Japanese teenage daredevil Maya Sato says she shed her long hair, her cellphone and — almost — a few tears as she took on and beat the boys in a tough version of motorcycle racing.
At age 19, Sato last month won her first “Auto Race” contest, where riders speed around an asphalt circuit, sparks flying off their steel-capped boots, at up to 150kph on bikes without brakes.
The newcomer’s victory has made Sato — the first woman to join the sport in 44 years — the bright new hope for revitalizing Japan’s version of speedway racing, where audiences place bets and riders compete for prize money.
Racing is in Sato’s blood — she first rode a motocross bike at age six.
When Auto Race, or Oto Resu, opened its doors to women a few years ago for the first time since the 1960s, she quit school and joined a riders’ boot camp that is so selective it takes only about one in every 50 applicants.
The switch to the grueling, military-style training center took some getting used to, says Sato — mobile phones and TVs are banned, and the young racers must finish their meals within five minutes.
“I’d be lying if I said I never felt like crying,” Sato said, recounting how she used to love fashion and shopping with her friends. “But I hate to lose. I had my hair cropped short to build up my fighting spirit. I have long dreamed of becoming a professional motorcycle racer and my resolve was too strong to make me think about quitting.”
Her father Seiya Sato, 52, said: “My daughter started riding motorcycles on her own at the age of six, as her brother and I were motocross riders. We bought a helmet for her and let her do as she wanted.”
In a nod to the high school life she left behind, Maya Sato named her racing bike “Serena” after a character in the US hit TV drama Gossip Girl.
“Serena is described as a mentally tough woman,” Sato said. “I wanted to become a strong woman to make it in this male-dominated world.”
Sato’s resolve paid off — she won the second race she competed in, in a race last month on a circuit in Saitama, just outside Tokyo.
“I was frustrated because I only came in second in my debut race,” she said. “People around me said it was a pity. But I was relieved when my parents told me that I did a good job.”
Auto Race, run by municipal governments, was hugely popular in post-World War II Japan, when the gambling, along with that on horse, bicycle and motorboat racing, helped to pay for the country’s reconstruction.
However, audience numbers have steadily fallen since their peak in 1991, about the time when Japan’s “bubble economy” popped, ushering in decades of slower growth, and as fans diversified into other sports.
“Generally speaking, Japan’s public has been losing interest in gambling as lifestyles have changed and tastes have shifted on how to spend days off and enjoy leisure activities,” an Auto Race spokesman said.
As Sato has drawn attention to the sport, “we expect her to make Auto Race better known and help boost sales,” the spokesman said.
Another racer, Katsuyuki Mori — a former pop star who quit the hugely successful boy band SMAP in the late 1990s to prove his mettle on the track — also thinks Sato can breathe new life into the sport.
“I hope she will do all she can to drive fast, become a top-grade rider and attract more fans,” he said.
Sato says she is inspired by Japan’s new favorite women athletes, the women’s soccer team “Nadeshiko,” who won the World Cup in Germany last month.