This will sound like a gross generalization, but if you spend a lot of time with racing drivers, you often get the vibe that a person is a driver right off the bat. Maybe it has something to do with that cool and calm exterior that lightly masks a razor sharp focus and determination. Maybe it is simply the personalized branding on their wardrobe.
I sat down last night with Japanese racer Keiko Ihara at a hotel in Markham, Ontario. While she had just spent the day testing in Multimatic Motorsports’ world class simulator, the first impression was more like a Mom or perhaps someone’s really cool Aunt. That may be because the 42 year old racer takes the role of mentoring almost as seriously as driving.
Growing up in Tokyo, Iharah had no need for a driver’s licence and it wasn’t until she took part in a local race as a flag girl that she realized that auto racing was the place to be. And so, at 25 years of age, Ihara began her career as a racer in the Ferrari Challenge. Despite having a late start as a driver, Ihara made her way through the ranks, doing time in Formula Renault, Formula BMW and Formula before discovering sports car racing. In 2014, Ihara became the first Asian woman to ever score a podium finish in a WEC event, in an LMP2 car at Fuji. There were two more podiums to follow.
In 2014 Ihara was asked to head up the FIA Women & Motor Sport Commission which works to promote a culture in motorsport where women can thrive. The organization’s first program included about 300 women from across Asia, who work at every level of racing, from crew member to driver.
Ihara was in Ontario to train with the team at Multimatic Motorsports in preparation for joining the Mazda Motorsports team in Sebring today. Ihara will be driving the #70 LMP1 car in the Mobile 1 12 Hours of Sebring alongside team regulars Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito. The trio will be joined by Indycar rookie Spencer Pigot.
This will be Ihara’s second visit to Sebring, the first being in 2014 when the LMP2 car she was scheduled to drive suffered a mechanical failure before her stint. Ihara says she is excited to return to the historic Florida race and is eager to actually drive during the race and not just in practice.
In addition to her motorsports related roles, Ihara is working with the Japanese government as a liason with Japanese automakers to develop the country’s autonomous vehicle strategy. In that capacity, Ihara told me that her visit to Multimatic was equally important as she sees the Canadian company’s simulator technology as being a potential part of developing autonomous vehicles.
Even while driving and technology are Ihara’s primary focus here in North America, her role as a leader for women in sport will be on display too. While the Mazda Motorsports team here don’t know it yet, Keiko and new Mazda USA president Masahiro Moro are very impressed with the ladder system that has been built on this continent and the number of women who are involved. Ihara’s plan is to begin a program to bring some of those women to Asia to take part in racing series there.
When asked if she would be returning to Ontario for the Weathertech Sportscar Championship round at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park later this year, Ihara says that while she would love to race at Mosport, the initial plan is for her to drive only in the longer races like Sebring.