MOORESVILLE, N.C. — NASCAR’s annual Throwback Weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is special in that it honors stock car racing’s glorious past.
Still, it is interesting how the various paint schemes reflect different times in the sport and honor not only the champions but the hard-working independents and pioneers the sport was built around.
While our favorite paint scheme this year was probably Aric Almirola’s car that paid tribute to his grandfather, Florida sprint car racer Sam Rodriguez, there was another pair of cars that were the talk of town, eliciting some fond memories from yesteryear.
When a colleague was explaining how “cool” he felt the Trackhouse Racing (Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez) cars that threw back to Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Coca-Cola paint schemes that were run during a NASCAR Cup Series exhibition race at Japan’s Twin Ring Motegi in 1998 were, I quickly remembered attending that race nearly 24 years ago.
The SPEED SPORT archives provided a refresher course regarding the Earnhardt cars and the four-day trip itself.
The NASCAR contingent left Charlotte, changed planes in Chicago and, after 14 hours in the air, landed in Tokyo for the third edition of the NASCAR Thunder Special. It was a three-hour bus ride from Tokyo to Mito, which was one of three cities hosting the racers, officials and media that made the journey. At the time, Mito’s population was 330,000.
While the first two Japanese races were run at Suzuka Circuitland, the 1998 event was hosted by the brand-new Twin Ring Motegi.
The track is a 1.548-mile oval, with an adjacent road course that is nestled into the mountains.
Busses carried us back and forth from the track each morning and afternoon.
Looking back at our coverage of the event, it’s definitely quite interesting to be reminded how much can happen in 24 years.
Today, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a retired racer, who has been enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and works as a television analyst. Then, he was a third-generation racer, who took advantage of the exhibition event in Japan to get his first laps in a Cup Series car.
Earnhardt and his father, who was killed in a crash at Daytona Int’l Speedway three years later, drove Coca-Cola-sponsored Chevrolets in the Thunder Special Coca-Cola 500.
The younger Earnhardt won seven races and the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 1998, but was emotional about getting on the track with his dad for the first time at Twin Ring Motegi.
“The feeling I got today when I saw his car on that race track was a better feeling than last week when I won the championship,” Dale Jr. said at the time. “When I saw his car and I was out there with him, I just couldn’t handle it.
“I shouldn’t say it’s better than winning the championship, but it is different. It is way more emotional. I grew up watching his car on the track and I didn’t say, ‘Someday, I’m going to win the Busch championship.’ I said, ‘Someday I’m going to race against him.’ Today was that day.”
Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth at Motegi and his dad was two spots behind him.
The race was won by Mike Skinner, who had also won the previous year at Suzuka. Skinner led the final 61 laps of the 201-lap event with a crowd estimated at 41,000 in attendance.
Describing those fans, we wrote: “While most Japanese know little or nothing about NASCAR racing, there are a good share of die-hard fans among the population. Among the many touring the garage area here, autograph seekers flocked around Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and the others just as if it was a U.S. race. The clothing was similar, too. No. 3 shirts and hats and rainbow warrior jackets. One fan we saw carried a large flag pole adorned with a Chevrolet bowtie flag and a No. 24 Jeff Gordon flag. The fan waved the flags furiously in similar fashion to which Formula 1 fans flag the gonfalons of their native lands.”
It was the last Cup Series event in Japan, but the NASCAR Winston West Series returned the following year with Kevin Richards winning the season finale for the series.
Twin Ring Motegi hosted the IndyCar Series from 1998 through 2011, with Danica Patrick famously winning her lone IndyCar race there in 2008.
The track, now billed as Mobility Resort Motegi, hosts numerous road racing events, including the Motul Grand Prix of Japan for MotoGP.
Good memories — all thanks to a throwback.