IndyCar Motegi Friday Notebook
A dozen teen-age male students huddled around Ana Beatriz in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing garage, half-listening to the interpreter's explanation of the steering wheel while fixing their eyes on the IZOD IndyCar Series driver from Brazil.
|Fans line up for autographs|
"I don't think they were expecting a female race car driver," their teacher from the Bunsei University of Art High School in Utsunomiya said, "and such a lovely and personable one at that."
A few feet away, teammate Giorgio Pantano was similarly pointing out the functions of the multitude of buttons on his steering wheel. Polite smiles and light applause (not giggles and wrapped attention) were his reward on Friendship Day at Twin Ring Motegi.
Tens of thousands mingled at the racetrack, swarming drivers and series officials such as Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Jr. for autographs and photos like flocks of birds upon sighting. Beatriz, attempting to keep up with requests during the formal autograph session on the oval racing surface, maintained a cool demeanor on a humid day.
"It was great to show (the students) what IndyCar is like and they see something that they haven't seen before and they might get to love it," said Beatriz, who a few hours later participated in the initial practice session on the 2.983-mile, 14-turn road course.
"Japanese people are so polite so you have to say, 'Come on, guys, let's go over here,' to see the car. They don't just walk over and look. I wish I could speak Japanese so I could relate to them. They are such great people."
The Indy Japan is more than a race in 2011; it is welcome for an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. The quake damaged a section in Turn 3 of the 1.5-mile oval, prompting the switch to the recently repaved road course.
Rebuilding efforts in the northeast part of the country continue, but they've been slowed by government red tape. The power grid isn't a full capacity as far south as Tokyo (86 miles), so only half of the Ginza's neon shines nightly and some businesses have incorporated off hours of operation to conserve electricity.
A tremor was felt at the racetrack Sept. 15 - quite a welcome for the IZOD IndyCar Series.
"It's absolutely necessary to race here especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami," said KV Racing Technology-Lotus driver Takuma Sato, a Tokyo native who has been leading the promotional charge for the event and relief efforts. "Japan needs energy and IndyCar has great energetic excitement."
Seeing the enthusiasm of the spectators on Friendship Day, rookie driver JR Hildebrand compared it to Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - sans the alcohol-induced revelry.
"Coming here, hopefully we can have a positive impact on the people," he said. "You can see from the reaction of the people that they're real excited to have the race going on. Maybe people can use this to have some time with their family, be a distraction. We need to do everything we can as a group to make this an entertaining event for the spectators' sake."
Added Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports, who also hosted a group of students: "The weekend should be an eye-opener and help us appreciate all that we have in life and not to take things for granted."