Airman finds adrenaline in Tokyo
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- On Fuji Speedway, the lone Mount Fuji looming high on the horizon, 150 vehicles tore around the track at speeds of 130 miles per hour and higher. The cars left trails of mist from the morning rain as they flashed by the checkpoint in a roar.
"It's just a blast," said the red-haired, football-build competitor after the race. "If you want to be able to go really fast, do it legally and have an ultimate adrenaline rush, this is the way to do it."
Senior Airman Thomas Kirts, 374th Civil Engineer Squadron fire truck driver operator, has been racing his car in Japan for two years. He continually upgrades his vehicle with new parts, and performs all his own maintenance.
"My dad used to work on a Nascar team when I was young," Kirts said. "Every summer I'd go play with the cars with him and he'd teach me everything he knew. Now I'm interested in anything with a motor."
Kirts got into the racing world of Japan by first finding car meets, where enthusiasts discuss their interests and build networks. They told him how to sign up online to race at Fuji Speedway.
"It's definitely helped me get connected to Japan," Kirts said. "Every time I go to a car meet I see so many friends that I've made."
Before the race, Kirts carefully prepped his car. He checked the oil and released pressure from the tires to compensate for the heat that would cause them to expand on the track. He then removed his front license plate to improve air flow to the vents. He fixed cameras to the front and back fenders, and one to his helmet.
There are a few things that go through Kirts' head before he begins a race.
"Stay calm," Kirts said. "Don't drive over my limits. Try to get used to the track. My heart is pumping and I'm jittery because I'm so excited."
Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Hendricks, Armed Forces Network - Tokyo regional broadcast technician, has been driving with Kirts for a year.
"Some people have a more aggressive driving style than others," said Hendricks. "I think Kirts tends to be more aggressive, but he does not put his car at risk."
The top speed Kirts has reached on the track is 150 mph. Due to the amount of risk associated with such speeds, the Air Force requires Airmen to wear safety equipment while racing, including a jump suit and authorized helmet. He is also required to fill out high-risk activity forms through his chain of command, which ensures that he can handle the risks involved before they approve it.
Kirts recalled the last time he was at Fuji Speedway. After going 135 mph on the hardest stretch of the track, his break line blew out. Fortunately, he had slowed down to 50 mph at that point.
"I had to spin it out into the gravel-pit and then get a tow truck back to base," said Kirts.
This was not the first time Kirts has experienced an emergency situation. For his job, Kirts drives and operates a fire truck. According to Kirts, this helped him when he spun out. Sometimes operating the fire truck requires hide speeds and cool nerves: skills which the Air Force has instilled in him.
"I kept my composure," Kirts said. "I knew what to do."
Kirts revealed that racing also helps with the stress of a high-intensity job.
"It's a release really," Kirts said. "My schedule's kind of crazy so it's a little hard to get out and play. The best part about racing is being able to just drive your car as hard as you can."
Kirts said that he also appreciates the friendliness of fellow racers he meets, and values the friendships he has formed.
"Kirts is a really good guy," said Hendricks, "always willing to help me out with my car or just go out driving."
Kirts invites anyone to contact him if they're interested in getting into the sport.
"It's not Nascar or Formula One," Kirts said. "You can take your own personal car, and even drive a van."
According to Kirts, despite the high cost of accidents like needing his car towed or paying for damages to the speedway, he wouldn't stop racing for the world.