The spirit of rallying…in Nagano

If you’re ever bored of an afternoon, go onto Google Maps, focus on the middle of Japan and type ‘Ina City’ into the search box. Look to the mountains to the east of the city, home in a bit more and cast your eye around. It might take you a while, but after a bit of searching you’ll see what looks like a sea of white surrounding two barns in the middle of the forest. Zoom in even further and you’ll see a platoon of Mitsubishi Lancers scattered around the buildings. What you’ve found is K’s Rally Factory, a small preparation outfit that embodies everything that’s great about rally driving.

It’s pitch black on a Saturday night when I arrive at the workshops, but light is flooding out through the open garage doors of both buildings. I can see various bumpers and bonnets peering out from inside the sheds, and the eerie white glow from two well-stocked vending machines propped up against the main office picks out the shapes of an even greater range of cars outside. As my eyes adjust to the dark, it becomes apparent that there are vehicles absolutely everywhere.

A K's-prepared Lancer on the afternoon's rally

It’s impossible to describe the atmosphere of K’s Rally Factory without sounding stereotypical. Boiler-suited workers march back and forth between the buildings at regular intervals, some of them brandishing tools, others rolling wheels and a few manhandling larger body parts. A pair of feet stick out from under a Lancer Evo 9. Someone is bent double over the engine bay of an Integra Type-R. Three men wrestle with the front bumper of a Suzuki Ignis. This is one of the most appropriately named places I’ve ever been to, an outfit where rally cars of all shapes and sizes are churned out around the clock.

K’s Rally Factory is the business of Kazuya Suzuki, who I met last year on my first visit to a Japanese rally. The rallying community in Nagano Prefecture is small, close-knit and supportive, and it seems that Suzuki-san and his staff keep practically the entire region rallying. “He is one of my customers,” or “I look after his car” were phrases I heard time and time again as we watched the cars zoom past on a stage earlier in the afternoon, and after they finish their work tonight the staff will stay up to wait for a client coming back from a rally just up the road. Glancing at the calendar on the wall, I can see there’s barely a weekend where one of the cars from the K’s stable won’t be out competing.

A number of machines are being worked on, but most efforts and attention seem to be focused on the Suzuki Ignis I saw three men wrestling with the bumper on when I arrived. “This car is being shipped to New Zealand to do the Rally of Whangarei in July,” Suzuki-san explains. “We don’t have long to get it finished, so everyone is working as hard as they can to get it ready.” It really is all hands to the pump with the Ignis, which is being built to international specification. As two mechanics furiously crank their spanners under the bonnet to bolt the radiator back in, a young man wearing a dark blue set of overalls comes roaring into the compound in a black Ignis, skids to a stop outside and immediately proceeds to rip the front lights out. “Donor car,” he tells me in English as he trots into the workshop with the headlamps. No sooner are the lights screwed into the front of the car than an older member of staff opens the driver’s side door and starts prodding the switches to make sure the electrics work correctly. In the space of about fifteen minutes, the entire front of the car is reassembled.

PWRC, Group N and Clubman Evos

Over in the second building, meanwhile, work on the Honda Integra is progressing slowly. The car’s owner squats on the floor, meticulously unwrapping new Öhlins suspension components and arranging them methodically on top of a flattened-out cardboard box. The unmistakable red oblong of a VTEC head sits on an old towel by the front of the car, and a couple of tea towels cover the bits of the engine that are left in the car. To his left are a trio of Lancers arranged in near-chronological order, with a pristine white Evo 8 on axle stands on the left, a stickered-up Evo 9 in the middle and a lurid green original Evolution on the right. “First generation Lancer, the original!” announces a jolly club member with a cigarette in one hand and a torque wrench in the other. “This one is very fast. Very fast!”

“And this one was first used by Fumio Nutahara,” he continues, gesturing to the dusty white Evo 8 with a certain hushed reverance. “This driver’s seat, this steering wheel, this gear lever, all used by Nutahara.” Only a handful of Japanese drivers have enjoyed high-level success on stage rallies in recent years, so I can kind of understand the respect the guys show to the ex-PWRC car.

The second, less frantic, garage is also home to an assortment of Toyotas. A chunky Starlet Turbo and rear-wheel drive Toyota Corolla Levin are parked up with new tyres and look ready to go, while the freshly painted shell of a second Levin patiently waits for somebody to find the time to come over and bolt on the various parts that are lying around it in unopened cardboard boxes. The chap who gave me the Lancer history lesson recoils in disbelief when I tell him the Starlets are hugely popular among the fast-and-modified crowd in the UK, then I in turn am equally stunned to learn that the Levins – possibly the most boring-looking cars I’ve ever seen – are hugely popular among Japanese rally drivers because they provide a cheap way of going sideways. If I had some cash sloshing about, I would import some of these into the UK and keep them stored until such a time as we finally run out of Mark 2 Escorts. Right at the back of the barn, tarpaulin half-draped over it, a bent and buckled Lancer Evo 5 good for parts alone stands as a stark reminder that things don’t always go right in rallying.

As the night draws in, the temperature drops fast – we are, after all, in the Japanese Alps. Still, I can’t resist having a wander round outside, where old Lancer after old Lancer after old Lancer awaits either being turned into a rally car or being savaged for spare parts. A Yaris – or Vitz as it’s known in Japan – that’s walloped a tree fairly hard head-on is also on top of a trailer in the queue to be fixed, but thankfully for whoever crashed it there’s another perfectly good stage-prepared example boxed in by an old Corolla, a service truck and a pair of GC8 Imprezas. The command and management cars – a big comfy Nissan people carrier and a Yaris Verso – complete the fleet. I’m pretty sure even M-Sport don’t have this many vehicles sitting in their workshops at one time.

Despite their reputation as relentless workers, even the Japanese need a break from time to time – and their rally service crews are no exception in this regard. Six or seven director’s chairs are arranged round a paraffin heater in a semi-circle, affording a fine view of the Ignis kit car and the Group N Evo 10 next to it. On top of the heater is a big ashtray that is constantly being restocked with smouldering cigarette butts as the various employees and helpers take a rest from the business of rally-car building. A generous bowl of sweets and snacks and a battalion of coffee cups nearby serve as further reminders that rallying is alarmingly similar no matter what country you’re in.

As I take photos of the crew at work on the Ignis kit car, Fujiki-san comes over to talk to me. She’s one of the younger members of staff, and having studied English at university is a massive asset when the team goes to contest events abroad. She’s also full of energy, jumping, stretching and stepping back and forth as she tells me about the team and the local motor club in perfect English. “Come over here and introduce yourself to Leslie – in English” she calls to an equally energetic chap who has progressed from sorting the Ignis’ bumper to fiddling with his own Impreza outside.

Izuno-san and colleague with the newly-built Ignis

“But Leslie can understand Japanese so there’s no point in me trying to speak English,” replies the young mechanic, breaking out into a broad, cheeky grin as he wipes oil from his face. Every service crew the world over has a guy like this. Despite being a highly skilled mechanic and by all accounts a terrific driver, it’s reassuring to see that Izuno-san – as the young gentleman is called – is still just a nineteen year-old boy desperate to get out on the stages when funds permit.

It’s about this time that Suzuki-san emerges from his office in a set of overalls to help his employees in a late-night push to get this phase of the Ignis build done. He signals for me to follow him through to the rear section of one of the garages – the one the two current ‘works in progress’ are situated in – where a spectacular array of parts are stored. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. One wall is stacked from the floor to the ceiling with shelf after shelf of green Tein springs and shocks, and another has shelves for the suits, helmets and in-car gubbins of all factory’s customers. Hundreds of wheels are arranged in one corner in an L-shape, with a matching barricade of tyres separating the suspension and wheels from a swarm of engines, gearboxes and driveshafts. Wings, bonnets, doors and bumpers hang from the ceiling, turning gently in the breeze that comes in through the big open door. As I gingerly step between two engines and try to avoid knocking over a line of competition seats that are arranged like dominoes, I feel a sharp tug on my arm. I’ve got myself caught on something on the way out. A fishing rod. I’m sure these aren’t allowed under Group N specification, but there are three of them in any case.

The night’s work on the cars slowly draws to an end, a long camping table is set up next to the heater and alcohol and savoury snacks are brought out. The topics of conversation may be in a different language, but they are reassuringly familiar for me. Debating which tyre maker gives the best free hats. Winding up a member of the car club when he asks what ‘the third way’ is in three-way Proflex suspension. Recounting what happened last time some of the service crew had to sleep together in the people carrier at a rally. What really hits home to me is when Fujiki-san tells me that most of the folk that were at the garage this evening aren’t actually employed by K’s Rally Factory. They’re members of the local car club, Friends Rally Club, who have been coming up after work to help get the Suzuki Ignis ready on time for the rally in New Zealand. I remember Jordan Black’s multi-coloured 205 appearing at the Merrick Forest Stages just one month after a massive roll and, just as I did when I went to a rally in Nagano twelve months ago, take a moment to think that despite twelve time zones, a different language and different types of car, the spirit of grassroots rallying is the same in the heart of Japan as it is in Scotland.

*For a flavour of Japanese stages, have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf0LffNasLk where you can see Hibino-san, a K’s customer, tackle the characteristically tight and twisty Nagano roads

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