Eriko Sanmiya is known in the English-speaking world almost exclusively as a speed skater. She competed in two Olympic Games and even broke the domestic record in the 1000m and placed second in the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships. Clearly she had a penchant for going fast. After the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, where she placed 8th in the 1000m, she abruptly retired from skating and took up auto racing instead.
In 2000 Toyota launched a one-make race series called the Netz Cup. Netz, of course, was Toyota’s newly formed youth-oriented sales channel in its once byzantine dealership network. This was the dawn of the internet age, and the Netz name was chosen to evoke the exciting frontier that was the world wide web. The race series, officially called the Gazoo Racing Netz Cup, was actually a pet project Akio Toyoda’s when he oversaw the Gazoo sales division and conceived to spur interest in racing at the grassroots level.
The Netz Cup’s two-tiered system level put beginners in the first-generation Vitz (in race spec, about ¥2.2 million, or $22,000 USD), while intermediate drivers slipped into an Altezza (both were sold exclusively through Netz dealers). Japan has always had one-make racing series, but the Netz Cup kicked off a new era of factory-sponsored grassroots racing, including Volkswagen’s Lupo GTI Cup, Mazda’s Roadster Cup, the Lotus Elise’s Lotus Cup. Some Netz Cup drivers, like GT300 champion Kota Sasaki, even worked their way up to the pro leagues.
Eriko Sanimya reportedly had loved cars since she was a teenager. She explained her career switch from speed skating to auto racing at the age of 27 in an interview with Flash, “I wanted to something I couldn’t do when I was a skater, so I became a racing driver. It was fun.”
“I continued for six years, but my driving didn’t get any better,” she says. “I was almost always in the bottom half of the standings.” But that’s not the whole story. She placed as high as sixth in the Netz Cup (lead photo), and even placed 5th at the 24 Hours of Tokachi in 2007. Soon after Sanimya married former snowboarder Hideaki Nagaoka and officially retired.
During her time, however, Sanimya’s distinctive pink-wheeled Vitz served as inspiration for many. She served as a spokesperson for Netz Toyota Sapporo, and drew many fans who knew her from her days as a famous speed skater — she was even the flag bearer for the Japanese team at the Salt Lake City Olympics — to motorsports. Although Sanmiya officially retired in 2007, she still occasionally donned a fire suit to slip behind the wheel of a Vitz cup car as late as 2011.
There aren’t many Olympians who also raced, though many have argued that auto racing should be part of the Olympics. Nevertheless, any crossover between the two is a good thing, especially if it brings new fans to motorsports, and Eriko Sanmiya bridged the two worlds in her home country.
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