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Play More: The History Of ZENT In Motorsport

RJ O'Connell looks back at one of the more unlikely, but familiar, long-time sponsors

Chances are, you’ve likely seen the name ZENT appear on a number of Toyota sports cars over the years. It makes sense, given that ZENT was founded in the city of Toyota, the Japanese motor city – in 1971.

ZENT owns and operates 23 amusement and entertainment halls throughout central Japan, servicing the people of Japan and their love for pachinko. Pachinko is a game of far more chance than skill, sure, but just like in racing, every player seeks the ultimate prize, and ZENT is a common thread between the two games.

ZENT first appeared as a title sponsor in the 1992 24 Hours of Le Mans as the title sponsor for one of Toyota Team TOM’s V10 powered TS010s. Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace, and Teo Fabi drove their light blue number 8 TS010 to an eighth-overall result.

Masanori Sekiya, the first Japanese driver to score an overall Le Mans victory in 1995, won his first Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC) title the previous year in a ZENT-sponsored TOM’s Toyota Corona.

With a new era of top-level endurance racing in the late 1990s came the arrival of the Toyota GT-One (TS020). Drivers Martin Brundle and Emmanuel Collard carried the ZENT brand into the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998 and 1999….

…but with co-drivers Eric Helary in ‘98 and then Vincenzo Sospiri in ‘99, they were never able to see the chequered flag either year despite genuine speed.

Happier returns came with the golden age of the LMP1 Hybrid, and ZENT renewed its commitment to Toyota at Le Mans starting with the TS030 Hybrid that launched in 2012…

…the World Endurance Championship-winning TS040 from 2014…

…and then the TS050 Hybrid in 2016, unlucky in its first two seasons, before it finally won the big one at Le Mans in 2018 and 2019.

It’s a partnership that will surely carry on into the next chapter of premier class racing at Le Mans, when and if that chapter begins!

ZENT has an even bigger presence as a title sponsor of various Toyota entries in the Autobacs Super GT Series.

After two seasons as an associate sponsor for the Castrol TOM’s Supra, in 2001, ZENT became the title sponsor of Toyota Team TOM’s number 37 Supra. 500cc World Champion motorcycle racer Wayne Gardner and the late, great Shinichi Yamaji drove the ZENT TOM’s Supra to victory in the fourth round at Sportsland SUGO.

Then a lineup led by the ferocious veteran Takuya Kurosawa led the way from 2002-03, highlighted by a 2nd-place finish in the first-ever championship round held at Sepang International Circuit in ‘02.

After that, ZENT would switch to a partnership with Toyota Team Cerumo in 2004, a partnership that still remains strong to this day!

Yuji Tachikawa and Seiji Ara drove the first ZENT-sponsored car from Cerumo to victory at Sugo in May 2004.

Weeks later, Ara made history and succeeded Sekiya as only the second Japanese driver to win Le Mans overall, alongside Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello.

For 2005, F1 and IndyCar star Toranosuke Takagi came home to Japan to join Tachikawa in the ZENT Cerumo Supra, with its striking asymmetrical red and silver livery.

Tachikawa and Takagi swept both races at the newly-renovated Fuji Speedway that season, and then, at the final round at Suzuka Circuit…

…they overcame a 14-point deficit to championship leaders Daisuke Ito and Ralph Firman, winning the 2005 GT500 Championship thanks to an incredibly gutsy strategy and a brilliant drive from Tachikawa in torrential rain.

That was the last championship title for the Toyota Supra, which retired as Toyota’s GT500 flagship car after the 2005 season.

The Lexus SC 430 that succeeded the fourth-gen Supra was handy in its own right, of course. Tachikawa and Takagi kept winning races together for the next two seasons – Sugo in 2006, then the 300km race at Suzuka to open the 2007 season.

2008 brought a change in the driver lineup with Ulsterman Richard Lyons switching to Toyota. Driving the ZENT Cerumo SC, Lyons made history in that year’s Fuji 500km – becoming only the second driver to ever win races for all of the big three Japanese manufacturers in GT500.

Tachikawa and Lyons finished 2nd in the GT500 Drivers’ standings by just four points. They’d win another race together at Suzuka in 2009, the first year of the 3.4 litre V8 era in GT500.

Despite the effects of the Lehman Shock and the Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami on the Japanese racing world, ZENT continued to back their team, and a number of others as well.

Akihiro Tsuzuki, the Senior Managing Director of ZENT, has proven to be a solid gentleman racer in his own right in GT300. From 2010 to 2011 he drove for Tsuchiya Engineering in their Porsche 911 RSR – even scoring a podium in the 2011 Fuji Golden Week race, the first race after the tsunami.

Yoshio Tsuzuki, Akihiro’s brother and CEO of ZENT, joined the squad as a third driver in the 2010 Suzuka summer endurance race.

In 2012, Cyndie Allemann made history and became only the third woman to race in Super GT (Kumi Sato and Keiko Ihara the others) as she joined Tsuzuki in the new ZENT Audi R8 LMS GT3 from Hitotsuyama Racing.

The next year, Tsuzuki would be joined by none other than Lyons, beginning his second career in GT300.

In 2011, Lexus Team ZENT Cerumo rolled out a brand new blue, magenta, and yellow livery for their SC430, marketing ZENT’s “Three Year Can Project” campaign to rejuvenate the company, which even had soda cans as mascots for ZENT.

The team had also appointed Takagi, now retired as a driver, as team director and brought in 24-year-old Toyota young star Kohei Hirate to partner Cerumo’s veteran ace Tachikawa.

Tachikawa and Hirate won the summer race at Fuji in 2011, then held off a hard-charging Raybrig Honda HSV-010 of Naoki Yamamoto & Takuya Izawa to win a thrilling 2012 opener at Okayama.

But they would have to settle for second in the championship as Masataka Yanagida & Ronnie Quintarelli clinched with a round in hand at Autopolis.

Back in a more traditional red for 2013, the Tachikawa & Hirate duo finally struck championship success with another dramatic comeback over the final three rounds.

Trailing by 19 points with three races remaining, the ZENT Cerumo SC won the Fuji summer race, finished 2nd at Autopolis, and 3rd at the finale at Twin Ring Motegi to win the title by just two points.

It was Tachikawa’s record-tying third GT500 Drivers’ Championship, and Hirate’s first.

Another new era rolled in with the launch of the two-litre turbo-4cylinder engine formula in 2014. The years spent with the Lexus RC F from 2014 to 2016 would see more successes and another change when Hiroaki Ishiura replaced Hirate in 2015.

In 2016, Tachikawa and Ishiura won a tense Suzuka 1000km, the second victory for both drivers, and for Cerumo, who had previously won the non-championship 2001 running.

The Lexus LC 500, though, was a different animal altogether, as demonstrated when all six LC 500s swept the top six in their debut race!

This was a well-loved paint scheme derived from ZENT’s new “Art” ad campaign featuring celebrated filmmaker Beat Takeshi. Tachikawa and Ishiura won the Fuji 500km, a record eighth victory for Tachikawa, the “Fuji-meister” of Super GT.

The duo would win the Fuji 500km again in 2019, Tachikawa’s ninth victory at the circuit.

And when the 2020 season does get underway, the new fifth-generation ZENT GR Supra will throw it back to the red & silver 2005 car.

Images courtesy of Toyota Motor Corporation

Additional photos courtesy of TOM’s Racing, Hitotsuyama Racing, and Yokohama Rubber Company