Sunday, 22 January 2012

Hiromi Sakai - the 1st lady of Autorace - RIP

Female motorcycle speedway racer Hiromi Sakai died on January 15th 2012 after crashing during a practice session at the Funabashi speedway in the Chiba Prefecture of Japan. She had fallem from her machine andf then hit the fence. Sakai was taken to the medical room at the stadium but died from serious head injuries soon afterwards. This is a very unfortunate accident, as Sakai had just become one of the first female racers to be allowed to race in competition since the late 1960s.

Hiromi Sakai who died at Funabashi speedway on January 15th 2012
Hiromi Sakai and Maya Sato were the first female riders to appear  in Auto Race for over 40 years. Both of them had to overcome many obstacles, including the disapproval of their parents, to break into this uniquely Japanese sport, but they were hoping their efforts would inspire other women to enter this largely male domain.
Hiromi Sakai (No5) and Maya Sato (No10).
Auto Race, the Japanese version of speedway racing, is a gambling sport. There are currently six circuits operating in Japan and 465 professional riders take part. It can be a lucrative profession, with top riders earnig around 1 billion yen during a season and even the average professional earns around 14 million yen. The top prize for winning a handicap race can range from 15 million to 35 million yen. A lot of the prize money is invested back into their equipment, as all costs involved in Auto Race, including the motorcycles and their maintenance, are borne by the racers.

Auto Race is similar to conventional speedway racing in many ways, but rather than sliding on dirt, the bikes race on asphalt. The bikes are beautiful in their simplicity as well as being brutally powerful. The machines use identical 600cc twin cylinder engines made specially by Suzuki, whilst novices learn using a 500cc machine. The most striking feature of these spartan machines is their asymetrical handlebars, which are purposely bent upwards on the left hand side. This is to help the rider keep full control of the machine as they lean over around the big sweeping bends. The riders wear a steel shoe on the left foot, just like speedway riders, but this steel-clad left foot throws off sparks as it skims the track surface. Each rider is responsible for the maintenance of their own bikes too and any outside assistance is forbidden. Part of the riders’ training is spent in the workshops learning how to maintain and tune the motorcycles. Identical engines do not mean identical performance and every rider fiercely guards their tuning secrets. Even though bikes are routinely scrutinised for any sign of cheating, riders always find legal ways to achieve a competitive edge. Many racers believe that valve springs lose tension after even after just one race and replace them frequently, while some use worn valve springs when the track is slippery or wet.
Maya Sato
Maya Sato is only 19 and claimed her first Auto Race victory before a crowd of 5800 at the Kawaguchi Circuit on July 13, just one day after making her debut. Sato was born to be a motorcycle racer and has been riding motocross since she was 6 years old, but as soon as she was 16 (the minimum age to gain entry into the mandatory Auto Race training school), she quit college, turned her back on motocross, and turned her attention to track racing. She admitted that racing on an asphalt oval, without brakes, at speeds of up to 105 mph required some adjustment! Sato named her motorcycle Serena, after a leading character in the US TV drama Gossip Girl. “Serena is a strong-willed woman, and I want to be like her,” she said. Sato’s rookie win, however, earned her only 70,000 yen ($875), which is nothing compared to what she could earn.
Maya Sato in action on her bike nicknamed "Serena".
Hiromi Sakai was only 27. Her motorcycling pedigree wasn’t quite as rich as Sato’s, as she only took up the sport on a whim after going to a race three years ago. She quit her sales job as a travel agent and decided to become a professional Auto Race rider. “It was really difficult to convince my parents,” Sakai recalled. “But they eventually became really supportive". Sakai named her bike "J. Robinson", after Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. She made her debut on July 30th 2011 and had claimed her first race victory within a few weeks.
Hiromi Sakai practicing on her bike "J.Robinson".
It has taken nearly 45 years for women to return to Auto Race. In 1963 there were 66 women competing on the Japanese speedway tracks, and there was even a competition class solely for female riders. Nanae Okamoto was probably the last female rider to race on the Japanese dirt tracks, which were outlawed in the early 1970s. Nanae celebrated her retirement by touring the Australian tracks in 1968 with Junichi "Jimmy" Ogisu and midget speedcar racer "Happy" Hirano.
Nanae Okamoto racing in Australia in 1968
Sato and Sakai were among just 20 shortlisted for traing camp out of an initial group of 986. The Japan Keirin Authority (JKA), Auto Race’s governing body, recognised the commercial value of having women back on the track and went full throttle to encourage them and give the sport a promotional shot in the arm. Sato and Sakai were revving up for the rebirth of the female motorcycle racer, and with her early victory, Sato provided some excellent inspiration. Let's hope that Sakai's untimely death on the track does not put a stop to this welcome piece of forward thinking from the Japanese federation.

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Whitehaven, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Disenchanted City Boy who rode out of the fast lane and into the back lanes! Life on Two Wheels is so much fun.