The Gringo Switch

Cole Seely’s Japanese Adventure

By Donn Maeda

In the 1980s and ’90s, American motocross stars regularly made the trek to the Land of the Rising Sun to compete in the country where most of the word’s motocross bikes are produced. The Tokyo Supercross; Osaka Supercross; and even the Fukuoka Supercross, held in the high-tech stadium with a retractable roof, were regular stops for racers like Rick Johnson, Ron Lechien, Damon Bradshaw and Jeff Ward, and later on, guys like Jeremy McGrath, Jeff Emig, and Jeff Stanton. It was also not uncommon for American racers to pursue success in the All Japan National MX Championship series in the twilight of their careers. Past American champs in Japan include Steve Martin, Eddie Warren, Ron Tichenor, Jeff Matiasevich, and Kyle Lewis, all of whom were hired by the factory teams of Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, or Yamaha to come and dominate the domestic series. A “gentlemen’s agreement” of sorts between the four factories after Lewis’ dominant ’88 and ’89 seasons saw the “Hired American Assassin” trend come to an end, and every championship since then has been won by a Japanese racer.

That’s not to say that foreign racers haven’t been invited over to compete for various reasons in one-off appearances, mind you. AMA contenders Sebastien Tortelli (France) and Ernesto Fonseca (Costa Rica) were brought over by Honda and Yamaha in 2000 to give the Honda CRF450R and Yamaha YZ250F their competition debuts, respectively. The four-stroke motocross bikes were still all new at the time, and bringing in heavy-hitters to give them victorious premieres was more important than any national pride.

In recent years, it’s become popular for manufacturers to fly in one or two American or European stars to put on a show. Recent guest racers in Japan include Cooper Webb, Tim Gajser, Trey Canard, Romain Febvre, and Jeremy Martin. In 2016, Yamaha planned to bring Febvre and Jeremy Van Horebeek from the MXGP series, and Aaron Plessinger from the States, while Honda gave the nod to Supercross star Cole Seely. Injuries and/or scheduling conflicts knocked all three Yamaha pilots out of contention weeks before the Sugo Sportsland series finale, however, leaving Seely as the lone top-level foreigner on the lineup.

Nippon

For Seely, the Honda HRC rider was thrilled about the prospect of racing in Japan. “Believe it or not, this will be my first-ever trip out of North America,” the Californian said. “I’ve only raced in Canada before and been down to Mexico for fun.”

A huge fan of drifting, Seely also thirsted to get up and close with the homeland of the auto sport he loves almost as much as motocross. Upon arriving in Japan, Seely and his mechanic, Rich Simmons, were treated to a tour of the Honda factory in Tochigi, as well as a visit to the Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, which Honda owns. There, Seely was treated to a tour through the museum that’s filled with many historic racing automobiles.

After a the tour, the American Honda contingent that also consisted of Team Manager Dan Betley and Crew Chief Jay Burgess conducted a quick shakedown of the 2017 CRF450R that was shipped back to Japan for the race at Sugo. “It’s nice to have a bike that I have been riding, instead of flying over with just my suspension and controls,” Seely said. “Oftentimes for flyaway events like the off-season Supercross events in France, Switzerland, and other European countries, racers will race bikes provided by domestic importers and install their own suspension components, exhaust systems, and more personal effects like handlebars, grips, etc. Because the recent earthquake in Sendai, Japan, affected production of the CRF motocross bikes—and because Honda wanted Seely to be 100 percent comfortable in what he was racing—the team boxed up a factory CRF450R in California and shipped it to Japan for him to race. Early in the team’s development of the all-new 2017 CRF450R there was only one test bike that Seely and new team recruit Ken Roczen had to share, but by the time Sugo rolled around, there were enough to go around.

At the Japanese test session, the ignition mapping and EFI programming was adjusted to work with the different fuel that the MFJ (Japanese racing federation) requires. “There wasn’t a whole lot to test or change from our normal race spec that we arrived at back in California,” Simmons reported. “We have to race with what is basically pump gas over here in Japan, so some electronic stuff needed to be adjusted, but that was basically it.”

The track Seely tested at was a far cry from the churned-up, rough and jumpy tracks that he’s used to testing on in SoCal. Tracks in Japan are rarely attended to, and most are hard-packed with few large jumps. “The Japanese team members were asking me how my bike’s low-end felt with the different gas and settings,” Seely said with a laugh. “But I had to tell them that I had no idea, because I was wide open everywhere!”

Culture

Unless you’ve been to Japan yourself, it’s hard to understand just how different the country and culture are from the United States. Day-to-day life is extremely fast paced, public transportation is necessity, and the people are polite and courteous. Litter is practically non-existent even though public trash cans are a rarity, and an automated option of almost every human interaction can be found. From ordering your lunch at a coin-operated ticket machine to purchasing a subway train ticket to push-button, butt-washing toilets, Japan is a technological wonderland. “I love Japan,” Seely said after only a couple days in the country. “I want to move here.”

But what about the food? A self-proclaimed picky eater, Seely was actually quite adventurous when it came time to eating. “I’ve been eating a lot of chicken and fish and trying to stay away from red meat for a few months now,” he said. “But I figured that I’d have to break that diet while in Japan, because I’d get sick and tired of chicken otherwise.”

Meals with Seely in Japan were entertaining, but the kid from Newbury Park, California, proved to be far more adventurous than expected. On Friday night before Saturday’s qualifying sessions, Seely joined Akira Narita and his crew for yakiniku, a popular Japanese meal that involves grilling your own meat at the table. Although there was no getting him to try beef tongue, Cole did go to bed with a full stomach.

At the track, Seely was a hit with the Japanese fans who rarely get to see a full-fledged Supercross star in person. “It’s crazy, the fans in Japan are different,” he said. “Some people told me ahead of time that they are a lot more respectful here and that some fans will actually give you presents.” The first gift Seely was given were a pair of apples, complete with his name and number faded into the fruit’s skin. We didn’t understand the Japanese explanation of the creative process, but we imagine that stickers were applied to the fruit when it was still on the tree, and the sun did the rest.

Friday

While the team personnel set up the pit areas, Seely and the American contingent showed up to check things out and interact with the Japanese crew. Cole had a photo shoot and interview with Dirt Cool, a domestic motocross magazine in the afternoon, and he suited up in one of the six sets of gear he brought with him and posed for a barrage of photos in the middle of the track with his number 114 Honda. As a guest in the MFJ series, Seely would have been allowed to run his signature 14, had it not already been assigned to a local racer. Yuta Ikegaya is a privateer Suzuki racer from Yaizu, Shizuoka, Japan, who has spent plenty of time racing in America and now splits his time between the All Japan MX Championship and the Thailand Supercross series. “Oh no, Seely is the real number 14,” Ikegaya joked when Seely lined up next to him during one of the championship motos.

After his photo shoot, Seely returned to the Honda HRC hospitality area where he was interviewed by a Japanese journalist and a translator about everything from motocross to politics. During the downtime following the interview, we cornered Seely and made him try a variety of Japanese snack foods for the video that you can find elsewhere in this post. Ever the trooper, Seely sampled everything from dried squid and fish cake tubes filled with cheese to pickled plums and licorice-flavored chewing gum.

Saturday

Anxious to take to the track, Seely geared up in a large box truck that the team designated as his private area. Parked alongside the pit road, the rear opening of the box was covered by a large curtain with the words “HRC Staff Only, Please.” Remarkably, even though it was easy to deduce that was Seely’s pit area, fans and spectators remained courteous and never peeked in to ask for an autograph or souvenir. Inside, Seely unpacked his large Troy Lee Designs gear bag. “I brought six full sets of gear, plus some extra jerseys to give to crew members and Japanese fans,” he said. “It’s crazy how many people work on the team here. It makes our race staff look small in comparison.”

One of the coolest new additions to Seely’s race kit as of late is the new +RED ELIXIR paint job on his TLD SE4 helmet. Seely’s newest personal sponsor, +RED ELIXIR is an high-performance functional drink company founded by his longtime friend and supporter Michael Ball of Rock & Republic and Rock Racing. Not to be mistaken for an energy drink that’s loaded with caffeine and sugar, +RED ELIXIR relies on red marine algae as its main source of boosting properties. “Michael Ball has been a longtime sponsor of mine,” Seely said. “He helped me back in the day when I was an amateur with his Rock & Republic brand, and we’ve always kept in contact since. Now that he’s launching +RED ELIXIR, it was a natural fit between us again. Last year, our helmets were reserved for the corporate Ride Red branding, but this year I was given ownership of my helmet and it worked out perfectly.”

Seely has three +RED ELIXIR paint schemes that he will run throughout the 2017 season, one to match each formula of +RED: black (Power), red (Rescue), and white (Power 20). In Japan, he had the black and gray versions with him, and they are stunning. “I’m stoked on the design,” he said. “I helped lay them out, and I am really pumped on the end product.” Not only is the design bold and eye-catching, it is as unique amongst the sea of existing drink-branded helmets as the drink is itself.

Practice and qualifying went as smoothly as you’d have expected it to go for Seely; he set the quickest lap times during practice, but as a non-series regular, he was given last gate pick for the afternoon qualifying race.

Remarkably, there was an open gate not to far from the center, and he gladly lined up there, much better off than he had originally feared. At the drop of the gate, the lone American rocketed off the line and led the way down into turn one, but he came in a little hot and overshot the first turn and left just enough room for his new friend and championship leader Narita to sneak past and into the lead. Seely took control of the lead early on and enjoyed a comfortable lead by the checkered flag, and even threw a few whips for the crowd in the closing laps. “The crowd was awesome, I could hear them cheering all the way around the track,” he said. “I threw a few whips over the jumps, and I could really hear them get fired up. It was fun! The track actually shaped up much better during the race than in practice. It formed some great ruts and got rougher. During practice it was super fast and smooth, but it should be good for race day tomorrow.”

On Saturday night, Seely joined the Japanese team’s team advisor and former 250 national champion Takeshi Katsuya for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Oddly enough, the Italian cuisine in Japan is amazing, as many Japanese chefs go abroad to study in Italy. “I was pumped to eat some great Italian food,” Seely said. “Though the food in Japan has been easier to enjoy than I expected, it was great to eat something that I was 100 percent sure of.”

Race Day

Sunday’s All Japan National Championship finale was a special day for several of the series veterans, as Team Suzuki’s Yoshitaka Atsuta, Team Kawasaki’s Takase Tanaka, and KTM-mounted privateer Yoshiki Kitai all wrapped up their careers at Sugo Sportsland. Adding to the buzz were the impending championships of Narita in the IA1 (450) class and Chihiro Notsuka in the IA2 (250) division. Throw in Seely the visiting American, and the atmosphere at the last race of the season was definitely a buzz!

Unlike the Pro MX Nationals in the United States, the All Japan Nationals consist of more than just premier pro classes. IB2 (250 intermediate), IBO (open intermediate), Women’s, and 85cc classes also share the track time. Oddly enough, the women are only allowed to race minis in Japan, even at the highest levels.

Before the races got underway, Seely was introduced to several Japanese racers and among them was Atsuta, one of the racers who would retire after the day’s racing concluded. With a 23-year professional racing career under his belt, Atsuta has won a championship in Japan and turned in very respectable finishes in both the FIM World Championship and AMA National Championship series. As the two talked about Atsuta’s long career, Seely—seeming blown away—asked how old the Japanese veteran was. “How old do you think I am?” Atsuta asked, then interrupted, “Be careful, I’ll kick your ass!” Laughter erupted amongst the group, and Seely safely guessed several years younger than Atsuta’s 39 years.

At the drop of the gate in the first moto, Narita and MXGP regular Kei Yamamoto joined Seely at the front of the pack. Yamamoto returned from Europe just in time to compete in his home country’s championship finale, and he was anxious to show that he was quick enough to run at the front. The three Honda riders traded the lead position several times, with Narita making a couple daring passes on Seely. “I was setting up to pass Yamamoto for the lead, and out of nowhere Narita came jumping past me and then threw a Japanese gang sign at me in the air over the next jump,” Seely said, laughing about the great battle. When asked about it, Narita remarked, “I jumped past Cole and looked back and said, ‘Sorry!’”

Sadly for Narita, the exhilarating start to his race came to an abrupt end when he lost traction in a slippery corner and went down, twisting his knee in the process. He would remount and work through the pack to finish eighth, just behind his championship rival Hiroaki Arai of the factory Kawasaki team. This was more than enough to clinch his 11th All Japan National Championship in the opening moto, and he would sit out the second race of the day.

Seely, meanwhile, checked out with relative ease once into the lead for good and crossed the finish line some 30 seconds ahead of 2015 champ Yohei Kojima, who had a good run through the pack after a mediocre start.

“The track developed really well,” Seely said. “I was surprised by the pace that Narita and Yamamoto set in the first few laps. I think they were trying to prove a point. It was a lot of fun out there, and it’s always good to get some race-pace experience on the new bike.”

Race two was a bit more exciting for Seely, as this time he was joined at the front of the pack by Atsuta, Yamamoto, and Yamaha’s Yu Hirata. In the opening laps, Seely was again caught off guard as he set up to make a pass attempt for the lead. As he rode a little wide entering a corner to set up for a dive to the inside, the Japanese veteran Atsuta wanted to prove a point in his farewell race and dive to the inside, blindsiding Seely with a T-bone that nearly sent him off the track. “I can’t remember the last time that I was hit that hard, and it actually made me really mad,” Seely said. “I was seeing red and planned to pay it back doubly hard, but the opportunity didn’t really present itself because I passed him in a section that didn’t call for contact. After that, I was still so mad that I decided to put my head down and check out as far as I could.” This time, Seely would cross the finish line with an even larger gap. After the race when he learned that it was Atsuta who had torpedoed him, he had mixed emotions. “I like that guy!” he said. “Or…I did? I mean, he’s a cool guy. Maybe he was just trying to do something big in his farewell race.”

After the checkered flag flew, the top finishers took a slow lap around the entire track and were greeted by thousands of fans who jumped the fences and lined up in an orderly fashion to high-five the riders, and Seely in particular. “It was so weird and cool at the same time,” Seely said. “In America, fans jump the fences to steal the banners, but here they lined up perfectly to give us high fives. I felt bad, because I had to miss some because my arm was getting tired and I also had to pull in the clutch at times. It was one of the most different and memorable parts of racing in Japan.”

Atsuta, meanwhile, was stopped midway through his parade lap and doused with champagne by a large group of his close friends and family. A few days later, he posted a long thank you message to his fans on his Facebook page. Of course, it was in Japanese, but thanks to Facebook’s translation software, we were able to enjoy a chuckle or two, thanks to the inaccurate translation. In the paragraph about the second moto, we can only assume that this referred to Seely: “Sugo Heat 2 the last race to start 4, and the first one in the first time I'm going to hit the top and I can't get a little bit of The Gringo Switch on it. I don't think so. And after that, he was pulled out.”

That evening, Seely joined champions Narita and Notsuka, and around 50 Honda team members for a celebration at a fancy traditional Japanese restaurant that had on-the-floor seating. The food was amazing, and the local Yebisu beer flowed freely. Japanese custom mandates that you never fill your own beer glass, so your drinking partners are always quick to keep you topped off. At one point, after the plates had been cleared, various members of the team stood to make toasts that were received with raucous enthusiasm. Following the lead of Narita and Notsuka, who made toasts of their own, which we assume thanked the team for its support, Seely stood to make a toast of his own, and even threw in a Japanese phrase he learned on the trip. “I had a great time racing at Sugo! I love Japan! I love Team Honda, thank you for having me over!” he said, before wrapping it up with, “Ookii opai daisuke!” The room erupted with cheers and applause, as Seely had said in rough Japanese, “I like big boobs.”

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any louder, Naoki Serizawa, the Japanese Team Honda manager, stood up and shouted, “But Cole! I have seen your Instagram—your girlfriend is not so much ooki opai!”

It was at that moment that this author realized two things: One, the Japanese all know how to speak more English than they let on; and two, social media has truly made the world a lot smaller of a place.

As Cole Seely presented his American passport to the airline security agent on Monday night after the race, he reflected on his week spent abroad. “It’s always been a dream of mine to travel to Japan, and it was way cooler than I could have ever expected it to be,” he said. “I really hope that I get to come back next year.”

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