The Shogun

Akira Narita Is Japanese Motocross

By Donn Maeda

In a country where 75 percent of the world’s motocross bikes are produced, the sport is surprisingly small. Perhaps it’s the extremely high cost of maintaining a racing habit; maybe it’s the lack of open riding areas and easily accessible tracks; or maybe it’s the wealth of other activities that are more attractive to the average Japanese teenager. The bottom line? Motocross isn’t as cool in the homeland of Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha as it is around the rest of the world. “It’s hard to say why motocross isn’t more popular in Japan,” says Takeshi Katsuya, a Japan-born racer who grew up in Australia, and currently works as a team advisor and test rider for the Japanese factory Honda team. Katsuya himself is a highly decorated racer, with four IA2 (250-class) National Championships to his credit, and at the age of 37, is still one of the fastest men in the country. “Even Narita, with as much success as he’s had in racing…it’s not like he’s famous in Japan or even in his hometown. He’s made a great living racing, but it’s all relative to Japan.”

Sometimes it amazes me at how small modern technology has made the world. The fact that I can exchange text messages with someone on the other side of the planet in a matter of seconds astounds me. “You come to Sugo?” reads the text from Narita on my iPhone. At this time, I’m riding my mountain bike up Skyline trail near my home, so instead of typing, I snap a photo while I’m riding and send it as my reply. “Ah Skyline? Unco!” he replies. “Unco” means “shit” in Japanese, and Narita writes that because of the love/hate relationship that he has with the four-mile climb. Three years ago, Narita found himself in the biggest slump of his career in the 2014 All Japan Nationals. Out of shape and lacking confidence, it appeared as if his stranglehold on the sport might have been coming to an end. As he always does in the summertime break in the series, Narita headed to SoCal to ride and train. That’s when our mutual friend Masa Shirotani introduced him to mountain biking up Skyline. “I told Akira, ‘Hey man, you’re fat! You need to pedal with me and train!” says Video Masa, as he’s known by most of the American motocross industry, thanks to his job at Troy Lee Designs as its video specialist. “So he bought a mountain bike, and we rode…every day!” Narita may not have gained a ton of fitness in the weeks he was suffering in SoCal, but the confidence his newfound training regimen gave him propelled him back to the front of the pack and he easily went on to with his 10th All Japan National Championship with a great come-from-behind performance in the final rounds of the season.

Although it was an odd sport for a young Japanese to become involved in (baseball and golf are Japan’s two most-popular pastimes), Narita took up motocross because it was his dad’s activity of choice. In 1995, Narita turned pro and contested the IA2 class on a 125. He finished second in his first season—an impressive feat in itself—but instead of returning to try and win the championship the following year, he moved up to the IA1 class. “In Japan, there is no money in the 125cc class, so I moved up to the IA1 class to make more money,” he says with a laugh. Through the years, Narita has indeed earned a good living for himself and his family—wife, Misa; son, Dan; and daughter, Anri—and they live a very comfortable life in his hometown of Sendai. “Motocross has been good to me,” he says. “I am not rich like racers in America, but pretty good for Japan.” Championship and bonuses included, it has possible for him to earn up to a million dollars per year in his spot at the top of the sport. “In Japan, there are maybe three of us who can make a good living from racing.” Like America, the purse money itself in Japan is nothing to write home about: A 1-1 sweep of the IA1 class at a National pays out around $1,600. Instead, it is the factory rider’s salaries and performance bonuses that are most lucrative.

After my mountain bike ride, I let Narita know that I have not planned on attending the series finale at Sugo Sportsland. “You must come,” he replies. “Cole Seely will race, and maybe I win my championship.” Truth be told, with over 30 domestic events to attend and cover each year, we exhaust our travel budget at TransWorld Motocross by this time of the year and have no extra funds for additional trips. “I can buy your ticket. You and Video Masa must come!” he insists. In the years since he got his first taste of mountain biking, Narita has made it a habit to come to SoCal every chance he gets, and Masa and I always look forward to taking him on rides. On one particularly ridiculous “working vacation,” Narita rode Skyine twice a day, morning and night, for all 10 days he was staying in Corona. “Hey, I can’t go because I must film at the Red Bull Straight Rhythm,” Masa says. “But you should go. He really wants you to be there.” I still have a lot to learn about manners and honor in the Japanese culture, but I know that it would be rude to turn down his invitation, so I reluctantly agree to go. I say reluctantly because I feel bad about the expense of the trip, but inside I am thrilled. I’ve been to Japan more times than I can count on my two hands, but I love visiting the country that my family came from some three generations ago.

Narita may be best known in the United States as the out-of-nowhere rider who challenged Travis Pastrana for a moto win at Mt. Morris in 2001. With its typical muddy conditions, the East Coast track suited Narita’s style to a tee and he damn near won the first 125 National moto. Rainfall in Japan seems to be a 50/50 affair no matter what time of year it is, and Japanese motocross racers spend more than their fair share of time racing in wet conditions. At the time, Narita was a factory Suzuki rider in Japan, and the American Suzuki team offered him some minimal support in his one-race American adventure. It was that year that Narita was randomly assigned number 982, digits that he has been emotionally attached to ever since. “The fastest racers are in America,” Narita says. “I wanted to race there, and Suzuki allowed me to go try. I had a good time and wanted to race there full-time, it was my dream.” First things first, however, and Narita went on to win his first All Japan IA1 National Championship the following year, in 2002. For ’03, with his taste of American motocross fresh on his mind, he negotiated a unique bonus into his factory Suzuki contract. If Narita were to win the IA1 Championship in ’03, Suzuki agreed to let him race full-time in the United States in ’04. Akira delivered and successfully defended his championship, but Suzuki Japan waffled on their end of the bargain. Furious, Narita walked away from his factory ride, bought Hondas, and won his third All Japan IA1 Championship as a privateer—just another amazing accomplishment in his illustrious career.

After sleeping through nearly the entire 13-hour flight to Tokyo (Advil PM is amazing!), Narita greets me just outside of customs. Outfitted completely in Diesel and carrying a Louis Vuitton backpack, it’s obvious that he enjoys the finer things in life. After a couple train rides, we enter a parking garage and load my bags into his Toyota van. Minivans are associated with soccer moms in the United States, but in Japan they are straight-up cool! Narita’s van is decked out and customized, complete with a sleeping area in back. Two car seats must be moved before my bags can fit in the center seat, and I can’t wait to see his kids. I’d met his son, Dan, years ago when he was a newborn, and he recently celebrated his fourth birthday.

Dan is at school when we arrive at the Narita home, but Akira’s wife, Misa, and his two-year-old daughter, Anri, greet me. The Narita family home is a custom build, actually located in the city of Tomiya, just outside of Sendai. Desiring a more secluded area, Narita bought property from a friend several years ago and the location is plenty private, evidenced by the numerous bicycles he can leave on his front porch, unsecured without worry of them being stolen. It’s when he opens his garage, though, that I am really caught off guard…

In 2005, Narita realized his dream of racing a complete season in the United States. Narita secured support for the Western Regional 125 Supercross and 125 National Championship Series from MotoSport Outlet, joining Steve Lamson, Greg Schnell, Tucker Hibbert, Randy Valade, and Estonian Juss Laansoo on the team. Things looked promising when he earned third at the muddy Anaheim I season opener, but that proved to be the only highlight of the season. “Racing in America was my dream, but the season was not a dream come true,” Narita says. “I had a very difficult time communicating with anyone because my English was not so good. The pace of the racers was also much faster than I was used to, and my results were not good.”

Yamaha Japan signed Narita in 2006, and he returned to his home country with a vengeance. A broken collarbone suffered while leading the championship held him to second in the final standings, but in ’07, ’08, and ’09, he won his fourth, fifth, and sixth All Japan National Championships with relative ease.

Even though cars in Japan are a luxury—public transportation is more the norm than the exception, as it is in the United States—they are still very practical. Compact in size to navigate the narrow roads and highways of Japan, even the larger minivans are small by American standards. Only the most affluent Japanese can afford to import left-side drive American vehicles or the occasional European luxury car. As the electric door of Narita’s garage opens up, I am shocked to see a Lamborghini Gallardo nestled in between a treadmill, a weight bench, and other assorted workout equipment. I’ll be honest, aside from Speed Racer’s Mach 5 super car, I’ve never been a huge car nut and I don’t know a whole lot about sports cars. The sound of the 10-cylinder engine growling to life, though, sends chills down my spine and I can’t help but wonder how hard it is to drive a wide car like the Lamborghini—with left-hand drive—on the narrow streets of Japan. I ask Akira about the car, and he tells me that he bought it as a reward for himself after the 2014 season, in which he won his 10th All Japan National Championship—10 titles, 10 cylinders…I get it. “After I win my 12th championship, I will look for a Murcielago,” he says. “It is a V12.”

With help of Anri, Narita washes his Gallardo in front of his home in preparation for the weekend’s race. Hardly a daily driver, the Lamborghini is driven only on weekends or on special occasions. Because of its two-seated design, I imagine that probably only Akira’s son has gone for super-fast rides in it around the countryside. After the car is clean, Narita looks at me and says words that sound like music to my ears: “Donny, now we go ride?” As I am packing, Akira instructs me to bring my road bike gear with me, as we will have time to go on a quick ride with HRC’s team advisor, Takeshi Katsuya, and one of Narita’s sponsored racers, Taiki Koga.

In 2008—Narita’s third season on Yamahas—the factory team was forced to shelf its official effort due to a legal battle. Instead of finding a different team to race for, Narita agreed to be supplied with factory machines and support, but find his own way to the races. Thus, the Narita Racing Team was born, and it still thrives today, albeit for a different reason. Under the N.R.T. banner, Narita won championships in ’08, ’09, and ’11. (He suffered a broken leg in ’10.) In order to operate his race team, Narita opened up a small motorcycle shop in his hometown that has a retail front and a workshop in the back. “Motocross is not so popular in Japan with young people, and it is experiencing a decrease in participation,” Narita says. “ I want to have a cool shop for people to come to. Once you experience motocross, you love it. My shop and my racing team are my ways of helping the sport grow in Japan.”

In 2012, Narita joined the factory Honda team, but kept N.R.T. alive by supporting a handful of young 250cc class riders. Today, the Narita Racing Team consists of Taiki Koga and Takuro Yokosawa in the IA2 class, Kodama Norito in the IAB (intermediate) class, and Tadashi Nomura, the IA1 All Japan Enduro Champion.

Target Off-Road Gear Shop is located in the Miyagi Prefecture of Sendai, only minutes from the Narita family home; it is here that we meet up with Katsuya and Koga for our afternoon climb up Mt. Izumigatake. The shop itself is small by American standards, but it is chock-full of great stuff: most notably, several of Narita’s old championship-winning works bikes from Yamaha and Honda! While Akira and his buddies mill around in the shop and get the road bikes ready, I drool over most everything inside Target Off-Road Gear Shop. There are several of Narita’s old custom-painted helmets on the wall, and I even spotted his old Anaheim 2005 trophy! There are several new Hondas and a new Yamaha or two for sale, but most of the bikes for sale look to be old N.R.T. race bikes. I ask Akira how many bikes he sells per year, and he chuckles and replies, “Only four or five. Target does not make big money. Mostly, I spend.”

As we gear up for our bike ride, I’m stoked when I see the bike I’ll be riding: Taiki’s old Specialized S-Works Tarmac, Saxo Bank edition. After adjusting the seat and filling my water bottle, I join Akira, Taiki, and Takeshi as they load up the van. Mt. Izumigatake, I’m told, is a popular climb for road cyclists and the site of an organized race in coming weeks. The pace the guys set is a little uncomfortable for me on the flats and I struggle to keep up, but once the climbing starts I begin to feel more comfortable. The wind on the mountain is ridiculous, and it’s definitely not on our side as we pedal up toward the ski resort. Riding on “the wrong” side of the street takes some getting used to, and I actually catch myself panicking a few times when cars zoom past. As the hill gets steeper, I feel secretly satisfied as I begin to pull away from my friend. The last time we rode mountain bikes together in California, Akira waxed me up a painfully steep climb and returning the favor in Japan is fair play, right? All told, we pedaled around 15 miles and climbed 2,000 feet, and I had a blast riding on the other side of the world.

After signing with the factory Honda team in 2012, Narita had a pretty easy time earning the next two championships, but during the ’14 season he struggled with bad luck and a lack of fitness and found himself in an off place: second in the series point standings, midway in the season. That’s when he took the aforementioned trip to California and discovered mountain bike training, then returned to Japan with a late-season charge that helped him win his unprecedented 10th All Japan National Championship.

The 2015 season was exciting and devastating at the same time. Because there is no production rule in Japan, the racers often compete aboard full-blown works bikes and prototype machines. In ’15, Narita fielded an early version of what is now known as the 2017 Honda CRF450R. After dominating early on aboard the all-new machine, he suffered a costly 50-point DNS when the bike had a mechanical failure during practice. Although the team was able to fix the bike, there was uncertainty about whether it would last through two motos and the series-points leader was forced to sit out and watch his championship slip away. Narita proved to be the dominant rider throughout the season lost by only a handful of points when all was said and done, but even new All Japan National Champion Yohei Kojima knew that the cards had fallen in his favor. “I was happy to win the championship,” Kojima told me at the 2016 season opener. “But I was lucky because Akira’s bike was broken.”

Fueled by the disappointment of last season, Narita stormed back with a vengeance this year and—at 36 years old—found himself poised to wrap up his 11th All Japan National Championship at the series finale at Sugo Sportsland.

In addition to Narita’s impending 11th All Japan National Championship at the Sugo finale, the upcoming weekend was also set to be a memorable one as American Honda HRC Honda racer Cole Seely had made the trek to Japan for the series finale. For Japanese fans, the race would also serve as the grand finale of the careers of several of the series’ stars, most notably Team Suzuki’s three-time All Japan National Champion Yoshitaka Atsuta, a 23-year veteran of the series. Also retiring after Sugo were Kawasaki’s Takase Tanaka and KTM privateer Yoshiki Kitai.

Although Sugo Sportsland is technically in the same city as Narita’s home, Sendai spans as large an area as Los Angeles. That said, the hotel we’ll be staying at over the weekend is over 40 minutes away. Because the Lamborghini only has a small storage space in the front trunk area, my camera bag and luggage have to go to the track with Taiki in his minivan. I’ll be honest when I say that I’m a little nervous about driving to the track in Akira’s Gallardo; I’m that guy on the freeway who rarely drives over 65 mph, and my wife and kids always tease me about being a senior citizen behind the wheel.

Most of—if not all—the highways in Japan require tolls, and the tollbooths are operated by transponders in the vehicles that trigger the boom barrier to rise. The first few freak me out, as Narita speeds through them with millimeters to spare. Nothing, however, prepares me for the ridiculous acceleration of the Gallardo. The G-forces that compress my body back into the seat, combined with the wicked sound of the V10 engine (and not to mention Akira’s laughter), are enough to make my head spin. “Abunai!” I yell, (“dangerous” in Japanese), and that only makes my friend drive faster. Luckily for me, traffic is terrible, so I get the neck-jerking spurts of speed in small doses.

The racing scene in Japan is not nearly as large as it is in the United States, and the National events also include International B (intermediate) and women’s classes. (Oddly enough, the women in Japan are only allowed to race on mini bikes.) The events are spread out over Saturday and Sunday, with practice and qualifying held the first day. Narita likes to show up to the track on Friday as the team is setting up, even though there is no official reason for his being there. Narita and Seely met for the first time on Friday and the two hit it off immediately, with the Lamborghini serving as an icebreaker, thanks to Seely’s obsession with fast cars.

Saturday’s practice and qualifying race went smoothly for Akira, as he finished second behind Seely, topping all of his domestic rivals with ease. In addition to the American, Japanese Kei Yamamoto—who races the MXGP World Championships full-time—returned home to compete in the Sugo series finale out of the factory Honda pit. In spite of all the extraordinary distractions at Sugo, Narita seemed calm, cool, and collected, with plenty of confidence that he would wrap up his championship the following day. When asked if he would play it safe and ride to wrap up the title, Narita replied, “I always want to win every race, no matter who is here. Cole Seely may be too fast, but I will try to beat him.”

On Saturday night, I join Narita and his team for dinner and afterward, we go on an expedition to find a liquor store that sells champagne. Narita buys at least 20 bottles of bubbly. I think it’s odd that he’d buy champagne for his own championship celebration, so I ask him about it. “We will give Yossy [Yoshitaka Atsuta] a shower after the race,” he says. “To celebrate his retirement.” At that moment, I realize that Atsuta is much more than a rival of Narita’s; they are great friends, too. It’s the night before one of the biggest races of his career, and here is Akira, thinking about how he will help his friend celebrate a great career. Pretty cool, right?

“Yossy has been a nice friendly rival,” Narita says. “I have always gotten a big inspiration from him, and I want to have good results like he has. He has been racing professional for 23 years, and I want to be like him.”

Racers were greeted with perfect weather for Sunday’s 2016 season finale—a nice contrast to the rainy, muddy conditions that so often haunt the Japanese championship. The opening laps of the first IA1 moto were spectacular, as Seely, Narita, and Yamamoto traded the lead several times, with each of them leading at various points. Disaster struck on the fourth lap when Narita pushed too hard in a corner and fell, twisting his knee in the process. After remounting in the latter half of the field, Narita put on a furious charge through the pack and managed to chase down his championship rival, Hiroaki Arai of the factory Kawasaki team. At the checkered flag, Narita was eighth, only a few inches behind Arai, and that was good enough to clinch his 11th All Japan National Championship, with one moto left in the season.

Moments after he crossed the finish line, Narita was swarmed by his team, friends, and fans, and given a champagne shower of his own. His mechanic, Nagatoshi Chiba, gave him a bear hug and presented him with a new number-one jersey. Only after the finish-line celebrations subsided did it become obvious that the champ was injured as he limped back to the Honda pits.

After showering in a private tent that the team sets up for him at every race, Narita had his knee checked out by the team trainer. With the title wrapped up, it was decided that there was no reason to send him out in moto two to ride in pain and risk further injury.

Tattoos have gained greater acceptance in Japanese culture in recent years, but for the more traditional, ink in your skin is still often associated with the Japanese mob, or Yakuza. Narita has several tattoos, and for this his team has asked him to change out of sight and remained covered up in between motos. I ask Narita about his tattoos, and his explanation about them is both familiar and heartbreaking. Like myself, he has the names of his children tattooed on his arms. As he shows me, though, I count three: Anri, Dan, and Maiki. In 2010, Akira lost his first child, Maiki, when he fell from the balcony of his ex-wife’s apartment. He was almost four. It was an understandably dark time in Narita’s life, and it was made even darker by a later injury that cost him that year’s championship. Since then, every race win and championship title that the father has won, has been dedicated to the memory of Maiki.

Cole Seely raced to a perfect 1-1 moto sweep at Sugo, much to the delight of the fans in attendance, but the fans got an extra treat when Atsuta made a big, aggressive run at the American early in the second moto. Narita was amongst those cheering for the legendary Japanese racer, and as Atsuta took a slow, farewell parade lap after the checkered flag, he successfully choreographed a massive champagne shower for his friend. Later, on the podium, as he was awarded his championship number-one plate, Narita was drawn to tears as he spoke about his long- time rivalry and friendship with Atsuta.

For the Honda camp, Sugo Sportsland was a weekend to remember, as Red Riders swept everything: Narita won the IA1 Championship, his teammate Chihiro Notsuka won the IA2 Championship, and Seely won the IA1 overall at Sugo. Heck, even N.R.T. had a great showing with Koga earning third overall, and Yokosawa enjoying his first-ever podium-showing with a third in the final moto of the season. The championship party that evening was filled with great food, lots of beer, and plenty of laughter, toasts, and stories. Despite the fact that Narita was in pain and could barely limp around, and that the weekend had obviously not turned out the way he had planned, he was satisfied with his accomplishments.

The day after Sugo, Narita picks me up at my hotel and we drive to Target Off-Road Gear Shop to watch the N.R.T. team unload the bikes and gear, and clean everything up. I ask him how his knee is feeling, and he says that he has an appointment to get an MRI later that afternoon. “Donny, what kind of knee brace do you wear?” he asks. Remarkably, Akira has raced his entire career up to this point in knee cups and has never so much as twisted a knee. We talk about the different off-the-shelf options and which I prefer, and just like that, he gets on his iPhone and orders a pair from BTOSports.com. Again, I am amazed at how small technology has made the world. I mention the fact that he only has to win one more championship before he can buy his V12 Lamborghini Murcielago, now that he has wrapped up his 11th championship. And that’s when he tells me about his new goal. “I’m thinking that I want to win 15 championships,” he says. “If I train hard and race hard, I want to win my last championship when I am 40 years old.” As lofty as that goal sounds, I would never bet against my friend, as he has the skill and determination to do just that.

Around 24 hours later when I land in Los Angeles, I turn on my phone and exchange a few texts with Narita. I thank him for the amazing trip, and he tells me that his knee was only sprained and that no surgery is required. “That’s good,” I write. “That means we can start your Skyline training soon!”

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