The thunder needs no translation. Four-cylinder engines boosted to Hellcat power levels yap with hyperactive fury as drivers gear down for the hairpin, while V8 cannonades belch from AMGs and Bentleys and one decidedly rad Prius. Acuras and Nissans dice it up in traffic to the incomprehensible excitement of the announcer, his voice echoing from the surrounding concrete. I don't understand the language he's speaking, but the same rising thrill fills me too. This is the last race of the season in Japan's Super GT series, and a storm is building to its final crescendo.
is comprised of seven rounds of racing at circuits throughout Japan, with an eighth mid-season event held in Thailand. The series has its roots back in the Japanese Grand Touring Championship of the 1990s, and may be thought of as roughly similar to Germany's DTM racing. Except that a Super GT racing machine will basically lop the head off a DTM car with a carbon-fiber katana. At demonstration events held between the two series, Japan's GT500-class cars were .
There are two levels in Super GT, named for their theoretical maximum horsepower outputs: GT300 and GT500. As with Japan's historic "Gentleman's Agreement" that once limited the power output of street cars to 276hp, teams have long ago abandoned such pretense of restraint. All GT500 cars use twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines, and all have outputs creeping up on 700 hp. More importantly, there's also a tire war.
"Every driver loves it," said Jann Mardenborough, the 27-year-old driver of the Team Impul Nissan GT-R. "With four main tire manufacturers competing, the development level is very high. There's also a lot of driver influence during testing."
In other racing series, a single tire supplier reduces some of the variables, but can slow things down. In Super GT, the insanely high level of technological competition among the tire manufacturers combines with a cutthroat rivalry between Honda, Toyota and Nissan to create blisteringly fast machines. At Fuji, the GT500 cars post lap times , and only a few seconds behind the fastest LMP1 hybrids. At Motegi, the current GT500 lap record holder was quicker than the last time an IndyCar ran the road course in 2011.
Now, take that speed and scatter it across a handful of varied and old-school Japanese tracks that sometimes favor braking, sometimes outright cornering grip, and sometimes engine displacement. Fuji has its long front straight. Sugo is tightly confined. Here, at Motegi, it's a blend of straights and hairpins that emphasizes braking and give the three Acura NSX teams a slight advantage. However, the last race of the season is hardly a foregone conclusion.
"You almost have to win the last race to win the overall season," said Heikki Kovalainen, former F1 driver and the Super GT championship winner for Lexus in 2016. "The driving standard is very good. I don't think there are any pay drivers in the GT500 class, and maybe not in GT300 either. And, even if your car is on pace, you have to manage the traffic as well."
The GT300 cars are a few seconds slower per lap than the GT500 machines, but perhaps more fun to watch. There are two teams running the Prius GT, which runs its standard hybrid drive system and a very non-standard 3.4-liter V8 and is clearly the best Prius ever made dear Toyota please send me one with a license plate immediately arigato gozaimasu. If you own a Subaru BRZ or a Toyota 86, you can cheer as a GT300-class version makes an aggressive pass on a Porsche 911 or Lamborghini Huracan GT3. Or perhaps you've just always wanted to see .
This last one appears to be a fan favorite, which brings us neatly to the spectacle that surrounds the racing seriousness at Super GT. As the top level of Japanese motorsport, Super GT is a healthy, very well-attended series. Even during early qualifying at Motegi, the stands were packed with enthusiastic fans waving huge banners.
It's easy to get into the pit area, but a little harder to see what the teams are up to. A few drivers come out to sign autographs, but mostly crews are focused on getting ready to qualify well. While a support racing series featuring Honda Fits buzzes around the track, I walk over to the crowded upper section above the grandstands.
Much of what's happening here would be familiar to any racing fan, just with a Japanese twist. For instance, anyone who enjoys a day out at a NASCAR or IndyCar race would be happy to find that there's plenty of beer and meat-on-a-stick-based meals to be had. Also something called a "Korean style cheese hot dog," which appears to be deep-fried, panko-breaded mozzarella. There's a line.
There's plenty of local flavor as well. One cafe's specialties include a toy convertible filled with yakitori and a charcoal-tinted hamburger made to look like a tire. A two-foot-long hotdog costs 500 yen, about five bucks. Dessert is green tea ice cream, deep-fried chocolate puffballs, or a podium made out of marshmallows. There are enough artery-clogging wares on display to make you wonder how Japan continually leads global life expectancy ratings.
Chewing on a skewer of chicken teriyaki, I contemplate the unique level of fan access that Super GT provides. Down on the tarmac, a flotilla of huge orange tour buses are taking a slow lap of the entire track, during a full practice session. The racing machines hammer past as spectators press their cameras up against the bus windows.
"You get heavily penalized if you lock up your brakes or spin during circuit safari," Mardenborough said with a grin. "But it's still a proper practice session, and some of the drivers push it right up to that edge."
Also unique are the packed pit walk sessions specifically for kids. More than a few are wearing tiny racing suits, and there are long lines where young fans can get autographs and collectibles from their favorite drivers and teams. Furry mascots wander through the crowd, while smiling young women in six-inch platform heels and vinyl hot pants hand out team information cards to third graders. It's a madhouse.
"The fans stay loyal," said Kovalainen. "And they're loyal to the car and the team more than just a driver." Despite having a disappointing season thus far, the former champion is still besieged by supporters.
. After walking the parking lot to see what fans are arriving in (expected coolness—Evo wagon, Datsun Fairlady Z, NSX club; unexpected—full-size Dodge Ram), I settle in to watch the start. The Japanese national anthem plays. The announcer switches back and forth between English and Japanese. I catch "starting grid-oh" and then the ubiquitous "start your engines!"
Beasts bellow on the grid, then head out, positioned behind a panda-patterned police motorcade of motorcycles, a first-gen Acura NSX and a current Nissan GT-R. Motegi is Honda's home territory—the company's museum is here—and the safety car is a modern NSX. When it peels off into the pits, the field explodes past the start-finish line.
"Some of these Japanese drivers are really quick—alarmingly quick," Mardenborough told me ahead of the race. His GT-R qualified poorly due to a broken suspension component, but makes early aggressive moves as the GT500 pack jostles for position.
There are two drivers per car in Super GT, and as this race is 250km (155 miles), it's an all-out sprint. The GT500 cars catch the GT300 field quickly, and the traffic management Kovalainen mentioned becomes clearly evident, as does the skill level of the racers. Contact is heavily penalized by the authorities, though not unknown, and the cars move aggressively but smoothly. The analogy that pops into mind is Olympic level hockey, where the competition is fast, professional, and clean. There's as much passing happening here as in top level world endurance racing.
After pitting and swapping drivers, the Team Arta NSX is leading the race overall with its all-Japanese driving team. However, most eyes are on the battle further back in the field, where British former F1 racer Jenson Button is currently in third place in his blue NSX GT. If he can keep position, he'll win the championship, but with just a handful of laps to go, the rival Team Keeper Lexus is nipping at the Acura's heels. Button extends his lead a little, but any time he catches slower-moving GT300 cars in the longer corners, the LC500 is right there, moving in for the kill.
Button manages to hold off Lexus driver Ryo Hirakawa's heroic driving. The battle lasts right until the last moments of the final lap, when the gap ahead of the blue Acura proves sufficient to utilize the NSX's slight edge and head for the checkered flag. Team Raybrig wins the championship, with Button's teammate Naoki Yamamoto becoming the first racer in more than a decade to win both Super GT and Japan's open-wheel Super Formula series.
In 2019, Super GT and DTM racers will go head-to-head under the joint "Class One" rules. Button's high-profile success will likely lead to even more interest in the series in Europe. Further, Yamamoto is already .
If you want to spectate any of next season's Super GT races from overseas, . Further, does a great job putting together onboard footage. You can watch Button's .
But trust me, you should go and experience things firsthand. The welcoming enthusiasm of the fans. The bewildering mix of the familiar and the foreign. The furious speed of the racing, and the outstretched hand of the close access. Heck, even the Korean cheese dogs.
With Super GT, you don't need to understand everything that's going on around you. You just have to feel it.