Share, , Google Plus, Pinterest,

Print

Posted in:

20 Years Later… Tetsuya Ota, Shinichi Yamaji, & The Fuji Disaster

RJ O'Connell looks back on an accident that changed two mens lives and potentially helped to save many more

Over the past two years, RJ O’Connell has provided DSC with a depth of coverage for the Super GT championship unrivalled in the English language.

The piece below though, is on an all-together different level. It shows, I believe, that RJ, in common with all of our other regular contributors, cares as much about the human element of racing, as he does, about either the results of the races or indeed however many people click on a story.

In this case he’s taken an enourmous amount of time to dig into the background to, and multiple outcomes of, an incident that happened 20 years ago today, that spans the full spectrum of human emotion from abject horror, through to friendship and respect.

GG

The Crash

The following piece contains descriptions of disturbing racing accidents and their aftermaths that may be unsuitable to some readers.

The 3rd of May, 1998. The dreary combination of rain and fog that has rolled over Mount Fuji will be parted with a horrific ball of fire near the base of the great mountain, at Fuji Speedway.

It will be remembered to fans of racing in Japan as one of the darkest days in recent memory. But it is also the day of one of its greatest miracles. The stage was the scene one of the most horrific disasters in all of motorsport, but in addition, the scene of one of the most selfless acts of heroism and camaraderie the sport has ever seen.

It is not just the story of a crash. It is the story of a rebirth, and recovery, and bravery, and the bond that two fellow racers will share for a lifetime and beyond. Tetsuya Ota, the survivor of one of the most terrifying accidents in racing, and Shinichi Yamaji, the man who helped to save his life.

Two men from very different backgrounds in racing, but both united by their racing fate.

Tetsuya Ota was born 6 November, 1959, in the city of Maebashi – before moving to Tokyo as a youth to finish his studies. Soon after he graduated from Musashi University’s school of Economics, Ota wanted to pursue a career in racing.

Ota’s racing journey started in 1982, starting in Formula Japan 1600, the local equivalent to Formula Ford. By ‘86, he made the step up to Formula 3, and in ‘87, he moved up to Japanese Formula 3000, the forerunner to today’s Super Formula Championship. Ota’s abilities went unrewarded over four seasons in F3000, never having the resources or the equipment behind him to challenge for victories. In fact, just being able to qualify for races became a challenge.

But Ota was a capable driver in the right circumstances, and one manufacturer saw his potential. Mazda signed Ota to a factory racing contract in 1989, to compete on a part-time basis in the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship. Under the mentorship of veteran Mazda racers like Yojiro Terada, Takashi Yorino, and Yoshimi Katayama, Ota had the chance to drive Mazda’s cutting-edge rotary powered prototypes to three GTP class victories in six starts from ‘89 to ‘91.

A chance to drive for Mazda at the 24 Hours of Le Mans seemed like it was just on the horizon for Ota. But after their victory in the 1991 race, the ACO banned the rotary engine from competition, and at the same time, escalating costs resulted in a massive downturn in Group C prototype racing which would ultimately cause its collapse in a few years’ time. With Mazda scaling back its endurance racing efforts and the JSPC itself nearing collapse, Ota and Mazda parted ways after the ‘91 season.

Having spent the ‘92 season driving touring cars in the All-Japan Touring Car Championship (JTC) and the N1 Endurance Series (now Super Taikyu), Ota was given his first chance to race at Le Mans in 1993, this time, in a Ferrari 348 LM for Simpson Engineering. He returned the following year in 1994, and for 1995, he stepped up to drive the Ferrari F40 LM for Ennea SRL/Ferrari Club Italia, the quasi-works Ferrari GT racing effort.

While Ota never saw the chequered flag in any of his four entries at Le Mans, his exploits with Ferrari made him the face of their sports car racing efforts back home in Japan. Ota served as the ambassador for Japan’s Ferrari Challenge one-make series, and was their top man in the all-new All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC). Tetsuya married his longtime partner Atsuko in 1990. He found a niche as an automotive critic, writing for Tipo magazine and serving on the panel for the Car of the Year Japan awards.

Tetsuya Ota followed the conventional path to the pinnacle of his racing career. Shinichi Yamaji’s own path, however, was anything but conventional.

Yamaji was born 5 May, 1964, in the city of Chiba. He was a popular and athletic high school student, something of a rebel at times as part of the “Yankee” youth subculture. Right out of high school, he was enamored with motorsport, and racing became his sole focus. He bought a Mazda RX-7 and began racing at the grassroots level in time attacks.

By 1987, Yamaji had made it to sanctioned racing, in the Fuji Freshman Race Series (now the Fuji Champion Race) driving in the RX-7 class. But at the same time, Yamaji was struggling to keep his head above water as a young, independent racer. He worked a number of odd jobs to try and work himself out of a mountain of debt.

Soon, Yamaji was working as many as three jobs at once – gas station attendant by morning, line cook at a restaurant by night, and manager of an amusement arcade when he wasn’t doing the former two. His passion for racing had brought him in debt hell, and if a breakthrough didn’t come soon, he would have been forced to stop because the losses were simply accumulating too quickly to be sustainable. But in the 1990 season, Yamaji won the RX-7 class championship, bringing him enough financial stability to get him in the door as a full-time professional racing driver.

Yamaji then made the switch to junior formula racing, first in Formula Toyota and Formula Mirage, then up to Formula 3. He ran in the JTC from 1991-92 and drove in the ‘91 Guia Race at Macau, driving a Toyota Corolla Levin. After years of trying to race his way out of debt, Yamaji had made it out of his cycle of running multiple odd jobs just to keep his racing dream alive.

But even though he was a full-time professional racing driver, Yamaji was not immune to the hardships of the sport. Left without a drive for 1993, save for a class-winning one-off at the Macau Guia Race, he would be left to refocus on getting back to racing the following year. He found that opportunity in the brand new JGTC series.

1 May 1994 was the first time that Ota and Yamaji would cross paths on equal footing, and the first time the two men would stand on the podium together. At Fuji Speedway, in the inaugural All-Japan Fuji GT Race, Yamaji finished second with co-driver Seiichi Sodeyama in their Nissan Skyline GT-R fielded by Racing Team Nakaharu. Ota and co-driver Keiichi Suzuki finished third in their Ferrari F40 from Team Taisan.

In a new championship, Ota, the face of Ferrari racing in Japan, and Yamaji, the journeyman driver who came from the grassroots, were given their own unique opportunities to succeed as they’d never been able to before.

Yamaji and Sodeyama were unlikely championship challengers who finished 3rd in the GT1 Drivers’ Championship, behind only champion Masahiko Kageyama in the famous Calsonic Skyline GT-R, and vice-champion Masahiro Hasemi, in his own Unisia JECS Skyline GT-R. Ota racked up three straight podium finishes to open the season, and in the final round of the ‘94 season, celebrated his maiden JGTC victory at Central Park Miné Circuit.

Within four years, the JGTC had become one of Japan’s most popular forms of racing. Nissan, Toyota, and Honda were fielding their own fleets of factory-run teams in the rapidly developing GT500 class. The racing was ultra-competitive and the championship battles went down to the final race every time. Big-ticket sponsors rolled in. The JGTC had truly picked up where the JSPC left off just a few short years ago.

The 1998 season would start with Ota and Yamaji back on equal footing, but this time, in the GT300 class, for the privateers and upstart squads.

Ota still maintained a great relationship with Ferrari, and he wanted to continue that relationship and be a competitive force once again. So in 1997, he partnered with the Ferrari Club of Japan, and established Ferrari dealer Cornes, to start his own team in GT300: Team Ferrari Club of Japan.

Their new Ferrari F355 showed the potential to be a contender, even downtuned to the benchmark 300 horsepower of the category. With veteran co-driver Anders Olofsson alongside him, Ota won the season-ending exhibition race at the all-new Twin Ring Motegi circuit, giving the team a huge boost of momentum going into ‘98.

Yamaji, meanwhile, was left without a ride for the second time in three years for 1995. But just as the RX-7 proved to be his ticket to step up from the grassroots, it was an RX-7 which gave Yamaji his second lease on life in the JGTC. RE Amemiya, a successful Mazda rotary tuner, debuted in GT300 with immediate success, and saw a chance to give Yamaji another chance in their own potent Mazda RX-7. RE Amemiya were able to rack up podium finishes and top-10s consistently in ‘96 and ‘97, and they looked to build upon that in ‘98 with their lead driver.

After early and disappointing retirements at the season-opener at Suzuka Circuit, Ota, Yamaji, and their teams looked to Fuji, and the Golden Week holiday, to get their seasons back on track.

But there was something much bigger than racing in the horizon that weekend, for both drivers.

By 1998, Fuji Speedway was still one of the centerpieces of Japanese motorsport, hosting all of the top levels of national motorsport in the country. But its days as an international destination for racing had long passed. Fuji of course, is prone to fits of torrential downpours that few others ever see, but even its facilities were falling behind the standards reset by Suzuka and the new Twin Ring Motegi complex, and it was no longer the safest of venues to race at, with its high speeds combined with little runoff.

On the morning of qualifying, clear skies soon gave way to heavy, heavy rain. Veteran racer Kaoru Hoshino put his Porsche 911 on GT300 class pole position, ahead of the rival Porsche of Tomohiko Sunako, another driver who emulated Yamaji’s rise from the clubman series to the JGTC. Ota could only put his Ferrari F355 10th on the grid, and Yamaji qualified a disappointing 16th.

On race day, the morning final practice at 9 AM seemed to indicate a reprieve from the appalling weather conditions. But when a delay in a support race caused the start to be pushed back 20 minutes, the rains came again, harder than before. And a thick wall of fog cascaded ominously over the Fuji Speedway.

Visibility was poor, and there was so much standing water, that it would be impossible to imagine racing in these conditions in the present. But with over 47,000 spectators on hand for the event, the organisers opted to run the race as scheduled, starting under the safety car for the preliminary pace laps. The field of 45 cars made its customary parade lap before the second and final formation lap, traveling at a consistent pace of 150 kilometers per hour behind the safety car.

As the safety car completed the first lap, it suddenly slowed, creating an accordion effect throughout the field. Sunako lost control of his Porsche, hydroplaning out of control in a deluge of standing water, and with the visibility as poor as it was, Sunako could only brace for impact as he slammed into the back of Hoshino. Hoshino’s car rolled to a halt at the exit of pit lane. Sunako’s car slid into the outside concrete barrier. Third-placed Yasushi Hitotsuyama took evasive action through the grass to avoid triggering a multi-car pileup which could have wiped out the rest of the GT300 grid.

The marshalls waved double yellow flags frantically through the fog and the rain. As Ota’s Ferrari approached the scene of Hoshino and Sunako’s crash, it slowed down, aquaplaned off course, and slid off course. Ota’s intent was to throw the car into a spin to prevent a head-on collision with another vehicle, knowing that a possible side-to-side collision would normally not be as violent.

Ota’s Ferrari, loaded with race fuel, slid right into the side of Sunako’s Porsche, into the oblivion of its fateful crash, the image that still haunts racing fans in Japan to this day.

The fuel ignited in both cars, and the explosion of gasoline burned brighter, hotter, and more terrifyingly than anything ever witnessed before. The flames engulfed the entire width of Fuji’s front straightaway, and cars had to take evasive action to avoid being swept up in the flames themselves. Ota’s car rolled to a stop, the entire body of the car burned and crushed away, at the inside retaining wall while the inferno raged at over 400°C.

At the same time, Sunako crawled out of his battered and burning Porsche – quite literally, crawling to the wet ground with a badly broken right leg. Marshals were able to reach Sunako and extinguish the flames of his car, and he was soon transported to a hospital in Gotemba for treatment of his broken leg.

But the fire continued to engulf the husk of Ota’s Ferrari, and spectators watched in horror as they were surely subject to watching a driver perish helplessly in the most horrific fashion imaginable.

Just behind him, Yamaji’s RX-7 swerved to avoid the wall of fire from the two wrecked cars in front. Out of nothing, perhaps, other than instinct, Yamaji pulled his car to the side of the road, and leaped from the cockpit of his car, rushing to the burning Ferrari, with Ota still struggling desperately to free himself from the inferno before it consumed him.

Before any of the circuit marshalls could reach Ota, it was Shinichi Yamaji who sprinted not only for his life, but for the sake of his fellow competitors’ as well, to retrieve a fire extinguisher from a marshals’ post, then back to the fire to extinguish the horrific inferno that had raged for over a minute. He then released Ota from the safety harnesses that would have bound him to his fiery death, and then, and only then – after 90 agonizing seconds – were marshalls able to help drag Ota from his car.

As he laid back-first upon the cold, wet tarmac, the plastic of his helmet visor became so hot that it melted into Ota’s face, asphyxiating him. Nothing but his own survival instinct brought Ota up to his own two feet, if only for a moment, before collapsing to the ground again. A second marshall helped Ota back up to his feet and into a circuit vehicle en route to the hospital in Gotemba. He could not see. He was gasping for air. His body was burned and unimaginable pain wracked every nerve of his being.

But thanks to the intervention of his racing rival Shinichi Yamaji, Tetsuya Ota was still alive, if only just.

Some would find it unfathomably callous to continue on after such a horrific sight. But the race organisers were intent on seeing the race out to its completion, even if it was shortened to 51 laps. Any attempts to restart the race were thwarted, however when the fog bank grew even more dense. By 5 PM local time, the 1998 All Japan Fuji GT Race was officially cancelled, never to be rescheduled for a later date. Only because the weather conditions never improved, not because the afternoon had seen a man nearly burned to death in an accident.

The crash would bring back memories of another crash, in another time and another country. The 1973 Formula 1 Dutch Grand Prix will be remembered for the appalling sight of young Roger Williamson being trapped in a fatal inferno, as fellow racer David Purley pulled over and tried frantically, almost on his lonesome, to rescue Williamson as marshalls who hadn’t been adequately trained for such a situation could do nothing to assist.

Twenty-five years later, in another country, in another series, a scene that easily could have ended in the same tragic manner under the exact same set of circumstances, came away with a happier ending – if one could call it that.

Tetsuya Ota survived one of the most infamous and horrific racing accidents ever recorded, thanks to the help of his fellow racer Shinichi Yamaji.

But their saga does not end here.

Rebirth

On 3 May, 1998, Tetsuya Ota survived the most infamous accident in All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC) history, escaping the inferno of his burning Ferrari F355 thanks to the aid of his fellow racer Shinichi Yamaji. Ota was thankful for Yamaji’s assistance, remarking that if not for Yamaji, he would have surely been burned to ashes in the fire. There’s a still-striking image of the remains of Ota’s helmet that tells only part of the story of his incredible survival.

At the hospital in Gotemba, Ota was initially given 72 hours to live. But he pulled through after multiple surgeries, surgeries to repair the burns to his face and neck, surgeries to fix the nasal area where the plastic visor had literally melted onto his face, surgeries to repair nerve damage in his right arm.

Twelve times in the span of a year, he endured the unbearable pain of numerous skin grafts to his face and body that not even the right dose of anaesthesia could numb away.

Tetsuya Ota lived through hellfire that scythed through the foggy, rainy skies at Fuji Speedway. But he did not come away with his livelihood intact. Multiple surgeries repaired the damage to his visage. They could not, however, repair the damage in his right arm, and right shoulder, and fingers. Despite vowing in 1999, on the one-year anniversary of his accident, to one day return to the JGTC and race again, Ota’s injuries to his right arm and shoulder forced him to retire from professional auto racing.

Without racing, Ota withdrew from the public eye for much of the next few years to continue his rehabilitation. Not only did his crash leave him with permanent physical scarring, it also left him mentally scarred, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that persisted for years after his accident. When the bandages were removed, and Ota saw his rebuilt face for the first time in the mirror, he was visibly repulsed by the sight of himself, and at least twice contemplated suicide in the early stages of his recovery.

In the weeks and months that followed the accident at Fuji in 1998, the circuit, the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), and the Victory Circle Club (VICIC) filed their own reports of the accident. The reports stated that marshalls had begun to extinguish the fire in Ota’s car within 20 seconds of the accident, when video evidence showed it took at most 50 seconds for the fires to be extinguished – not by a circuit worker, but by a fellow driver. One report also stated that Ota failed to wear a fire resistant baklava as part of his racing gear.

With Ota still undergoing a grueling physical and mental rehabilitation just to restore some semblance of normalcy to his life, the incident reports represented the final straw for Ota, who was left no other option but to sue Fuji Speedway, the JAF, VICIC, and series broadcaster TV Tokyo for damages, seeking up to ¥290 million JPY (£1.9 million GBP) in a suit that dragged on for nearly four years.

On 29 October, 2003, nearly five and a half years after the accident which permanently changed Tetsuya Ota’s life, judge Tsuyoshi Ono found Fuji Speedway, VICIC, TV Tokyo, and six other race sponsors guilty of gross negligence, and awarded Ota ¥90 million JPY (£591,000 GBP) in damages. The footage of the televised race broadcast, as well as the footage used in a video documentary of the accident, helped the judge rule in favour of Ota.

Judge Ono found the circuit responsible for not properly training their circuit staff to extinguish the fire, for not having a fire engine on standby in case of a significant fire on the circuit, and for holding Ota to a pre-race agreement to not pursue legal action in the event of an accident – which Ono branded as a “death pledge” for organizers to avoid their own responsibilities. Ono cited the safety car traveling at an unsafe speed under the conditions, which as it slowed suddenly, created the chain reaction of incidents that led to Ota’s crash.

It was only one-third of what was originally sought, but Tetsuya Ota was satisfied with the ruling, and was at least given something, anything, to help at the end of a four-year legal saga – and could now begin the process of properly putting his life back together, a life after racing.

But what of the man who saved his life on that fateful day?

Shinichi Yamaji was already respected for his tireless work to overcome personal hardship to race in Japan’s highest levels of racing. Now, after putting his own life and well-being at risk to save the life of his fellow racer, he had the respect of everyone in the paddock for his selfless bravery.

One man who was so moved by Yamaji’s act of bravery was Nobuhide Tachi, the founder and CEO of TOM’s Racing, one of the top teams in the GT500 class. Tachi and Yamaji met in the off-season, and in 1999, Shinichi Yamaji joined Toyota Team TOM’s in a brand-new third entry. The young man who worked three jobs at once just to race his way out of debt in his Mazda RX-7 had now climbed all the way to a factory GT500 drive, with one of the most respected and revered teams in the sport.

The first two years with a brand new team were difficult, but Tachi was still very impressed by Yamaji’s work ethic and dedication. For 2001, Yamaji was moved to the #37 ZENT TOM’s Supra, to partner the great Grand Prix motorcycle world champion Wayne Gardner.

And on 27 May, 2001, after starting eighth on the grid and driving all the way to third, Yamaji handed the ZENT Supra over to Gardner, who clawed back the deficit, overtook Katsutomo Kaneishi in the ARTA Honda NSX with 17 laps to go, and drove on to the victory. All Yamaji could do from the pit wall was raise his arms and let the tears flow in elation for his first-ever GT500 victory.

The momentum carried them all the way to a brilliant season. Yamaji and Gardner were title contenders all the way to the final round of the season, and finished every race in the top 10 en route to a 6th place finish in the Drivers’ Championship for 2001.

Two years later, Yamaji stepped down from GT500 back to GT300, this time with Team Taisan, and quite fittingly – five years and a day after his heroic efforts to save Ota’s life at Fuji Speedway – he won the Golden Week race at Fuji, the 500km, with co-driver Kazuyuki Nishizawa. This along with a second-place finish to open the season at Okayama International Circuit was the start of what would be Yamaji’s final push for a championship.

Heading into the 2003 season finale at Suzuka Circuit, Yamaji and Nishizawa led the GT300 Drivers’ Championship by 10 points. A burst right rear tyre during the final 300km race, however, would bury them deep in the field, just deep enough to lose the championship in the final race of the season with a 9th place finish.

Yamaji had another career goal that once seemed unlikely when he was still cutting his teeth in the Fuji Freshman Series: To challenge the great 24 hour endurance races on the world’s stage. In 2001, Yamaji drove a Ferrari F355 – not unlike the one his old rival Ota once drove – to a respectable finish at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Five years later, with his GT300 squad at Team Taisan, Yamaji was given a golden opportunity to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – an event that Ota could never finish in his four previous attempts.

With Nishizawa and American driver Philip Collin, Yamaji did more than just hold his own, he helped drive Team Taisan’s Porsche 911 GT3-RS to a solid fifth place in the GT2 class. In his first, and his only venture into the fabled Grand Prix of Endurance, Shinichi Yamaji put in a respectable effort, completing the journey from the rebellious kid and hobbyist racer who drove his way out of debt hell to become a respected competitor, at home in Japan, and on a world’s stage.

He would continue to race in the series that was now called Super GT, getting a second tour of duty with RE Amemiya and with Team Taisan in that order. It was there that he raced with another driver who took the unlikely road through racing’s grassroots levels into Super GT stardom, Nobuteru Taniguchi. At the end of the 2011 season, Yamaji retired from the series, and was recognized as a Graded Driver with over 100 race entries, and after one last racing season in the Porsche Carrera Cup Japan in 2012, Yamaji hung up his helmet for good.

Tetsuya Ota, the man whose life Yamaji had saved, had now completed his rehabilitation after a total of 23 surgeries, and a four-year legal saga, and at the end of it all, he just wanted to get back to what he loved best – his love for automobiles.

Ota continued his work as an automotive journalist even after his top flight racing career was brought to a horrific end. But after racing, there was a need to give back to the automotive world on a much greater scale. In 2001, he published the saga of his life until his fateful accident, appropriately titled, Crash. He published a second, titled Re-birth, in 2003, chronicling his recovery. He also wrote a book called Ikikata Navi (translated, Life Navigation) in 2005, a motivational book to inspire other people who were lost in the complex struggles of life, just as Ota was in the aftermath of his accident.

Ota eventually did make a return to racing at the amateur level, driving in the Alfa Romeo Challenge and Volkswagen GTI Cup from 2003 to 2010 with a great deal of success.

His main work in the present revolves around driver safety. Ota started an initiative called the Injured ZERO Project, with the aim of reducing and, eventually, eliminating injuries and fatalities on public roads. He operates a Sports Driving School with his own name, where a top staff led by Ota teaches racing techniques to people in a safe, yet fun manner. Ota also runs Tezzo, a Yokohama-based aftermarket car tuning and showroom garage specializing in Italian cars, as well as the Tezzo Racer’s Club, a race team aimed at people over 40 wishing to compete at the grassroots level.

Tetsuya Ota and Shinichi Yamaji would be linked together forever from that dreadful afternoon at Fuji in May 1998, but after the accident, their paths would never cross. That changed in January 2012, at the Tokyo Auto Salon, where the two reunited for the first time in 14 years.

The two shook hands and smiled on the convention floor, Ota now the proprietor of his driving school and his Tezzo garage, Yamaji now winding down his racing career after over 25 years as a driver. That December, Yamaji joined Ota for a lecture at the Sports Driving School. There was a mutual joy between the two, and a friendship ignited, a decade and a half after the tragedy that first united them.

There was, however, one more tragic turn of fate.

As Yamaji was in the peak of his GT500 run in the start of the 21st century, he began to feel ill. As the years and the time went on, Yamaji raced through the illness, but even then, his condition began to worsen. Such that in 2006 and 2007, he scaled back to driving part-time in Super GT. After returning for a full season in 2008, Yamaji took a two-year sabbatical from racing to recover in full. He did, and was able to finish out his driving career, on his own terms, in 2012.

Yamaji was named chief of competition at Fuji Speedway after his retirement, overseeing the day-to-day operations at the speedway. Of course, by then, Toyota Motor Company had completed the full-scale renovations to the circuit, drastically altering the layout, making it more viable for international competition – but most importantly, making it safer so that accidents like the one that nearly killed his friend Ota would never happen again.

But his illness still worsened. The last photo of Yamaji that he took just after his 50th birthday showed that he had become terrifyingly frail. On 25 May, he was taken to a hospital after his condition suddenly took a turn for the worst.

On 26 June, 2014, Shinichi Yamaji died at the age of 50.

The cause of his death was never officially disclosed, and it is only known that he had battled it for the final 14 years of his life, even as an active racing driver, according to his widow, Naho Yamaji. Fans and fellow racing drivers alike mourned the death of one of their most respected peers, whose legacy would live on forever as the man who selflessly helped to save the life of one of his fellow drivers in a critical moment.

Tetsuya Ota only had the chance to reunite with his friend and savior for just over two years, but to this day, he thanks the late Yamaji for being the man responsible for saving his life.

The changes made after the crash were sweeping. GT500 and GT300 class cars were no longer clustered together on the same grid, but instead, the JGTC/Super GT moved towards VLN-style separate starts for both GT500 and GT300 classes. Fuji Speedway would be extensively renovated from 2003 to 2005, with improved facilities now suitable for world-class racing. There has not been a fatality at the circuit since the renovations.

A dedicated traveling medical team, inspired by the safety teams employed in IndyCar and Champ Car racing, was soon introduced to Super GT. As was the First Rescue Operation (FRO) vehicles, a mobile team deployed to provide additional support in case of significant accidents – to ensure that someone will always be there to assist a driver in their time of urgent need.

As of April 2018, there has never been a fatality in any official JGTC/Super GT race meeting in the series’ history.

Shortly after the founding of Super GT World in 2016, a post-season award was established to honour the driver, team, or non-racing individual who best exemplifies the spirit of competition on and off the track throughout the course of a season – the Shinichi Yamaji Memorial Award.

And Tetsuya Ota, the driver who survived one of the most infamous racing accidents ever recorded, continues to give back to the next generation of drivers – and will do so until his last days.

Image Credits: Keep On Racing, Kenji Sekine, Shinichi Yamaji Official Web, Tetsuya Ota Sports Driving School, Tamiko Nakamura, the GT Association (GTA), Noriaki Mitsuhashi, Neko Publishing, Tomoaki Sugimoto, Keep On Racing and MZRacing.jp