Riders rev up for full throttle return of women to motorbike racing

07/21/2011
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Update: http://www.majiroxnews.com/2012/01/17/motorcycle-racer-hiromi-sakai-dies-during-practice-run/

Left to right is Hiromi Sakai and Maya Sato,

TOKYO (majirox news) — Maya Sato and Hiromi Sakai have overcome many obstacles — including parental disapproval — to break into Japanese Auto Race motorcycle racing, but they’re hoping their efforts inspire other women to enter this largely male domain.

Auto Race, the Japanese version of track racing, and its attendant gambling comprises six circuits nationwide and 465 professional riders. It can be a lucrative profession, with top riders making about 1 billion yen ($12.6 million) annually and the average professional earning 14 million yen ($175,000). Riders live for prize money, and top-ranked racers compete for purses ranging from 15 million to 35 million yen ($185,000 – $400,000) in the sport’s handicap races, where slower riders are given a head start to set up more competitive finishes.

Professional racers Sato and Sakai have brought Auto Race back into national headlines for the first time since 1997, when heartthrob Katsuyuki Mori quit the boy band SMAP at the peak of its popularity to try his hand on the circuit.

Auto Race is similar to speedway racing, but rather than sliding on dirt, the bikes turn on asphalt. For six laps around the track, the bikes turn left only. The most striking feature of these Spartan machines is their left handlebars, which are purposely bent skyward and reach shoulder height. To further facilitate the radically lean angles necessary for racing, the bikes lack left foot pegs. In auto racing, the rider’s steel-clad left foot skims the track, throwing off sparks as the rider adjusts position.

The bikes are beautiful in their simplicity as well as brutally powerful. The riders are padded up to the size of Green Bay linebackers and wear distinctive vibrantly colored jackets.

In the pits, the riders are also mechanics. Any outside assistance is forbidden. All bikes are provided with identical engines, which are tuned and maintained by the racers.

Part of the riders’ training is gaining intimate knowledge of their motorcycles. Identical engines do not mean identical performance. Riders fiercely guard their tuning secrets, and though bikes are routinely scrutinized for violations, riders find legal ways to achieve a competitive edge. Many racers believe valve springs lose tension after even after just one race and replace them frequently, while some may use a worn valve spring when the track is slippery.

Auto Racing motorcycle

Sato, 19, claimed her first Auto Race victory before a crowd of 5,800 at the Kawaguchi Auto Race Circuit in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, on July 13, just one day after making her debut.

Sato was born to be a motorcycle racer, though one might have expected her to pursue a career in motocross, where she had ranked 7th in Japan in 2008 and 2009. At 16, the minimum age to gain entrance into the mandatory Auto Race training school, she quit college — and competitive motocross — to focus her attention on track racing.

She admitted that racing on asphalt without brakes at speeds of up to 150 kph (105 mph) required some adjustment.

Sato named her motorcycle Serena, after a leading character in the U.S. TV drama Gossip Girl. “Serena is a strong-willed woman, and I want to be like her,” she said.

Hiromi Sakai, 27, will soon join the ranks of professional riders with her first race on July 30.

Sakai’s motorcycling pedigree isn’t quite as rich as Sato’s, as she took up the sport on a whim after going to a race three years ago and riding a bike for the first time. She quit her sales job (at a travel agency) and decided to turn pro.

“It was really difficult to convince my parents,” Sakai recalled. “But they are really supportive now.”

Sakai named her bike J. Robinson, after Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.

The racers are aware of their responsibilities, both in terms of breaking new ground, and in returning a feminine face to Auto Race. In 1963, 66 women were competing. Unfortunately, Nanae Okamoto, who retired in 1967, was the last of her generation’s female racers. No new female racers would emerge until September 2010, when Sato and Sakai began training at the Auto Race School.

Sato and Sakai were among just 20 out of an initial group of 986, Japan Keirin Authority, Auto Race’s governing body, recognized the commercial value of having women back on the track and went full throttle to encourage them and give the sport a promotional shot in the arm. Sato and Sakai now have their own official blogs where they promote Auto Race and bring people back to the track.

Sato’s rookie win, however, earned her only 70,000 yen ($875), which is discouraging considering that all costs involved in Auto Race (including motorcycles and their maintenance) are borne by the racers.

It took more than 43 years for women to return to professional Auto Race. But now Sato and Sakai are reviving up, making their contribution to the rebirth of the female motorcycle racer. And Sato, with her early victory, could hardly provide better inspiration.

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