With rare exception, most car owners rely on the skills of a trained driver to take their vehicle to its four-wheeled limit. Take, for instance, time attacks. Who that driver is and how well the car performs depends on how well the owner is connected. Drifters, instructors, or even a journalist might get the proverbial nod from the sidelines to rip off their jumpsuit and get on the track to play. My bench, however, is still very warm and toasty.
If you're 5Zigen USA, who do you call to come and fight in Super Lap Battle? Hiroki Yoshimoto, a driver whose laundry list of accomplishments includes GP2, Super GT, and Super Taikyu, among others. Half-Japanese, half-Korean and fully fluent in Japanese, English-he grew up in Australia-and car control, Yoshimoto tells us what he thinks of U.S. tuning, what makes a great race car, crashing at 270 km/h, a high speed chase with the cops, and the life of a rock star. Yes, a rock star.
What did you think of Super Lap Battle?
It was my first time at a time attack type of event, but it wasn't much different than qualifying for a race, we ran OK, but I could've run a quicker lap time. We were limited in time and I only pulled off three proper laps. It was a lot of fun and we ended up placing the fastest in the FF class.
How was racing in Long Beach?
The track itself was shorter than I thought, but street circuits are always fun. I've raced in Macau and Monaco, and I love street circuits.
What's the difference between a street circuit and a track?
Everything's different. Racetracks are usually pretty clean and designed for speed. Street circuits have walls, bumps, dust, dirt, and oil. The trick with street courses is that you can go much faster on the last day from all the tire rubber coating the road.
Your opinion on the U.S. built cars?
Our Honda Euro-R (Acura TSX in the U.S.) had less power, but the braking and suspension has been fine-tuned. It is a well-balanced car. The U.S. cars, on the other hand, were too focused on power. Reliability on the U.S. cars was sacrificed, and a lot of them blew up on the track. I think if the U.S. cars focused more on balance than raw power they would have been much more successful.
What makes a great race car?
Stability on braking. It's very important that you can push on the braking. The better the brakes, the faster you can go. A small amount of understeer is also good. You can carry a lot more speed if you have a little understeer. Oversteer is good for drifting and sliding around spectacularly, but you lose too much speed.
Did you ever run at Tsukuba?
I did, I think my fastest time was a 49.7 with Formula 3.
Favorite Japanese track?
Suzuka. To be honest, I hate Tsukuba. There are too many hairpins so you don't build speed and there's no challenging corner. It's good for Time Attack because it's relatively simple. Difficult tracks like Suzuka have fast corners.
So how does one become a race car driver in Japan?
You have to be rich. But if you're not, like me? Prove you're fast. With my own money, I did it in FJ1600, it's like Formula Ford but with less power.
How much of your own money did you spend before you got sponsors?
Close to a $100,000. I sold cars, worked at Pachinko parlors, a gym, and I spent most of my sister's salary. If you don't have a lot of money, you have to be really dedicated to become a racer.
Who was your first sponsor?
It wasn't a company, but a rich guy who helped me out. I think it was $500. Not a lot, but I remember I was really happy.
What series have you raced in?
FJ1600, Formula Toyota, F1800 in Korea, F3, Super GT, Super Taikyu, World Series by Nissan, Formula Nippon, GP2 series, and GP2 Asian series.
Which was the most difficult series?
GP2 was very difficult. All drivers are of the highest level, so it tested my abilities. Most of the GP2 drivers-Lewis Hamilton, Nelson Piquet Junior, Timo Glock, Nico Rosberg-ended up in Formula 1. GP2 is the final stepping-stone before you get into Formula 1.
The craziest race you were involved in?
A GP2 race in Spa, Belgium, during heavy rain. I couldn't see 2 meters in front of me and I was going over 300 km/h!
The worst crash?
I ended up crashing at Spa during the same rainy event. I was going over 270 km/h and crashed into a tire barrier. The car broke into pieces and I ended up in the middle of the track and Neel Jani-now a Red Bull Champ Car driver-didn't see me and hit me going 270 km/h. Both our cars were completely destroyed.
Ouch! How bad were your injuries?
I had swollen foot, a cut in my mouth, and that was it. Jani couldn't move his right arm or see for a few minutes.
How and when did you get into cars?
I knew I was going to become a race car driver ever since I was a kid. I knew how to drive by the time I was 10. I used to take my mom's car up into the touge. I was into drifting so I was pulling the handbrake and drifting an automatic FF Mitsubishi Galant. My mom didn't understand why the rear tires were always torn up. [Laughs]
Lacking a Daddy Warbucks, how did you learn to drive?
Unlike most racers who got their start in karting, I started racing in the street every weekend where I grew up-the Gold Coast of Australia. I had a Datsun 260Z. I had no money so it wasn't tuned. All I had were Bilstein shocks and cut stock springs. It was a mess. We used to go on the Gold Coast Highway and hit people up.
I remember one night I was sliding my car in a roundabout in a semi drift with a friend in the car. I did about three circles not realizing that there was a cop there the entire time. He turned on his lights and I turned mine off, and I got out of there. Three more squad cars joined in a 30-minute chase through the streets. When I got far enough ahead that they couldn't see me, I parked my Z in an apartment building and walked away with my friend.
So you got away?
Well, a pedestrian saw us run out of a car after driving all crazy with the headlights off and called the police. The cops caught us as we were trying to walk to a coffee shop. They were really mad. [Laughs]
No, I pretended I didn't speak any English so they just frisked me and gave me a ticket. [Laughs]
Now would be an appropriate time to say, "Don't try this at home kids!" Besides almost getting away, what would be your biggest accomplishment in motorsports?Winning in Formula 3. Compared to the larger organizations-Toyota, Honda, Works-we were a small private team. There were 20 races and I won one, the only race that Toyota or Honda didn't win.
The most difficult moment?
Finding budget, meaning sponsors.
Ever have a tuned street car?
My previous car, an '85 Porsche Carrera, was built like a race car.
What's the next car you'd buy?
A '70 Datsun 240Z. I want to properly tune it, unlike my first one.
Switching gears, who is Daiki Yoshimoto?My brother inside of me. Daiki, my stage name, is the lead vocalist of the band, DOA.
What does DOA stand for?
Daiki, Ohta, and Akihit0; the name of the band members.
What U.S. band would DOA most be compared to?
CSNY. They're from the '70s. We did some covers of their songs.
You opened for R.E.M., how was that?
It was cool. R.E.M. listened to a bunch of bands and picked us. It was at Budoukan in front of a crowd of 50,000. I was worried because they weren't there to see us, but when we went on the crowd got into our songs. It was a great moment and something to remember forever.
When are you going to release your next album?
Maybe at end of this year or early next. We're always in the studio, and we have music ready to be released.
What gets you more girls, the rock band, or racing?
Favorite U.S. music artist?
Do you know the Import Tuner model turned J-pop star, Leah Dizon?
My girlfriend? [Laughs]
If you had to pick rock star or F1 driver, what would it be?
Driving super quick is something you can only do when you're young. So right now I would have to say F1. Music is something you can keep doing forever. I hope I'm involved in both when I'm old.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Racing and singing at the highest level.
Finally, and most importantly, if I ever got my GT500 Supra running, what would it take to get you to drive for me?
A date with Leah Dizon.