It takes a special kind of person to be a team principal in motor sport. As many a driver will attest, the highs are sky high and the lows are, well, rather low. For every time the service truck comes home with two shiny trophies in the glovebox, on at least three occasions it will return with nothing more than a wrecked or broken car in tow – and it’s the team principal who has the ultimate responsibility of getting everyone fired up to fix the car and back out for the next event.
Hiromi Takeda has the necessary credentials for the job in abundance. “Welcome! Thank you for coming!” he declares in his lightly American-accented English as he greets me with a massive bear hug. “Sit down, sit down, sit down and make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right with you!” He disappears behind a shelf, re-emerging a moment later with three bottles of iced tea. Before I have a chance to hand over the souvenirs I’ve brought from the UK, Takeda-san has his iPad out, showing photos from last week’s trip to the USA, a visit to England to pick up custom pistons from Prodrive, and team members competing at various locations in Japan and abroad. Behind us, the highlights from the last World Rally Championship round are playing on repeat, and boiler-suited mechanics move to and from the workshop, emerging with dirty old parts and returning with sparkling new ones.
The boss of RS Takeda – or Racing Service Takeda to give it its full name – oversees a motor sport preparation business that does everything from World Rally Championship rounds to local club meets, encompassing gymkhanas, circuit meets, dirt trials and time trials as well as stage rallying. From Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture on the east coast of Japan, he’s jumping on planes to see team members compete Stateside, hopping on bullet trains to pick up donor cars and imported vehicles from auctions at the port near Tokyo (did I mention they do road cars as well?), and updating his blog daily in both English and Japanese. Just as I discovered when I went to visit K’s Factory in Nagano a few years ago, if you want to make a living in rallying prep, you have to put in some serious graft.
As I’ve mentioned a few times before on these pages, I first encountered Takeda-san in 2009 when we were setting up a one-make rally championship for Honda Civics in Scotland. A YouTube video of a car prepared by RSTakeda competing on a Japanese rally at considerable speed proved pivotal in convincing the often cynical Scottish rally community that Civics were the way to go. The first indication I got of Hiromi’s enthusiasm for motor sport was when I was asked for my postal address during our email correspondence. Two weeks later a stack of DVDs dropped through my letterbox, depicting the team’s 2007, 2008 and 2009 Japanese Rally Championship campaigns. The need to break the journey on the way from a friend’s wedding in Tokyo to my wife’s family in Fukuoka provided the perfect opportunity to stop over in Nagoya, drop by the RSTakeda garage, and finally meet the man behind the company face-to-face.
It is already dark by the time we get off the Nagoya suburban rail network at Akaike station in the east of the city. A few taxis are lined up around the edge of the roundabout in front of the station exit, their boxy shapes illuminated by the excessively bright lighting from the quintessential karaoke parlour and Lawson convenience store. This is not the high-tech beating heart of an Asian metropolis. Rather, it’s what I like to think of as the ‘real’ urban Japan, just another tiny part of the sprawling mass of overhead wires, vending machines, parked bicycles, apartment blocks and railway tracks that the vast majority of the Japanese population calls home. “You’re probably the first Scotsman ever to get off the train at Akaike station “, Takeda-san muses later when I arrive. “In fact, I can’t think of many times I’ve seen someone from abroad in Akaike at all”.
We turn away from the station and walk through the dimly-lit park where a young couple share a steaming hot sweet potato bought from the convenience store, the bags from their day’s shopping spread out on the the adjacent benches. A few illuminated bollards lead the way past the children’s play area and out onto the street. My eye is drawn to a bright spot of light about two hundred metres away. As we get nearer, I can see the light source is blocked by some parked cars. Parked cars with headlamp pods and big spoilers. Rally cars. The light is flowing out from an open garage and big-windowed showroom, above which is a green corrugated iron roof bearing the legend RS TAKEDA. We’ve arrived.
Racing Service Takeda has the feel of a proper old-school motor sport garage to it. Shelves rammed full with competition components line the walls, turbochargers leaning against exhaust mufflers and brake discs. Big photo prints of the team’s most successful cars hang from the ceiling, Galants, Lancers and Civics all painted in the distinctive white, green and yellow livery. Trophies won by the outfit’s crews are kept in the garage – McLaren-style – pride of place going to two matching championship winners’ trophies. Inexplicably, there’s also a lantern from a restaurant and a ceremonial mask hanging alongside the goods for sale. And with this being Japan, the garage wouldn’t be complete without its own personal set of vending machines.
If Takeda-san is the epitome of a team principal, then staff member Hiroaki Miyabe is the archetypal co-driver. Tall, thin and bespectacled, I half-expect him to check his timecards as we’re talking to make sure he books in for the coffee break on his minute. A hugely accomplished co-driver, Hiroaki won the two-wheel drive All-Japan series with Honda ace Futoshi Murase, competed in the WRC at Group N level, and is now helping talented youngster Hiroshi Tsuji hone his skills in a turbocharged Toyota Starlet. Miyabe-san presents me with a tiny, rounded business card and – in a gesture of remarkable kindness – his Japanese Rally Championship winner’s cap from 2009. “Is that alright, I mean, this is a championship-winning cap?” I ask.
“If we want another cap, then we’ll need to win another championship”, comes the reply from across the table. Eddie Jordan eat your heart out.
Less than ten minutes later I am being scared witless in the passenger seat of a Lancer Evo X. The otherwise silent residential neighbourhood of Akaike reverberates to the sound of a tuned Mitsubishi engine firing up and down through the gears, weaving its way along the deserted roads that separate the houses from the adjacent rice fields. After several minutes we reach a highway. Takeda-san floors it. Every time he changes up a gear I am punched back against my seat with the kind of force that makes me glad I have not yet eaten my dinner. Such is the kick that accompanies each gearchange that I assume the Evo is fitted with a trick gearbox, asking the driver not if the car has a fancy gearbox, but simply what brand of gearbox it is.
“No dog box, just standard”, Hiromi bellows over the roar of the four-cylinder motor to my surprise. “But there is no restrictor on the turbo, so it’s putting out at least 450 horse power!” Cackling as he thumps the gear lever this way and that, Takeda-san gives it full beans for a good few seconds more before standing on the brakes, sidestepping a lane of stationary cars and peeling off the highway back onto the country roads.
This particular Mitsubishi contested the Japanese round of the World Rally Championship several years ago, at that time being a virtually new and state-of-the-art Group N machine. It still carries its Rally Japan stickers, but nowadays plies its trade as a time attack car and regional level stage warrior – in Japan, regional events and championships feature an ‘Open’ class where pretty much anything goes in terms of specification and equipment. Parked next to it is another Open class car, a home-brewed Toyota Starlet special with all manner of dials and vents bolted on to the original bodywork. The interior retains the production door trims and seatbelts in addition to the usual safety equipment, and the view outside is partially obscured by the bank of gauges screwed on to the top of the dashboard – not that I’m able to see properly anyway, the seats being designed for a lightweight Japanese crew and not a Western fatty like me. I am offered a shot of driving it, but have to politely decline as I don’t have my international driving permit with me. More than a little gutting, but on balance just as well because the tuned-up Starlet would probably have thrown me off the road into a field.
Back inside, Takeda-san disappears behind the counter while I am talking to the shop manager Seiji Oshima, the man whose engineering wizardry is responsible for the Lancer that just scared the life out of me. The boss soon re-emerges with an opened and live mobile phone. “Tsuji-san”, he announces beaming, passing me the phone. “Talk to him!” Tsuji is the driver of the Starlet I tried to sit in, and at twenty years old the next protege of the RSTakeda stable. He’s not long back from Hokkaido, where he won the open section of Japan’s biggest rally. He’s understandably a little startled to suddenly be on the end of a phone to some random foreigner telling him how good his driving is, but chats away quite amicably. All the while, Takeda-san watches on with the kind of massive grin normally reserved for James Brown reappearing for the encore at the end of a concert.
Rallying isn’t the only thing RSTakeda do by any stretch. Next to the rally cars outside are a Suzuki Swift and a Honda Integra, both resplendent in the Takeda stable livery but used for gymkhanas rather than full-blown stage rallying. Up on the ramps in the garage is a customer’s BMW, the mechanics working on into the evening to get it turned around. On the way back to the station we swing by the garage’s other premises in Akaike, a small elevated square lot that resembles a game of Tetris played with used cars. It’s dark and the lights are off, but alongside some small European hatchbacks I can see three pristine white later-model Mitsubishi rally cars, at least one Evo 6 pressed right up against the fence, and another of the steampunk Starlets boxed in by some Toyota saloons. “Our premises are very small, it’s not ideal being split across two sites and we are almost running out of space,” Hiromi explains as he wheels through the narrow residential streets of Nagoya. “But next year we are moving to a new premises which is getting built for us on the edge of Nagoya, so everything will be on one site and we can expand there”.
With a new garage under construction, team drivers tasting success at both home and abroad, and the launch of a new package for both competition and roadgoing Mitsubishis drawing on all the know-how gleaned from five years of stage competition, things are looking bright for RSTakeda. Japan might not have its own WRC round or top-level F1 driver these days, but my short trip on the Meitetsu line out to Akaike has reminded me yet again that the passion and appetite for motor sport within Japan remains undiminished.
Team website – www.rstakeda.com
Hiromi Takeda’s blog (English and Japanese) – rstakeda.blogspot.com
Co-driver Hiroaki Miyabe’s blog (Japanese only) – blogs.yahoo.co.jp/rstakeda_miyabe
Workshop manager Seiji Oshima’s blog (Japanese only) – blogs.yahoo.co.jp/rstakeda_meca
Driver Futoshi Murase’s blog (Japanese only) – mimichan2323.blog95.fc2.com