School trip to Nismo

Hop on the big red Keikyu train at Shinagawa station in Tokyo and head south away from the skyscrapers. Get off about fifteen minutes and six or so stops later, cross under the bridge as the trains roar along overhead, and start making your way along the deserted pavement beside the busy expressway. Use the grubby footbridge to cross the road, walk another hundred metres or thereabouts further down the street, and stop outside the empty-looking industrial office unit. If you reach the building site you’ve gone too far.

What you have actually just reached is one of the most important buildings in the last twenty years of world motor sport and performance car engineering. A building that changed the game in endurance racing, fuelled one of the most competitive arms races in sports car history and gave some of the European performance car makers a huge fright. What you are facing is the head office of Nismo, the official performance division of Japanese car giant Nissan. And there’s a dirty Primera parked out front.

Out front at Nismo

The Nismo head office isn’t completely nondescript, though. The big red ‘NISMO’ lettering is visible from the elevated train tracks, and an R390 – still in full race livery and bearing the scars of twenty-four hours pounding round the Sarthe circuit – sits parked up parallel to the full-length glass section of the ground floor wall. There’s an A4 information sheet in Japanese about the ‘390 Blu-Tacced to the window, but that’s all. Not even any lamps to illuminate the multi-million pound machine in the fading light. The room behind it contains some chairs and tables laid out in a classroom format with a projector screen at the front. Apart from a few photos of race-winning cars spaced out around the room, the walls are bare.

The place looks so closed that I’m already preparing for the jolt that will come when my hand pulls on the locked door. I can see a couple of bone-dry umbrellas in the stand just inside the door that could have been there for weeks. To my surprise, the door opens and I enter the foyer. No lights are on. A plastic chain cordons off the staircase and narrow passageway to the left that lead to the room with the R390. One would need a good zoom lens and a back capable of stooping low to get any kind of good photo of the Le Mans machine from here. Ahead of me is a panel onto which are screwed and stuck various entry plates for famous races – Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, Suzuka – and a low wood and glass cabinet with a few small trophies in it. A laminated A4 sheet lying on top of the cabinet describes an employee’s success in a recent clubman race at Fuji Speedway.

Not a soul is to be seen. The only sign of recent activity in the place is the large Christmas wreath that has bizarrely been bolted to the wall next to the race plates. Some light streams out through the only connecting door onwards, but it is partially blocked by a large red tool-chest and a stack of wheels. It looks like the kind of place one would get shouted at if one entered.

Note the Christmas wreath

Wondering if there’s anything else here before I head back to the station, I head back outside, make a left turn and wander down the side street that the Nismo building borders. This is where things get interesting. The industrial unit stretches backwards, the full-length glass windows on the ground floor blocked by tool chests, stacks of tyres and exhaust pipes. Behind is a semi-covered car park, empty save for a few performance Nissans – a stunning white R32 GT-R, a fierce Stagea estate and a tuned-to-the-hilt Micra. There’s another, bigger garage behind the front building, some other garages that look like they might belong to someone else on the right, and, just in front of a gate at the end of the road, a red-and-black Nismo Performance Racing team truck. Interesting. Very interesting. It’s clearly a place of some activity, but there’s none of the showboating or fanfare one might find at Maranello.

Through the exhaust pipes to my left, I can see a small illuminated shop. There appear to be a few magazine racks and a couple of cases containing parts and equipment. And at the end of the room, a man is sitting operating a computer. It has to be worth a shot.

I don’t want to seem like some kind of crazy foreigner who’s jumped on the train and come to an uninspiring part of town just to snoop at some pimped Japanese cars – even though that’s exactly what I am – so I take a minute to think through a few questions to ask first, all of which are to a lesser or greater extent actually genuine. Would like to buy an old Skyline but they’re very rare in the UK, what’s the parts situation like in Japan? Started a new job and wanting a performance Nissan, what would you recommend in terms of running costs? Interested in a Fairlady, but not sure if my wife’s feet will reach the pedals.

I head back round the front and walk into the shop/office. The guy at glances up from his computer, welcomes me with the bog-standard ‘irrashaimasse-e’, then looks straight back down at his computer. The front office, if it can be called that, consists of a wall of parts, a couple of magazine racks, a small display of merchandise and a television showing Nissans being driven quickly from a variety of angles. Crucially, however, one wall has a large window cut into it, through which the garage floor can be viewed. This is essentially like the room at Kwik-Fit that you can sit in and watch while the mechanics set about your car.

No caption necessary

Not even South Kensington Kwik-Fit would have cars like this in it, though. There’s an R34 Skyline GT-R closest to me having the brakes done, a 370Z behind it with a laptop plugged into it, a 300ZX cabriolet with a tarpaulin stretched out across the front, and an R34 Z-Tune up on the ramps. Oh, and there’s also a brand-new caged track GT-R being tended to in the background. If I wake up tomorrow and find every other person on the planet has disappeared, I’m coming straight here.

There’s only so much flicking through of magazines and looking intently at catalogues I can do, though, and I’m conscious of the fact that the vehicles being worked on that I’m gawping at are customers’ cars. If I were a garage owner, I wouldn’t be too hot on folk coming in and peering at my business, and if I owned a tooled-up Nissan I’m not sure I’d want folk looking at it unsupervised either. Maybe I’m just too conscientious and not ballsy enough, but I decide it’s only polite to ask a few questions and attempt to buy something. Once the guy at the computer has finished booking someone in for a service over the phone, I saunter over, explain I’m from the UK and am looking to buy a 350Z (both half-truths – I’m from Scotland and saving up), but am not sure if my 147cm wife’s feet will reach the pedals. Much polite laughter from the guy behind the counter ensues, and he admits he doesn’t know the answer – but suspects seeing over the steering wheel will be a bigger problem. Then comes the most convoluted keyring-buying process ever, involving the extraction of a massive ring binder detailing the price of every Nismo product from cylinder heads to coffee cup coasters, five minutes of rifling through the Snap-On tool chests, and finally the fishing out of a small oily polyurethane bag containing a hunk of embossed leather. It’s a souvenir of my trip to HQ that can hang on my PSP – because, let’s face it, that’s as close as I’m going to get to driving a Nissan fast any time soon.

Back outside I take another look at the side-street the Nismo building backs on to, curious to see if there’s anything I missed first time round. The white R32 is still there, as is the souped-up Micra, but what I didn’t see before are the paintings on the doors of the garage units to my right. On each door is the outline of a different Nissan Le Mans car, from the R89C through to the production class cars of more recent times. My eagerness to take a closer look is tempered by the glances from employees walking back and forth between units, who after decades and decades are probably wise to the antics of gaijin wandering around the perimeter trying to look innocently lost.

R390

It’s at this point that the purpose of the famous vending machine I read about becomes apparent. I’d done a quick Google of the Nismo HQ before making my way out here – just, you know, to find out if there was anything worth seeing and if visitors were allowed in – and kept seeing references to a vending machine on various message boards and listservs. I only skimmed the posts at the time, but the gist of them seemed to be that you should wander down to this vending machine, buy something, and then make your way back round to the front of the building. Now I see why. The time it takes me to fumble about for change in my wallet, choose a beverage from the thirty or so on offer, wait for it to be dispensed, collect my change and open my can is all time that gives me a few seconds in-between tasks to take in what’s going on backstage at Nismo. The back warehouse across the road from me is where the real tuning and testing goes down. The subtly modified motors lurking in the dark corners of the two-storey parking lot are all employees’ cars. The HGV park just in front of the gates is where the race team trucks live. And only two metres behind me, only a steel garage door away, are Nismo’s most ferocious race cars. No sooner has this all sunk in than it’s time to move on and head back to the station.

You won’t find any showboating should you choose to head out to Nismo Central. There is nothing to make Joe Public feel he or she should be in awe of what goes on inside. It’s a living, working environment, a space where you really have to know what you’re looking for to see anything out of the ordinary. Above all, it’s a place where visitors are tolerated, not welcomed, and it’s all the more memorable for it.

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