From the archive: rallying in Japan

This is an article I wrote for the Ecosse Challenge site after my first visit to a Japanese rally, back in May 2009. This was the visit that was to set in motion the wheels that eventually led to the K’s World Rally Team coming to Scotland…It has now disappeared from the Challenge site so I re-post it here for posterity – and to illustrate how rallying is essentially the same the world over! 

“Car 1, presumably the winner of last year’s event or at least the leader of some championship standings, was a fairly nondescript blue N11 Impreza. A pair of Evo 9s were flagged off into the stage at one minute intervals, whilst the marshals struggled to keep their checksheets dry and their hands warm under the relentless heavy rain. Somewhere in the middle of the field, an enthusiastic young driver in a battered older car took off into the stage with considerable gusto. A few minutes later a dull splash could be heard from the start line as said car ended up in a river”.

I wrote the previous paragraph in my notebook during a quiet moment in the rally I was at at the weekend. You could have carried on reading page after page after page of my notes, and the conclusion you would reach would be that I was at the Granite City Rally up in Aberdeen. Only when you got halfway through and noticed the lack of Mark 2 Escorts and the strange appearance of Toyota Corolla Levins in their place would you realise something was up.

A look at my notes on the service park would confirm your suspicions that this isn’t quite how things usually are. The fact that the drivers and co-drivers don’t leap out of their cars and race to the burger van at service would be the first big clue. Instead little plastic boxes filled with steaming rice and deep-fried pork are produced from inside the service van, and the competitors sustain themselves not with thick brown coffee, but with small bottles of green tea. You might also notice that the cars are brought to the rally not in trailers, but on the back of flat-bed lorries. And whilst the cars themselves might look familiar, the rear windows are emblazoned with names such as Aoki, Tajima and Mori instead of Girvan, Horne and Bogie. Yes, this is rallying in Japan. It’s the same as rallying in Scotland – almost.

Start of SS1

Start of SS1

“Japanese rallying is still developing so we still have to follow the international model,” explains FRC Mountain Cross Rally Nagano Clerk of the Course Kazuya ‘Bear’ Suzuki as he hands out bento boxes and bottled water to the volunteer marshals. “Although we make the best cars, the best parts, for example suspension, have to be brought in from abroad. But at the same time Japanese rallying technology is getting better and as that happens we can develop our own style more.” The job of the Japanese Clerk of the Course is exactly like being the head honcho on any other rally. Suzuki-san seems to have a mobile phone permanently welded to his ear for most of the weekend, controlling his team of stage commanders and course cars whilst handing out numbers to competitors and answering navigators’ queries about time cards.

When he’s not on the phone, Suzuki-san is invariably on the move as opening car in an old Pajero filled to the brim with control boards, cones and radio equipment. The Nagano Mountain Cross event is staffed entirely by tirelessly enthusiastic volunteers like Suzuki-san, many of whom had spent several previous weekends driving up to the rally area after their work on Friday to carry out recces, organise equipment and drop PR notices through peoples’ letterboxes. Just like in Scotland, it seems that Japanese rallying is sustained by the energy and motivation of a few dedicated souls who do it for love and not for the money.

Whilst the work behind the scenes and many of the cars are familiar to me, the stages themselves are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The Nagano event, as with most in Japan, is a tarmac rally. The roads are narrow and twisty, winding round hillsides with concrete banking supporting the hillside. There are often no barriers on the outside of the lower roads, with a six or seven foot drop down into a rice field or – as one competitor found out to their chagrin – a river. Crews recce the stages in the morning and then take to the roads in anger around midday, finishing around nine at night. I am helping out at the start line for stages one and two, a narrow four kilometre section of tar that follows a river upstream. Car one can be heard before it is seen, the big brakes squealing after being warmed up on the road section. It’s an N11 Impreza prepared by former PWRC Champion Toshi Arai’s company, but today it will be one of Arai-san’s employees that’s taking the car for a spin and rather than being run by a massive lorry with corporate hospitality facilities and a chase car, three guys are servicing it out the back of an old Toyota people carrier.

Off into the gloom

Off into the gloom

The four-wheel drive stuff is standard Group N fare, with newish Imprezas and Evos of every vintage from three through nine. The two-wheel drives have a wee bit more variety, or at least they seemed different to me because there were no non-Japanese cars out and hence no Escorts or 205s. Civics and Integras are in plentiful supply, rasping off up the side of the river with their VTEC engines at full chat. Oddly enough I only see one AE86 Corolla (maybe because they’re all in Ireland or have been drifted to death) but there are some newer rear-wheel drive ‘Levin’ Corollas that look a heck of a lot of fun to drive as they skid round any bit of tarmac with even a hint of a bend in it. I thought all my stereotypes had been blown out the window for good, but then two giggling girls whistle up to the start in a big old RX-7 in a scene that could have come straight out of a comic book or animated movie. Some tiny Honda and Toyota city cars round out the entry of 45 cars, which I’m told is pretty standard for a Japanese event.

In the evening we head up to the Jizo Pass for the last two stages of the rally, quite probably the most exciting stage I have ever seen. The stage start is on a bridge at the base of a massive waterfall with steep forested valley sides either side of it. Competitors would be well advised to remember that waterfall because they will see it again, forty seconds and three kilometres later when they cross the river at the top of it after tackling several crazily steep hairpins and a sinuous uphill section with mean drainage ditches on the inside and sheer drops on the outside. After reaching the summit of the steep hill climb the road zigzags along the edge of the valley, periodically affording views over the villages and rice fields three hundred metres below when the trees part, before dropping downhill as steeply as it rose to the stage finish. Various small shrines are placed along the roadside – I didn’t ask what would happen if a car went straight on at a corner and wiped out a Shinto shrine.

A Mitsubishi traverses the Jizo Pass by night

A Mitsubishi traverses the Jizo Pass by night

By the time the Jizo stage goes live, darkness has descended owing to a delay in proceedings while a Civic was extracted from a river. I’ve tagged along with Harada-san, a friendly club member who is doing radio car halfway through the stage in a tiny green Daihatsu, and our radio point is on the outside of a sharp downhill right-hander up against the crash barrier that is supposed to stop cars from plunging into the abyss. Owing to the fact we are in essence on top of a mountain, there are no spectators, no lights and no noise apart from the occasional chatter of the radio. Using my phone as a torch, I stumble out of the car into the drizzle and step into a covered sightseeing platform that offers splendid views of the scenery by day. Conveniently, by night it provides a handy, if slightly dangerous grandstand for rally viewing (I had visions of the whole thing being rocked from its moorings by an errant rally car and collapsing into the darkness with me inside).

A dim flash impresses upon the darkness, followed shortly by a brighter flash and a steady yellowy-white glow. After what seems like an eternity of waiting, a faint whining becomes audible, punctuated by the gentle hissing of a restricted turbo and the low burble of a boxer engine. The noise dips and six bright lights flash into view, weaving from left to right in my field of vision. Each time the lights move the car chirps like a grumpy rattlesnake and the quiet burbling from the engine rises. Before I know it the Arai Impreza pounces on the tight right-hander, sliding across the damp tarmac and growling away into the darkness. How I love night rallying.

Although the N11 could have come straight out of Mull or the Jim Clark, what I saw twenty minutes later certainly couldn’t. All cars competing in the national championship run at the head of the field and conform strictly to FIA Group N specification. Behind them, though, it’s free range, and the wind carries one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard towards me. I don’t know if Darth Vader likes coffee, but if he ever goes into Starbucks for a takeaway the noise at the counter while he waits for his grande cappuccino to be frothed up might sound a bit like this. A big ball of light is coming towards me very, very fast and appears to be sucking up everything in and under its path. It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop and out of fear I sprint out of my wee wooden hut and take refuge in some stern looking trees. When I turn round again, what transpires to be an Evo 9 with the rear sitting about two millimetres off the ground has amazingly managed to hold onto the wet tar and is heading off to terrorise other unwitting foreign spectators further along the stage. Later I find out that the regional championship is open, and as far as I can gather cars are allowed to run without restrictors and do goodness knows what else to their motors.

Collateral damage

Collateral damage

Alas, brute force is no substitute for skill and the rally is won outright by a standard GC8 Impreza seeded at number thirteen. Even the prizegiving reminds me of being back in Scotland, held in the canteen of the Kisofukushima Ski Resort while the crews enjoy a beer and a buffet. Having said that, the prizes the top three in each class get are something to behold, receiving a massive bottle of sake and a medal from the rally itself, t-shirts, hats and towels from one sponsor, brake pads from another sponsor and a bag of edible goodies from somewhere else. The awards are dished out by four smartly-dressed, bubbly young ladies with incredibly high-pitched voices who pose either side of the drivers and make peace signs while the photos are taken. Come on, they have to be allowed some stereotypes, don’t they?

A massive party ensues back at the hotel, but everyone – officials, crews and service personnel – is up at the crack of dawn to tidy up and pack away the equipment at HQ. It would be easy to think that a country that has given the world so much in terms of motorsport technology would be running events that are totally different and organised with ruthless business-like precision, but there is a real sense of camaraderie and everyone mucks in to make the rally happen. Nothing sums the weekend up better than the foreword Suzuki-san has added to the final instructions. “This is not a good time for the motor industry in the world or for motorsport,” it reads. “But I always want to be able to go rallying no matter what.” The spirit of clubman motorsport is truly alive the world over.

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1 Comment

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One response to “From the archive: rallying in Japan

  1. Iain Shirlaw

    Hi Leslie,

    Thanks for that – another nice article.

    It remind me – what will the team eat during the rally? Scottish fare?

    Green tea?

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