NASCAR at Indy: Japan's Kamui Kobayashi is latest international road course ringer to make 2023 Cup Series run

Kobayashi speaks to CBS Sports about NASCAR in Japan and the appeal of NASCAR racing for international drivers

In the more than 150 years since Japan was opened to American trade, many elements of Western culture have captured the imagination of the Japanese public, who have in turn both made Western creations their own and mastered them. The automobile and motorsports are no exception.

As Japanese automakers like Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Suzuki have become among the best in the automotive world, they have proven their mettle on the racetrack both in Japan and far beyond it. Super GT is a Japanese racing institution, as is Formula 1's annual Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, and those and many more events have served as the platform for the nation's best drivers -- like Kamui Kobayashi -- to become huge stars.

And yet, long before he earned a podium as a Formula 1 driver or won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was something distinctly American that would inspire the course of Kobayashi's life.

"When I was kid, I think my first racing on TV was NASCAR because what I remember exactly was the oval races. I can't say which category it was, but was an oval race in the United States," Kobayashi told CBS Sports. "This is my first race car on TV when I was really young, like 4 years old, something like that.
"Obviously this was my first time watching on TV and I said 'Wow, that's so cool.' And then I said immediately when my father came back home, 'I want to be a race car driver.'"

Even as he gained great fame competing at the highest levels of international racing, competing in NASCAR remained Kobayashi's dream. This weekend, his dream will come true when he makes his Cup Series debut at Indianapolis Motor Speedway behind the wheel of the No. 67 Toyota for 23XI Racing: A watershed moment for not only Kobayashi, but also as NASCAR seeks to grow its presence beyond the United States.

NASCAR racing is hardly unknown in Japan. The sport held exhibition races in the country from 1996 to 1998, first at Suzuka and then again at Twin Ring Motegi. Hideo Fukuyama, who competed in all three events, came over to the United States and made four Cup starts in the early 2000s, becoming the first Japanese driver to compete at the sport's highest level.

But without a link to Japan -- and with NASCAR races no longer broadcast regularly on Japanese television -- stock car racing currently has little presence in the nation's otherwise vibrant car and racing culture. But with Kobayashi competing this weekend, many Japanese fans will get their first exposure to NASCAR -- this weekend's race will be the first to be broadcast live on Japanese television since the late 2000s -- and their interest has already been piqued.

Should Kobayashi's first NASCAR start inspire it, there is fertile ground for NASCAR to grow its presence in Japan, or even expand into East Asia the way it has into Europe, Brazil, and other lucractive international racing markets. Kobayashi suggested conjunction events with Super Formula as a potential in for NASCAR in Japan, and also mentioned the abundance of racetracks in the country -- albeit exclusively on road courses -- that can serve as a platform for the discipline.

"There's a lot of positive feedback from Japanese," Kobayashi said. "They are pretty happy because when we do the broadcast we will have a Japanese commentator and give more information, detail in Japanese language. So clearly we've got a lot of potential there.
"... There's a lot of racetracks in Japan, so for sure if you do road race in Japan, there will be a lot of potential to get more attention on NASCAR."

Kobayashi will become the latest international racing star to try out NASCAR since the beginning of the Next Gen era in 2022, continuing a wave of international enthusiasm among racers overseas. Not only have F1 champions like Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen commanded international attention by making select Cup starts in the past year, but an experimental NASCAR stock car became the center of attention in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.

For overseas drivers, Kobayashi explained that the appeal of NASCAR racing comes largely from the relative purity of the racing itself compared to other series internationally, where aerodynamics can often be the end-all be-all of a driver's performance.

"The high technology cars, I would say it's too much high downforce, too fast in the corner. We rely too much on downforce, so there's not much battling in the race," Kobayashi said. "But in NASCAR -- yes, there's downforce -- but we can still cross over each other and bump into each other. It's more kind of pure racing like what we expected when we were young.

"... As a driver I think that in a NASCAR race, it's more kind of passionate as a motorsport. Because when you do race in European races, you have to manage the tires, you have to manage a car. In NASCAR I think you need to manage the tires, but I think you have to push as much as you can all the way."

The problem for Kobayashi heading into the Indy road course race is that he has an incredibly tough act to follow: The last time NASCAR raced on a road course, V8 Supercars star Shane van Gisbergen came right off the plane from New Zealand and won a Cup race in his very first try. That monumental victory has suddenly raised the level of expectations for NASCAR's new class of international racers, to the point that the thought of Kobayashi competing for the win at Indianapolis suddenly isn't a farfetched proposition.

How, then, does Kobayashi feel about Shane van Gisbergen upping the ante for him in the race of his dreams?

"I'm very pissed off he won the race," Kobayashi joked, "because he brings me high expectations after that unfortunately. People are saying that 'Ok, now drivers coming from other championships can be successful in NASCAR.' So people have high expectations.
"But it's a good thing for us to come into and master this, and we just need to do a good job and get the job done."

Steven Taranto