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Auto Racing

Nissan Micra Cup's Keishi Ayukai: the passionate pursuit of a dream


Trois-Rivieres, QC – The sights and sounds of the race track are filled with awe and smile, as 28 Nissan Micra Cup drivers lineup to compete for glory and bragging right.

It's a typical racing weekend at the Grand Prix de Trois-Rivieres (GP3R), an event that's been run since 1967. For the Micra Cup, it's the third time on that schedule, and with each year comes new faces on the grid. The Micra Cup series is known for its various competitors from all walks of life, but nothing quite like Keishi Ayukai, a Japanese-born 30-year old from Brisbane, Australia.

Ayukai comes from the 2016 Nissan GT Academy program, not uncommon from others in past years including Thanaroj Thanasitnitikate of Thailand, Abhinay Bikkani of India, and Wisconsin-native Nicolas Hammann. The GT Academy finals gave them all a chance to join Nissan's racing academy program, but as things went south in the final race, they all moved north to Canada to the Nissan Micra Cup series.

The Nissan Micra Cup is a spec-series featuring race-ready Micras – the least expensive vehicle in the Nissan lineup. It not only provides these drivers a chance to continue to their racing dreams, but an opportunity to receive vital racing experience in a highly-competitive field.

What separates Ayukai from the aforementioned rest, is that he's had to do it all on his own dime. Unlike the others, Nissan Canada hasn't been a part of his decision, nor has a major sponsor or team come to the plate with a pile of money. Ayukai came to Canada with $30,000 in savings, along with a wing and a prayer.

For four months, he has had to jump between hostels to most-recently a friend's floor. As for transportation to various racing stops, his chariot out of necessity has been the bus, all in order to pursue his racing dream.

Ayukai's story is one that shows a different side of racing – the constant pursuit of sponsorship that at times becomes more stressful than the race itself. Sports at the highest level is big business, but the same business motto applies even at the Nissan Micra Cup level.

We caught up with Ayukai at GP3R – the antepenultimate racing weekend of the season to learn more about how he ended up in Canada, as well as his experiences and challenges.

Cost-wise continuing to race in Australia wasn't going to work out, so Gareth Evans (Marketing Communications Manager – Nismo, Nissan Motor Corporation) told me to seriously look into the Micra Cup,” explains Ayukai.

After talking with Micra Cup promoter Jacques Deshaies and Sports Director Gilles Villeneuve, Ayukai took the plunge and hopped on a plane with his savings, knowing if he didn't, he would never know what might have been.

Deshaies and Villeneuve assisted on sourcing a second-hand car for Ayukai, and a few days after the purchase, the Australian was on track for the first test of the season. Adapting to a left-hand car didn't take long. “the challenge was learning the tracks and getting comfortable in a highly-competitive field.”

Throughout the year, Ayukai's confidence in his racing abilities hasn't wavered, “I know I have the abilities, I just haven't been able to do anything with it.” It's possible that a lot of this has to do with financial pressures, and Ayukai admits that has crept into on-track decisions.

It's not that I'm scared to drive the car, I'm scared to bend it. When I'm handed a 50/50 decision in a corner, I have to be fully committed. I'm not left with an option to take a peek, I have to think about each and every move.”

At GP3R's double header, Ayukai finished in 14th and 15th place, respectively, but was left with more damage after tapping the wall in Race 1, followed by an incident on Lap 1 of Race 2 with the No. 40 car of Kevin King.

With two weekends to go at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) in Clarington, Ontario and back to Circuit Mont-Tremblant in late-September, Ayukai sits in seventh spot in the overall driver's standings with 156 points, 8 points out of fifth. But his attention is focused less on a top-five finish, and more on how to raise money for entry fees and repairs. Not to mention, what will be next year?

This weekend, I'm not even paying the team to look after my car, and I'm running on the same tires since the spring,” adds Ayukai. “My mind is focused on sponsorship and networking at the moment. It's been a mentally-draining year, but you just have to work at it. Mid-day – I'm on the phone, and it's all about that chase to find bits and pieces and scrape it all together.”

That might have worked for him ahead of GP3R as he took a last-minute job as a Japanese interpreter for a rally cross weekend at the track, but Ayukai admits without those two weeks on his friend's floor, he wouldn't have made it.

And CTMP in early-September might need the same luck. Recently, Ayukai set-up a Go Fund Me page to at least cover his entry fee, two new tires and transportation to Ontario. In total, there are four different financial goals, one of them being $80,000 to fund the rest of his season.

Ayukai's story is like many hopeful race car drivers – it's just rare to travel over 15,000 km from Brisbane to Montreal to continue that dream in a small Canadian racing car series. But for Ayukai, racing is home, regardless if it's in Trois-Rivieres or Sydney, Australia. And the only place he wants to be is in that race car, no matter how many bus rides he has to take or sleeping bag sleepovers he has to endure.


2016 Nissan Micra - What We Like and Dislike

As an automotive enthusiast and marketing guy, it’s very easy for me to tell whether a car is going to be successful in the North American market. From my experiences of attending auto shows, I feel that I can walk by each booth and have a good idea on what will sell and what will falter. 

One booth has always left me puzzled – Nissan. Among its bread-and-butter vehicles – the Altima, Rogue and Sentra – would sit a funny-looking vehicle that always had me asking, “Who would ever buy that?” 

For this week, I decided to test out the all new Nissan Micra SR. My tester was equipped with an automatic transmission – a $1,000 option bringing the total price to $17,719.

The Micra is classified as a B-segment car, competing with the likes of the Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Spark. This category aims to woo entry-level buyers with cute bubbly vehicles featuring bare bone interiors and modest performance levels.

Like: Price tag

The Micra is most likely the cheapest new vehicle you can get in the North American market today, aside from the Chevrolet Spark which is a few dollars less. The Micra starts at just $9,998 and tops out at $15,988 for the five-speed manual transmission and any add-ons. Other competitors are priced right around that range or several thousand more, but offer a few more standard features. 

Like: Performance

When it comes to the road, the Micra gives you more than what you pay for in terms of performance. Its small dimensions give it an increased power-to-weight ratio and a fairly peppy performance – thanks to the 107 lb.-ft. of torque (at 4,400 rpm). The 109 horsepower four-banger is identical to the one found in the bigger Nissan Versa Note, which costs almost $5,000 more. The steering is slightly heavy but nimble above certain speeds. Its small size also provides a small turning radius, which was useful in tight parking lots.

Like: Fuel efficiency

Unlike other new Nissans, the automatic model doesn’t come with a CVT tranny but merely a four-speed. My tester averaged around 7.6 L/100 km – which is decent for the performance that it delivers. Keep in mind that most of my driving was by myself with the A/C off, so expect this number to increase between 1-2 litres depending on your driving requirements and conditions.

Like: Design

Comparing design elements among uber-small cars is a fairly easy part of writing this story– there’s not much to discuss. Most hatches in this segment have a small wheelbase, a tall roofline, and a bubbly shape. The headlights are fairly large and aggressive. The presence of a visible upper and lower grille give it an empowering stance. From the side, the vehicle looks tall and roomy while the curved roof line provide a sleek appearance. The tall dimensions however make the base 15-inch wheels look slightly out of place. The Micra is ultra-customizable allowing customers to modify their mirror covers, door handles, wheel caps, and hatch stripe for around $650.


Dislike: Automatic Upgrade

The automatic transmission is a basic four-speed – an anomaly considering most of Nissan’s line-up has shifted to fuel efficient CVTs. The transmission itself is just okay and delivers decent gear shift ratios at our tested city speeds. What bothers me about the Micra is the cost to upgrade to the basic five-speed manual. On the highest trim level, you pay $1,000 to get the automatic – which is a reasonable price. However, on the base model, be prepared to shell out an extra $3,500 to get the automatic option – which is more than one-third the price of the car itself!

Overall, the Micra is a city car that delivers better value than what you pay for. That being said, it’s not for everyone. People with families who are looking for space, but are cash strapped to a $10k budget are more likely to find better value in a used family sedan. Also, drivers who flock to the dealerships for that low cost may be turned off by the cost of the Micra with an automatic transmission. That being said, the Micra will find better appeal among single people and couples living in urban settings who just need basic transportation to get around the city.

It’s been two years since the Micra’s launch, and I have a feeling it’s going to be with us for a long time. With car prices constantly on the rise due to the weakening Canadian dollar, buyers who find themselves priced out of C-segment options might give this car the shot it deserves.

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