Akinori Ogata came to the United States from his home country of Japan in 2003 with the goal of becoming a successful NASCAR driver.
Although he knew little about American culture at the time, Ogata was always fascinated by the vibrant atmosphere of NASCAR. He wanted to add his name to a long and prestigious list of winners in the sport which included Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and many others.
Nearly two decades of hard work and determination to achieve that goal finally paid off for Ogata on Saturday at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he scored a cathartic victory — his first on American soil — in the Limited Late Model division of the track.
For Ogata, the crucial milestone couldn’t have been in a more perfect place, with Hickory maintaining its reputation as the birthplace of NASCAR stars.
“Hickory has such a great story behind him,” Ogata told NASCAR.com. “So many pilots started their own careers there. I’m a Japanese rider, but I want to be like the American riders. If I want to race in the Cup Series one day, I have to win at the local circuits so that people know that Akinori Ogata is a good driver.
We did it to win in the race tonight @hickoryspeedway
I don’t believe you’ve ever seen a Japanese racing driver take a win in the American stock car racing series. Decidedly, today is a special moment. Thank you for all my sponsors and your support🏁#NASCAR @NASCARRoots @NASCAR pic.twitter.com/xCCO7h3zeR
— Akinori Ogata (@AkinoriOgata) April 10, 2022
There were many days when Ogata wondered if his leap of faith in NASCAR would work.
Back in Japan, Ogata had established himself as a solid rider in multiple forms of motorsport. He has 30 victories as a motocross rider and even visited Victory Lane at Twin Ring Motegi driving a Dirt Midget in 2007.
The transition to full-time motor racing in the United States served as a clean slate for Ogata. He had to acclimate to competing inside a full-bodied stock car while trying to build relationships in the industry with a limited understanding of the English language.
These challenges for Ogata were only compounded when he moved his family to Mooresville, North Carolina in 2010 so he could devote more time and energy to learning about NASCAR.
“Moving to North Carolina was tough, because honestly we didn’t know anyone here,” Ogata recalls. “I didn’t speak English at all and it was difficult to understand what other people were saying. My English is much better now, but it was so difficult when we moved here.
RACING REFERENCE: NASCAR statistics from Ogata’s career
Ogata admitted adapting to racing in the United States would have been more difficult without the help of people like Billy Larrimore, who was his first crew chief when he started racing at Concord Speedway in 2003, as well than his current crew chief Zach McDaniels.
Being able to compete regularly in Hickory has also helped Ogata find a comfort zone by becoming a staple of Saturday night festivities at the track, even as he branches from time to time in the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series, as well as the ARCA Menards East series.
Hickory track operator Kevin Piercy has seen Ogata come close to victory on so many occasions and was thrilled to finally see the driver bring home his own checkered flag.
“Akinori is a very respectful driver towards his competitors,” said Piercy. “He’ll make you run hard but clean, and I think he’s got a lot of guts. Akinori is a tough client who digs in week after week, so I was really happy to see him finally take this opportunity.
Piercy added that the Japanese driver’s victory on Saturday solidified Hickory’s history of producing various winners. Last year, current ARCA Menards Series driver Rajah Caruth joined Chris Bristol as the black winner on the track. Annabeth Barnes-Crum, Gracie Trotter, Katie Hettinger and Kate Dallenbach are among the drivers who have found Victory Lane throughout Hickory’s rich history.
Still, what Piercy appreciated most about seeing Ogata add to that legacy was how popular the victory was not only among his fellow competitors, but also among local fans who had seen him grind over the years. .
The crowd’s response surprised even Ogata himself.
“It was so awesome and moving to see Americans cheering me on,” Ogata admitted. “I never imagined people would be cheering for a Japanese driver, so it was such a great moment to see these people celebrating with me on the track.”
Piercy added that Ogata deserved more than positive response from drivers and fans because of his dedication and hopes to see him remain a focal point of Hickory culture by vying for a track championship one day.
“I would love to see Akinori have the opportunity to upgrade to the latest designs,” Piercy said. “He needs a real shot at winning a NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series championship. It would be a great honor for him to go to the banquet and accept this trophy.
Ogata has no plans to slow Hickory’s momentum even as he continues to face challenges on and off the track.
Keeping in touch with his wife Eniko and two children Ken and Ryo has been difficult as they once again reside in Japan, but he knows they support his journey. He is looking forward to celebrating his first win with the family soon.
With his program making significant progress, Ogata is confident he and his family will have a lot more to look forward to once the 2022 season is over.
“The car feels good and the driver feels good,” Ogata said. “Everyone on the team is working really hard on the car, so I really believe we’re going to win more races at Hickory in the future.”
Outside of Hickory, Ogata is still dreaming big about what he wants to do with his NASCAR career. He still plans to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut as soon as possible and hopes to at least have the opportunity to race in the Daytona 500 before finally deciding to retire.
As someone used to overcoming adversity, Ogata remains determined to continue that Cup Series run and keep alive a dream that has lasted nearly two decades.