A Day at the Races
By David Kasdan (MediumRB)

Reference sites:

Video clips:

David/MediumRB - mediumrb@yahoo.com

While on a trip to Japan with my wife, Cathy, I made a special effort to attend a Keirin race and experience track racing in its original setting. The hardest part was finding out when and where the races would be held and coordinating the effort within our loose itinerary. We found that races would be held at the Nara velodrome (333 meters) on July 13, 2009 from 10:30am until 4:30pm. We were in Kyoto at that point and a short daytrip to Nara (50km south of Kyoto) worked out well. We visited some shrines in the area, pet the tame deer in Nara Park, and then took yet another train a couple stops into a suburb to get to the track. A 15 minute walk from the station in the stifling humidity and we were there in time for the last four races of the day.

Keirin is a popular gambling outlet in Japan, especially for older men. We were warmly welcomed at the entrance to the velodrome grounds, although the attendants at the gate looked slightly baffled that a couple of sweaty gaijin had appeared. There was no entry fee, as the tracks are well-supported through the gambling proceeds. We received some programs and other papers at the door but were unable to make much sense of them (we are neither gamblers nor literate in Japanese). From a little brochure I picked up in the air-conditioned lobby of the nicer seating area, I figured out that we would be seeing the lower ranked riders that day.

The fifth race of the day was scheduled to start about 20 minutes from our entrance, so I proceeded to scope out the grounds with cameras in hand while my wife checked out the bathroom facilities. Perhaps she'll write a separate article about that, but the velodrome itself was fairly standard. The track was a composite with well banked turns, a landscaped infield, and seating for a few thousand.

The stands were quite empty as the crowd was mostly gathered in a smoky, air-conditioned OTB hall behind the velodrome itself. Some other attendees were milling about the betting windows or tables where they were researching their cards for the next races. Exploring the grounds, my wife also found the riders' shrine behind the OTB hall and food stalls. It seems that Keirin is somehow associated with the sly fox totem; I would think they might offer watermelons to the shrine to ensure massive thigh muscles.

About 10 minutes before the race was scheduled to begin, some workers wheeled out the starting blocks and other officials and judges began to take their places around the track. A few more people started to filter into the stands. This race (the fifth of the day) had a purse of 391,000 yen (about $4200 at current conversion rates), with 155,000 yen to 1st place; 129,000 yen to 2nd; and 1 07,000 yen to the third place rider. The rest of the racers would suck seaweed for their efforts.

A pacing rider wearing a purple and orange skin suit was the first rider on the field. He would lead the Keirin for the first two laps and bring the pace up to speed, then depart after the final lap bell sounded with about 500 meters to go.

With the starting blocks in place, a little electronic chimed tune plays through the loudspeakers to alert attendees that the race is soon to begin. Then the riders come out of the locker room off the back stretch of the track and cross the infield. Despite being fixed-gear studs, they do not do any skidz or display their mad skillz as they enter the velodrome. Nor do they compare their whips and brag about all the NJS parts. They are fairly stoic as they get in place at the starting blocks, face the stands for the brief introductions, and mount up on their bikes. A couple offer up a quick prayer (I hope my Campy Sheriff Star hubs do not fail under the strain of my massive thigh-power!) before setting down for the start.

When the race bell rings, the action is surprisingly tame. Usually the number one racer tucks in behind the pace rider and there may be a little jockeying for the first two laps in the latter ranks.

In short order, the final lap bell rings and the pacer peels off the track on the back stretch as the riders get a little crazy. As they enter the turn to start the final lap at the start/finish line, some riders will start to move topside and prepare to dive down into the lead. Everything happens very quickly on the last lap as the sprinters attempt to gain on the leading riders who, meanwhile, have continued to accelerate to about 35mph. By the time they come out of the last turn for the final sprint, they are going over 40mph and the finishing order for the four races we finished was truly determined in the last seconds of the races. For two of the four races we witnessed, I had to wait for the scoreboard to confirm the finishing order of the race. The riders perform a cool-down lap and then make their way to a ramp that leads under the track when it is done. The gamblers seldom cheer or yell, but they do seem to be cursing under their breath if their tickets are not winners.

In between the last races, we headed to a little air-conditioned stall on the grounds and ordered a plate of barbecued unagi and a couple of hard cider type beverages (8% alcohol grapefruit is the best). The television in the stall showed the betting lines and results of other races going on around the country that day, but only showed short clips of actual bicycle action. It truly is an abstract pursuit, although I am sure a hard core bettor could spout some statistics about his favorite rider.

The final race held the big pot for the best riders. The total purse was about $9300 with the winner taking about half that total. The action was not much different in this race than the previous three; however, the crowd in the stands was much larger and a bit more vocal. After it was done, a mad rush ensued as the patrons headed toward the parking lot to catch the free shuttle back to the local train station. We crowded in on the last bus where the smoky old men ogled Cathy and sweated out the 15 minute ride. Upon reflection, the event did not hold many surprises. It took some persistent inquiries during our trip to pin down solid information about the races, much the same as it would require some research in the U.S. to learn the schedule of trotter races or midget cars at the local track. I was disappointed that even with my foreign innocence I could not wrangle my way into the riders' locker or bike garage to check out the equipment up close. The colors of the riders' kits and the pace of the whole thing were stimulating, no doubt. The reserved behavior of the Japanese was a contrast to our natural inclination to yell and scream at such an exciting spectacle.

Although the Japanese are fond of gambling (witness the steady customers at a cacophonous Pachinko parlor), Keirin is only mainstream for older retired gentleman of a certain type. Of course, they are enthusiastic fans of the sport during national and international competitions, much as Americans watch the Triple Crown. The Japanese government has imputed a sense of social responsibility to the gambling side of Keirin, using proceeds to support social development projects much as State lotteries are intended to supplement American school programs. Whether the social benefits to Japan are significant or not, Keirin is certainly a national pastime of some order and worth attending while in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Thanks for lookin'