For more than half a century, motor racing has drawn crowds in Japan. But for motorsports fans, one grand prix stands out: the 1964 meeting at Suzuka.
It was the day the Skyline legend began.
The GT-II race and a team of Skyline GTs lined up. They were modified sedans but were about to do the unthinkable – and challenge the established champions from abroad.
The Skylines nearly didn’t get to the race at all. To qualify, a hundred units of the production version of the car had to have been made. Prince Motor Company, later to merge with Nissan, only just made the target.
The Skyline GT had a longer nose and a straight six, triple-carbureted engine. It 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.
After a few practice runs, Sunako knew the car was something special.
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.
As the Skyline led the Porsche, fans at Suzuka – and around Japan – went wild.
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.
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.
Sunako would be at the wheel of the 1966 Gran Prix champion.
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.
“It was a very emotional moment,” said Shinichi Kiga, project leader of the restoration team. “It’s 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 and excitement that endures to this day.
The GT-R, reintroduced with the R32 (launched August 1989), made its debut at the opening race of the All Japan Championship in March 1990. In the four seasons running up to the last All Japan Championship held in1993, the GT-R achieved a spectacular record, winning all 29 rounds. This No. 12 Calsonic (“CalsonicKansei” at present) Skyline (K. Hoshino/Masahiko Kageyama) was victorious in 1990 and 1993.