Japan's first Grand Prix
was held at the ultramodern Suzuka circuit in Nagoya on May 5, 1963
. That country's auto racing fans were excited about this milestone
in Japanese racing, but they were also astonished by the confidence
of driver Masao Asano, the favorite to win.
Asano was driving an Austin-Healey with the number 42. In Japan, 42 is a superstitious number, as the arabic numerals "42" translate to shi ni, closely related to the word Japanese shingu ("to die"). Interviewed about his odd choice of number, Asano dismissed worried comments as "old superstitions."
As the Grand Prix began, Asano worked his way toward the front of the pack, eventually taking the lead near the end of the first lap. Approaching the course's final tricky curve at more than 130 miles per hour, his Austin-Healey suddenly went out of control. Bouncing into the air and across the track, his car burst through crash barriers and hurtled into a ravine. By the time emergency personnel and race officials finally reached his car, Asano was dead.
The Japan Auto Federation, which controls all of Japan's motor sports, reviewed the accident and, a few weeks later, made the decision to ban the use of the number 42 on any vehicle racing in the country.
The next year's Grand Prix was a much larger event. 150,000 fans arrived at the Suzuka circuit to watch, and the JAF implemented a new system for determining the running order of the crowded field of drivers. Two separate teams of spotters would watch the race from the control tower, calling out and recording each car's number as it completed a circuit. Because of the large number and speed of the cars, the spotters were continually reading numbers. They had been trained not to process what they were saying, for the time it would take to concentrate on the number would cause them to miss the next car.
After the 25-lap race, the two teams of spotters compared notes. The winner and final running order were not in question, but the spotters were curious about one strange anomaly: both teams had cars numbered 42 completing the same 8 laps.