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Japanese Abroad

From Race Queen to Queen of Racing

FIA World Endurance Championship Race driver Keiko Ihara

  • Japanese
  • Chinese

As a student in 1998, Keiko Ihara got her introduction to motorsport while working as a race queen—a promotional model who is part of a racing pit crew. The dedication, the passion, the drive and the teamwork left such a lasting impression on her that she got her driver's license right away. She also took a part-time job as a driving school instructor, where she learned the finer aspects of controlling a motor vehicle.

At the age of twenty-five, Ihara debuted in the FIA-licensed Ferrari Challenge, where she took the Japan series by storm, being named MVP of the year and culminating the year with a second-place finish at the World Finals. Her experiences bolstered her confidence and earned her the chance to participle in the British Formula Renault 2.0 series.

"I thought being a race driver wasn't all that difficult from my experiences in the Ferrari Challenge," she recalls. "When I went to England and found myself behind names like Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, though, I realized how hard racing could be."
This only pushed Ihara to drive harder, and through the years she persevered to race in a number of series, including Formula races. That gave her the experience she needed in her current position as a co-driver of the OAK Racing Morgan-Judd LMP2 racing team and as the only female driver in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) 2014 series. In her latest race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ihara was the first Japanese female racer ever to complete the challenge and placed ninth in her class. Ihara is also the only female driver to compete in professional endurance races, and in 2013 she was 22nd among WEC drivers, the world's top rank for a woman.

In a world dominated by men who in some cases have almost twenty years more experience than her and superior stamina and strength, Ihara works relentlessly hard to stay competitive. She emphasizes teamwork and communication to get the most out of her car, team and co-drivers. She also keeps her mind in top shape to handle the split-second reactions, strategies and mental endurance that 24-hour races require.

She also needs to stay physically fit. Taking up her training time, however, are her many other activities. "Ideally I like to run twenty kilometers, swim a hundred lengths and do some gym training every day," she says, "but sadly I don't always have enough time."

She is the Asian representative on the FIA's Women in Motorsport Commission. The group strives to inspire women to see motorsport as a field that they can be a part of, whether as drivers, engineers or officials, not for the sake of diversity, but as equals based on the merit of their skills and qualifications.

Ihara is also a licensed teacher who teaches English part time at an elementary school in Nagoya. "Being able to communicate with each other in English or any other international language will bring countries closer together, and give Japanese people the opportunity to learn and open their minds to other cultures and experiences," Ihara says. "I think it would be nice if we could see more globally minded people coming from Japan."

Recently she has expanded her work in education, giving seminars at universities and high schools in Japan whose students are considering careers in the automotive and motorsports field, usually through her Keiko Ihara Diversity Program.
Ihara is also interested in improving Japan's road traffic environment and its educational environment, and is working with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to spread the use of electric vehicles (EVs) because she believes that EVs and Japanese technology can do much to solve environmental problems.

"Education is a field I have a great deal of interest in," Ihara states. "As a racer I've also become passionate about the automotive industry, including the technological developments and safety aspects. I would like to share my experiences and do more educational work. But I'm not ready to quit racing just yet."

And she shouldn't be. In fact, Keiko Ihara is currently at the highest level of global motorsport among all Japanese drivers, regardless of gender. She is an inspiration to both men and women in all nations that hard work, dedication and willpower can turn even seemingly impossible goals into reality—just like her achievement of becoming the global queen of racing. The example Ihara sets should indeed spur many of her students to accomplish more than they believed possible.

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