How Toyota Cavalier Kumi Sato Started His Racing Career | Jobs Reply


A Toyota Cavalry race car in the pit box of a race track in the late 1990s

In August 1997, it was not unusual to see women in the paddock at Japan’s premier racing championship. Far from it: you can hardly miss them, decked out in vinyl miniskirts and perhaps high-heeled boots, their umbrellas and crop-tops wrapped in racing-team colours. One woman, however, was wearing Nomex. He got behind the wheel and blew the doors off a couple Porsche 993 RSR – Kumi Sato A rebadged Chevy Cavalry.

A Toyota Cavalry race car in the pit box of a race track in the late 1990s

Driver Kumi Sato, sitting next to the Toyota Cavalier that helped launch his racing career.
picture: Courtesy Yoshihide Ashizawa; Used with permission

The All Japan Grand Touring Championship (JGTC) ran for a little over two decades, lasting until 2004. At the time, it encompassed the fading golden age of the Japanese motoring industry, Supras And Skyline And NSX going to war You’ll occasionally find supercars from other countries in the top-level GT500 class — a McLaren F1 won the championship in 1996 — but the lower GT300 class is where the real fun was.

Super GT, the modern equivalent of JGTC, still uses these two classifications and is great fun to watch. First, the audience experience in Japan is a bit different from what you see in other countries. Fans root for their chosen teams regardless of how they perform, and the races have a distinctly family-friendly atmosphere. There are separate pit-walks for young children and their parents, with open access for team mascots and drivers.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

picture: Brendan McAleer

At the GT500 level, you declare your allegiance to Nissan or Toyota or Acura and watch the spec-built juggernauts slog out at the front of the pack. In the GT300, you can root for a Mercedes-AMG with a turquoise-haired anime witch on the side. Or a Subaru BRZ basically running an open-class WRC turbo engine. Or a V8-powered Prius GT.

After a V8 Prius made a daring pass on a Lamborghini Huracan at the Motegi circuit a few years ago, while eating fried mozzarella on a stick, I can highly recommend putting a Super GT race on your bucket list. It’s great fun, delightfully weird, slightly confusing, and thoroughly enjoyable. Thing is, the old JGTC was all those things, right more.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

picture: Brendan McAleer

Consider the lineup for that August 1997 race. You had the Castrol-liveried Mk IV Supra which won outright, but also a Diablo GT-R promoted by the Japanese Lamborghini Owners Club, a Dodge Viper and a Ferrari F355. Towards the end of the JGTC era, you could see side-piped Ferrari Maranellos mixing 4.5-litre V8s with Nissan 350Zs.

But by far the oddest contender among them was the car driven by racer Kumi Sato in his debut in the series. The first female driver to compete in the JGTC, she would go on to have a long career racing for Toyotas, joining the factory Gazoo Racing team, 24-hour Nürburgring endurance raceand rallying to a GT86.

Sato began his racing career with what may have been the worst Toyota build. Or at least the cruelest. Take a well-known silhouette of mediocrity, send it across the Pacific, and fit it with a badge it has no right to wear. Voila: a right-hand drive version of the third-generation Chevy Cavalier, with its bowtie badge swapped for Toyota insignia.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

picture: the toyota

Now, before we provide a Edmund Honda hundred-hand slap On the Toyota Cavalier, let’s agree that the Chevy Cavalier probably doesn’t deserve all the abuse. The last time you saw one, it probably had mismatched tires, cigarette burns on the seats, and duct-tape bodywork from the fine folks at 3M. Cavalry wasn’t actually that bad – it got to the point where almost every example you could see was old, neglected and almost used up.

Growing up in a small, semi-rural town, second-hand Chevy Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires were typical high-school hand-me-down cars. Better than nothing, and a relatively economical way to get to school or work. Kirkland Toilet-Paper Multi-Pack Cart: Hardly exciting, but necessary. Anyone who could stretch the budget a bit more ended up in a Camaro, Mustang, or body-kitted Civic; The General’s J-body compacts were stuck in a kind of enthusiast no-man’s-land.

But wait! Straight from Ohio and bound for Wangan-sen’s midnight chant, this is it the toyota Cavalry “A country concept that knows all about the joy of driving,” boasts the Toyota-badged Chevy ad. Surely Japan would jump on American-style motoring as the country embraced Levi’s and Coca-Cola.

I'm probably the only tourist in Japan who runs to get a photo of a Toyota Cavalier at a used car lot.

I’m probably the only tourist in Japan who runs to get a photo of a Toyota Cavalier at a used car lot.
picture: Brendan McAleer

Uh, no. American cars have a long history of being sold to Japanese enthusiasts: full-jam Mustang Mach 1s were officially exported to Japan in small numbers, and one was even used as a high-speed chase car by the Tochigi Highway Patrol. The infamous racing team was born out of something called the Midnight American Car Club. As early as midnight, street racers raced down the Tomei Expressway in Firebirds and Camaros.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

The Toyota Cavalry was not even remotely similar. It was an American attempt to copy Japanese economy cars, and the changes made to sell it in Japan were relatively minimal. It had longer pedals to accommodate shorter drivers, the legally required modifications to the exterior lighting, and apparently all were right-hand-drive. To add something, the Z24’s 2.4-liter, 150-hp LD9 four-cylinder engine was chosen. To add, ah, non-jest, they all got a four-speed automatic transmission. To spice things up, you can order an 11-piece TRD body kit. Overall, Japanese customers wanted nothing to do with this non-Toyota.

In retrospect, Toyota’s plan looks like a ploy to cut the leg out from under US trade hawks. With Japanese imports dominating the North American compact market, it was shrewd politics to suggest America could sell its cars to Japan. The Toyota Cavalier experiment ended in March 2000, with just 36,216 examples sold over half a decade.

But it is was Sold in Japan. And – perhaps as a half-hearted way to demonstrate Toyota’s commitment to the Cavalier, a few examples found their way into the JGTC Racing Series, fitted with a Bomex widebody, caged and ready to race.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

These Cavaliers were still front-wheel drive, but the Quad 4 engine was long gone. In their place is Toyota’s 3S-GTE turbo four-cylinder, which is found in the Japanese-variant second-gen MR2. Power output was cranked to around 330 hp, the cars were limited to meet the GT300’s roughly 300-hp cap.

It cannot be emphasized enough how unsettling this idea was. In a race in August 1998, the Kraft Racing team took its front-drive Toyota Cavalier and beat two Skylines, a 911 GT2 and a freakin’ Lamborghini Diablo GT-1. Was every American owner of a primed Cavalier Z24 really onto something?

Sadly, no. The Toyota Cavalier was never reliable enough as a racing machine to make it onto the list. Sato managed a highly respectable fourth-in-class finish at the Mini Circuit in 1997, his second race. It’s the best any female racer has ever handled in Super GT.

Image titled The First Woman to Race in the All Japan Grand Touring Championship Drive a Toyota Cavalier

picture: Yoshihide Ashizawa; Used with permission

That Kumi Sato did this well in a car that was barely competitive rests solely on his skill. It elevates the footnotes of automotive history from quirks to truly impressive achievements. His second race. One of only four front-drive cars entered in JGTC/Super GT. The start of a long, impressive racing career.

As with most motorsports, women are still underrepresented in Super GT racing. But Kumi Sato and his Toyota Cavalier were competitive proof of the coming changes. His cavalry really shouldn’t have been there. But he, and racers like him, absolutely earned their place.



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