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Takuma Koga Feature
Ask the K&N Pro Series West if they've ever seen Takuma Koga without a smile on his face. Nobody will say yes. (Meg Oliphant/NASCAR)

Reward Miles: Takuma Koga Crisscrossing The Pacific To Chase His Dream

Takuma Koga can’t recall his introduction to a primarily American stock car racing while growing up across the Pacific ocean in Japan due to the lack of coverage.

But he does remember seeing it on the big screen.

“Most Japanese car fans liked brands like Porsche and Ferrari, but I was always drawn to American cars,” the 42-year-old native of Nagoya, Japan, told NASCAR.com. “I remember watching the TV show “Knight Rider” and thought “Kit” was so cool. I also enjoyed Burt Reynolds movies like Smoky and The Bandit and Stroker Ace. Of course ‘Days of Thunder’ with Tom Cruise was my introduction to NASCAR.”

Racing-Reference: Takuma Koga Career Statistics

An exhibition event at Suzuka Speedway in 1996 was the first time Koga was up close and personal with the full-bodied stock cars. Having a passion for American muscle cars, he recalled driving to the track in third generation Camaro.

“I fell love with the sport,” he said. “During practice, it was raining and I saw teams using a tire groover on flats and I thought that was amazing. With my limited English ability, I was able to obtain a used set of tires from a team, put them on my Camaro and drove home. I was hooked.”

Fast forward half a decade and he made his first step into making his dream a reality, traveling to Monroe, Washington, and Evergreen Speedway, where he made his NASCAR debut in April of 2001 in the Northwest Series. Koga ultimately competed in five races that season before making the jump to NASCAR K&N Pro Series West racing the following season.

He competed part-time from 2002-2006 before taking a decade long break from racing. Priority number one was building his business, T3R Driving Simulator, an advanced virtual reality driving simulator, which helps fund his racing efforts. During that time, he also became a father.

But he wasn’t done. In 2016 at Irwindale, he made his return to the K&N Pro Series.

“I was so surprised at how much the cars had changed and I got the urge to race again,” he said. “I also want my children to have a chance to see me race.”

Every year, his family makes the trip to the states to take in the sights and scenes at the track with Takuma to make memories together. This year, the venue was Evergreen, the closest track to Japan, being the westernmost track on the schedule.

“Obviously it is tough on our family with me being gone so much,” he said. “But I am lucky to have a great wife that understands this business. Of course I would love to have my family at every race but we are limited due to the Japanese school calendar. However since my kids are enrolled in an International School we may have some flexibility. If things work out, my son Eiki may begin racing in the U.S. starting next year. We’ll see.”

Unlike most drivers who try and make a career out of racing, Koga resides with his family in Japan. It’d be different if he were racing every single weekend, but with a schedule around 14 races per year, he’s afforded the opportunity to stay home.

Takuma Koga Kids
NASCAR has always been a family sport. Just because Koga is from Japan doesn’t make his family any different. (Meg Oliphant/NASCAR)

But it also means his frequent flier miles are off the charts. Koga estimates he flies back and forth from Japan to the U.S. around 35-40 times per year. Races, test sessions, securing sponsorship and more.

“The travel is not easy but traveling from Japan to the West Coast is only a few hours difference than flying from the West Coast to the East Coast,” he said. “Basically I look at my airline seat like a hotel. I work and sleep there.”

The 10-hour flights also allow Koga time to think. Think about the race that was, the race coming up, among other things.

In his first season with Performance P1 Motorsports (PP1M), Koga has earned a career-high three top 10 finishes. His average start and finish are also career highs with one race remaining in the season.

He’ll look to end the 2019 season on a high note at ISM Raceway on November 9 for the Arizona Lottery 100, the season finale at 4:15 p.m. MDT on FansChoice.TV.

Why keep going?

“It has taken some time especially with 10 years off, but I’m finally understanding the braking systems, how equipment changes over the course of the race, how to communicate with my team to make proper adjustments and learning to listen and trust my team,” he said. “It’s really starting to be fun.”

Working with crew chief Ron Norman and team owner Joe Nava, two men who are mainstays in the series, has helped Koga’s confidence and all-around experience at the track every week.

Growing up in Japan without a racing mentor, he found one once he came over in the form of Shigeaki Hattori, owner of Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship team and K&N Pro Series East team Hattori Racing Enterprises.

“Mr. Hattori is of course a famous and well respected Japanese racer,” Koga said. “In Japan we have a word called ‘senpai’ which is very close to the English word of ‘mentor.’ Mr. Hattori has always been very supportive. To have someone of his experience and knowledge supporting me has been a huge plus.”

With his children growing up before his eyes and a successful business in Japan, Takuma Koga’s passion is NASCAR racing. It’s his golf game, his weekend getaway. But his time behind the wheel isn’t infinite.

He isn’t worried about how long he wants to continue on racing, but has a certain goal in mind.

“This is a year to year decision but my goal is to participate in 100 NASCAR races,” he said. “In 2018, I became the first Asian born driver to finish in the top 10. This was not only big for me personally, but I think this accomplishment can help the sport grow in Asia. I want to do what I can to expand the sport internationally.”

Koga has done and continues to do that and more on a weekly basis.

One of the quietest guys in all of NASCAR who’s doing it his way.

Takuma Koga Car
Once the checkered flag flies at ISM Raceway, Koga will have completed his 70th K&N Pro Series West race. (NKP/NASCAR)