Freedom on four wheels Tight turns only obstacle for disabled kart enthusiasts



By Hiroyuki Ueba

TAKARAZUKA, Hyogo--Twice a week, this mountainous area of Hyogo Prefecture is filled with the howl of engines and the unmistakable stench of oil.

Every Saturday and Sunday, people flock to Takarazuka Kart Field to indulge their love of karts, the most basic, but thrilling, four-wheel motor sport.

The karts' design is simplicity itself: a steel frame housing a 100-cubic-centimeter petrol engine. No suspension. No transmission. Just the high-speed thrill of rubber on tarmac.

The vehicles have a modest top speed of 120 kph, but drivers, exposed to the elements, are so close to the ground they feel like they are traveling at twice, even three times that speed.

Many professional racing drivers, including those in Formula One, began their careers racing karts as children.

But the vehicles are not exclusively for the young, or future F1 drivers. Adults make up a large proportion of karting enthusiasts, and there is even an annual world championship.

In addition, karting is one of the few sports the physically disabled can take part in on the same level as their able-bodied counterparts.

At the Takarazuka field on a recent weekend, members of the Rising-Motor Sports Project for the Disabled, a Kansai group that encourages the disabled to take part in motor sports, were among the competitors.

"We want disabled people to realize that motor sports are not only for big, powerful men like Michael Schumacher, but that they, too, can enjoy them" said Rising-MSD head Tetsuya Fujii, who has been in a wheelchair since he was paralyzed below the waist in a traffic accident.

Motor sports are not as popular here as in Europe, so it is surprising that the disabled, let alone the able-bodied, have taken them up with such gusto.

However, in a TV commercial aired for six months from last August, Honda Motor Co. showed a close-up of the upper body of former F1 driver Clay Regazzoni.

Wearing a racing helmet and racing suit, he is shown driving one of Honda's sports cars at high speed around the Bruno circuit in the Czech Republic. Only at the end of the commercial does the camera pan down to show a smiling Regazzoni strapped into his wheelchair.

The Swiss driver, who participated in 132 grands prix, winning five, between 1970 and 1980, was paralyzed from the waist down in a crash during the U.S. West Grand Prix in Long Beach, Calif., in March 1980.

His Ensign Racing vehicle slammed into a concrete wall at 270 kph after his brakes failed.

Although the former Ferrari driver's F-1 career was over, his enthusiasm for driving remained.

He has taken part in the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally and other events, driving cars equipped with specially designed controls that enable him to accelerate and brake using his hands.

"In Europe, it's not unusual to see the disabled enjoying motor sports," Fujii said.

In 1985, Regazzoni helped set up the Italian Motor Sport Federation for Special Driving Licenses.

The body, an affiliate of the Italian Olympic Committee and the Italian Driving Race Commiss-ion, runs a driving school for disabled drivers who want to acquire licenses needed to compete.

The federation also organizes the yearlong Italian championship for disabled drivers.

The events receive considerable support from major automakers, including Fiat, BMW and Pirelli.

The British Motor Sport Association for the Disabled was formed in 1987. Since 1991, when disabled people were permitted to acquire competition licenses for international races and rallies, more than 100 drivers have qualified.

They include people with paraplegia, Parkin-son's disease and multiple sclerosis, as well as those with visual and aural disorders.

According to Fujii, several disabled drivers have competed in the World Rally Championship, which is organized by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), world motor sport's governing body.

In Japan, however, just six racing kart events for the disabled have been recognized by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF).

They have been held every year since 1998 at Haruna Motor Sports Land in Gunma Prefecture. The Kansai region, though, has no such events.

"Six years ago, when I started racing karts, there was virtually nothing for the disabled driver," Fujii said. "I had to make my own devices to enable me to control my kart manually, and, for a while, racing tracks would't allow me to use their facilities."

The 31-year-old injured his spinal chord in a motorbike accident when he was 18. He has used a wheelchair ever since.

His love of cars and motor sports took off with the boom in interest in F1 during the bubble years of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Suzuka in Mie Prefecture started hosting the Japanese Grand Prix.

"When I started using a wheelchair, cars were suddenly very important to me," he said. "Public transport is not really designed for people in wheelchairs. There are lots of bumps in the road, and staircases in railway stations make it almost impossible for wheelchair users to travel alone. It was natural for me to get involved in a sport where cars are the most important pieces of equipment."

Fujii was 24 when he heard that disabled people in Europe were as at home sitting in a racing kart as the able-bodied, and decided it was about time the same attitude was adopted in Japan.

"At the moment, the devices we use to manually control the brakes and accelerator are imported from Italy at a cost of about 70,000 yen. There was nothing like that when I started, so I made my own alterations using motorcycle parts," Fujii said.

Motor sport, of course, is no stranger to fatal accidents. Because people with serious disabilities generally take longer, to say, exit a burning vehicle, racing tracks in Kansai would not allow him to drive on their property.

But Takarazuka Kart Field relented after Fujii said he would accept responsibility for anything that might befall him on the racing track.

"I was in complete shock the first time I drove a racing kart," he said. "Its speed and movement, the feel of the wind...everything was beyond my imagination."

After Fujii drove regularly at the circuit without any mishaps, two other racing tracks in the region, Sakai Kart Land in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, and Kita Kobe Circuit in Kita Ward, Kobe, allowed him and other disabled drivers to use their tracks.

Last November, Fujii and a few fellow enthusiasts formed Rising-MSD, primarily to encourage more people to get involved in the sport, but also to pressure race track operators to improve their facilities for the disabled, especially the toilets.

The group currently has about 20 members, mostly from Kansai, including several able-bodied drivers. They meet twice a month at one of the three circuits.

Takeshi Yamamoto began kart racing about a year ago after Fujii approached him while he lay in his hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down after a snowboarding accident.

"Driving a kart is more tiring than other sports, even basketball and tennis, but it's much more fun as I had ridden motorbikes since I was 16 and love the sense of speed," Yamamoto said.

Kazuhiro Kamata, a hemiplegic as the result of a traffic accident a year ago, had just completed his first drive.

"I wanted to try whatever looked like fun, even when I was in the hospital," he said. "I don't want to keep crying over what happened to me for the rest of my life and use my injuries as an excuse to avoid doing difficult things."

Although he looked tired, Kamata smiled and said: "That was fun. I want to buy a kart and enjoy it with my wife and kids."

In April, Rising-MSD held an open day to promote motor sports among both the disabled and able-bodied. It was the first time such an event had been held in Kansai.

"I hope our activities will lead to the formation of a JAF-authorized national organization that can organize a national championship for disabled drivers and let disabled children know that motor sports are fun," Fujii said. "I hope one day children will be allowed to train to become professional racing drivers."

For more information about Rising-MSD, see http://www7.plala.or.jp/rising-msd/ or e-mail Fujii at rising@car.plala.or.jp.





Copyright 2002 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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