It is one of the most popular racing series in the entire world, and certainly the most popular in Japan. With several manufacturers, dozens of cars and teams participating, the Super GT (formerly known as the JGTC) has focused the limelight on Japanese motorsports. Just what is it about the Super GT that makes fans go wild and obsessive about it? I recently got a chance to find out first hand at Round 4 of the series in Sepang Malaysia.
Arriving there on a Saturday morning qualifying session, the first thing that I immediately noticed was the sound of the cars. The low rumble of the 350Z, Supra, and NSX was mixed with the high pitched wail of the V12 from the Lamborghini Murcielago. The GT300 Mazda RX7 of RE Amemiya was arguably the loudest of them all, running a 3-rotor rotary engine. The sounds from all the racecars contribute to the whole atmosphere and intensity of the races.
Every race weekend, the series holds what it calls the "Pit Walk" wherein visitors can buy a pass to walk through the pit lane, get a chance to greet the drivers, and view the race cars (up to a certain extent). One hour each is allotted on Friday practice, Saturday qualifying, and Sunday race. Walking through the pitlane, I catch the sight of a few drivers including Satoshi Motoyama of Xanavi Nismo, Michael Krumm of Motul Autech Nismo, and Seiji Ara of Woodone Advan Clarion Z. Although there are barriers that separate the fans from drivers, they are generally very willing to have their pictures taken and to give out autographs. Some teams also take the opportunity to give out souvenirs including fans, stickers, brochures, etc. Of course the Pit Walk is also the perfect chance to catch a glimpse of the Race Queens at their finest. After this one hour of chaos, it's back to business as the teams ready themselves for the 2nd qualifying session.
Sunday morning marks an early 8am departure from the hotel. Since Sepang Circuit is approximately one hour away from the heart of Kuala Lumpur, we needed enough time to prepare ourselves. New for this day was our Motul GT Club VIP passes courtesy of Autoplus Sportzentrium. The pass basically allows us to hang out at the VIP room reserved for Motul's guests. This is of tremendous help as the searing heat of Sepang necessitates that we have an area to rest and refresh ourselves when necessary. Having arrived early, we decided to check out the grandstand area where a variety of merchandise was being sold. Also at the grandstand was a huge car display consisting of modified Nissan Skyline GTRs, Toyota Supras, Nissan Silvias (S14 and S15), Subaru Imprezas, Lancer Evolutions, and many others.
Sunday lunchtime also marked another interesting event unique to the Super GT, the "Circuit Safari". Basically visitors are given a chance to buy a ticket where they'll ride in one of three tour buses that will go around the track. That's not all. The bus will be going around the track while the Super GT racecars are doing their practice runs! That means participants will get a chance to see up close how the cars negotiate the different turns and straights of the track.
After the Circuit Safari, the good people at Motul brought the four Nismo drivers Satoshi Motoyama, Richard Lyons, Michael Krumm, and Tsugio Matsuda to the VIP room. Apparently Matsuda recently celebrated his birthday so a cake was prepared and the guests at Motul had a chance to interact with the drivers. I managed to request for a group picture with Satoshi Motoyama and Michael Krumm which they both happily obliged.
Beside the Motul room was the Bridgestone VIP room where we caught a glimpse of Ralph Firman and Daisuke Ito of ARTA NSX giving a mini press conference.
After lunch, it was time again for Sunday's Pit Walk. Seeing as how I already got enough pictures on Saturday, I tried to look for something different this time. I strolled to the garage of RE Amemiya where, interestingly, no barrier separated the drivers from the fans. They were signing autographs and having their pictures taken. After grabbing a few group shots, I noticed a familiar looking bearded person working on the RX7, it was Isami Amemiya himself! He was especially kind as he allowed everyone to have pictures taken with him, despite being busy working on the car. This is the Super GT at its best.
3:00pm marked the start of the opening events for the Super GT race. Teams held their warm up laps and parked the cars at the grid for 45 minutes of the opening procession. Only media personnel and selected VIPs were allowed onto the start-finish straight. I immediately see superstar drifter Nobuteru Taniguchi in shorts casually talking to a team boss at the pitlane. After finally being allowed on the start finish straight, I hustle to get as much pictures and closer look at the cars as possible. I would later find out that due to the sheer number of cars participating, 30 minutes just is not enough to go from the front of the pack to the back of the grid. While in front, I see someone in bright orange surrounded by producers, bodyguards, and race queens. I quickly realize that it's the Drift King himself Keichi Tsuchiya and I manage to take a quick picture of him before getting overcome by the cameramen eager to get a shot. At the Eclipse Advan area, I see another popular drifter Manabu Orido just sitting down trying to cool off in the Sepang heat. I ask if I could take a picture with him, he doesn't reply but just smiles. So I position myself behind him and have my partner snap away. He pays us no attention, apparently this is so common to them that they are already immune to the dozens of photographers taking their pictures.
The race starts at exactly 4:00pm through a rolling start in what could only be described as a symphony of engine noise. Lasting for approximately 2 hours, the race itself is just part of the spectacle that is the Super GT.
Walking back to parking lot at the end of the day, we spot another Japanese icon, Motoharu "Gan San" Kurosawa of Best Motoring fame. Even though he was already about to drive away, he still departed from his car to have pictures taken with us. We all go back to the hotel with big smiles on our faces. I guess this is what essentially makes the Super GT popular. The racing action, the race queens, the interaction with the fans, they all are there to ensure one thing, and that is to make the fans as happy as possible. This is the essence of the Super GT, and this is what makes it one of the most popular motorsport series in the world.