INDIANAPOLIS -- Even before the 75th annual Indianapolis 500 takes the green flag Sunday, the race already has a hero.
Hiro (pronounced Hero) Matsushita is the first Japanese driver ithe race, although he's not the first Japanese competitor in the race.
That honor fell to Takio Hirashima, better known as "Chickie,who was the riding mechanic for Rex Mayes in the 1935 and 1936 races and won the pole both years.
In those good old days, no one talked about the Japanese caindustry and the invasion of Japanese electronics companies. But these days they are a hot topic -- one Matsushita knows well.
It seems Matsushita's grandfather founded Matsushit Electronics, the parent company of Panasonic. And his wife's grandfather founded the parent company of Sony. So Matsushita is an heir to millions and his newborn son, Takayuki, is heir to billions.
All of it has been a headache to Hiro Matsushita this month, ahe worked to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500.
All anyone wanted to talk about early on was his wealth, abouhow he bought his way into the Indy 500. About how his experience alone would not have gotten him here. The fact he is sponsored by Panasonic contributed to the talk.
"It sounds great," said Matsushita with a big, friendly smile. "Buit is just not so. If I had a lot of money, I would have a bigger motor home here, a couple of limos to take me wherever I wanted to go. I would even have a yacht. But it is not true."
Matsushita quieted some of his critics with a hard charging drivin his Lola Buick during qualifying. He averaged 218.141 mph and will start in the eighth row in the 24th position.
"In this country, wealthy families may give their childreeverything, but in my country they don't," said Matsushita.
He worked a paper route when he was 18 years old to earn enough to buy his first motorcycle, and he competed in his first motocross race without his parents' knowledge.
He began his pro auto racing career in 1988 in the IMSA GCamel Lights series and in 1989 he won the Toyota Atlantic Championship by the largest point margin in series history, winning four of nine events.
That performance caught the eye of veteran car owner DicSimon, who entered him in 10 races last season. This year, the team hopes to compete in the entire Indy car series.
None of it has been popular with Matsushita's parents.
Hiro, a graduate of Kohnan University, worked in marketing aPanasonic for three years to appease his father, before deciding racing was really what he loved most.
"My family doesn't say much about my racing," he said. "AnPanasonic doesn't sponsor me because I am a member of the family. Panasonic is such a big company, with many stockholders, and the stockholders would be very mad if they spent their money sponsoring family just because it is family."
In fact, Panasonic had a racing program several years beforRTC Matsushita came on the scene. But that doesn't make family acceptance any easier.
"My father, he is honest in his thinking," said Hiro, 30. "He is very good businessman and he still wants me to go back to Panasonic. But now, I am doing pretty good. I'm in the biggest race in the world. If I was not showing progress, he would say stop now and stop wasting money.
"Right now, I think he might be a little confused, because hwants me to stop, but he also wants me to continue. I think, maybe, he might watch Indy on TV."