MOORESVILLE, NC – Akinori Ogata doesn’t always understand his spotter, which sometimes makes it difficult to drive his truck at 180 km / h. Prompt communication over the team radio is essential for competition.
Still, Ogata is generally able to get through a race unscathed as observer Randy Bradshaw gives him quick lines and Ogata reports basic calls like “tight” and “loose” to the Reaume Brothers Racing crew.
Also, said Ogata, even though he and Bradshaw spoke the same language perfectly, he doesn’t know all the NASCAR terminology in Japanese like he does in English, so he just finds out during the races.
“I never use the Japanese language for running,” Ogata told the Charlotte Observer. “So that’s not familiar. For example, ‘Inner way, outer way.’
Slower conversations in English have been the norm for Ogata, 47, since he moved to North Carolina 23 years ago from Kanagawa, Japan to continue his flying career. He speaks Japanese at home with his wife and two sons, who divide time between Japan and the United States, as well as at some meetings since most of his race sponsors are companies based in Japan.
But Ogata uses English in most other situations and has said he tries to assimilate into American customs, such as eating barbecue restaurants with team members or friends from the NASCAR industry, although he prefers sushi.
“I tried to hide my Japanese, (being) Asian,” Ogata said. “But I can’t hide it.”
It’s a wonder to many in Ogata’s network why he uprooted his life in 1998 to move to North Carolina with virtually no connection or money to pursue stock car racing. He said his friends in Japan interviewed him, but Ogata fell in love with the sport after attending the 1996 Daytona 500, a race in which Dale Earnhardt started on pole and Dale Jarrett won. It sold him on the atmosphere of American tracks.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is so exciting,’” Ogata said. “There are so many people. The speeds and the sounds.”
He had competed in pro motocross events as a teenager and discovered NASCAR at 18 while browsing the television channels at a Kanagawa hospital while recovering from a broken leg. Then came the visit to Daytona. Two years later, he got his visa and moved to the United States to fall in love with short track and late model racing while watching the events at the now defunct Concord Speedway. He’s still working on one of his latest generation cars in his Mooresville garage.
But with limited funding over the past decade, Ogata was only able to compete in a handful of races in the K&N Pro Series, Truck Series, and a single lower-level Xfinity race in 2018. His best finish in the Truck Series was 18th place in 2015..
Years later, Ogata doesn’t let go of his dream of someday making it to NASCAR’s biggest stage, the Daytona 500, and he’s taking small steps to get there.
Ogata is in his second year with a part-time program with the smaller Reaume Brothers Racing team and qualified for the Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday night. He raced the # 33 truck sponsored by RV owner organization Good Sam, its first US sponsor, and finished 28th. The deal developed similarly to many other underfunded drivers in the series this year; Ogata tweeted to Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis, and Lemonis set up his company Good Sam for Space on Ogata’s truck for just one race.
“Akinori is kind of like a cannon,” said RBR owner Josh Reaume, who also competed against Ogata in the Truck Series. “I think he drives the absolute maximum of the race car, probably to a bad end … but there is light at the end of that tunnel.”
“I think he’s got a lot of ability,” Reaume continued. “And I would love if he could secure partnerships where it would make financial sense for us to be able to operate full time.”
A full-time race is one of Ogata’s many goals, his ultimate dream being to become the first Japanese-born driver in the Daytona 500, almost 20 years after Hideo Fukuyama became the first Japanese driver to compete in the Daytona 500. a NASCAR Cup race in 2002. Ogata got a taste of the vibe he first fell in love with in Charlotte with the track reopening to fans at full capacity for the biggest motorsport weekend in the state.
“It’s a good feeling,” Ogata said before qualifying of the occasion, a big smile on his face. “It’s exciting.”
He also narrowly improved his previous finishing positions. He raced in Atlanta in March (37th) and earlier this month at Darlington, where he placed 34th after crashing while driving a comeback program in honor of Japan’s first driver. NASCAR, Kenji Momota, with the sponsorship of KYOWA, a Japanese casting company.
Rolfe Schnur, President of Rolfe Schnur Motorsports Marketing, has been working with Ogata in recent months to secure sponsorship deals. Schnur’s previous clients included Cup driver William Byron as well as Momota, and Schnur said he has been keeping an eye on Ogata’s journey for years, but only recently connected with him. .
“His American dream is to race in NASCAR at the highest level, but no one writes checks,” said Schnur. “It’s just him who perseveres.”
Unlike Momota, who was a racing journalist and made a NASCAR Truck Series start in 1995, or current Cup driver Kyle Larson, who was born in California to a Japanese-American mother, Ogata has a relatively understanding limited language and arrived. in the United States without contacts or funding.
Schnur described him as a modern-day Carl Edwards, a self-starter who hands out his business cards to everyone he meets.
Reaume agreed, “That’s a good way to put it.”
While Ogata has said he remains committed to qualifying for the Cup series, he recognizes that his biggest influence in the sport could come at the grassroots level. Already in his late 30s when he first entered NASCAR at K&N, Ogata said he was considered too old for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity pipeline which helped elevate the careers of born drivers. in the world, such as Daniel Suárez, who helps build the Hispanic of sport. fanbase as originally from Mexico.
Instead, Ogata sees an opportunity to start his own racing program or pipeline for pilots of Japanese descent.
“Twenty years ago people here had never seen Asia,” Ogata said. “So it was tough when I started.”
Reaume recalled previous years when the language barrier was even more difficult for Ogata and said he believed that establishing a schedule would be beneficial for the sport and for budding talent.
“It’s a tough sport to play,” Reaume said. “Akinori has done a lot of work so a lot of riders could definitely benefit from the success he has had.”
Ogata said he often faces discrimination in everyday life, but does not focus on it, preferring to focus on his work and mission.
“If I think about it every time, I get tired,” Ogata said. “But I still love the people in North Carolina and I love racing.”
“If I retire from racing I want to stay here and take care of the young drivers.”
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