Saturday, July 20, 2024

Shinji Kazama eyes Dakar Rally return in 2026

In 1982, 31-year-old Shinji Kazama became the first Japanese person to compete at the Paris–Dakar Rally when he finished eighteenth overall among bikes and sixth in the 500cc class. In 2026, over two decades after a massive accident in the 2004 Dakar Rally virtually ended his bike racing career, he hopes to make his return to the legendary event as a 75-year-old competing in the T4 category.

Kazama had intended to race the 2017 or 2018 Dakar Rallies alongside his son Shinnosuke “Shaun” Kazama, but his injuries prevented him from taking part; he hoped to try again in 2020 in a car before going on a bike the next year, though those plans were upended by COVID-19 and said debilitations. Shinji followed along anyway as team manager, though he admitted in an interview with Motor-Fan that not taking part as a racer filled him “with frustration in my heart. However, when I calm down and think about my age, physical strength, and the condition of my legs, I have no choice but to admit that it would be difficult to aim for participating on two wheels.”

At the 2004 edition, shortly after beginning Stage #4, Kazama was hit by a truck competing in that class, resulting in severe leg injuries that hospitalised him for fourteen months and nearly resulted in amputation of his left leg. Unable to resume racing competitively on motorcycles, he became an ambassador for musculoskeletal injury awareness by leading cross-continental expeditions. For example, he rode a scooter across Eurasia in 2008 followed by driving across the longitude of Africa in a Subaru a year later.

Such philanthropy continued to fulfill Kazama’s adventurous nature that he has possessed for much of his life. As a child in Japan, he frequently biked up mountains near his hometown. Following his maiden Dakar, he went on to set world records in elevation ascents on a motorcycle when he successfully reached the summits of Mount Fuji, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro, and Mount Everest twice. In 1990, he was the second Japanese to climb Vinson Massif in Antarctica after Yuichiro Miura.

In 1987, Kazama reached the North Pole on a Yamaha TW200. Five years later, he repeated the feat with the South Pole, becoming the first person to arrive on both with a motorcycle. He did another pole adventure in 2010 when he travelled from the southernmost point of Chile to the top of Sweden.

His exploits also included plenty of motorsport success. Kazama won the 1984 Paris–Dakar in the 500cc bike category, along with the 1987 Rallye des Pharaons for 250cc. Since 2013, he has organised the Sunrise Sunset Touring Rally in Japan.

While Kazama will not be on two wheels for a 2026 Dakar Rally run, he purchased a Kawasaki Teryx KRX 1000 shortly after its release in Japan in 2022 to begin training for it. He explained to Motor-Fan that production side-by-side vehicles, which compete in the T4 category, are “overwhelming cheaper” to procure than modifying a standard street vehicle or participating in the premier T1 class for prototype cars.

He intends to enter pavement circuit races in Japan to build up his qualificiations for Dakar while also testing the Teryx. In May, he made his four-wheeled competitive début in Fuji Speedway’s Mazda Demio track championship, borrowing a modified car with a hand-powered accelerator and automatic transmission. After being barred from the qualifying race as he did not understand series rules, he finished twenty-ninth and last in the feature but described it as a learning experience and somewhat of an achievement as he still beat his target lap time of two minutes and thirty seconds.

“I’m addicted to it,” he commented. “In sports driving, there are times when I get too aggressive and jump out in a corner, but if I do that on a motorcycle, I’ll be sent to the hospital immediately. Four-wheeled vehicles don’t fall over, so I felt that there was something interesting about being able to keep track at the last minute. When I was young, I was not satisfied with that part of the four-wheeled car, so I rode a motorcycle.”

If Kazama succeeds in reaching the 2026 race, he will be one of the oldest drivers to compete at the Dakar Rally. Fellow countryman Yoshimasa Sugawara was 77 when he ran his final Dakar in 2019, while Marcel Hugueny holds the record when he entered the 1995 edition at 81. 80-year-old Formula One alumnus Arturo Merzario will run the adjacent Dakar Classic in 2024.