“Is this an eggplant?”
That’s literally what NAS-CAR means in Japanese according to motorsports journalist Kenji Momota in the new “Made in Japan” documentary that premieres Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. ET on FS1.
There was plenty of confusion to be had when NASCAR accepted an offer from Circuit Suzuka general manager Hiromishi Suzuki to promote a Winston Cup exhibition race on the legendary Japanese road course back in November 1996.
The event, dubbed the Suzuka Thunder Special, saw the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace make the 7,000-mile trip to compete against several top Japanese drivers on their own home turf in stock cars.
The 1990s were a transcendent era in NASCAR’s evolutionary track.
With new venues springing up in Las Vegas, Southern California and Fort Worth, it was a clear sign that the sanctioning body had shed its southern roots to become a true national sensation.
But the deal to send the Cup Series to the Far East signified that NASCAR had ambitions to become a global brand.
In hindsight, the first of three straight events in Japan was just the beginning of what led to NASCAR to becoming a league with tours in Europe, Mexico and Canada. This 30-minute special examines why NASCAR teams packed up their cars in shipping containers and sent them to the other side of the world.
It also explores the impact 20 years later.
Featuring interviews with Gordon, Momota, Suzuki, Wallace and other Cup Series notables, the documentary is surprisingly candid and unexpectedly humorous. It includes never-before-seen videos of drivers exploring the Land of the Rising Sun and sharing traditional Japanese meals with their new hosts and the four Japanese drivers entered into the contest.
Who doesn’t want to see Dale Earnhardt share lunch with Hideo Fukuyama?
Back in 1996, the Japanese had never heard the thundering roar of 30 V8 engines. They believed NASCAR was an odd question to be asked by a gaijin who mispronounced something in a translation guide.
Now NASCAR is a brand recognized across the globe, and it began with the Suzuka Thunder Special.