In honor of International Women’s Day, this is the story of Tomiko Yoshikawa, a race car driver and pioneer in the Japanese racing world. Born in 1954 in an Aichi Prefecture, Yoshikawa was a self-described furyou shoujo, a “bad girl” who dreamed of being a softball pitcher. When she realized this dream would not be achievable, she rebelled. She dropped out of high school, began wearing her hair in a hard perm emblematic of disaffected youth of the time, and spent her days “raging with no goal.” Then she got into cars.
In a Chunichi Shimbun newspaper profile from 2005, Yoshikawa revealed that whenever she felt despondent about life’s difficulties during her volatile teen years, her brother’s car would be her escape. She’d sit in his car for hours at a time, an oasis from the demands of her parents and the real world. Soon, she began secretly driving at night without her parents’ knowledge.
In 1974, a friend invited her to Suzuka Circuit to watch a race She was amazed at all the young people laboring over cars, striving to win, and living with purpose. The next day, she ditched the perm, straightened her hair and told her parents she wanted to work at their grocery store. This income, along with a second job, gave her enough money to buy old cars and go racing. From then on, she went to Suzuka every weekend.
At 22, Yoshikawa got her domestic A license and entered her first race, placing 10th in a field of 33. Soon, racing became her full time job as she got into the business side of getting sponsorships and a seat in whatever races she could. At age 26, she began her professional career in earnest, placing 13th at the Suzuka 500 km in a Nissan Sunny, 11th at Suzuka Formula Japan, and 10th at the JAF Suzuka Grand Prix driving for the Work Equip race team.
Yoshikawa continued to race in a wide range of series in Japan for the next several years, everything from TS Cup Sunnys and EF9 Honda Civics to open wheel racers on Team Autobacs, Work Equip, and Hayashi Racing. A major crash in 1986 during the Fuji Grand Champion series sidelined Yoshikawa for a bit, and she turned her attention to endurance racing.
As a pioneer in the male-dominated world of racing, she received a lot of attention from the press. Some of it manifested itself in hare-brained schemes like an all-girl Le Mans team in a pink Spice race car with Indy driver Lyn St. James and F1 driver Desiré Wilson. That year, 1991, she wasn’t able to get the proper license to race at Le Mans and missed her shot (though the Spice crashed out early on anyway), but Yoshikawa returned for the next three years. She experienced either mechanical failures or a disabling crash during heavy rain all three times. Still, she was the first Japanese woman to race at Le Mans.
Yoshikawa continued to race in Japan until her retirement in 2005, achieving a class win in the Pokka 1000km at Suzuka in 2004. Though little known in the west, Yoshikawa still made a career doing what she loved in a way that most of us can only dream about.
Images: Nissan, Toshin Group, Hayashi Racing