There was a point where it didn't look as if the IZOD IndyCar Series would be returning for its final visit to Japan.
On March 11 of this year, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami leveled Japan, causing tens of thousands of casualties and destroying large amounts of infrastructure. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant suffered a series of partial meltdowns, which caused evacuations within an 18-20 mile radius around the plant.
Obviously, thoughts of racing should come second after what the country endured, but there has been a certain level of scrutiny linked with INDYCAR and Twin Ring Motegi's decision to continue with the race.
Although it sits roughly 70 miles outside of Fukushima, the race has become the big topic of discussion in IndyCar circles as the Japan trip draws near. Originally, the series was supposed to make its last visit to the Motegi oval, but structural damage necessitated a move to the road course. In the weeks and months after the initial disaster, there was some dissension regarding the Series' travel plans, especially after several high-profile MotoGP racers voiced their reluctance to go to Japan, voicing fears over the radiation possibilities. Soon after, social media exploded with a number of opinions on whether or not either MotoGP or INDYCAR should be racing in Japan.
Despite opinions voiced on platforms such as Twitter (including a driver’s wife voicing strong concerns), there is no proof that the trip to Japan will give any exposure to radiation greater than that of a normal trip by airplane. In fact, governments from United States to Australia have cleared travel outside the immediate Fukushima radius, with the U.S. State Department stating travel plans "do not pose significant risks to U.S. citizens". Additionally, an independent study commissioned by FIM (MotoGP's governing body) states any concerns over radiation as "negligible."
While some folks in and around the Series still harbor a few reservations in going to Japan, drivers such as Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal have overcome their initial concerns and look forward to trying out the Motegi road course.
"At first, I had some reservations about going over to Motegi with the recent earthquake and the possible radiation problem", admitted Hunter-Reay when questioned on the visit to Japan. "But I have been watching it lately and I think everything will be okay. Now, I wouldn't want any more after-shocks. I've never been in an earthquake. I just wouldn't want something to happen while we are there, and that we would be stuck over for some time. But overall, I think it will be fine. I'm anxious to race on the Twin Ring Motegi road course. I’ve really enjoyed racing in Japan and now we have a new challenge on a first class road course, I’m really looking forward to it."
“I’m really looking forward to racing on the Twin Ring Motgei road course for the first time. The track layout looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be new for a lot of the drivers,” said Rahal. I know there’s been a lot of concerns about racing in Japan after the earthquake, but we just need to put it behind us. The support we get when we’re there is incredible, so we should focus on putting on a great show for the fans.”
Although he won’t be suiting up for Japan, driver Jay Howard offered a slightly more irreverent view.
"To be honest, I don't know enough about the issues in Japan, although the little I do know, I would not be over the moon about going personally”, stated Howard when asked for his opinion. “Saying that, Randy [Bernard] is a smart guy. If there were some dangers to the teams and drivers, I am sure he would reschedule or cancel the race. I'm guessing people are moaning because like usual, they love the sound of their own voice."
Danica Patrick’s views on Motegi were framed as being much more concerned.
I don't want to make anyone mad, but heck yeah, I'm concerned," Patrick said at a recent press conference. "MotoGP has made a big fuss about going there, and their race got delayed, and is still after ours next weekend. They had a study done that deemed it was relatively safe. The radiation seems OK."
Patrick also voiced concerns over food safety and additional earthquakes.
For Japan native Takuma Sato, the trip is meaningful for an additional reason. Sato has been involved in relief efforts in his own way, creating the "With You Japan" charity to provide funds for the young victims of the earthquake and nuclear disaster.
"I have no hesitation to race at Twin Ring Motegi or in Japan," Sato emphasized, “None."
“After the tragic events of March 11, 2011, the entire country has come together to rebuild and make the country safe for all its countrymen and visitors. I am proud to race here and I feel no harm will be done by racing at Motegi to myself, other drivers, fans or media”.
It's the dedication and potential to do some good for Japanese INDYCAR fans that makes the trip to Motegi worthwhile. While questions will likely persist from the talking heads and commentators of the internet, the Series has a chance to bring some happiness to some great fans who would seem to need it.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.