• 2015/06/19

Third SOK Group Returns Home After Priceless Le Mans Experience

The France-stay program, “Support Our Kids” (SOK), organized by NPO, “Jidai no Sōzō Kōbō” (Creative Workshops for the Next Generation) in order to support the independence of junior-high and high school students from areas affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, arrived at Le Mans, France on June 6th. They stayed there until the 15th and experienced a range of exciting activities, including witnessing this year’s fiercely contested 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This Mazda supported program is in its third year. The 10 selected Tohoku junior-high and high school students arrived in France on June 4th and, after sightseeing in Paris, undertaking cultural exchanges with French students and receiving language training, the group moved onto Le Mans. The first weekend was spent partaking in home-stays at the residences of local French people in Le Mans. A number of families had children of around the same age and through various fun activities, such as making Japanese cuisine together, the students were able to bridge the language gap and enjoy each other’s company. On the 9th the kids were able to experience kart racing at the kart racing circuit located within the Circuit de la Sarthe. For most of these kids this was their first experience manipulating a motorized vehicle. Under the watchful eyes of former Mazda racer, Yojiro Terada, campaigner for this project and acting driving coach, and former Mazda driver Pierre Dieudonné (BEL), the 10 kids performed a shakedown run and then challenged a race format trial. The starting method used was the legendary “Le Mans method”. When Mr Terada waved the French national flag as the signal, the children ran onto the starting grid from outside the course, jumped into their machines and shot off into the race. Almost like something out of a movie. Although this was their first racing experience, the kids got the hang of the karts almost immediately and more than a few could be seen attacking the corners while skillfully shifting their weight balance like pros. The kart experience lasted a little over one hour, after which each participant had the opportunity to stand on a real podium and receive a commemorative cup. This being their first time to feel the exhilarating “joy of driving” and the feeling of “unity between driver and machine,” the excitement on all the kids faces was a sight to behold.

On the next day they undertook a castle tour to the French town of Tours, approximately one and a half hours south of Le Mans. Following a visit to Château d’Amboise, they stopped by Clos Lucé, which has deep connections with Leonardo da Vinci, and experienced medieval musical performances, dances and so on. After absorbing as much French culture as possible, they made their way back to Le Mans. On Friday the 12th, the children had lunch with a number of Mazda team staff members and supporters. They then moved on into the center of the city to watch the evening parade of drivers participating in the 24-hour race. During the down time following lunch, each participant presented an interim report on everything they had experienced thus far. Among the various comments made by the students were: “All the other kids are really fun people so I’m really enjoying myself,” “I was surprised and moved at how friendly the French people are,” “French is really difficult but I’m finally able to introduce myself and say where I am from,” and “I’m really looking forward to this weekend’s 24-hour race!” This third group of SOK kids had clearly developed strong bonds as a team and were always smiling.

At Circuit de la Sarthe, through the cooperation of Toyota Racing, the kids were able to experience a race-prior pit tour, hear explanations about race cars and have the opportunity to have a commemorative photo taken with former F1 driver, Ukyo Katayama and current SUPER GT racer, Juichi Wakisaka. Within this lucky group of kids there is no question that some will walk away with a serious interest in racing. In addition, by a happy coincidence, they were also able to meet young local drivers who had just completed a demo run in entry level race cars. Within these was Eizo Yoshida, who is currently residing in Grenoble in the south of France. This young man has a Japanese mother and a French Father and has been strenuously working towards becoming a racecar driver since the age of 10. At 14-years old, he is close in age to many of the SOK members, and while blushing just a little, participated in a group photo with all the kids. After this the SOK party, along with 260,000 other spectators, witnessed the start of the 24-hour race. With Automaker’s putting their prestige on the line and drivers battling it out for glory, this is one of the most compelling races in the world. There is no doubt that witnessing such an amazing event would have changed something inside each and every one of these young men and women.

On the final day of the tour, the participants took lessons on an indispensable subject for future international citizens, table manners. Receiving instruction from a professional teacher who has been acknowledged by none other than the president, the kids felt understandably nervous as they enjoyed a full course and were tutored in the finer point of traditional etiquette. After a jam-packed tour, the third SOK group finally finished up the entire schedule and headed back to Japan on the 16th. On the next day, the 17th, they returned to the French Embassy in Tokyo to carry out the final closing ceremony. After reporting to the French ambassador, the supporters and all others involved, the success of their trip, they all departed with an obvious pang of sadness and headed off to their respective homes in Tohoku.

Photo by MZRacing


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