37 year old Kei Nakamura made his American, and NASCAR, racing debut October 16th at Bakersfield's Mesa Marin Raceway during the 27th annual October Classic. The Japanese driving star finished 17th in a 40 lap qualifying race that was designed to set the line up for the NASCAR Late Model feature, the Racing West 125, the following day.
Nakamura started racing 17 years ago and is an established star in the Japanese racing circuits. He's driven all types of vehicles, including class 2 stock cars, on literally every track in his native homeland including the internationally reknowned Motegi Twin Ring.
Speaking through an interperter, Nakamura said that for many years now he has had a racing dream about coming to America to race NASCAR sanctioned stock cars. Some arrangements were made for Nakamura to drive a NASCAR Grand National Division West Series car, at Mesa Marin, during the Star Nursery.Com 150. However, NASCAR officials had some genuine concerns about a complete beginner making his debut in the West Series' faster and heavier stock cars. The general feeling was it would be better if he started out in the Late Model Series. Nakamura agreed that the proposal made sense and set his sights on his next obstacle: finding a NASCAR Late Model ride.
Enter Andy Bargaehr: a driver and car owner who is a regular in the NASCAR Late Model program at the Irwindale Speedway near Los Angeles. Explaining how he got invovled with Nakamura's great American racing dream Bargaehr said "I got a call from the Irwindale Speedway's Racing School because they knew we weren't going to race up here, (at Mesa Marin), and they asked me if I wanted to rent my car. I said fine and that's how we got here."
NASCAR spent Friday, October 15th, participating in a day long open Late Model practice session to get the feel of Bargaehr's Chevrolet Monte Carlo as well as educating himself on how to negotiate his way around Mesa Marin's half mile, high banked, oval. It was clearly evident that it was not going well at first. However, as the afternoon progressed, Nakamura began to show improvement and appeared to be getting the hang of Mesa Marin's racing grooves.
The unique thing about the NASCAR Late Model portion of the October Classic was the procedure of getting into the field of the Racing West 125. With a $21,000 plus purse this event was the richest Late Model race in Mesa Marin's history. Officials decided to make things a litle more interesting by having the Late Model drivers run the traditional two qualifying laps which determined their starting positions for the twin 40 lap qualifying races which, in turn, set the line for the 125 lap main event.
Nakamura's best time, during his two lap qualifying run, was 21.02 seconds. While it was approximately two seconds slower than the fast time of the day, It was still considerd to be respectable for a first timer.
Nakamura lined up 20th on the starting grid, for the second 40 lap qualifier, and carefully negotiated his way through his first ever NASCAR race in America. Meanwhile his interperter was standing on the spotter's stand relaying instructions, such as "inside" and "outside", in Japanese. Nakamura finished 17th, two laps down. Sadly, that finish was not strong enough to get him into the main event.
However the always smiling and very friendly Japanese gentleman took it all in stride and was grateful for the the lessons he learned. Commenting further on his NASCAR dream Nakamura said "in Japan all of the racing fans think that NASCAR is the best racing in the world and that's why I wanted to take on this challenge."
This clearly is not just a one time effort of a thrill seeking driver. He seems both sincere and passionate about his great American racing dream. Don't be too surprised if you see the name Kei Nakamura on a line up chart for a NASCAR sanctioned racing throughout the 2005 racing season.