GLOBETROTTER

Madness in Japan

Position is everything. If you're a first-time housebuyer and you fall head over heels in love with a house, just stop for a minute. Take a deep breath and have a look around you. I know it's boring and sensible but in the excitement of first love one can buy a house and regret it later - at leisure.

I only wish that I had been around to mention this conundrum the day Mr. Hajime Tanaka decided to build his own racing circuit up a mountain in the middle of nowhere in south-west Japan. Sane people don't buy isolated mountains and turn them into an international racing circuits. Do they? There was Mr. Tsurumaki, who built Nippon Autopolis, but then he went to Estoril one year and left $250,000 under his bed in the hotel room and was surprised when someone stole it so he clearly wasn't firing on all mental cylinders.

All right, so they did the same at Bathurst and the Nurburgring, but that's not the point. That was a very different era and there were specific reasons for those spectacular follies.

But Mr. Tanaka's only reason for building a race track was that he wanted to and - being the owner of several Japanese golf courses, which apparently are so successful that it is like printing your own money - he had lots of money to make his dream a reality. If it had been me I would bought the place - it's a pretty spot - and built a large country estate with helicopter access only and I'd have lived up there like Dr. No.

The trouble is that Mr. Tanaka-san is a petrolhead. He likes fast cars so much that he even bought three old Tyrrell F1 cars. You might argue that these do not qualify as being fast cars, but for Mr. Tanaka they were quick enough.

Mr. Tanaka's problem was that you cannot just drive a Tyrrell up your local High Street - unless of course your name is Bob Jennings of the Adelaide Advertiser and you are doing it as a promotional stunt for the Australian GP - as happened last November.

And so Tanaka-san thought: "Strike me pink with a brick, I'll build my own circuit". And he bought himself the mountain near Okayama and sent in the bulldozers.

You have to say that despite his madness Tanaka-san had some good ideas. Being a golf course type he decided to translate a few golfing ideas to motor racing, just as, many years ago, motor racing stole ideas from horse racing (where else did the terms "Paddock" and "Stewards" come from?). Tanaka-san built a plush club house and a membership scheme. It was very successful. Hordes of Japanese gentlemen sent their supercars off to the TI garages and, when they have a moment, they flit the 500 miles from Tokyo to Okayama and take their cars out to play on the circuit. Afterwards, they have a quick Suntory whisky and a chat with the chaps in the club house and then they dash off to the circuit hotel for a snooze.

Mr. Tanaka soon had 350 members, all of them paying AUS$200,000 for life membership. Sharpen your pencils and work it out and you will find that Mr. Tanaka has raised AUS$70 million from membership fees alone.

He also sold one of his golf courses to fund the construction, but that doesn't matter because he's just building a new golf course somewhere else. All in all it cost him AUS$200 million.

This is pretty crazy, but where Mr. Tanaka really went off the rails was when he decided he wanted to hold a Grand Prix. Bernie Ecclestone - who is always very helpful to hugely rich people - told him that anything was possible at the right price which, if you ask Melbourne, is standard Ecclestone advice.

Tanaka came up with the dosh and Hey Presto! Bernie made his dream came true. The F1 circus set sail for Okayama with a resounding cry of "Where?"

To be honest I think Mr. Tanaka and the Okayama authorities did everything they possibly could to make the Pacific Grand Prix a success. You need to sit down just thinking about the logistics of transferring 55,000 people on 994 buses on one road up and down a mountain. I doubt it could have been better organized by anal-retentive Germans.

I take my hat off to Mr. Tanaka, but I still think he has made a mistake. He spoke of choosing the site because of the population distribution of Japan but that doesn't work because to be in the optimum location for Japan's top three cities (Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya) you have to build the track at Suzuka. And you cannot because there is already one there and every year it attracts 100,000 screaming fans for the Japanese Grand Prix.

So why we asked were these fanatical fans not willing to travel to Tanaka and watch their heroes in action? I can think of only two possible conclusions: that the tickets were too expensive or that the difficulty in getting to the track and the lack of hotels scared people away.

I suspect the reason there were so few people at Tanaka is a combination of both those factors and, no matter, which way you look at it, Tanaka International is in the wrong place.

But we cannot take it away from Tanaka and his team, the first race was a fine effort and most of the visiting internationals were impressed - despite the complaints about travelling for hours every day on buses. Private cars were extremely restricted.

The question now is whether we are going to do it all over again. If we do the people of Okayama - who were so friendly and helpful - will have to invest a load more money to build new hotels and better access roads. There is bound to be opposition because justifying construction, if it is only going to be used once a year, is very difficult.

Maybe now Tanaka-san will stun us all by hanging the whole thing helicoptered somewhere else. I cannot help but think that he would have been far better off buying and upgrading the Mr. Fuji Speedway - which has struggled for money in recent years.

But then again, it's not my money.

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