November 21, 2012
A Clear Steer: World Endurance Championship Racing’s Keiko Ihara
Nov. 21 – Yokohama – Keiko Ihara has made a career by shifting from race queen to racing driver, currently in the World Endurance Championship. She has pushed the envelope for women in motorsports, after becoming a driver at the rather advanced age of 25. While continuing to compete, Japan’s most successful woman racing driver now teaches others trying to enter the sport.
Coco Masters spoke with Keiko Ihara on what brought her to racing and the road ahead.
You went from being a race queen to rising to the top in motorsports, particularly with the World Endurance Championship. Could you tell me what attracted you to racing?
I was a university student and a fashion model, and during one of those jobs I became a race queen, or “grid girl”. When I went to the circuit for the first time, I was very surprised. Motorsports was fantastic!
The cars’ exhaust noise was very nice and the high speed, while the mechanics, engineers and racing car drivers were all so serious about the race. It was a very nice atmosphere, so that was the first time I thought I wanted to be a racing driver.
I wanted to change from (a grid girl) holding an umbrella to holding a steering wheel, so the next day I went to get my driving license because I didn’t have a normal driving license.
I went to driving school and after that I started telling a lot of people that I wanted to be a racing driver. Many said, “No, you can’t,” but there were also those who gave me a chance to join the Nissan Driving Pack Instructor.
But I wondered. I had just got my driving license and my driving was not very good and I was just a beginner. Even so, I was given the chance to audition to become an instructor. Finally I passed, because I had no bad driving habits. I studied a lot on how to drive and also on the knowledge about the car on the Nissan test course.
What was the next step after that?
I made my debut at Fair Challenge. After that, I thought, I have to study more, because when I made my debut, I was already 25 years old and this was very late.
What is the average age for drivers in general?
Usually, 16 or 17, so I thought it was too late to start motorsports. I went to England, because it had a very high level of motorsports and started my Formula career in England.
You are in a male-dominated sport and you mentioned there were people who questioned your intentions to go into racing. What were some obstacles that you experienced?
To get started in motorsports, it was already very hard for me, because I had no knowledge and no money. It was very hard. After that, especially in the Formula races, we have to be very physical – muscle strength and also in physical heart rate. So I started to work out with Formula One drivers.
I went to the sports science center and started to jog for 20 kms, cycle for 100 kms, after the 2-hour workout, finally I would cool down by swimming 100 laps in a 25-meter pool. This was training for one day and I did this training every day, so finally I had really good strength and reached the World Endurance Championship.
In your career, what have been the highlights?
In my memory, when I was standing on the podium at the Macau Grand Prix as the first female driver, that was really fantastic. But the best was this year, because the World Endurance Championship was in the highest category, so it was very hard for me also. Our team came in 6that Fuji, in the six-hour race, so that was a fantastic memory.
After a two-year hiatus, you returned to Le Mans. When is your next race?
It’s in April next year at Silverstone. I’ve lived in England for 6 or 7 years, so Silverstone is my home course. I love Silverstone.
It’s the beginning of the year and the season, so I would like to set up the car for the Le Mans 24 race.
This year, I could not race at Le Mans 24 hours due to a problem, but I would like to finish Le Mans next year and, of course, I would like to win.
Finally as a last question, for your fans and also for the women who would like to be a race driver like you, what message do you have for them?
After I started motorsports, I noticed that if I can imagine something, I could realize the dream. Before, I had made a wall by myself, so if I don’t do that, I can realize the dream. Next year, of course, I would like to win the championship of the LMP2 class, so please support our team and cheer for us.