It was just your average poker game until plans for the weekend came up. My nonchalant response was, "I'm going to Fontana, Calif., to cover the first-ever JGTC USA race." Puzzled faces look up from collections of crappy hands. I followed it up quickly, "They're tuned Nissans, Toyotas and Hondas, and they're all banging doors for the first time in the United States." The cloud of confusion remained, but it didn't matter; I'd already cleaned house with these confused gobblers. After throwing out a few shouts to the JGTC for assisting me in distracting my buddies, I sold the JGTC to them in the best way possible: "The cars have 300 to 500 hp engines that sound like you wouldn't believe, and there are race queens with mini-skirts." I sold five more tickets to the GT Live weekend.
Similar thinking brought tens of thousands of American import fans and racing enthusiasts to California Speedway on Dec. 18 and 19, 2004 to see what the JGTC was all about. Greeting the crowd were the M-Tec NSX, WedsSport 3S-GTE-powered Celica, and the three-rotor RE Amemiya RX-7 in the 300-hp GT300 class. In the 500-hp GT500 class were the twin-turbo Nismo 350Zs, Raybrig NSX, and the Tom's Supra.
The JGTC features some of the fastest GT cars on earth that battle it out in some of the closest, most exciting racing available. This isn't a NASCAR-style bump-fest, or a Formula One-style single-car parade: This is close racing, with real excitement. Many Formula Three graduates move on to JGTC status-even Formula One hopeful, Ralph Firman, stayed for a few years before moving on to Jordan-Ford.
Qualifying for the Saturday-night, JGTC All-Star 200 exhibition race took place mid-afternoon. The course consisted of the oval leading into the infield course. A temporary tire-wall chicane was set up on the oval just past the start-finish line so drivers weaved in a "S" shape, cutting speeds through the oval and alleviating tire manufacturers' concerns of premature tire failure. In Japan, JGTC cars don't usually run on ovals or counter-clockwise-not that you could tell once qualifying began.
With the sky blue, the air cool and clean, and the track clear, the GT300 class went out. Morio Nitta in the #43 ARTA Garaiya took the pole with a 1'29.190 lap time, followed by the M-Tec NSX with a 1'29.956. In the GT500 class it was Toyota vs. Nissan up front. Benoit Treluyer in the Calsonic Impul Z took the lead right away with a 1'23.289 followed by James Courtney in the Dynacity Tom's Supra with a 1'23.665. But Richard Lyons, in his championship-winning Xanavi Nismo 350Z, was out to show the U.S. audience why his was the top GT500 team, putting down a 1'23.124 to take the pole. (Just so you get a good idea of how shockingly fast these JGTC cars are, a front-running Honda Challenge car will run roughly 1'55 and a good Grand-Am Cup Porsche will run 1'47- and these numbers are foot to the floor, without a chicane to reduce speeds.)
Two hours later the grid was set to race under the speedway lights. With the green, Satoshi Motoyama took the first stint in the #1 Xanavi Nismo Z and took the lead. Even though this was an exhibition race, the drivers still felt the "red mist" and drove like championship points were on the line. Before one lap was completed the Takata Dome NSX spun while attempting an aggressive pass on the Motul Nismo Z. The action continued as the second-place Calsonic Impul Z passed Motoyama for the lead. The Dynacity Tom's Supra also wanted to take advantage of Motoyama's reduced momentum. Accidently bumping the Xanavi car, the Supra spun and forced the Takata Dome NSX to drive around it and straight into the Xanavi car. Both Takata and Xanavi were finished.
Further back in GT300, the ARTA Garaiya had held first place from the start and looked strong to finish there until the drive shaft broke, bringing out the safety car. Around Lap 52, the RE Amemiya RX-7 battled the Eclipse Taisan Advan Viper like they were going for the lead. Eventually the RX-7 crashed into a concrete wall and ended its race. Lap 68 marked the end for the Project Mu Vemac; the driver parked on the track and called out the 350Z safety car for the last time.
At the checkered flag, the PIAA NSX and the M-Tec NSX took their respective class wins and made it a Honda sweep. But celebrations were cut short because both received post-race penalties. The rules mandated two pit stops after Lap 15. Following the first safety, both pitted on Lap 15, not after Lap 15. Both teams received a 60-second penalty. The M-Tec NSX had built such a large lead that its first place was assured. But in the GT500, the G'Zox SSR Hasemi Z took the win and the PIAA NSX moved down to second. The yellow Direzza Dunlop Supra finished out the top three.
With the G'Zox Z and the M-Tec NSX crowned as the inaugural JGTC USA winners, rumors abound that the JGTC will be returning to American soil with the full lineup of GT cars. Will the United States become a stop in the points race? Only the loud cries of hungry fans will decide.