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by Larry Roberts

September 18, 1998

Most Americans who are even remotely aware of the automobile world know of the current buying craze for sport/utility vehicles and they must also be aware of the fact that Isuzu is one of the major players in this hot market. Isuzu only sells SUVs in the passenger car market in this country and directs all its advertising and promotional budget towards that end. With only a small presence in this country, Isuzu does very well.

But there was a time when Isuzu had racing aspirations and most of us American race fans weren't even aware of them until its original major effort in track racing had been in storage for a quarter of a century.

The annual historic auto races at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California are unquestionably the most prestigious vintage car races in the world. If an unusual racer needs to be shown off or an auto manufacturer wants a place to showcase a noteworthy part of its history, the annual Gathering of Veteran at Laguna Seca is the place to do it. And it was there at the 1998 running of the event that Isuzu displayed its mid-engined Bellett R-6 Spider sports-racer for the first time in 25 years.

Actually there had been a couple of Isuzu racing sedans brought over to this country by returning servicemen in the '60s. Ken Switcher showed up at an amateur race at San Francisco's Candlestick Park (yes, the same place where the Giants play baseball) in 1965. Were all very surprised when Swisher showed us the short way home in his two-door Bellett sedan. In retrospect, I believe it might have been Isuzu's testing-of-the- waters that lead to a more serious competition effort.

But the R-6 Spider never made it to these shores until this year - and then as a retiree. Two were built by the company in 1969 and the one displayed in Monterey was driven to an overall first place win in the Fuji International Speedway All-Star Race in 1970. It ran a couple of years in the Fuji event but by that time, competition in Japan was heating up and in 1972, it was only able to garner a first in the small-engined class. At that time, Isuzu apparently decided that it couldn't devote valuable engineering talent to the project and the two cars were retired.

Shigeaki Asoka was the original driver of this particular R-6 Spider in those races at the Fuji race track and went on to become a journalist, making numerous contribution to Japan's top magazines. Asoka was in attendance at Laguna Seca this year and drove the R-6. Since the historic races there are more a showcase for the cars on the track than serious competition, the track times put in by Asoka in the his old mount were "spirited" but not competitive.

The specifications for the R-6 are interesting but were dated even when it was built. The 1600-cc engine was built up from standard basic prioritary Isuzu parts but utilizes twin overhead cams operating four valves per cylinder. At 180 horsepower it was not bad but certainly no match for the Coventry Climax or Cosworth engines that were universally used in small sports-racers in the '70s. The transmission was a five-speed British-built Hewland transaxle.

The Isuzu public relations people I talked to were enthusiastic about having the R-6 here and seemed to enjoy the weekend immensely.

But I wonder what would be that company's public image if it had pursued a motorsports program and where it would be now. It's Japanese competitors Toyota, Honda and Nissan went on to be world-class competitors.

To paraphrase Marion Brando in his 1954 movie "On The Waterfront," Isuzu could have been a contender.