Tales from the Beat: Averting a language barrier at the Cleveland Grand Prix

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant Sports Editor Published:

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant Sports Editor

Summer is what we call the slow period at the R-C, the time of year when the high school and Kent State University sports seasons are over and the pace of the job ratchets down a few notches for a couple months. Sure, there are still events to cover and stories to write, but not anywhere near the volume and intensity of the September to June time frame.

It’s a chance to catch our collective breath in the R-C Sports Department ahead of the coming football season. Therefore, we sometimes end up searching for events to cover in the summer, and in July of 1994, one of those events assigned to me was the Cleveland Grand Prix IndyCar road race at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland.

I had only been at the R-C for about four months at that time, and I approached the assignment with some trepidation because auto racing isn’t exactly my thing. As part of the assignment, sports editor Tim Houser instructed me to write a feature story on one of the drivers racing in the Grand Prix.

Considering I had only been working at the paper a short time, I felt pressure to come through with a strong showing in stories and effort at the Grand Prix. I was determined not to fall on my face, and thought I could make a splash by taking an edgy approach and interviewing a driver that race fans may not be very familiar with.

That way I could actually break some news and inform readers on an obscure driver rather than rehash old news with the Mario Andrettis and Al Unser Jrs. of the world.

At least, that was the plan.

Upon arrival at the Grand Prix, I was taken aback at the size and scope of the event. The place was absolutely packed, there was confusion on where my press pass actually allowed me to go (as I found out, not very far because apparently the press passes were issued on a tier system -- which I found out the hard way) and I quickly became panic-stricken that I was going to fail miserably on this assignment.

The whole scene was chaotic, and I ended up stumbling around the premises for hours baking under the hot July sun. I was tired, frustrated and sweating bullets (for a couple reasons) -- and I had no idea what I was going to do for a story. Just when I was about to run up the white flag and admit defeat, I decided to take a chance and wander into the back area of the grounds where the drivers’ RVs were parked for the weekend.

I figured I would simply keep walking until someone stopped me. To my shock, no one did. I walked past a sea of RVs -- some were party central, complete with hordes of people and blasting music, and some were totally vacant, with no signs of life whatsoever -- looking for a driver to interview.

Finally, I saw an Asian gentleman sitting in a chair underneath a large awning outside an RV. I went up to the man, introduced myself and politely asked for an interview. He replied that he wasn’t a driver, he was a PR guy, but the driver was in the RV and they would be happy to accommodate me. Before heading into the RV, the PR guy handed me an information packet on the driver, and I leafed through it while I waited for them to return. I actually had no idea whose RV I was at, so I figured I’d better at least find out the guy’s name before I talked to him.

Turns out they were Japanese, and his back story of racing motorcycles in the mountains of Japan prior to entering the IndyCar circuit was fascinating. Perfect! This was exactly the type of driver I had been seeking: Someone who was not a household name, but who was an interesting individual nonetheless. A few minutes later they emerged from the RV, and the PR guy brought the driver over to me and introduced us. I smiled and shook the driver’s hand, the PR guy sat down and I asked the driver my first question.

After I finished, he paused for a moment, thinking of his response, then answered -- in Japanese. My blood instantly ran cold. The possibility of a language barrier had not even crossed my mind. I just can’t catch a break today, I thought. After all my trials and tribulations of this long, hot day, it had seemed like I had saved myself with my “Hail Mary” decision to enter the driver RV area -- only to run into this new, unforeseen obstacle.

The driver spoke in his native tongue for about a minute or so as he answered my question, and I just stood there dumbfounded, pen nowhere near paper, staring back at him. The driver finished his answer, and I had no idea what to do next.

The PR guy, apparently noticing the look of sheer terror on my face, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I’m going to translate his answers for you.” And, to my great relief, he proceeded to relate the driver’s answers to me -- in English -- for the duration of the interview.

When we were finished, the driver went back into the RV, at which point the PR guy explained to me that while the driver understood English, he wasn’t comfortable speaking it and preferred to talk in his own language. Interview complete and information packet in hand, I thanked the PR guy profusely and began the long journey back to my car. I had my story.

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