For more than half a century motor racing has drawn crowds in Japan as well as most other countries in the world. But for the Japanaese motorsports fans one Grand Prix always seems to stand out with the fans …
The 1964 meeting at Suzuka, or the day the Skyline legend began at a GT-II race. A team of Skyline GTs lined up, all modified sedans that were about to do the unthinkable and challenge the established champions from abroad.
The Skylines nearly didn’t get to the race as to qualify a hundred units of the production version of the car had to have been made. The Prince Motor Company, which later merged with Nissan only just made that target! The Skyline GT had a longer nose & a straight six, triple-carbureted engine which was the brainchild of the chief engineer, Shinichiro Sakurai.
Reunited with the No. 39 he drove in the race back in 1964, Yoshikazu Sunako remembers that at first the modified car seemed far from perfect :
“We had extended the car by 20 centimeters, the body balance was very bad & the tires were out so that’s why we could only drift when we turned. We slipped & drifted because the tires were bad. But these issues actually turned out to be good for us”.
After a few practice runs, Sunako knew the car was something special.
“We finished a lap in two minutes 47 seconds & at that point I was proud to say this was the fastest car at Suzuka”.
The saloon model Skyline would have to be quick as another late addition to the field was a Porsche 904 Carrera GTS, a German car that came with a fearsome reputation. The Skyline would not defeat the Porsche – which could hit a top speed over 250 kilometers per hour – but Sunako’s driver colleague, Tetsu Ikuzawa would get ahead for a lap that all Japan would remember. Sunako said :
“Just before the hairpin curve, Ikuzawa overtook the Porsche, so I thought, ‘Wow, he’s the man!’ “.
As the Skyline led the Porsche, fans at Suzuka – and around Japan – went wild. The title ultimately went to the German car, but the Skylines had a clean sweep from second place to sixth withSunako in the No. 2 spot & the plucky driving of Ikuzawa had captured a nation’s imagination.
Toshiyuki Shiga, who once served as Nissan’s Chief Operating Officer says that day decided his path in life :
“I was just nine years old at that time, but I still remember the big news. 1964 was the moment Japanese motorization began. Nissan always led the initiative with motorsports. I was so happy. It was my dream, and I wanted to enter Nissan.”
Veteran race driver Kazuyoshi Hoshino – who himself would become a national hero at Daytona nearly 30 years later – said the Skyline also fired his imagination.
“This is the car that became a trigger for Japan motorsports, and I was obsessed by it. The reason I got into motorsports was because of this. I chose this path in life because of this and if it didn’t exist, I would have chosen another path in life“.
Even though the Suzuka result in 1964 didn’t produce a win, it inspired the development of the prince R380 Series cars that would claim the Grand Prix over Porsche just two years later with Sunako at the wheel of the 1966 Gran Prix champion. Sunako said :
“It was because we lost against the Porsche at that time that the R380 series was born, so it was actually a good thing that we competed against the Porsche Carrera”.
The No. 39 is so significant today that a few years ago a team of volunteers put hundreds of hours into restoring it, working in Nissan’s Zama heritage garage where the car was stored to make it ready to return to the scene of its greatest success – the Suzuka racetrack. Project leader Shinichi Kiga said :
“It was a very emotional moment, it is really a car that needs to be seen driving on a circuit. As long as it is stored in the garage at Zama, it’s as if it’s asleep – almost dead. But when it came to Suzuka, it was really radiant”.
It was the car that started the Skyline story, a legend that has continued through 12 generations of the car. It was also a fitting memorial to Chief Engineer Sakurai who passed away in 2011 leaving a legacy of innovation & excitement that endures to this day.
The Nissan Skyline 2000 GT-R (S54) was launched two days before the second Japan Grand Prix in 1964. It was necessary to work round the clock to produce the 100-unit minimum required for GT approval in time for the race.