When stopping by Sonoma Raceway‘s kart track for some impromptu lapping a few weeks ago, I noticed the familiar face of Ken Fukuda, a driver whom I karted with several years back. I’d heard he traveled to Europe to try his hand at racing the Nürburgring, but had no real idea of his adventures. Naturally, we started chatting, and soon my jaw was on the floor after learning of the wild journey he embarked on this January.
Later that week, I bought him a couple drinks while he regaled me with colorful stories about the struggles he’s endured in the last few years. As I learned, Fukuda has an uncommon level of commitment to this sport which, strangely, is belied by his Californian insouciance.
Infatuated from a Young Age
His introduction to motorsports wasn’t an uncommon one. Obsessed with miniature cars and scale models from the age of 10, Fukuda started hanging around with older kids with a similar passion for automobiles and speed — nothing out of the ordinary. However, his desire to immerse himself in actual motorsport was uncommonly strong; he was not content only enjoying Playstation games and broadcasts of FIA GT1. Hitching rides to Laguna Seca to watch the club races in his mid-teens, he started educating himself about racing cars long before he could legally drive.
Two years of mowing lawns yielded enough money to grab his first road car: a 1990 Nissan 240SX. This only added fuel to the growing fire in his belly. Making late-night jaunts through the sinuous roads in the Berkeley Hills, he started educating himself on weight transfer and driving lines. He emerged from this reckless stage in life unscathed and with a better understanding of cornering. Eventually, he sold his 240SX and picked up a Miata that was a complete revelation.
After a few more years of backroad blitzes and teenage hijinks, he felt the need to understand racing wheel-to-wheel on the track in a sanctioned environment. After scrimping and searching for a way to get his feet wet, he jumped in a kart at Sonoma Raceway (or Infineon, as it was known then). After acing the Jim Russell Karting School, he was selected by the instructors to participate in a talent shootout that could set his career in motion. Set in the school’s Formula cars, this shootout awarded the winner $100,000 in racing scholarships. However, participation would require a significant financial investment, which as a high-school student, he simply didn’t have.
Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. On the eve of graduation, he had to decide on furthering his studies or taking a gamble in the world of racing. After much deliberation, he came to the conclusion that $15,000 would be better spent on an education. Saying that he had mixed feelings afterwards would be a massive understatement.
Four years and a degree from UCLA later, he went to Liberia with the Peace Corps. While there for some two years, he created the National Academic Curriculum, built a science lab, established a PTA, and helped raise the exit exam rates from 18 to 56 percent. Engaged with helping these kids rise from their squalid surroundings, Fukuda built a strong bond with his students, and regularly asked them probing questions, such as “if you could pursue your dreams, would you?”
Their unanimous, affirmative response gave Fukuda pause. After considering the plight of these children and the opportunities he held back home, he realized he had to take a stab at following his own dreams. He booked a flight back to California, where he would start his business, Griffey Dreams, and find a way to compete — this time without compromise.
A Start in Open-Wheelers
Short of funds and desperate for seat time, the route which caught his attention was the Mechanics Training Program with the Bridgestone Racing Academy. Located in Ontario, Canada, this program — one of the few of its kind still around — offers the mechanics quite a lot. Not only do they learn how to wrench on the school’s Van Diemen Formula Ford 2000 cars, they get to race them as well.
Eking out an austere existence with his savings and working in the frigid climate, he was getting to understand the dedication and sacrifice necessary to progress forward. Throughout the seven months spent wrenching and learning the ins-and-outs of the school cars, he was given four opportunities to race in lieu of payment. This was his first time competing in a Formula car, and his confidence was bolstered by one win, better pace than some of his instructors, and a greater mechanical understanding of the racing car. However, the slightly lukewarm experience didn’t open any doors for him, so he had to continue searching for a way to compete.
The following year, to keep progressing, he moved back to the Bay Area, where he competed in the Simraceway Arrive & Drive Karting Series. Thinking he’d be a shoe-in with his Formula car experience, he was shocked to find himself running at the back of the pack; a testament to the quality of the series. Clearly, fighting his way to the front wasn’t going to be easy.
He exercised his analytical side and asked the instructors every conceivable question. By staying long after the races finished to debrief and glean what useful tidbits he could, he advanced from the back of the pack to the front in the course of the season. This gave him an even greater appreciation of motorsport’s minutiae. It also opened another door — allowing him to become a professional coach.
During the following two years, he instructed for Simraceway. First for the karting school, then later for Formula 3, McLaren, and Performance Driving Programs. He gathered enough data from the other instructors to realize he needed to make another step forward — this time into SCCA club racing. However, he’d have to get creative with his fundraising to make it a reality.
With the aid of his eclectic group of friends, who decorated and catered a black-tie event for him, he was able to tell his story. The event raised a whopping $16,000, which he put towards purchasing his first racing car. With the support of his friends and new business partners, he felt even more pressure to perform.
Scrimping for Success in Sedans
In 2017, he used those funds to purchase a built, SCCA STL-spec Acura Integra. After spending most of his money on the car itself, he scrounged for tires, a trailer, and tools. Fortunately, some local racers were privy to his struggle and lent a hand, moral support, and the needed equipment. For the last few pennies needed, he contacted 100 local businesses, and five lent him financial assistance. Slowly, his shoestring effort was coming together.
Camping instead of living in a hotel, subsisting off of noodles, convincing friends to crew, and borrowing his dad’s SUV to tow the race car to the track, Fukuda managed to make it happen.
His first race weekend was a bit of a mess, running on tires well past their prime, but things came good for the second. With a fresh set of rubber and an avid set of friends wrenching and spotting for him, he won at Buttonwillow. The team threw a shindig that evening; enjoying many libations on the campgrounds, and occasionally using the trophy as a vessel for said-libations.
The following morning, running mainly on enthusiasm, post-party giddiness, and Top Ramen, he managed a close Second in the follow-up race despite a splitting headache. By the end of the season, he had competed in six races at Laguna Seca, Buttonwillow, Sonoma, and Thunderhill. He won two of them, and had familiarized himself with the physical and financial challenges of racing a full-sized car. Rather than continue where he was comfortable, he sought a new challenge.
He wanted to keep moving up, but the cars were quite old, which he felt was hindering his progress. In order to get a major sponsor’s attention, he would have to get some results in a current car.
After a few weeks of dealing with mixed emotions and the fear of embarking on a new quest just as he was getting comfortable, he started researching the categories that would do his career the most good. Not only did he decide on a completely new category, he also decided to leave the country to try his hand in a new land.
A Trip Across the Pond
His choice came down to several practical reasons, and a few idealistic ones. Pro racing is considerably cheaper in Germany than it is in the States, and some of the best drivers in the world come from the Fatherland. German drivers, as Fukuda says, “are cold, ruthless, consistent, and very fast.” Furthermore, Germany is home to the Nürburgring, and “if I could win at the Nürburgring, I could win anywhere,” he proudly proclaims.
With the money made from selling the Integra, Fukuda bought himself a one-way ticket to Cologne, and touched down on January 11, 2018. Within the first hectic months of his new adventure, he couch surfed, found a room with an affable chef, got a BMW E36 to get around, started a bank account, and picked up insurance. Now established, but not comfortable in his new surroundings, he searched for a job — preferably one that could help him build a network of racing contacts.
Soon, the famed RSRNurburg offered him a position in instruction and sales. Now, he had plenty of opportunities to familiarize himself with the Green Hell, obtain a work visa, and receive a steady paycheck to keep the wolves at bay. That was the first step of many, but swinging on newfound enthusiasm, he quickly linked up with a racing team at the ‘Ring.
Team Adrenaline provided Fukuda with a BMW M235i, a modern spec racer with 333 horsepower and sticky Dunlop slicks. His experience in SCCA sedans would help propel him forward in this category, but now he had serious competition and a completely new style of track to contend with.
With only a handful of laps under his belt, he gathered the funding necessary to pay for his first professional race in the M235i Cup, part of the VLN series. While he was wary of the risk to his reputation if things went sour, the unpredictable weather, and the new level of competition, he was remarkably sober about the whole event, which might’ve shaken a less stoic driver.
“During our first practice session, I was passed by five GT3 cars,” Fukuda begins. “Three of them crashed later that lap due to the changing conditions.” That might have made some tread cautiously, Fukuda being one of them. “I realized that I’d have to drive at 85 percent, since crashing would ruin my reputation. I’d be completely finished.”
Focused on making a strong impression with his new team, he put together an efficient, professional, clinical race that would impress the steeliest of German drivers. Finishing 7th out of 19 in his class, and 67th out of 160+ overall, he racked up a number of impressive statistics. He became the highest finishing American in class, the highest finishing Japanese driver overall, finished higher than a three-time Le Mans champion, and also finished higher than several Porsche and Lamborghini factory drivers. Considering he’d only completed two actual laps of the Nürburgring prior to the race — in his road car, in the snow, no less — it was a remarkable first outing.
“After the race, my teammates and mechanics asked me how it went. I responded as calmly as possible, but as soon as I had some privacy, I ran behind our team’s trailers and screamed at the top of my lungs,” he reflects with glassy eyes.
Fukuda hasn’t rested on his laurels. Since the first race, he’s been doing everything in his power to improve his pace. After incessant studying, simulator work, and telemetry time with his data engineer, Fukuda has dropped his lap-times considerably. He is now within striking distance to the pace of the leaders.
Back in Germany, he’s searching for the support to carry him forward in VLN to attain his goal of winning at the Nürburgring. As ambitious and impressive as his recent achievements have been, he’s always looking two or three steps down the road like a dedicated racer ought to. With his surname and a strong command of Japanese, he aims to journey across another ocean in the next several years. If his stars align, he’ll be racing in Japan’s prestigious Super GT in a few years. After all, Japanese drivers are compensated well, and those that excel in the series get to go to Le Mans.
Regardless of what the future holds, Fukuda’s sinuous path into racing has proven that an ambitious racing driver need not come from a wealthy family to succeed. With tenacity, talent, sacrifice, and a double dose of creativity, an able-bodied youngster can find a route into the world of professional motorsports and stick it to the established drivers.