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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.


Engineering student wins opportunity of a lifetime from Infiniti

Have you ever wanted to land a dream internship? For 10 Canadian engineering students, a chance of a lifetime was presented to them by the Infiniti Engineering Academy.

The Infiniti Engineering Academy is now in its fourth year – second time in Canada – with seven students chosen from around the world representing various regions (Asia and Oceania, Canada, China, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East and the United States). It originally began as part of the Red Bull Racing/Infiniti partnership, but that venture has expanded and been embraced by Renault Sport, naturally tying into its Renault-Nissan alliance.

If you've ever watched American Idol, you would get a sense for what these students will go through – only in an accelerated two-day competition. It's a gauntlet of sorts: stand out from thousands of resumes, various phone and in-person interviews, test well on video and media training, use on-the-spot problem solving skills, possess technical abilities and knowledge of the industry, and work as a team to build a successful miniature race car.

It was a two-day grind that had its ups and down, but the cream eventually rose to the top. For 2017, it was Matthew Crossan, a Masters of Engineering Science student at Western University who impressed the three judges and a host of automotive journalists to claim this coveted internship opportunity to begin in October.

With the win, Crossan receives a one-year paid internship opportunity split between working with Infiniti's European Technical Center in Cranfield, UK and the Renault Sport Formula One team at its Technical Center in Enstone, UK.

When my name was announced, I couldn’t believe it,” explains Crossan. “I met nine other very capable and strong candidates in the final, who were all deserving of the opportunity, so I feel very fortunate to be selected as the winner. I can’t wait to get started and I will give it all to prove I am a winner worthy of this amazing opportunity.”

For the second year in a row, the event took place at Luciani Infiniti in Montreal, ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix. A few tweaks were made to the program, as according to Tommaso Volpe, Global Director, Infiniti Motorsport, “the program is constantly evolving.”

For this year, the academy has partnered with Microsoft, and in doing so, the students have been tested on more technical elements involving data sorting. In a few weeks, a culmination of sorts will occur when the American academy program takes place at Microsoft's headquarters in Seattle.

But like many great television show cliffhangers, the Infiniti Engineering Academy saved the best surprise for last when Renault Sport Nico Hulkenberg made an appearance, announcing Crossan as the winner.

Engineering is priceless in Formula One, and bringing the next generation into the team can only help bring race wins, and hopefully a championship,” adds Hulkenberg.

The Infiniti Engineering Academy may have started as a small venture to recruit young talent, but awareness has grown with an increase from 4,000 applicants in 2016 to a whopping 12,000. According to Volpe, its more than just a marketing ploy, as last year's UK winner Daniel Sanham will soon start a full-time position in the electronics department at Renault Sport. 



The Nissan Micra Cup: fun things do come in small packages

Bowmanville, ON – The desire to be a race car driver resides in the heart of many driving enthusiasts. It's a dream that's played over in our heads from a very young age. We study the famous tracks like the Nürburgring, Silverstone, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, or my personal favourite Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.

For the 99 percentile (and I can probably add a couple of decimals to get it closer to 100 per cent), this dream never gets a whiff of reality. And I'm not just talking about a Formula One ride, I'm talking most of the major racing series unless you have the rare combination of racing talent, lots of money, connections and a bit of luck.

It most likely is a pipe dream to be a race car driver at that level, but there's a new racing series from the people at Nissan Canada that can put your dreams back on the map, and for a relatively minimal cost of $22,900.

It's called the Nissan Micra Cup, a single car series that's billed as the most affordable racing series in Canada. Currently, it's in the middle of its second year and just went through their first race at the well-known Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) race track in Bowmanville. CTMP is part of its Ontario expansion plan for 2016 that sees the Micra Cup host 6 of its 16 races in the heartland province.

A buzz has surrounded this growing racing scene and I had to see what the fuss was all about with 26 drivers having a blast during CTMP's race weekend. Luckily, Nissan Canada made an exception a day after the weekend races for me (I was unable to attend the regular journalist event the week prior) to get some alone track time in the race-specced Nissan Micra.

It was a bright, sunny day; the track was free from all other cars; and there weren't any spectators in sight to watch my amateurish driving. That's what I would call ideal conditions for my first run in this car.

Waiting for me was a helmet and neck brace for safety. I put those on and awkwardly placed my legs inside of the Micra. Remember, this isn't your typical road Micra, as it's been stripped and transformed into a racing machine. The team at MIA (Motorsports in Action) out of St-Eustache fit each car with a roll cage, racing seat, new door panels and floors, racing steering wheel and Nismo suspension making it difficult to get in and out of, but as you will soon find out – so worth it!

I started up the Micra and headed out onto the track with the instruction to stay in third gear throughout. Unusual, but the 109-hp compact car could maintain high speeds without having to hesitate for gear shifts. As a good student does, I obliged and we were quickly into third and ready to test out its acceleration and handling abilities.

What surprised me the most was the sheer quickness of the Micra. You don't think fast thoughts when its 109-hp 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine comes to mind. But for this track, the Micra performed admirably and I could have gone even faster.

The whole experience was really smooth as I followed the layout of pylons and worked my angles and sight lines correctly. Perhaps, the instructor being in the car deterred me against pushing it harder, but I was in a relaxed zone piloting from side to side as the track got windy.

Braking was quick and harsh, exactly how it needs to be on track. This setup allowed me to quickly regain the balance of the car with added traction before making the turn after the braking zone. The overall weight transfer process appeared simple and seamless without any fierce jerking of the car, but a lot of that may have to do with me staying in third gear throughout.

In the end, it was a quick 10-15 minute session in the race-specced Nissan Micra car. Enough time to get me excited about the racing experience and bewildered about how the little Micra car can be so much fun to manoeuvre around. The most uncomfortable thing about it was getting in and out of the car; and trust me, if I didn't get out, I would have gone back for more laps. That's the addictive nature of the Nissan Micra Cup proving that you don't need a 500-hp sports car in order to have a good time on the track.

The Nissan Micra Cup with Elvis Stojko

Trois-Rivières, QC – You might have heard of Nissan's new spec-series, the Nissan Micra Cup. It's in its inaugural season with 12 races on the calendar throughout the province of Quebec with stops in historic and popular venues such as the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant and the Circuit Trois-Rivières.

The Nissan Micra Cup features the least-expensive new vehicle in the market, the Micra (starting at $9,998) that has been race-specced for the low price of $19,998. Inside, every racing subcompact gets the exact same set-up: a Nismo suspension kit, roll cage, safety equipment and racing seat. It's marketed as the most affordable racing series, and that's not a word of a lie.

The 26-person field is littered with former and current race car drivers, amateurs and racers from Nissan's own global GT Academy. But a certain driver at the Trois-Rivières race I attended stood out in the paddock. It was Elvis Stojko, the Canadian figure skater that was a former three-time World Champion, two-time Olympic silver medallist and seven-time Canadian champion.

The man, who was the first to land a quadruple jump combination and stun the world was competing in the Nissan Micra Cup? As an auto journalist and racing enthusiast, I needed to find some answers, and talk to the former champion.

It ends up he was piloting one of the four Albi Nissan Micras competing at Trois-Rivières (GP3R) in a deal that his manager Jason Sharpe had set-up with Albi Nissan and Nissan Canada. But this deal only came about after a casual conversation with one of Stojko's friends who manages a Nissan dealership in Stouffville, ON.

Stojko was conversing over his promising rise in the karting world with events at the national and international level when the Nissan Micra Cup was brought up. His friend mentioned that the series has had a big buzz around the office, and thought it could be a good fit. Considering that Stojko has never competed in a race car before, the Micra Cup seemed to be a logical next step, and maybe that opening he's longed for.

It might sound crazy to compete in a race car for the first time with professional racers, but karting provides the perfect experience that can prepare you for it. Sure, it will be different, but if GT Academy drivers can do it straight off simulators, why not kart drivers? And perhaps, Stojko's ace in the hole is his history of mental preparation in figure skating.

“The mental process between racing and figure skating is the same,” said Stojko. “It's all about preparing yourself, breathing techniques and being in the zone. The big difference is that in skating if you make one tiny error, it's all over. In racing, you can make an error and still recoup, which is a nice breath of fresh air. Skating has helped my mindset for this, where I can just train, pound some laps and be consistent.”

Ahead of the Micra Cup double race, Stojko had two days of practice at Saint-Eustache, and one practice session at GP3R to familiarize himself with the race-specced Micra.

“This is a lot faster than Saint-Eustache,” said Stojko ahead of his first race. “I still need to figure out the braking points, and how the brakes and tires will handle. It's a steep learning curve, but I'm pretty confident in my abilities and have so much to learn. I have loved every minute so far.”

After qualifying in the middle-to-bottom of the pack, the race wouldn't go as expected as a collision with driver Kevin King would end both their races and send Stojko to a 25th place finish out of 26. Clearly, there was room for improvement, and Stojko showed what he's capable of with a tenth place finish in Race #2. During the race, Stojko would gain eight positions and place ahead of GT Academy driver Abhinay Bikkani, as well as all other Albi Nissan drivers on route to that top-10 position.

The GP3R Micra Cup race was a one-off for Stojko, but possibly the car racing seed has been planted in him. He might have mentioned a desire for a Porsche Cup race next on his wish list...

  • Published in News

Hinchcliffe remains in hospital, but in stable condition

It was a week of crashes and rule changes heading into the qualifying session of the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 that saw three Chevrolet cars flipped over during practice. Qualifying went on without any incident, seeing Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon take the pole for the second time in his illustrious career.

But as practice resumed the following day, it was Canada's James Hinchcliffe, a Honda driver for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team that would have the ugliest and most violent crash on the 2.5-mile oval track. The incident took place rounding turn three, when Hinchcliffe's car had a right-front suspension failure and at top speed connected with the barrier. The No. 5 Arrow Dallara-Honda flipped over for a second, eventually landing upright before coming to a stop. Hinchcliffe was unable to leave the car as sheetmetal pinned him in before the Holmatro safety team could arrive.  

According to Racer.com, Hinchcliffe's injuries were severe to his right leg and upper left thigh, leading to surgery later that Monday. From that same source, it appears that a steel wishbone from the race car entered and exited his right leg and upper left thigh causing massive blood loss. The safety team and doctors were quickly on hand to cut parts of the car off to get Hinchcliffe out, and rush him by ground transportation to the IU Health Methodist Hospital, while stopping the bleeding in the process.

Hinchcliffe is currently in stable condition and undergoing further evaluation at the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

It doesn't look promising for Hinchcliffe to get back into the cockpit in the short future with an IndyCar announcement that he's been ruled out of competition “for the foreseeable future.” This undoubtedly means no Indianapolis 500, nor Honda Indy Toronto. For now, let's hope for a safe recovery for the Oakville, Ontario native and best wishes to him and his family and close friends.

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