Refocussing: baptism of fire for Murase on USA rally debut

A few weeks back I wrote about Futoshi Murase, the Japanese rally driver who wowed us in Scotland a few years back with his escapades in a Honda Civic Type R. In essence, after storming to the Japanese 2WD rally title then making a fleeting appearance in a Mitsubishi Lancer, his day job took him to the USA and he had to give the rallying a rest.

Upon discovering that Futoshi had linked to one of my articles on his own personal blog, I got back in touch with him just after the New Year to say thanks for directing a sizeable amount of web traffic my way. It was a timely email, for Futoshi had got itchy feet after a couple of years in the States and was in the process of finalising the purchase of a Ford Focus rally car. The car would allow him to take part in some rounds of the Rally America series, the first such outing being the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, held in Missouri at the end of February.

Over the next few weeks, I followed Futoshi’s excellent blog with interest as he prepared for the rally. I saw the bright yellow Focus being fettled in the garage of his Indianapolis home, bits of racing kit arriving through the post, and books of pacenotes being studied in preparation for what would be Murase’s first competitive outing in some two and a half years. It was a gargantuan effort. Keeping him right on the stages would be Kieran Wright, a very experienced local co-driver who also happened to be the car’s previous owner. And Hiromi Takeda, whose RS Takeda outfit ran Futoshi’s Civics and Lancer back in Japan, was coming over to America specially for the event.

Now, it’s often said that rallying is an international language, and I think that rings true – up to a point. It is definitely the case that no matter where you go rallying in the world, you will be sure to find events staffed by friendly, enthusiastic volunteers, and to meet people with the same passion for going fast between two points. But at the same time, there are also lots and lots of little local differences. For example, whereas most Japanese rallies are contested on tarmac, the rallies in the States tend to be forest gravel roads more akin to the kind we find in the UK. The cars used can be different, too. Looking through the post-event photos from the 100 Acre Wood, I saw some vehicles that even I’d never heard of – what on earth is a Scion xD when it’s at home?  And of course there can be language and cultural challenges that can add that little bit of extra pressure when you’re trying to get in the right frame of mind for going out on the stages.

Keeping the Focus running in tough conditions (c) Futoshi Murase

Keeping the Focus running in tough conditions (c) Futoshi Murase

All of which makes it remarkable that, after a two and a half-year absence from competitive driving, Futoshi Murase chose to make his return in a car he’d never driven in anger before, with a co-driver he’d never sat alongside before, in a completely different continent to the one he’d rallied on previously. Oh, and just to make things a bit more complicated for good measure, inclement weather had turned the gravel stages into a mixture of snow and ice. To say the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood was the same as a Japanese championship event on account of the fact that it was still a rally would be a bit like saying a banana is the same as a grape because it is still a piece of fruit.

Come rally weekend, I eagerly followed the results from my computer. The rally organisers did a terrific job of providing live timing and weather updates through their website. Takeda-san too did sterling work with his video camera, filming short interviews and bulletins during the service halts (and also keeping the world up to date with the new American foods he was trying out). And despite the myriad challenges he was facing adapting to his new rally environment, Futoshi managed to write a detailed update at the end of each day and post it to his blog, complete with photos.

There are few things more agonising than watching people you are rooting for in a rally from your computer. You sit there on the live results page, periodically hitting ‘refresh’ and living in constant fear that a stage maximum time or ‘retired’ will come up. My chest got that horrible tight feeling when I logged on slightly late on the first day of the 100 Acre Wood to find that the number 39 car of Murase/Wright already had couple of slow stage times and a penalty. Accident? Mechanical problem? I’d seen both of these things happen to good friends in the past, so was a little worried.

Thankfully there was already a video comment up on Takeda-san’s blog, in which Futoshi explained he’d picked up a puncture on the very first stage. Talk about a baptism of fire! Following the puncture, the crew had to limp through the first few tests with a limited number of tyres, shedding time in the process. But crucially they were still running, which meant Futoshi was able to further his aim of treating the rally as a learning and training exercise. And learn he did on the next loop of stages which were run in the dark. Now, icy conditions at night are perhaps not an optimal time to get used to having pace notes read to you in a foreign language, but that’s exactly what the former Japanese 2WD champion had to do as he continued to get to grips with both the icy conditions and the new car.

Mere mortals would keel over with exhaustion after three such stages, however Futoshi still had the energy to have his tea, give a video interview and file a rally report online before going to get rest for the next day.

Certainly a thorough test of a new car and crew's abilities...

Certainly a thorough test of a new car and crew’s abilities… (c) Futoshi Murase

The second day proved to be just as tough, with a slight improvement in weather conditions adding some wet gravel into the mix of snow and ice covering the stages. The yellow Focus sustained another puncture on the ninth test, and then a slight off-road excursion two stages later damaged the underbody – but thankfully nothing more serious – on the car. All of this time I was anchored to my computer, hanging on to the short updates Takeda-san was posting on his computer and breathing a sigh of relief every time I saw a post entitled ‘Service In’ or ‘Still Running’.

There was no doubt, though, that this was what a British crew would call a ‘tough rally’. An engine gremlin limited the 2001 RS Takeda/USUK Rally Focus to 5,500rpm through the thirteenth stage – and although the fault was cleared at service there was very nearly one final sting in the tail for the Japanese-American crew. With the Ford changed over to gravel tyres in deference to the warming weather, the crew flew over a crest on the last night stage to find the braking point for the subsequent right-hand bend frozen solid, with the car’s brakes locking up on sight. If this had been a Scottish rally, I suspect this is the point at which Futoshi would have learned the phrase ‘squeaky bum time’. Thankfully crew and car survived the moment, but a note was made to adjust the Focus’ brakes before the next outing.

In spite of all of this, Murase achieved his goal of reaching the rally finish. Futoshi and Kieran returned to rally HQ in Salem nineteenth overall and seventh in class, the event incidentally being won outright by Britons David Higgins and Craig Drew in a Subaru. This wasn’t about the result, though – it was about getting to the end, garnering experience in an unfamiliar environment and above all else just getting back into the swing of driving after a lengthy absence. Futoshi reflected that he’d learned an awful lot from his experience, among them getting used to English language pacenotes delivered by a native speaker, learning the idiosyncrasies of the Focus compared to the high-revving Civic, and familiarizing himself with the processes and practices of American rallying.

Futoshi Murase’s exploits hadn’t gone unnoticed back home. Yahoo! News – which I check daily to learn new Japanese words – had picked up on the story and were running it in preference to stories about Takuma Sato’s preparations for the upcoming season. Many of the Japanese rallying sites were running the story as well, showing photos of the highly distinctive Focus charging forwards over the ice. And locally, the presence of an overseas driver had some American rally fans on the hunt for autographs.

By his own admission, the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood was one of the toughest rallies the RS Takeda pilot had completed in his career. A new car, a new co-driver, a new surface and a new country. But from the numerous Tweets and blog posts Murase-san and Takeda-san composed over the course of the event, the most heartening thing of all seemed to be that this Japanese driver was supported every step of the way by a very enthusiastic and encouraging US rally community. Rallying might not have the high public profule of football or F1, but no matter where in the world they go, its participants can be guaranteed a warm welcome. Just like the slogan on the back of the RSTakeda USA Focus says, the rallying world is generally pretty good at being excellent to each other.

(video (c) RSTakeda)

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