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From Rice Paddies to Race Paddocks: The History of Suzuka Circuitland
A Brief History Of The Suzuka Circuit
by dean adams
Tuesday, April 01, 2003


Suzuka: one of the most challenging tracks in the world.
image by Pen Cil

On April 6, both the AMA Superbike and MotoGP series will be in action, with Superbikes on the California Speedway facility and MotoGP at the Suzuka circuit in Japan. The two courses could not be more different, while racing a Superbike at California Speedway may be described as a highly anticipated knife fight in a phone booth (not a criticism)... the Suzuka circuit is one of the last classic racetracks in the world. Whereas California Speedway is a relatively new facility, Suzuka is over 40 years old, and its story is quite interesting.

Originally called Motor Sportsland (but re-named Suzuka Circuitland shortly after it opened), the Suzuka circuit is built near Suzuka City in Japan, on land previously used by rice farmers.

Suzuka is a Honda circuit, meaning that not just the results at Suzuka have favored Honda motorcycles or that the layout favors Hondas, but that it's a Honda track. It is owned by Honda, was built by Soichiro Honda (aka Mr. Honda, founder of the company) in the 1960s and the facility is still heavily used today as a test track by Honda for prototypes and their own race machines.

Honda, under the direction of company founder Soichiro, began racing in Japan in the early 1950s and internationally by the late 1950s. Mr. Honda was a huge believer in racing as a test bed for engineering, and he also had a simmering competitive spirit from his own racing days.

Japan needed Suzuka. Japanese racetracks then, and to some degree now, (with the exception of Motegi, Sugo and Fuji) were very primitive simply because Japan lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of infrastructure, and there simply wasn't that much land available, even then. In the early 1960s, Japanese racetracks were usually mountain roads, while purpose-designed circuits were short and very dangerous. When Suzuka was built in 1960-62, many of the major roads in Japan were not yet paved.

Mr. Honda was truly fearless as both an engineer and as a businessman. He craved race results that would capture the world's attention and went after them with a vengeance. The Isle of Man TT was the biggest race in the world in the 50s and Honda poured money and materials into his team in order to win there. Eventually, Honda was victorious at the Island, but the cost was enormous: many sources of the era say that Honda returned from the Island in 1959 with a company checkbook depleted to almost nothing because of the costs of the race effort and other projects he'd initiated.

Whereas, today, shareholders would ask for his resignation or bankers would call in notes to protect their assets, like other autocratic transportation pioneers (Henry Ford, etc) Mr. Honda ran the company as he saw fit and, if it meant emptying the accounts to get what he was after, so be it. Honda Motor, obviously, rebounded.

Honda saw with his own eyes what it would take to be competitive in GP, thus he built innovative GP machines that would (eventually) win in world championship racing. He traveled with the team to Europe and the Isle of Man, always sucking in details and information along the way. His osmosis wasn't limited to machinery; Honda saw what made up a decent European GP racetrack and assuredly noted the details. When he decided to build Suzuka, he incorporated those details, making the grounds fairly expansive, the track wide and smooth, all with a very advanced circuit design. There was no way to compare other Japanese tracks with the completed Suzuka.

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