Natural disasters and Super GT

Two earthquakes of at least a 6.0 magnitude have rocked the Japanese island of Kyushu, with the city of Kumamoto affected the worst. In total, 41 people have lost their lives as a result. Several thousands more are injured, some critically. Landmarks like Kumamoto Castle and Aso Shrine have been damaged, roadways have been severely damaged by subsequent landslides. These are the most serious earthquakes since the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, and the subsequent tsunami that left over 15,000 people dead.

It is truly an appalling scene that I cannot truly put into words.

About 50 kilometers north of Kumamoto in the town of Hita, is Autopolis circuit. There’s a race scheduled for May 22nd at Autopolis. The trouble is, most of the roads to the circuit are heavily damaged and inaccessible. Today, the circuit announced it would be closed until May 15th, just one week before the Super GT series is scheduled to host its third round of the season at Autopolis.

In the history of Super GT dating back to 1993, four championship events have been cancelled, postponed, or relocated. The last two due to the effects of natural disasters, one due to a global pandemic, and one due to the most horrific crash in series history. These examples serve as historic precedent as to what plans the GT Association could execute in the wake of the earthquakes that have rocked Kumamoto.

May 4th, 1998: The JGTC’s “Black Sunday.” The multi-car pileup on the parade laps, in severe rain and fog, that sees Tetsuya Ota’s Ferrari F355 engulfed in a horrific ball of fire. Ota survives thanks to the intervention of fellow driver Shinichi Yamaji, but after sustaining severe burns, toxic fume poisoning, and nerve damage, he would never race again.

Though the race was officially scrapped due to darkness and the weather not improving enough to actually get the race going, it still would have been awfully difficult to justify going on with the race after the near-tragedy involving Ota. No points were awarded, and the series continued on from the next round.

May 8th, 2003: The widespread outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS, hits its peak. Most SARS deaths occur in China and Hong Kong, in total, over a span of eighteen months, 648 people in these two countries alone would succumb to the illness.

Just five days after FIFA relocates the 2003 Women’s World Cup from China to the United States, the single international round of the JGTC at Sepang Circuit in Malaysia, scheduled for June 21st, is cancelled. A replacement double-header round is created for July 13th at Fuji Speedway, which now hosts three out of a possible four championship rounds since May. Sepang Circuit would return to the calendar in 2004, where it would remain until 2013.

September 9th, 2010: The Fuji 300km race, scheduled for September 12, is cancelled outright after Tropical Storm Malou makes landfall in Japan on September 7th. With structural damage in and around the Fuji Speedway grounds, and mudslides rendering much of the main roadways in Oyama Town inaccessible, town authorities requested the cancellation of the race so as not to impede rescue efforts. Fuji Speedway mercifully complies, as 10,000 people are forced to evacuate from their homes due to the storms.

With the final round at Twin Ring Motegi just over a month out, there would be no replacement event scheduled. This race simply does not happen.

March 24, 2011Just two weeks after the tragedies of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the GTA finally makes its decision on what to do with the 2011 Super GT season. The race at Okayama Circuit is postponed from April 2nd to May 22nd, pushing it three weeks after the Fuji race on the Golden Week holiday, which now becomes the first race of the 2011 season. Despite this, the Okayama race is still recognized as Round 1.

The national policy of energy conservation in the wake of the disasters of March 2011 also forces every event to be shortened: Standard rounds go from 300 to 250 kilometers. The Fuji 500km race, run at 400km in 2009 and 2010 due to the global economic crisis, was cut to 300km. And the Suzuka Summer Classic, which was reduced from 1000km to 700km in 2009-10, was reduced again to 500km. Race weekends were shortened to two days, night-time running was disallowed, and overnight pitwork was banned.

Since then, no Super GT championship events have ever been cancelled or postponed due to a natural disaster. But now, it seems a very real possibility that one will be.

For now, the task at hand for local authorities in Kyushu Prefecture, in and around Kumamoto and surrounding areas like Hito, is to save lives and clean up the mess and the damage left behind, and do so in a timely, yet careful manner.

eShould the circuit still not be able to host a racing event on May 22nd, the GT Association can seek alternative solutions: They can postpone the race to a later date. They could relocate the event to a different circuit as they did in 2003 by hosting the “Malaysia GT Race” in Fuji Speedway, or swap dates with another venue in Japan, but there’s very little time to pull that off.

But in the grand scheme of things, these potential alternatives and the ramifications of a natural disaster like this on a sporting event are of miniscule importance. At least 40 people are gone, and several thousands more are injured. Family, friends, and loved ones have been lost. Lives have been destroyed in just two sudden and swift instances. Kumamoto and its citizens need all the prayers, well-wishes, and charitable donations (where applicable) that they can get.

And knowing that, there would be absolutely no shame if the race was cancelled outright, for there are much more important things at stake than just a silly car race.

To everyone affected by the earthquakes of April 14 and 16, my sincerest thoughts are with you.

UPDATE – April 21: The GT Association has elected to postpone the third round of the 2016 season at Autopolis indefinitely.

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