The Japan-based Aussie racer you've never heard of
Plenty of Australian drivers get the chance to try their hand in various overseas categories, but while most aim for success in Formula 1 or IndyCar, Jake Parsons is forging a very different path for himself as he tries to establish himself in Japan's top racing series.
International drivers racing in Japan are a fairly rare commodity, and those that view SUPER GT or Super Formula as destinations in their own right rather than a post-Formula 1 retirement home or possible stepping stone to the big-time are rarer still.
Parsons however bucks that trend. The 25-year-old from Melbourne relocated to Japan in 2017 and has been a fixture in several different series in the Land of the Rising Sun since, including Japanese Formula 3, Super Taikyu and now SUPER GT's GT300 class.
But just how did Parsons end up targeting racing in Japan, when so many of his peers would have been aspiring towards moving to Europe or America?
"I had some Japanese friends in high school, and as soon as high school finished, I came over to Japan for the first time and went to the Tokyo Auto Salon [auto show]," Parsons tells Motorsport.com. "I was like, ‘what is happening out here? This is a big deal!’
"I saw a Super Formula car at the Auto Salon, so that motivated me to do Formula BMW in Asia and that’s how it all started. I became aware of SUPER GT after that, but I realised it’s just as big a deal as Super Formula if not bigger.
"It was tunnel vision after that to come out here. The goal was to race in a series where I was inspired by the cars, but the GT500s are so damn quick, it's ridiculous. They are only a few seconds slower than LMP1 cars around here [at Fuji Speedway]."
Jake Parsons, #34 Modulo KENWOOD NSX GT3
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
After some seasons racing in Formula Ford and Formula Vee in his native Australia - and an appearance in the under-18s FIA World Karting Championship that featured a certain Charles Leclerc - Parsons' first international racing steps came in 2014, when he won the Asia Cup series for Formula BMW machinery.
He also raced in the second half of that year's Formula Masters China season, where he scored three wins in 10 races, and the following year he stayed for a full season, finishing second in the points behind Estonian driver Martin Rump.
But more significant for Parsons than the results themselves while racing in Asia were the connections he made along the way.
"That was the point things started to change," recalls Parsons. "That was how I got the connection with the first team I raced in SUPER GT for. I met a guy from SARD, and I was already captivated by what was going on in Japan and said that I really wanted to race there.
"After winning the [Asia Cup] series they arranged a meeting, but then I raced in the States because I didn't really know how to get into Japan. It went pretty well but it was very difficult to find sponsors, so I decided to go back to Japan, have a meeting and see where it goes."
Jake Parsons, Juncos Racing
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Parsons' detour to America in 2016 took him via the Pro Mazda series, the third rung on the Road to Indy ladder, where he raced against future IndyCar star Patricio O'Ward, as well as current sportscar regulars Aaron Telitz and Nico Jamin, and finished sixth overall.
"There weren’t many of us, but everyone was pretty competitive," says Parsons of that season, which featured grids of between 10 and 12 cars. "The oval racing was fun and it was a good chance to hone my racecraft, battling with some high-level guys. It was a good season but I was happy with the move here, because I wanted to be in Japan for the long-term."
The connection with SARD paid off for Parsons in 2017 as he secured a seat in SUPER GT's lower GT300 division, sharing an Audi R8 LMS with Shinnosuke Yamada - and becoming the championship's first full-time Australian driver since James Courtney in 2005.
"It was tricky in the first year," recalls Parsons of his transition from single-seaters to GTs. "It was my first time racing GT and learning a lot of new circuits, and first time having a co-driver. But the hardest part was learning to adjust my driving style and also the language."
#26 Team Taisan Sard Audi R8 LMS: Shinnosuke Yamada, Jake Parsons
Unfortunately for Parsons, he and Yamada failed to score points all year in the ultra-competitive GT300 field, and SARD's partnership with the Taisan team that ran the car was dissolved at the end of the 2017 campaign. But the SARD connection allowed him to find a seat in All-Japan Formula 3 the following year, running an older-spec car as the only National Class runner in the field (making him the sub-category's champion by default).
From there, it was on to Super Taikyu - Japan's second-tier sportscar racing series - in 2019 at the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf TCR, which yielded fourth in the standings and brought him to the attention of Honda, whose fold he is now a part of.
This year, Parsons joined the Drago Corse squad driving a Honda NSX GT3 Evo alongside team boss and former SUPER GT champion Ryo Michigami. At the Fuji season opener in July he was one of just eight non-Japanese drivers on the grid and three in the GT300 class, a figure made lower than normal by COVID-19 travel restrictions - although by his own admission Parsons was only a week away from being shut out of the country himself.
"I’m loving working with Drago Corse and building up my feeling with the Honda NSX," says Parsons. "The balance is quite good, and I was hoping it would be because the NSX is my favourite road car, and getting the chance to drive it is kind of a dream!
"Now I’m here in Japan for the season. There’s a really nice community with the foreign drivers who race here and Honda, so I’m very keen to keep growing with those guys. The goal is to move up to [GT]500, so I’m gonna keep pushing, and hopefully it can be soon."
#34 Modulo KENWOOD NSX GT3
Photo by: GTA
Racing for Drago Corse and Michigami also gives Parsons a link to Super Formula, the series that first captured his imagination during his first visit to Japan.
"I did so much formula car racing in the past, I think honestly my style is suited more to formula cars and I had to adjust a bit for GT, and it’s in a good place now," Parsons replies when asked if he could see himself racing in Super Formula in future. "I’m focussed on SUPER GT this season but I would love to go back to formula car racing if the chance comes up."
This weekend, SUPER GT heads to Suzuka for its third round of the 2020 season, where Parsons and Michigami will be hoping to take advantage of having a favourable success handicap to kickstart their season after a couple of tough races at Fuji.
But whatever happens on-track for the rest of the year, Parsons will be content to be flying the flag single-handedly for Australia in Japan, continuing the unique journey that begun with that all-important visit to the Tokyo Auto Salon six years ago.
"There are so many good tracks here, so you can have a [national] calendar and still go to so many nice venues," he enthuses. "Also with the Japanese manufacturers that are racing in SUPER GT, that’s what keeps it pure. It’s cool to be able to work with people from Honda and [engine tuner] Mugen, I love racing here because of that."
Additional reporting by Tomohiro Yoshita
#34 Modulo Drago Corse Honda NSX GT3 Evo: Ryo Michigami, Jake Parsons
Photo by: Masahide Kamio
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