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At 25 he’s one of New Zealand’s most successful young sportsmen. He’s not widely known in his native country, however, as he’s chosen a path that’s taken him to Japan. It’s a path that has worked out pretty well for Nick Cassidy in the past five years, as he’s one of the most successful racing drivers in Japanese motorsport now and a household name to those who follow the big championships in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Nick’s racing resume is quite something. In single seaters he’s raced in Formula First, Formula Ford, Formula Abarth, Formula Renault and Formula Three, and he’s one of the most successful graduates of the Castrol Toyota Racing Series, with a three-peat in the New Zealand Grand Prix in 2011, 2012 and 2013 to his credit. He’s also the current Japanese Super Formula Champion in a category of car that provides speed, downforce and lap times second only to Formula One.
With a roof over his head he’s raced in Toyota 86s, V8 Supertourers and V8 Supercars and in the Blancpain GT Series and the Intercontinental GT Challenge. He was also the champion in Japan’s top GT series – Super GT500 – in 2017 and raced in the Asian Le Mans Series and in the United States-based WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Like every racing driver in the world right now, Cassidy is out of action. Motor racing remains confined to virtual racing, with the real-life thoroughbred racers all locked up for the foreseeable future.
We took the opportunity of downtime in Nick’s very busy life in Japan to catch up and talk about life in Japan, the racing scene there, what it’s like to be a Kiwi superstar in a foreign land and what he’s been up to during the global lockdown.
Konnichiwa Nick, it seems like no time at all since you were racing in New Zealand, but how long have you lived in Japan now?
I have actually lived in Japan since February 2015. So more than five years now. Initially I was in the town of Gotemba, which is near the Fuji Speedway. That’s just under 90 minutes’ drive from Tokyo. The TOM’S team is based out there and living there was part of my contract in driving for the team.
Five years is a long time. Do you consider Japan home now?
Yes, I do. And that’s not only from the point of view of my racing career. Most of my belongings are here now and naturally most of my friends are here too. Of course, I miss New Zealand, but it was 2011 when I last lived in New Zealand full time.
Remind us what took you to Japan in the first place
I first moved to Japan to race in the Japanese Formula 3 Championship. I was on a work contract with Toyota and that was a huge opportunity for me at that stage of my career. There were no guarantees, however, and I didn’t have much knowledge of Japan in terms of the country, the lifestyle or the racing scene. You could say it was a leap of faith, but for me it was more about a golden opportunity. I really did want to grasp that with both hands and develop as a racing driver in some of the most competitive championships in the motorsport world.
So what have you competed in there over the years?
I have competed in three championship categories. There was the Formula 3 Championship of course, and I was lucky enough to win that in 2015, which really hammered home that I had made the right move. Since then it’s been Super GT500 and Super Formula – and all of the championships have been done with Toyota. This will be my sixth year racing with TOM’S and I’m enjoying it just as much as I always have.
How good are you at speaking Japanese, and what were the challenges of learning it?
I’m not the best!! The best thing I did was enrol myself at a Japanese school in 2017 for six months. This gave me a really good start in being able to understand sentence structures and general words, all of which are a huge help in everyday life.
I would say the best thing about that, though, was putting routine into my daily life, so from Monday to Wednesday I had language classes between 9am and 11am, then lunch, then training from 2pm. Thursdays were a preparation/travel day and the race weekend would start on Friday. I found this important for my early stages here, to keep myself focused and to keep a solid structure and routine in my life.
Do you speak in Japanese to your engineers?
That’s an interesting one, and the surprising answer is that we primarily speak English, unless we’re joking around away from the track. I think there’s a simple reason for that though. I’m fortunate that my engineers have worked with an awful lot of foreign drivers before me, so they’re very used to technical communication with drivers in English. Those drivers include the likes of Villeneuve, Kristensen, Courtney, De La Rosa, Sutil, Duval, Lotterer, Tréluyer and quite a few more.
Has the team done things over the years to help you fit in and be part of the set-up?
It’s not really the Japanese way. Initially the team’s biggest concerns were always about my travel plans and how I would get to the races! In terms of set-up, there was nothing comforting and the way of working was, “If you’re fast, you’ll stay; if you’re slow, it’s not our fault!” Of course over time that changes and there is a degree of understanding as you get to know each other and things evolve, but I can still feel that type of atmosphere in the team and that’s a real positive for me.
You’re known for having a good sense of humour. What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you so far in Japan?
It’s hard to pick a moment… but probably Fuji 2017 is one we’ll all look back on with a bit of a smile. We had just scored our second podium in a row in Super GT, but I popped the bottle a little early on the podium and let out a few ‘wahooos’. It felt hilarious at the time and made for some laughs between friends, but it didn’t go down too well inside the team, so I did learn something out of that one!
What has most surprised you about Japanese culture and why?
I have always been told how polite and respectful the Japanese are. I can certainly feel that and notice that, but I guess the most surprising thing to me is how they avoid conflict. You won’t hear about problems directly or until a long time after them.
What do you love about living in Japan?
I love how clean and organised the country is. In the centre of Tokyo there are times of the year when there is a really crazy amount of people, but the city still operates well, which makes getting around a lot nicer than it could be otherwise.
Are there any similarities whatsoever with New Zealand and Kiwi culture?
I think on the surface the two cultures are completely different. At first it would seem maybe easy to find similarities, but the more time I spend here the more I realise how different from one another we really are.
What about the famous ‘gaijin’ community of non-Japanese-speaking racing drivers in Japan – were you ever part of that?
Yes, it was a massive part of my early days living in Tokyo, as it has been for many drivers in the past few decades who have come to race in Japan. I only moved into a serviced apartment in Tokyo at the end of 2016, and the first part of learning about where to hang out and what to do and not do was learned completely by hanging around other non-Japanese drivers in Tokyo. To be honest it was a lot of fun, even though maybe not the most productive of times! That has changed more and more over the years...
What was the daily routine like for you before all this COVID-19 stuff?
I have an athlete specialist gym I now go to in Tokyo that takes up the majority of my mornings. I really enjoy it, not only for the training aspect but also because I can be around a group of people who are aware of what’s happening in my sporting life and always suggesting ways to get better and things for me to improve upon. This isn’t just physically but also mentally and from a health point of view. It’s got me involved with other athletes from rugby, soccer, the National Football League and other sporting codes and it has been very interesting to see how they plan their daily lives as well. The rest of the afternoons change depending on the time of year; sometimes it’s computer work, sometimes relaxing, sometimes simulator things. Public Relations and team activities come and go too, so they also have to be fitted in, when times are normal anyway.
So in normal times how often do you train?
It really depends on the time of year. I’ve improved my fitness dramatically since my younger years here and quite honestly I needed to for Super Formula. It’s tremendously physical compared to other motorsports. In 2018 I hit a level I was really happy with and since then I’ve been working on a few key points, such as neck strength and body posture.
How often do you interact with your teams? And if so, in what ways?
I have been with the same team for both of my championships. Our communication is quite limited – I focus on being the best prepared I can be and they do the same. That’s just the way it works here. Even if I go to the workshop, it’s always structured to be at a certain time of day and for a certain length of time. I’m involved with some development ideas for our performance, and we’ve created an app to help build that bank of information. The app is accessed as a live work document, so we can communicate ideas through there too.
To the present – what are you doing to pass the time during lockdown?
I’ve been busier than usual to be honest! My girlfriend has started her own company, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with her helping that start up. And it’s all been completely non-racing related. At the same time I’m in constant contact with my management, working on plans for 2021 and the future. It’s not a bad time to talk about things that we wouldn’t usually be talking about at this time of the year, and it’s definitely helping for various scenarios that may emerge.
You’ve been doing a bit of e-racing – how’s that gone?
It’s been a laugh! Honestly, I’ve been too busy to spend much time on there. I jump on directly for the races, most of the time at 3am or 4am here, as that’s when the European guys have been scheduling them. iRacing is OK for me, but I haven’t played rFactor 2 or F1 2019 enough to be competitive yet.
Do you know some of those guys in reality?
Yes, a lot of the guys I’m racing with online are friends and they’ve pulled me in via a group chat. Most of the time I say yes before checking the times of the races and end up regretting it!
If everything sorts itself out in due course, what’s going to be the first time you get back on track?
I believe the two major championships in Japan are still aiming to start driving again in late June. It would be nice, but at the same time I believe the world has bigger things to focus on than racing at this moment. I hope for everyone that we can go back to normality as soon as possible and people don’t end up too badly affected by what’s going on.
And what are you looking forward to the most about getting past the pandemic?
Most definitely hanging out with friends and watching sport!