Thursday, October 27, 2016

10/20/02: Remembering the "Hideo Fukuyama Racing Project”

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On October 20, 2002, Hideo Fukuyama picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway when his #66 Standing Together / World Berries Ford fell out with crash damage after 400 of 500 laps.  The finish came in Fukuyama’s second series start.

Born August 13, 1955 in Owase of Japan’s Mie prefecture, Fukuyama honed his racing skills on the road courses.  At 22, he claimed his first of five racing championships on the Japanese circuits - the 1979 Formula Libre 500 division.  While winning races and titles in touring cars and, in 1997, the 1997 Super GT GT300 class championship, he branched out into international competition.  Four times, he competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: 1988, 1995, 2000, and 2001.  In the 2000 race, when he teamed with fellow drivers Atsushi Yogo and Bruno Lambert, the group drove their Porsche 911 GT3-R to a class win in the GT division.

Fukuyama’s first exposure to NASCAR came through the series’ three Japanese exhibition races run between 1996 and 1998.  The inaugural event, run on the Suzuka Circuitland road course, introduced Fukuyama to team owner Travis Carter, who invited the driver to take a turn in the #23 Camel Powered Ford raced during the season by Jimmy Spencer.  Fukuyama started 18th in the 27-car field, but a late crash left him 22nd.  Though he was disappointed, none other than Dale Earnhardt came by to cheer him up.  “You should come to America and race.  Your driving is very good,” Fukuyama recalled through an interpreter.  The words guided the next phase of his career.

Fukuyama competed in the other two Japan exhibitions, improving his finish both times.  He ran 21st in the return to Suzuka, then 17th in the 1998 round at Twin Ring Motegi, the same day Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. raced together for the first time.  He ranked second of four Japanese drivers in the ‘97 running and led the four in ‘98.  Fukuyama also made two starts in the Winston West Series (now K&N Pro Series West), finishing 19th at Pikes Peak and 15th in a 1999 race at Motegi.

After Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, Fukuyama became more motivated than ever to reach the Winston Cup Series.  “I am here to keep a promise,” he said.  A program known as the “Hideo Fukuyama Racing Project,” or HFRP, was founded with the purpose of reaching that goal.  The pre-Kickstarter effort collected funds, and now looked for a team.

In 2002, the 47-year-old Fukuyama reunited with team owner Travis Carter, whose team was now co-owned by Carl Haas.  Despite the new investment, the Carter-Haas team had been in dire financial straits all season after K-Mart pulled its sponsorship of both cars.  The time was right to give Fukuyama his chance.  “I was impressed with Hideo when he drove for me in Japan and continue to be impressed with his ability to adapt and drive these race cars,” he said.  “He’s very methodical and thinks things through.”  Though Fukuyama’s proficiency with English was limited, Carter wasn’t concerned about a language barrier.  “He understands more words than he can speak.  We’ve worked on specific words and what they mean.”

Following three tests at Dover in August and September, Carter agreed to a three-race deal in the closing months of the 2002 season.  In keeping with NASCAR’s rule to have new drivers compete on tracks no longer than one mile in length, Fukuyama’s first attempt would come at Dover, followed by Martinsville and Rockingham.  His blue No. 66 Ford didn’t have a major sponsor for Dover, only small backing from World Berries.  Across the quarter-panel and rear bumper, four characters in Japanese Kanji spelled out Fukuyama’s name - the first two for his last name, the second two for his first. On the hood were the Japanese and American flags crossed at the poles, beneath them the words “Standing Together.”

If a sponsor could be found, Carter planned to have Fukuyama return in 2003.  A report in September 2002 even indicated that Fukuyama could receive backing from Toyota, who at the time considered entering Cup competition in 2005.

Despite his time testing, Fukuyama struggled to make the adjustment to the fast Dover track. His #66 Ford ranked slowest in the weekend’s three practice sessions.  But with the help of Geoffrey Bodine, who also raced for Carter that July, Fukuyama closed the gap, improving from 141mph to 145.  He would need every ounce of speed to make the show - 46 cars arrived to attempt the 43-car field, and Fukuyama had an early draw as the 5th car out.   “It’s a very, very difficult track,” he said.  “It’s something I never experienced in the past.”

Right when it counted most, the rookie put up his fastest lap of the weekend at 153.074mph.  This was just enough to take the final spot from owner-driver Brett Bodine, who had run out of provisionals for his #11 Hooters Restaurants Ford.  Fukuyama would now become the first Japanese driver to ever qualify for a NASCAR race.  “I want to learn about the NASCAR system and the NASCAR environment,” he said.  “I promise that I will drive for everybody’s safety.”  At one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks, he did just that.  Fukuyama finished 39th, out with transmission issues, but came home ahead of Jerry Nadeau, Bobby Labonte, Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton, and Fukuyama’s own teammate Todd Bodine.  Next came Martinsville.

Carrying the same paint scheme from Dover, Fukuyama came to NASCAR’s shortest track with an even steeper task in qualifying.  Following the late entry of Carl Long’s #59 Check-Into-Cash , he was now one of 48 drivers competing for the 43-spot grid.  Though he wasn’t the slowest car in the opening practice session, he did fall to the rear in the second and once again had to fight for his spot.  Again, he prevailed, snagging the last provisional for the 43rd and final position.  Joining Long’s post-entry on the DNQ list were owner-drivers Morgan Shepherd and Kirk Shelmerdine, plus Brian Rose and Ryan McGlynn, who were both attempting to make their Cup debut.  Tony Stewart wondered if Fukuyama knew what he was getting into.  “This will probably be the longest day of his life,” he said.

The NASCAR Busch Series race at Memphis, scheduled the previous day, was postponed to Sunday, forcing a couple driver changes.  Kenny Wallace’s ride in the #23 Hills Brothers Dodge for Bill Davis Racing went to Geoffrey Bodine.  Jamie McMurray, who stunned everyone with his first career victory just days before, climbed out of the injured Sterling Marlin’s #40 Marines / Coors Light Dodge, handing over the seat to Mike Bliss.  Steve Grissom climbed aboard Petty Enterprises’ #44 Georgia-Pacific Dodge, but he filled-in for Jerry Nadeau for a different reason.  Four days before the race, Nadeau broke at least two ribs in a go-karting accident and was out for the rest of the season.

Cool temperatures and a freshly-ground inside groove resulted in a competitive battle for last place.  On Lap 6, Fukuyama was 7.413 seconds behind race leader Ryan Newman when Ricky Rudd slowed off Turn 4 with a flat left-front tire.  The caution didn’t come out, so Rudd was forced to pit under green, dropping him to last as the first car to be lapped.  On the 7th circuit, the Jim Smith-owned #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge of Casey Atwood slowed in Turn 1 with a flat left-rear tire.  Again, the caution didn’t come out, and the stop cost him a lap as well.  By Lap 30, Rudd had passed Atwood for 42nd, and Atwood had gone down a second lap.

Fukuyama, himself a lap down, retook the 43rd spot by Lap 79, and went down a second lap by the 90th.  He was three down by Lap 191, four by Lap 286, and five by Lap 312, but managed to stay out of trouble during any of the first ten cautions.  Nearing the 400-lap mark, the race had managed to be both clean and physical - spins and flat tires, not accidents, were the cause for the caution.  This kept all 43 cars on track well into the final stages.  On Lap 408, Fukuyama was still in last, but had lost just his eighth lap.  No one else was down more than three.  Alan Bestwick, Benny Parsons, and Wally Dallenbach, Jr. had just finished saying how pleased they were with how he’d stayed out of everyone’s way.  Then it went sideways.

Heading through Turn 3, Fukuyama lost control and backed hard into the outside wall, caving in the left-rear of his car.  He managed to get #66 rolling again, but then pulled behind the wall, done for the day as the first retiree.

The only other driver to fall out that Sunday was Bill Elliott, whose #9 Dodge Dealers / UAW Dodge for Evernham Motorsports brought out the final caution with a wreck on the frontstretch. Joe Nemechek came home 41st, just four laps down in Hendrick Motorsports’ #25 UAW-Delphi Chevrolet.  Relief drivers Steve Grissom and Geoffrey Bodine, both three laps down, rounded out the Bottom Five.

Roush Racing’s Kurt Busch, who started a distant 36th, took the checkered flag that day, holding off a furious challenge by Johnny Benson, Jr.  As of this writing, a Ford has not won at Martinsville since.

In his next attempt at Rockingham, Fukuyama missed the field, but over the offseason he did acquire sponsorship from, of all companies, Kikkoman Soy Sauce.  The plan was for an “ABC” effort - that is, ARCA, Busch Series, and Cup - during which time Fukuyama would be eligible for Rookie of the Year.  He began the year in the third Cup race of the season at Las Vegas, where he actually bumped fellow rookie Greg Biffle from the field in qualifying and finished 33rd.  The first of three ARCA starts came the next month at the Nashville Superspeedway, where he qualified a strong 6th before a multi-car crash left him 34th.  Incidentally, the win that day went to an 18-year-old Kyle Busch, who had also won the pole in a Rick Hendrick-prepared Chevrolet.  On May 23, he earned his career-best finish in a stock car by coming home 16th in the ARCA race at Charlotte.

On the Cup side, Fukuyama had been handed a pair of consecutive DNQs at Fontana and Richmond, but looked ahead to the first road course of the season at Sonoma.  True to form, he made qualifying a nail-biter, securing the 43rd and final spot.  And, once again, he sent another present-day Cup driver home - Paul Menard, who was entered in a #33 Turtle Wax Chevrolet fielded by Andy Petree Racing.  Unfortunately, the race once again did not go well.  At the start of the race, the knob broke off the top of his gearshift, and shifting gears became a painful exercise.  Just past the halfway point, #66 stalled on the track with a busted rear end, leaving him last once more.  Following a “did not start” in July’s ARCA race at Pocono, Fukuyama was slated to run the Cup race at Watkins Glen.  The deal fell apart, however, and his Cup effort was effectively over.  Toyota wouldn’t enter Cup competition for nearly four years.

Fukuyama returned to Japan and once again competed in the Japanese Super GT Series.  This time, in addition to running Porsches, he also raced Chevrolets and Fords.  He also began a career as a television racing announcer.

*This marked the first time the #66 finished last in a Cup race at Martinsville since April 8, 2001, when the engine let go on Todd Bodine’s #66 K-Mart Blue Light Special Ford after 12 laps of the Virginia 500.  The number would not finish last there again until March 30, 2014, when Joe Nemechek broke J.D. McDuffie’s record for most Cup Series last-place finishes.

43) #66-Hideo Fukuyama / 400 laps / crash
42) #9-Bill Elliott / 424 laps / crash
41) #25-Joe Nemechek / 496 laps / running
40) #44-Steve Grissom / 497 laps / running
39) #23-Geoffrey Bodine / 497 laps / running / led 5 laps

*2002 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, NBC
*Brinster, Dick. “Earnhardt’s advice guided Fukuyama,” Herald-Journal, September 21, 2002.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*Fukuyama, Carter Interview -, September 20, 2002.
*Meixell, Ted. “Lepage tours ‘Monster Mile’ at 155.757mph to earn Busch Series pole,” The Morning Call, September 21, 2002.
*Stiglich, Joe. “Japanese racer living a dream in NASCAR,” Sunday Free Lance-Star, June 22, 2003.
*Wikipedia - Hideo Fukuyama

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