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Indy car driver P.J. Chesson, who signed autographs for military members and their families, mugs for the camera in the Enlisted Club at Yokota Air Base, Japan, on Tuesday.
Indy car driver P.J. Chesson, who signed autographs for military members and their families, mugs for the camera in the Enlisted Club at Yokota Air Base, Japan, on Tuesday. (Christopher B. Stoltz / S&S)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Indy Racing League Series rookie P.J. Chesson says he might’ve been a fighter pilot if he hadn’t first been lured by the thrill of going 215 mph on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway brickyard.

“It’s definitely safer in a race car. I don’t know anything about flying a fighter,” Chesson said. “But I always told people if I wasn’t a race car driver, I’d be a fighter pilot.

“You gotta have something to tell girls in the bars. I’d probably have to stick with the (Indy) 500 as being safer. The last thing I need is another guy shooting at me. At least Dan Wheldon doesn’t have a gun mounted on his race car.”

Both Chesson and Wheldon are in the field for Saturday’s Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi, the year’s third race. Driver of the No. 91 blue and white Honda Dallara, Chesson finished 17th in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and 12th in the season-opening Toyota Indy 300.

In Japan for the first time, the tattoo-sporting Chesson signed autographs and met lunchgoers at the Yokota Enlisted Club on Tuesday. Earlier, he was a guest on Eagle 810’s Retro Café and also dropped by the Samurai Café Dining Facility to mingle with troops.

Chesson, a member of the new Hemelgarn team co-owned by NBA star Carmelo Anthony, is expected to battle Marco Andretti and Jeff Simmons for 2006 rookie of the year honors.

Simmons will debut this weekend in the Rahal Letterman No. 17 car, the same one driven by Paul Dana, who was killed in a crash before the March 26 season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Chesson said Dana’s failure to react during seven seconds of visual and audible warnings about a damaged car on the track remains a mystery.

“At the speeds we travel, when a car is standing still or you hit something that’s not moving, it’s gonna hurt and leave a mark,” Chesson said. “We’re very safety-conscious, but some things can’t be helped. No one knows why he didn’t stop.

“We lost a driver, friend, one of the members of our family. We dealt with it and moved on. The series goes on.”

Dana’s death hasn’t changed his approach to racing, Chesson said.

“I actually feel really comfortable in a race car,” he added. “When I’m in there, it’s my little space capsule — where I feel safe and get my sense of self. … I know I’m making the right decisions because I’m doing what I love to do.”

Tuesday marked Chesson’s first visit to an overseas Air Force base.

“I want to go to Iraq,” he said. “I love coming out here to show some love to the troops and express our appreciation for everything they do for us. It’s a pleasure and honor to be here. This is a good day for P.J.”

Following the Indy Japan 300, he’ll start looking for another good day at the May 28 Indianapolis 500. But winning probably isn’t in the cards this year, he conceded.

“It’s gonna take a miracle, but I believe in miracles,” Chesson said. “Seriously, I’ll just try to go out and get a solid finish there. Finish all 500 miles and keep our nose clean. If I can be the highest-finishing rookie, I’ll be happy. That’s our goal.”

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