This Is What Grassroots Racing In Japan Looks Like

Photo: Ken Saito
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There’s no shortage of glitzy motorsports events in Japan. A lot of it happens at the bigger and more well-known tracks such as Suzuka Circuit and Fuji Speedway, the latter especially due to its accessibility. However, because of its size Fuji, can be quite expensive to rent out which means only the real fancy stuff goes on there.

For more of the grassroots stuff you have to head out further away from Tokyo and wander into the smaller tracks. The Twin Ring Motegi isn’t exactly an unknown track nor is it particularly small, but compared to Fuji and Suzuka it somehow feels more unpolished and real.

It’s not a fancy facility; it’s just a track and some pit garages. The Idlers Club, a loose collection of Japanese gearheads involved in racing, aren’t the only people hosting grassroots motorsports events, but they’re the only ones doing it on a scale like this. While other events are separated into domestics and imports, Idlers has a mix of both.

I was out there after having joined a bunch of RWB Porsche owners on their way to the event, though we had to drive through a bit of a typhoon to get there. All worth it in the end.

Motegi just seemed like the perfect place to host the Idlers 12 Hour race. If ever you wanted to see what enthusiasts racing in Japan looked like, this is one of the best ways to do it. The Idlers Club was founded by Atsushi Seike, who’s also editor of the Idlers magazine and a Japanese 911 magazine. Suffice to say, this man knows and loves his 911s.

The Idlers are all about making the local car community better through new friendships and memories with various events. Speaking with Ken Negoro from the Idlers Club, he explained to me the ethos of Idlers is an idle, or free person. “We think of our event as a ‘sports day’ at school, a sports day for all car enthusiasts,” he said.

Idlers also organize various other races such as six sprint events, 3 endurance races, and driving academies. They’re a pretty cool bunch.

The Idlers 12 Hour Race has been a constant on the Japanese motorsports calendar since 2000, when before that the longest race they had was only eight hours long. It’s not just a Porsche-centric event though—everyone and everything is invited to participate.

There was a whole plethora of cars on the grid, from a Citroen 2CV all the way to a Lamborghini Huracan GT3. There were humble hatchbacks such as Mazda2s and Toyota Yaris going head-to-head with RWB Porches and Lotuses.

It didn’t matter how much horsepower or cash you had in front of you (or behind you), this was all about seeing if human and machine could last the 12 hours.

Teams are sorted out by driver skill and types of cars to make it an even playing field. However, a race like this isn’t exactly against other drivers or teams, but more a race against the clock. It’s more about seeing who can finish the most laps in each of their respective categories. Of course, some people do take this as serious competition but most are here to enjoy the experience and atmosphere.

Time was definitely a big part of the day. After the antics from the night before I was functioning on a couple hours of sleep. I got to Motegi just as the cars had lined up at the grid, whereas everyone else was already here before the crack of dawn.

Already I knew this was an experience unlike anything else I’ve been to before. But without a question the teams and the people that have the Idlers 12 Hours still popular today, even 18 years after its inception. With a grid of 100 cars they must be doing something right.

There were crew members, staff, and fans out on the starting grid literally moments before the start of the race. People chatting, taking photos, and having breakfast. I’ve never seen anything like this at Fuji or Suzuka. For some reason they’re a lot more lax here and that was the overarching feel of Motegi and this race.

It felt less strict and by the books than other bigger events. Of course, this race still had rules and regulations teams had to follow but it just felt more liberal.

The first couple hours of the race were pretty interesting. That typhoon that had passed the night before left the track a wet mess. From what I gathered throughout the day, this was the first time it had rained at the Idlers 12 Hours. The slippery surface proved to be a tricky challenge for a couple cars causing them to spin out onto the kitty litter.

Spinning off the track entails a $300 fine. There were a lot of $300 fines on that day.

By the third hour the clouds had cleared up and made way for the sun, but only for a few moments. They later returned and brought back a spattering of rain. The constantly changing conditions made for an exciting race to watch, and we were only a quarter of the way through it.

Out by the pit garages it was just as hectic. As a rule of the Idlers 12 Hours, all cars start off with 45 liters of fuel and can only refuel up to 20 liters at every pit stop. Each car must stop for five minutes to allow for driver changes and refuelling.

Additionally, drivers can only do one-hour stints so most teams will have around four to six drivers taking turns. Amazingly, there were only two petrol pumps behind the pit garages which caused a bit a queue by midday.

After a quick lunch at the Gran Turismo Cafe (yes, that’s a real thing and it was very cool), I decided to seek shelter from the now scorching heat. The only downside to this event was that it was unbearably hot. It was over 100 degrees with ridiculous humidity, like walking around in a sauna after bathing in honey. It was disgusting. Not to mention all the bug bites I had accumulated throughout the day. The only thing to do was seek refuge inside.

So it was time to revisit the Honda Collection Hall. I’ve already been here before but it was the closest place with comfy seats and air conditioning I could seek refuge in. Luckily they had a cool Le Mans display that day. I’d recommend taking an hour or two away from the race in the afternoon, the heat was just that bad. I can’t imagine how hot it must’ve been for the drivers out there.

After cooling off it was time to explore the rest of the track and get some different angles. As great as it was seeing them come through the tunnel after the 90 degree corner and the Victory Corner, I wanted to check out the S-bends and hairpin corner too. Luckily, I had a kei-car to take around the circuit because god forbid I walk in heat and humidity.

I’ve never been to a proper endurance race before. The longest race I’ve watched was the Six Hours at Fuji, and that felt like an eternity to me. I didn’t get that feeling here. Perhaps because I was constantly moving around, sorry, driving around the track and watching from different vantage points made it more interesting. Or maybe it was because the variety of cars made it more interesting to watch than the same GT cars going around.

If you’ve never seen a Citroën 2CV floor it down a straight while Huracans, 911s, Integras, and Alfa Romeos are overtaking it, you’re clearly missing out. It’s utterly hilarious.

The 2CV guy may not have posted the fastest lap times but I’m sure he had great fun doing it. A special shoutout also goes to the guy who brought a Toyota Probox, basically a commercial vehicle used by sales reps to drive up and down motorways.

A lot of the cars still had their license plates on, so basically it seemed like if you had a helmet, racing suit, and some stickers on your car you were good to go. There were new cars such as an Audi RS3 sedan and Alfa Romeo 4C Spider that had looked like they literally just drove straight on to the circuit from the motorway.

As night felt, some of the 100 cars that started in the morning were no longer running. The last hour was busy with final pit stops, refueling and driver changes. This was when race came alive.

It was the home stretch for these guys who had been out all day in the rain, heat, and humidity with little to no way of cooling down. Drivers were fighting fatigue, diminishing light, and the remaining cars on the grid.

I, on the other hand, was fighting with mosquitos who had decided I’d be their dinner that night.

The night part of the race was definitely my favorite. You could feel the intensity in the pit garages and by the point in the race the drivers must’ve memorized the track by heart, balancing out the lack of lighting.

In the last few laps, fans and crew lined the pit straight to cheer on their teammates in the final moments of the race as the checkered flag drops.

SEV Racing Team in the blue Lotus 2-11 was the overall winner completing 241 laps and was also the leader in their respective category. There was celebration and applause as the car rolled into their garage. It was the same story in pretty much all the other pit garages.

It didn’t matter if they came in first, 54th, or 82nd, it was all about the experience. There was no disappointment, just cheering and celebrating.

Unfortunately not all cars finished—the wet weather certainly claimed some victims. The tow trucks had their fair share of work on the day pulling out multiple cars from the sand traps.

Only two other cars managed to match the 2-11’s 241 laps; the no. 136 Integra and the no. 45 MX-5 Miata.

Incredibly, the Huracan GT3 finished 240 laps while the Idlers’ 911 completed 237. RWB no. 93 did 193 laps, the most for the RWB cars while our mate in the 2CV finished 174 laps, beating out RWBs and the Lancia Beta Coupe. Amazing.

After celebrating in the pit garages, some teams brought their cars out for a photo shoot. The Idlers team posed by their 911 and Mini while the the massive RWB family gathered out in front of their garage.

That’s what this whole event felt like, an excuse for a family get-together than than a full-blown pro race. Yes, racing is involved, but it’s about doing it with friends and family that makes it fun and interesting. It’s exactly what grassroots racing should be.

Motegi was also a great and interesting track to do it on, mainly because it was a change of pace and scenery from Fuji. The track felt more grungy and intimate, you get closer to the cars trackside than you would at Fuji. It was just a bit of a pain to get around in but that’s part of the experience. The Idlers 12 Hours was all about the experiences and it’s one I’d recommend you to see for yourself. It’s not a big event that gets a lot of coverage, there aren’t even that many spectators and the few were locals. Thanks to everyone at Idlers and RWB for making me feel right at home here. Let’s see what next year has in store.