The Japan Grand Prix at Fuji, Chapter I: 1966

The first chapter of a four-part series chronicling the history of the 1960s Japan Grand Prix Car Races at Fuji Speedway, beginning with the 3rd running of the Japan Grand Prix at Fuji.

The 1966 Japan Grand Prix Car Race was the first major event to be held at the brand-new Fuji International Speedway, located in the small town of Oyama in Shizuoka Prefecture – situated in the foothills of the awe-inspiring national monument that is Mount Fuji.

The first Japan Grand Prix Car Race was held on 3 May, 1963 – Constitution Memorial Day in Japan – at the all-new Suzuka International Racing Course. It was the first major automobile race in post-war Japan, drawing in over 200,000 spectators to the circuit for two days of racing.

The second Japan Grand Prix in 1964 was another major success. The racing legend of one of the country’s most beloved sports cars, the Nissan Skyline, was born at this event. The ’64 Japan GP also saw the debut of the JAF Trophy, the country’s first race for formula cars.

The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) was in charge of sanctioning the Japan Grand Prix – in fact, this was one of their very first acts as Japan’s national car club, having only been established one month before the inaugural race in April 1963. In the autumn of 1964, the JAF made the stunning announcement that the 1965 Japan GP was cancelled. In their announcement, the JAF lamented that plans for a main event race for Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars had not materialized, and stated that the development of national car clubs was now the top priority going forward.

Behind the scenes, however, the biggest factor that drove the JAF and Suzuka Circuit apart was money. Kosuke Honda (no relation to Soichiro of the eponymous Honda Motor Company) was the JAF’s head of motorsports. In a 2007 interview with Car Graphic magazine, Honda claims that Suzuka Circuit had raised the hosting fee for the event from 15 million yen in 1964, to 50 million yen for 1965.

A placeholder event, the All-Japan Car Club Race Meeting, was held instead in July 1965. The first event ever held at the technical, tricky Funabashi Circuit – located just outside of downtown Tokyo. Within 24 months, Funabashi Circuit would be shut down and dismantled as financial issues plagued the circuit shortly after its opening.

But in 1966, the Japan Grand Prix would return to the calendar, at an all-new venue that would soon become the permanent home for the biggest automobile race in the country.

Fuji Speedway’s road to completion was long and arduous in its own right. The circuit was originally proposed by the Japanese Minister of Construction, Ichiro Kono, the man who oversaw the construction of the country’s first express motorway, the Meishin Expressway. Kono wanted to build a permanent race course that he felt would suit automobile racing better than the narrow, technical Suzuka Circuit or the even more constrained Funabashi.

Originally, Fuji Speedway was conceived as a 2.5 mile superspeedway oval, identical to Daytona International Speedway in the United States. The simple answer to why the originally-planned oval course was never built commonly goes, “the track builders ran out of money, and built a road course instead.” As it turns out, there were many more factors at play.

The topography of the land where Fuji Speedway was built runs downhill from west to east at a fairly steep grade. F1 great Stirling Moss surveyed the site when construction began in July 1964, had one look at the sloping plot of land, and reportedly told track designer Charles Moneypenny, “It’s a load of nonsense to build an oval course in this kind of terrain.”

Ichiro Kono passed away in July 1965, leaving the Japan NASCAR Company, which oversaw Fuji Speedway’s development, into the hands of his son Yohei. Around this same time, Yohei had a falling out with NASCAR themselves, leading to the end of a proposed deal to bring the Grand National Series to the far east.

Later in 1965, Mitsubishi Estate took over management of the Japan NASCAR Company, now renamed Fuji International Speedway Company (FISCO for short), and helped inject enough funding to complete the track. By now, it was a 6 kilometer road course.

The circuit still left one remnant of the original superspeedway proposal upon its completion: A downhill, 30-degree banked right-hand corner that came to be known as Daiichi – “the Big One.”


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