James Hunt's victory in the US Grand Prix ensured the title race would be decided at Fuji. Coming into the weekend eight points adrift of Niki Lauda, he had to record a better finish to keep his championship challenge alive, and by the end of the weekend the gap was down to three points despite Lauda's distant third-place finish.
The Formula One roadshow hardly had time to draw breath with the race only a week after Hunt's win in Canada, and the media presence reflected the closeness of the run-in. In an interview in the Daily Express, Hunt said he "desperately" wanted to win the championship because "I don't want to be killed racing and want to retire voluntarily when the time comes … and to do that I have to survive and surviving in motor racing means not exposing yourself to risks for too long." It was an insight into the thinking that led to his quitting less than three years later.
The practice days were wet making conditions difficult, so much so that few ventured out on the first or the third, and only the times set on the Friday were counted. Despite that, there was only one mishap when a compressed air bottle flew off Hunt's McLaren and badly damaged Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell.
Snow fell overnight at the Glen, but fortunately that gave way to cold sunshine, although the start was delayed. More than 100,000 spectators flocked to the track.
Hunt was on pole, but yet again he did not convert that into an early lead as Jody Scheckter, in his penultimate race for Tyrrell before joining Wolf, moved ahead with Hunt close behind. Lauda moved into third, becoming increasingly isolated as he moved clear of the rest of the field, but was powerless to prevent the leaders leaving him behind.
Depailler's bad weekend finished when he spun off on the eighth lap, and Ronnie Peterson's March proved once more to be mechanically fallible a lap later. The only serious accident came when Jacky Ickx, who had impressed in the very ordinary Enisgn, broke his ankles in a crash - despite his injuries he managed to pull himself clear of the car as it caught fire.
Although Scheckter opened a three-second lead over Hunt, that was wiped out on the 35th of the 59 laps when he got stuck behind tail-enders and Hunt seized the chance to pass.
Six laps later and Scheckter was back ahead, only for Hunt to return to the front after another four laps. Scheckter was unable to do anything and by the finish Hunt, whose McLaren had more pace with less fuel on board, had battled into an eight-second lead.
The lonesome Lauda, meanwhile, had to fight oversteer to retain third from a fast-finishing Jochen Mass, who cut what had been a sizeable gap to a little over a tenth of a second by the end. If anyone doubted Lauda's courage, it became evident when he removed his helmet at the end to reveal a balaclava soaked in blood from his Nürburgring injuries.
"I could win the title but it's going to be a close thing," Hunt told reporters. "The encouraging thing is my car is going well and I felt the time is right for me."