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Kei Cars Go Racing? Kei Cars Go Racing! We Visit The K4GP

The cars are tiny, but Fuji Speedway—and the racing—is not.

Ken SaitoWriter, Photographer

We've seen people in Japan do some wild things with awesomely tiny kei cars. Whether it's making supercar replicas from humble Suzukis and Daihatsus, or all the weird and wacky creations out of Tokyo Auto Salon, or even the manufacturers getting in on the fun with cars like the Honda NBOX Slash and whatever the Mitsubishi Minica Toppo was.

What started out as a government regulated sub-class of car to provide the most basic form of automobile to the masses, the kei car was a way of mobilizing people in rural areas during the economic boom of Japan in the 1960s. It was mobility for all. These small, simple minicars grew in popularity thanks to their low prices, low running costs, and running cost incentives such as lower toll fees and taxes.

But as is the nature of car culture, it was only a matter of time until people started going properly bonkers with them. Enter the K4GP, a bi-annual event that's been taking place at Fuji Speedway for nearly two decades. It's an endurance race unlike anything you've seen before as the only stipulation is cars must have 660cc (0.6 liters, or about 40 cubic inches) engines, as per road-going kei car regulations. Beyond that it's a free for all. The sky is the limit with what you can do and how creative you can get.

There are five classes:

  • K4GP-I
  • K4GP-II
  • K4GP-III
  • K4GP-IV
  • K4GP-V (or K4GP-R)

Teams are split into these different categories depending on their cars and skill. The winter event is a 7-hour endurance race with around 120 cars competing. The summer event is 10 hours, due to longer daylight hours; it's difficult for some of these cars to go into the night as they literally don't have headlights.

I've seen some weird things during my time in Japan but watching a 7-hour endurance with 120 kei cars was right up there as one of the weirdest—just the sheer quantity of them all on track. Because they're so small, they were able to go four abreast on the main straight for some exciting overtaking maneuvers. An hour of this race was more exciting than the whole last season of Formula 1.

The great thing about K4GP is it's a great way to participate in motorsports and get a feel of racing competitively without completely breaking the bank. Race entry costs ¥110,000 (about $1,000), and the cars themselves are cheap as chips. Most are old kei cars that have gone past their on-road use by dates. Some were regular kei cars with up-to-date tax and registration that could be driven back home after the race, while others were bespoke race cars.

The teams racing these delightful little kei car race cars vary quite a bit; some have five drivers, others have seven. It's up to each team to choose the best strategy for getting the most from its car over the 7 hours of racing. During this session at Fuji Speedway, where the K4GP has always been held and will continue to be held, I caught up with two teams; car number 26 and car number 750. From car number 26 I spoke with Kazuhiro Sato (Sato-san).

Sato-san has been racing for most of his life, starting from the age of 12. It's been an integral part of his life, having also entered the N1000 class at Fuji Speedway. He says back then, the goal for racing in N1000 was about "going fast" and "winning for myself," but now with the K4GP it's about working together for the team and making it to the finish. These guys are aware of the position they're in and take it seriously. As well as the 7 Hour Endurance race, they also compete in the 10 Hour Endurance race in the summer and also in the 24 Hour Endurance of Sepang in Malaysia.

Sato-san and his teammates started as a a "barrier-free" motorsports racing team in 2005 after an injury in a karting race left him disabled. The idea of the team was to give people with disabilities, and therefore people who weren't able to get A-Class racing licenses, a chance to experience motorsports. K4GP race cars have been modified to include hand controls that work alongside the standard controls so drivers of nearly any physical ability can race.

It wasn't an easy process to get the kei cars accepted and the series off the ground. Sato-san fought with the authorities at Fuji Speedway for about two years. Eventually, after spending some time developing work experience at Fuji Speedway, including serving as a corner worker, he was allowed to race at Fuji Speedway in 2008. He now holds both an A-Class racing license in Japan and an overseas C-Class license, and even entered the RCN race at the Nürburgring in 2010.

Driving car number 750, Yoshihiro Ko and his team met through the local Rotary Club and made a motorsports club from within. Ko-san started off in motorsports 25 years ago, making his debut in the Fuji Freshman Race with a Toyota Starlet, then entering the Porsche Cup Japan with a 996 GT3-R. He was introduced to K4GP by a friend in 2012, when he drove a Suzuki Cappuccino in his first K4GP race. It clearly left an impression, because Ko-san's K4GP team was formed straight after. Few people have made the jump from a proper Cup Car to kei car racing, but there you go.

The car of choice for Ko-san and his teammates is a 1989 Suzuki Alto Works. When they started they had two cars but now are only left with the Alto. It's rated as a GP-3 Class car because of the turbo. They bought the complete modified car in 2014 for ¥400,000 (about $3,600)—considerably less than a Porsche Cup Car—and of course maintenance costs are much less.

Ko-san doesn't see K4GP as a "race" but rather a "fun event." With about 120 cars and 1,000 drivers it's quite a unique experience. He says part of the fun is building the cars and tinkering with them. In that sense it's more "fun" than the Cup Cars and exotic cars he's used to. Sato-san shares this sentiment, saying, "you can freely modify the car, so making your favorite vehicle is one of the pleasures."