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.