The Last Hurrah is a series that discusses the final major sports events at sporting venues around the world.
On Sunday, November 22nd, 1998, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Monster Energy Cup Series) headed to Twin Ring Motegi in Motegi, Japan, for the first and only running of the NASCAR Thunder Special Motegi.
The race, also known unofficially as the ‘Coca-Cola 500’ in Japan, was an exhibition event set up by NASCAR to help promote their brand internationally. The series had previously run in Japan with exhibition races held in 1996 and 1997, however both of those events were at the Suzuka Circuit, a 1.394-mile road course about six hours south of Motegi, best known for its Formula One races hosted at the track.
Twin Ring Motegi was a brand-new facility at the time, opening in late 1997. The ‘Twin Ring’ part of the name comes from the fact that they have both an oval course as well as a separate road course overlapping the oval.
The oval, which is what the Cup Series used for the race, was a 1.549 mile-long speedway with 10 degrees of banking in the turns. At that point, the track had only held one other major race in the Budweiser 500K run by the CART open-wheel series in March earlier that year.
Due to its newness, the drivers came in with little to no experience with the course, compounded by the unique shape of the track with both straightaways being at an angle, making it difficult to find other tracks on the Cup Series circuit to compare it to.
The series had concluded its 50th season just two weeks prior, with Jeff Gordon claiming his third championship with one of the strongest seasons in modern series history. Gordon earned 13 wins, winning over a third of the races, on the way to winning the championship by 364 points and mathematically locked up the championship a race before the season finale in Atlanta.
Despite the race not being held for any points, the drivers still had a couple practice sessions along with a qualifying run in order to familiarize themselves a little bit with the track. Gordon, being the 1998 champion, was one of the favorites to win, as well as having international fame on his side with many of the local fans wearing Jeff Gordon t-shirts, hats and other merchandise along with displaying banners in the grandstands congratulating him on his championship season.
Another favorite was Mike Skinner, who had won the last year’s race in Japan at the Suzuka road course and looked poised to have another good run with a third-place starting spot.
The race is also notable for being the first ever Cup Series event for future Daytona 500 winner and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was also coming off a championship as he had won the NASCAR Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) Series championship just a week prior.
Also noteworthy is that the track’s automated scoring system went out early on in the race, making it difficult for the TV crew to keep up despite their best efforts. If you watch the broadcast of the race, keep in mind that many graphics are off from what they actually were in the race.
The race got underway at around 1 p.m., which was 11 p.m. on Saturday night on the east coast of the U.S., with Jeremy Mayfield starting on the pole and leading the opening lap, until Gordon took the lead on lap 2. Mayfield took the lead back on lap 3, when the first caution came out for NASCAR Winston West Series (now K&N Pro Series West) regular Ken Burns spun and backed into the wall, causing significant damage to his car and promptly went to the garage for repairs. Gordon retook the lead on the ensuing restart and was able to stay there. Lap 15 saw another Winston West Series regular, Gary Smith, go the garage with electrical problems, although he would return to the track later on.
The struggles for Winston West drivers continued as West Series racer Kelly Tanner went to the garage around lap 19 with engine problems, while Jeff Burton took the lead from Gordon on lap 21. The situation would get even more challenging for Gordon on lap 23, when he was involved in the race’s second caution as local driver Motohiro Nakaji spun and hit the passenger side of Gordon’s car before bouncing off the inside wall and would be done for the day.
Gordon, meanwhile, despite having a significant dent on the side of his car, would still be able to remain competitive, speaking to the strength of his team on speedways that season. Skinner took the lead on pit road on lap 28, but was overtaken by 1996 Suzuka race winner Rusty Wallace on lap 30. The back-and-forth battle between the two would continue as Skinner retook the lead on lap 33, followed by Wallace getting it back on lap 39. On lap 40, the caution would come out again as another Japanese driver, Kazuteru Wakida, suffered a blown engine that would put him out of the race as well. When the race restarted, Skinner grabbed the lead once again, but there would be a hairy moment as Burton and Ricky Craven made contact on the restart. Burton would continue on but Craven would have to pit with fender damage.
The Japanese locals’ struggles continued on lap 49, when Keiichi Tsuchiya, who is credited with inventing and popularizing drifting competitions (one of the most popular forms of motorsport in Japan today) through illegal street races on mountain passes in the late 1980’s, spun out and collected another one-off driver in Randy Nelson, who was already running a number of laps down. Both drivers would be out of the race. Three of the four Japanese racers were out of the race, leaving Hideo Fukuyama, who would go on to finish 17th.
On the following round of pit stops, Sterling Marlin stayed out to lead a couple of laps, before being overtaken by Burton on lap 52. Mayfield retook the lead from Burton a lap later, but Skinner grabbed the lead back on lap 55.
Not much would change until lap 71, when Burns spun out again to bring out another caution. Burton grabbed the lead on pit road, but it wouldn’t take long for Mayfield to retake the lead as he passed Burton just a lap after the restart. On lap 79, Wallace passed teammate Mayfield to get back in the lead, but Mayfield would get back out in front just a lap later. On lap 82 Earnhardt Jr. brushed against the wall, but would continue without any significant damage. On lap 84 however, two drivers would suffer significant damage as Darrell Waltrip, filling in for Dale Jarrett who was recovering from surgery he had at the end of the season, was bumped into a spin by Bobby Hamilton and bounced off the outside wall. Waltrip would be unable to continue in the event.
Burton took the lead once again, however Wallace grabbed the lead back on lap 90 and would stay out in front for a majority of the middle part of the race. On lap 108, Craven went to the garage with overheating problems, likely due to the copious amounts of tape on the front end of his car from contact earlier in the race. While things finally seemed to settle down for a long green flag run, a number of leaders headed down pit road on lap 139, relinquishing the lead to Dale Earnhardt, who had been in the top 10 throughout the race and decided to stay out to lead a lap before coming in a lap later. This led to his teammate Skinner, with an excellent stop by his crew, to jump back out in front as the green flag pit stops cycled out. However, the green flag run ended on lap 154, when Burns lost power and stopped on the track to bring out a caution for a third time. Although he was able to re-fire, at that point he said the heck with it and pulled into the garage and out of the race.
Skinner maintained the lead following the restart, but on lap 168 Elliott Sadler, in his first ride for The Wood Brothers before going into his rookie season, lost a cylinder in his engine and would be forced to go the garage with engine difficulties. Some more mechanical troubles would be found by current superspeedway specialist Brendan Gaughan, who like Earnhardt Jr. was getting his first ride in the Cup Series, had an exhaust pipe dragging on the track on lap 175. However, things would get much worse for him 10 laps later, as was collected in an accident with Hamilton, with both cars seeming to back into the wall, causing Gaughan’s car to burst into flames after impact. Both drivers would be okay as safety crews put out the fire, but neither driver would be able to continue.
Skinner again kept the lead through the restart as Burton, who had been closing in on Skinner before the caution came out, did not have a good restart and lost a couple positions. This let Gordon take second place and begin closing in on Skinner himself. With less than five laps to go, Gordon had pulled to within a car length by getting great runs off of turns three and four, but Skinner was able to block his momentum each time on the bottom of the race track. On the final lap, Gordon looked to run a lane higher than Skinner in order to get around him, but was unable to carry the same momentum. In the final turns, Skinner nearly made a costly mistake, drifting up the track and allowing Gordon to have the bottom lane unimpeded, but Gordon would run out of time as Skinner beat him to the line by .153 seconds to claim his second victory in Japan. It was also the second of five non-points races that Skinner would win over the course of his career, however he would be unable to win a points-paying race at the Cup Series level.
The Cup Series has not returned to Japan or had any international events, non-points or otherwise, since this race, citing the high travel costs as well as a low attendance with only about 41,000 or the 55,000 available seats filled for the race. However, the Xfinity Series would continue running international races, holding a race in Mexico City from 2005 to 2008 and a race in Montreal from 2007 to 2012, as well as today with the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series being the only one of the three main series to race internationally with its annual race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ontario, near Toronto.
As for Twin Ring Motegi, the track hosted the Winston West Series’ season ending race in 1999, which was won by Kevin Richards while Sean Woodside took home the championship, but it would be the last time that NASCAR has come to the track for any of its series. Meanwhile, the track continued to host an annual CART race from 1998-2002, until the IndyCar Series picked up the track on its schedule instead. From there, the series raced on the track from 2003-2010, during which time the track also became notable for being the site of the first victory for Danica Patrick, the only win for a female driver in the series to this point. However, 2011 was the last time that IndyCar was planned to come back to Japan.
Unfortunately, the story of Twin Ring Motegi takes a tragic turn. On March 11th, 2011, Japan was hit with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that was registered just 43 miles off the eastern coast. The quake also triggered a tsunami that reached up to 133-foot high waves, causing further destruction in its wake. It was one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, with over 15,000 known deaths and thousands more injured, as well as billions of dollars’ worth of damage caused.
Although the track was about 100 miles away from the main site, it was still significantly affected as the track’s asphalt surface was broken and not able to be race-ready in time for the final planned IndyCar race in September of that same year, although the road course on the facility suffered more fixable damage. As a result the series opted to run the race on the road course instead. There were concerns from some drivers and crew members about possible radiation poisoning, as the tsunami also flooded a nearby nuclear power plant and caused radiation to leak into the atmosphere, however independent scientists tested the area and declared it safe. The race was run on September 16th, 2011 with Scott Dixon taking the win. However, this is the last major race run at the facility to date.
While the road course still holds smaller series such as MotoGP and Super GT racing, the oval has not been used since the 2010 IndyCar race. The oval has yet to be fully repaired from the earthquake and there is no word on when the course will be used again.
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Link to stats database: https://www.racing-reference.info/race/1998_NASCAR_Thunder_Special_Motegi/X
Watch the full race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msd3tlowUr4
Up next: Philadelphia Phillies v. Cincinnati Reds 9/22/2002 @ Riverfront Stadium/Cinergy Field