Costa Mesa’s Hattori Bridges the Language Barrier With Speed


Speed may be universal, but language is not. Maybe no one knows that better this week than Shigeaki Hattori of Costa Mesa.

Hattori, 34, is the oldest driver--by nearly nine years over the average age of his competitors--in the developmental Indy Lights Championship. He was just another also-ran in his first two seasons in the series. That changed in the first race of 1998. Hattori won convincingly in Homestead, Fla., starting second and leading 64 of 67 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.

Hattori’s previous best finish was ninth at last year’s Grand Prix of Long Beach.

This year’s Grand Prix is the second race of the 14-race series, and Hattori is understandably excited as he tries to secure a top-three finish in the series, which he hopes will lead to a ride in a Champ car.


“I need a good result this year,” Hattori says, acknowledging that another year like 1997--when he finished 25th--would probably end his career.

“I live to race--I have no other hobby. Only race.”

Hattori has been with three teams in three years. Last year, he had not yet signed with Lucas Place Motorsports at the beginning of the season, and he said there was no preseason testing. With Indy Regency in the Lola, he began testing in November with a race engineer who speaks the same language, Yoshi Iwashita.

Hattori’s debriefings last season would last 45 minutes in English; this season, 45 minutes in Japanese. The more fluent exchange of information and understanding has been valuable and, so far, driver and team have been on the same page.

“We were almost [on] the same [page] last year,” Hattori said. “In racing, you have to be the same.”

Hattori was seventh in Friday’s provisional qualifying, clocking 57.762 seconds (98.099 mph) around the 1.574-mile street circuit. Most of the top speeds were established in the final minutes of the session, and because of a late caution, Hattori was not able to get his new tires up to optimal temperature to match speeds.

Indy Lights are 25% smaller than the CART Champ cars, are non-turbo V-6s instead of turbocharged V-8s (generating 425 horsepower instead of 700-800 hp), and are flat-bottom cars lacking the Champ cars’ ground-hugging aerodynamics. All cars are identical at this level, which is one below CART.



Robby Gordon said he will compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup race May 3 at Fontana, but couldn’t disclose details, which he said would be revealed “within the next week.”

“It’s a new deal--it’s not out for the public yet,” said Gordon, who will make his Champ car debut with Santa Margarita-based Arciero-Wells on April 26 in Nazareth, Pa. He will eventually replace San Clemente’s Hiro Matsushita, who is retiring after the following race in Rio de Janeiro.

Gordon, of Orange, couldn’t say he missed racing this weekend in front of a home crowd in a car, Toyota, that has such strong local connections--including an engine built in Costa Mesa.

“If you look where all the Toyotas are (24th, 25th, 27th, 29th out of 29 cars), how do you answer in a way that’s politically correct?” Gordon asked. “If you see where everybody’s at, and you say,'OK, how much am I really worth?’ I’m not worth 1 1/2 seconds. When I compete I want to win. Does that make any sense?


“Maybe I’d put the car in the top 20, but what’s 20th--the 19th loser.”


P.J. Jones completed provisional qualifying 25th in his backup car (107.804 mph) and Alex Barron was 27th (107.554 mph).

Radio problems during practice and qualifying, a fuel line that came loose on Barron’s car, a gearbox problem on Jones’ car that had the team “mystified” and a tangle with another car were among the problems.


“I’m dissatisfied, definitely,” said Dan Gurney, of Santa Ana-based All American Racers. “Can we get better? Yes. We definitely can.

“P.J. ended up only about one-tenth of a second slower than Max [Papis in the fastest of the four Toyotas] and Alex, though we spent an hour dealing with one problem or another, we can see the light and should be able to make progress [today]. By the same token, it’s a long way to the front.”


Arciero-Wells Racing team manager Richard Buck was pleased with the performance of Papis (24th, 108.030 mph) and Matsushita (29th, 104.955). Buck thinks Papis “can move up two or three places,” which would be enormous on a track that has difficult passing lines.”