japan, but there are fewer people interested in riding. Our mission now is how we can expand the sport.”
Okubo said motorbike racing, although viewed as cool, has a negative image due to accidents and bosozoku (bike gangs).
The popularity and accessibility of other sports compared to motorbike racing, and its expenses, prompt few to pursue the sport in Japan, said Motorcycle Federation of Japan’s deputy secretary general Akira Goto.
“To take part in bike racing, parents have to buy a motorcycle for their kids, and it is not affordable for many families. But other sports, just buy one glove and a ball, (and one) can start baseball, for example,” he added.
Despite agreeing that barriers to taking part in the sport are significant, parents want children to pursue their dreams.
“It does cost a lot of money. . . It cannot be done only if kids want it and parents do not have money,” said Naoya Kugawa, 44, at the Akigase circuit in Saitama, where his son, Teppei, was competing in a junior race day. “It is fun as a family becomes a team.”
The 8-year-old Teppei, who races a mini-bike, said, “I want to become the champion of MotoGP,” adding, he is attracted by the “intensity” of racing.
“My heart starts pounding when they plunge into a corner with all that speed. I get scared about falls when all the kids come together,” said Naomi Ezawa, the 51-year-old mother of another bike racer, adding, “(As a rider myself), I know the dangers of a bike, but that heart pounding is fun.”
Okubo knows that adrenaline-charged feeling well, and he wants the next generation to feel the rush, too.
“Riding a bike is definitely fun. I want people to take the initiative, the challenge. They should not discount it without trying it, just because of the image it has.”
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