The month of May in auto racing is synonymous with a number of marquee events – but the oldest and richest prize to be contested every May is the Indianapolis 500, held this year on May 28, 2017.
This year’s Indy 500 is filled with intriguing storylines, headlined by the debut of two-time Formula 1 World Champion, Fernando Alonso. Over in Japan, the country’s hopes for a victory lie solely with Alonso’s new teammate, Takuma Sato, who came within a lap of potentially winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing five years ago in 2012.
Many drivers have competed at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 100 runnings of the Indy 500, held over a span of 106 years. Six of them have also competed in the Autobacs Super GT Series, including three current GT500 drivers, and one former GT500 champion!
With 119 starts over a career that spanned 19 years, Hideshi Matsuda still remains one of the Autobacs Super GT Series’ most experienced and accomplished drivers. Even into his late 50s, Matsuda was a fixture of the Super GT grid until 2012, and one of the select few drivers to have won races in both GT500 and GT300 classes.
But it was at the Indianapolis 500 where Matsuda first rose to prominence, as only the second Japanese driver to start the race. The powerful turbo-V8 IndyCars of the mid-90s were a massive step up for Matsuda, who had previously driven in All-Japan F3000, JTC, JSPC, and Formula 3 – and was even a pit reporter for TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) in their coverage of the 1993 race, before making his first start in 1994 for Dick Simon Racing.
Matsuda’s best Indy result in four starts was eighth in the tumultuous 1996 Indianapolis 500, the first after the American open-wheel racing split betwen CART and the new Indy Racing League. Carrying the Team Taisan colours on his Beck Motorsports Lola/Ford, Matsuda survived a war of mechanical atrition and several hard crashes, gaining 22 spots after starting an inconspicuous 30th on the grid.
Today, Matsuda is the lead commentator for Gaora Sports’ coverage of the IndyCar Series.
Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo director Toranosuke Takagi has driven the world over, in Formula 1, IndyCar, and of course in Japan – where he won the 2005 Super GT GT500 championship driving for Cerumo and alongside Yuji Tachikawa. Takagi also won the 2000 Formula Nippon Championship in dominant fashion – which led to a brief career in America.
Takagi made his first Indy 500 start in 2003 driving for Mo Nunn, who had also worked with legendary drivers Alex Zanardi and Tony Kanaan. Takagi and Mo Nunn Racing were part of a wave of defectors from CART to the IRL that year, but Takagi hadn’t broken through in America up to that point, being known more for coming out on the wrong end of some brazen maneuvers on track than any sustained success.
That changed when Takagi qualified 7th for the 2003 Indianapolis 500, then ran up front all day long – including when he led two laps in the final quarter of the race – en route to a 5th place finish.
Even after the incredible close call from his countryman Takuma Sato in 2012, Takagi’s 5th place in 2003, which won him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award, is the best result for a Japanese driver in this race as of the eve of the 101st running on May 28, 2017.
Shinji Nakano and Toranosuke Takagi spent most of their careers traveling in step – from Japan, to two-year stints in Formula 1, and eventually, to the American open-wheel ranks. Nakano made the jump to CART in 2000, and like Takagi, he had also struggled for consistent results before defecting to IndyCar ahead of the 2003 season.
Nakano landed a ride for the 2003 Indianapolis 500 with Beck Motorsports, the same Hideshi Matsuda drove for in 1996 and 1997. He qualified a respectable 15th, and finished a respectable 14th – albeit four laps down, Nakano still saw the chequered flag. Unfortunately, Beck Motorsports didn’t have the budget to run any more races, and Nakano’s career in America came to an abrupt end.
Nakano then went on to drive his first stint in Super GT, for Team Kunimitsu with Mooncraft, in 2004. He’s still a member of the Honda racing family, driving in the Super Taikyu Endurance Series for the Civic TCR Racing Project run by Dome Racing.
The first of the three active Super GT drivers that have raced the Indy 500 is Kosuke Matsuura of Nakajima Racing. Matsuura drove for Autobacs Racing Team Aguri for the last six seasons – a relationship with team director Aguri Suzuki that began way back in the early 2000s, which led to his IndyCar debut with Aguri-Fernandez Racing.
Matsuura entered the Indy 500 four times, his best result coming in his debut season of 2004, when he qualified 9th – ahead of the reigning IndyCar champion, Scott Dixon – and went on to finish a respectable 11th place. Like Takagi before him, Matsuura was awarded Rookie of the Year for the 2004 Indianapolis 500.
After his final Indy 500 in 2007, Matsuura returned to Japan, where he’s competed in Super GT ever since, including a memorable victory in the 2013 Sugo GT 300km Race – leading a double victory for ARTA in both GT500 and GT300 classes. He is also a commentator for the IndyCar Series on Gaora Sports, including this year’s Indy 500.
Following Matsuura, the next Honda protegé to make the trip to the fabled Brickyard was Hideki Mutoh, who by the time he arrived for his first Indianapolis 500 start in 2008 with Andretti Autosport, was already a race winner in GT500 – he won with Loïc Duval in the EPSON Nakajima Racing Honda NSX at Fuji Speedway at the 2006 season finale.
Mutoh’s debut in 2008 was also the first unified Indianapolis 500 after the split had come to an end, and he was more than determined to prove his worth – even more so with the weight of replacing the reigning Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion, Dario Franchitti. He did just that, by qualifying 9th as the fastest rookie in the field, and finishing 7th, only behind fellow newcomer Ryan Hunter-Reay, who went on to win the race in 2014.
Mutoh made two more starts, in 2009 and 2010, the latter with the legendary Newman/Haas Racing, before returning to Japan in 2011. After winning the 2013 GT300 Championship with Team Mugen in their Honda CR-Z GT Hybrid, Mutoh now finds himself at Mugen once again as they return to the GT500 class this year.
The only foreign Super GT driver to have also competed at Indy was Bertrand Baguette, who has been Nakajima Racing’s lead driver aboard the Epson Honda NSX since 2014. But before Baguette was a star in Japan, he was one of Europe’s top junior formula drivers, winning the 2009 Formula Renault 3.5 Series Championship.
Baguette landed in IndyCar in 2010 with Conquest Racing, run by fellow Belgian, Eric Bachelart. But after a season bereft of results, Baguette was out of a full-time ride for 2011. Instead, he took up a one-off drive at the Indianapolis 500 with Rahal-Letterman Lanigan Racing, who had also fallen on hard times as they’d been forced into part-time status due to a lack of funding.
That led to an improbable scenario late in the race. After starting 14th, Baguette suddenly found himself of the lead of the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 with twelve laps to go. Baguette stretched every drop of fuel that he could to stay in the lead, and even though he stopped for fuel just three laps to go, he had become an unlikely hero at the Brickyard for his performance.
The final three laps are permanently etched into Indy 500 lore: Rookie J.R. Hildebrand assumes the lead from Baguette, and seems set to coast to an equally improbable victory, before crashing on the final corner of the final lap, and allowing Dan Wheldon to win his second, and last, Indianapolis 500.
André Lotterer – who drove for Dale Coyne Racing in the 2002 CART World Series finale at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, once and current home of the Formula 1 Mexican Grand Prix.
João Paulo de Oliveira – who drove as an unlikely cameo entrant in the 2011 Indy Japan at Twin Ring Motegi’s road course, as the reigning Formula Nippon (now Super Formula) champion.
Ryo Hirakawa – who tested for Dale Coyne Racing in 2013 as the reigning All-Japan F3 champion. The 19-year-old appeared to be close to a drive with Coyne, but we can only speculate for now that his backers at Toyota blocked a move to the Honda-powered squad.