Category Archives: Rally

有終の美を飾る: Murase’s US rally denouement

Scenes. I hate that word. Or, more to the point, I hate it when it is deployed as a hashtag. All the cool kids in Scotland are using it right now as a kind of catch-all for every aspect of the lad banter culture I so despise. Anything from a photo of eight pints of Stella on a bar table to Arsenal scoring a last-minute winner to a drunken holiday in the Balearics can, with the addition of the magic post-script #scenes, be transformed into some joyous, memorable occasion.

Thus far I have steadfastly refused to append any of my tweets with this ghastly phrase. But last weekend, for the first and last time ever I was moved to deploy the hashtag. For I really did see something that was worthy of the descriptor #scenes.

If truth be told, before the Lake Superior Performance Rally I hadn’t really been up for writing about rallying. I was still feeling down about the awful events on Mull earlier in the month. But then photos started to come through on Facebook from America via Japan, and I remembered how great our sport can be at times. What had seemed impossible but twelve months previous had come to pass. Japanese driver Futoshi Murase, under the guidance of US co-driver Kieran Wright, was a two-wheel drive winner in the United States.

Murase/Wright on their way to 2WD honours in the Civic Si (photo by Kozaki Photo Service)

Murase/Wright on their way to 2WD honours in the Civic Si (photo by Kozaki Photo Service)

Rallying Stateside has been a long and torturous adventure for Futoshi Murase. When I first made contact with him in the New Year of 2013, he had just bought his first American rally car. He hadn’t rallied consistently since contesting most of the 2010 All-Japan Rally Championship in a Mitsubishi Lancer. Posted to Indianapolis on assignment, Murase wanted to get back out rallying and purchased a Ford Focus from North Carolina. The first two rallies went solidly enough, a seventh and then a fifth in class as Futoshi got used to the US rally culture, the car and the English-language pacenotes. But in 2014 frustration started to sink in. A retirement on the Ojibwe Forests Rally was followed by a pulled entry for the Lake Superior Performance Rally, the driver feeling that without upgraded suspension he wouldn’t be able to safely push as hard as he wanted to. The Focus was a good car, but with the two-wheel drive class being led by split-new turbocharged Fiestas it had maybe gone as far as Murase could take it.

The pressure was taking its toll on Futoshi. “I was the only Japanese driver rallying in America. I felt as if people around me were watching, as if I was somehow representing Japan,” he reflects. “If I was hopeless, if I was slow, then what would everyone think about Japanese drivers? Because of that there was pressure. Of course I said I was enjoying my rallying, but deep down inside could I really say I was enjoying myself?”

Ready to go post-scrutineering (photo: Hiromi Takeda)

Ready to go post-scrutineering (photo: Hiromi Takeda)

Pressure, much of it coming from within. The sense was that there was one final year to get it right. 2015 had to be the year Futoshi Murase became a winner on the Rally America series. In much the same way he did in his previous life back in Japan, Futoshi went to his employer – Honda – and was able to secure a Civic to rally through the Honda R&D Americas Team Honda Research and Honda Manufacturing of Indiana Racing Team programmes. Not a JDM-spec Type R, but a Civic of the size and shape he was familiar with developing during his day job. The Honda could take the man from Gifu closer to the two-wheel drive class leaders, but Futoshi carried over two crucial things from his rallies in the Focus. One was knowledge of the stages. The other was an exceedingly competent co-driver in Kieran Wright, part of the father-son team that built Futoshi’s previous Focus. (This is also a good point to extend a hat-tip to Ben Slocum, a former Dakar Rally co-driver who also competed with Murase and imparted his considerable experience of US rallying onto the Japanese driver).

First time out in the Civic Si on the 2015 Ojibwe Forests Rally went well, second two-wheel drive behind a very well-driven and set-up Ford Fiesta. There was a feeling, though, that Futoshi could go faster once he got the suspension sorted. Back home in Japan, too, excitement was brewing. RSTakeda boss Hiromi Takeda had set up a bulletin board encouraging fans to send their messages of support through to ‘his’ driver. Custom-made suspension from Ennepetal got sent from Nagoya to Indianapolis via courier. Takeda-san published an article on his blog titled ‘What it would mean for a Japanese driver to win in America’. Plane tickets were booked to get to Michigan, not only for the garage boss but also for a pro photographer from Japan. It seemed this was going to be Futoshi Murase’s last chance to win at rallying in the USA before the end of his assignment and a return to Japan. To quote my hero Colin McRae, it was shit or bust.

Pre-rally team photo, service crew clothing cleanliness being the same the world over (photo: Futoshi Murase)

Pre-rally team photo, service crew clothing cleanliness being the same the world over (photo: Futoshi Murase)

I really wanted to come and see the Lake Superior Performance Rally as well, not least because the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is somewhere I very much want to visit. A heavily forested peninsula with a small, distinctively-cultured and accented populace known as Yoopers, it reminded me very much of my home on the Black Isle. The US equivalent of me would most likely be a Yooper (or the kind of character you find in a Garrison Keillor novel). Autumn in America is also something special, with reds and bright yellows more like the kinds of things I’ve seen in Sapporo than the mushy brown slush we get in north Scotland. But autumn is the start of semester, which means I have classes to teach and students to supervise at university. Thankfully, though, Takeda-san was doing a sterling job of keeping the world updated with events on the U.P., not only articles and photos but also video interviews at every opportunity. How did scrutineering go? There’s a video for that. How did the crew feel about exhibiting their car at parc expose? There’s a video for that? How were things looking at the start of the day? You get the drift.

Everything was running as well as it could as night turned back into the second day and the Civic blasted through the autumnal north American woods. And people were noticing too. “During the rally, people were asking me ‘You’re quick! How many litres is your engine? What kind of transmission are you running?’” This mattered a lot to Futoshi, an awful lot (the engine and gearbox were standard, in case you’re wondering). “I felt I had to uphold the honour of the Japanese Championship in a sense. As a Japanese two-wheel drive champion, I wanted to show people that Japanese drivers could be quick. If I couldn’t do that, then I would have felt really sorry to all the friends, all the rivals back home I had rallied against up until now.”

Service during the rally

Service during the rally (photo: Hiromi Takeda)

If the midway point of the Lake Superior Performance Rally was a passage of a Formula 1 race, Futoshi and Kieran’s performance was such that the engineer would be coming on the radio and saying “okay Futoshi, pace is good, this pace is good, extend target plus five.” Except for one problem. The red turbocharged Fiesta of Cameron Steely and Preston Osborn more than four minutes down the road. This car, with an extremely talented pilot who I’d love to see rally in Europe given his pace, was bossing the class. It was approaching 1am in the UK, and in the absence of any further information I was watching the times come in via the Rally America website and discussing progress on Twitter with RSTakeda customer and recent rally debutant Norio ‘The Flying Doctor’ Furuhashi. Stage after stage we watched the gap grow, Steely and Osborn eking out a bigger and bigger lead over Murase and Wright. Then the Fiesta dropped off the results. Furuhashi and I’s tweets kept crossing each other. ‘It looks like Murase might be leading’ I’d tweet, but in the time it had taken me to get the Japanese grammar nailed The Doctor would tweet ‘hmm, seems Murase is leading the class’ (or words to that effect).

Now retirements are nothing to celebrate. Especially with recent UK events still raw in the memory, the first thing you want to know is if the crew are okay. And at club-level rallying, nobody wants to see someone suffer a big wreck. But it was also true that were the car ahead to retire, Futoshi would be the prime recipient. “Because of the difference in potential between his car and mine, I thought it would have to be close to a miracle for me to win,” admits the RSTakeda driver. “But at the same time, if I wasn’t able to get myself up into second position then I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of anything that happened up ahead anyhow.”

For someone thousands of miles away without any knowledge of what was going on, it was turning into a pretty tense denouement for Futoshi Murase’s great American rally adventure. He was running first ‘on the road’ going into the last few stages, but the Fiesta remained ominously at the bottom of the timesheets, its times frozen somewhere around SS13 and seemingly ready to pounce back to the top of the charts as soon as the checksheets had been rectified. The Doctor and I tweeted to each other about the various possibilities and permutations.

Scenes (photo: Kozaki Photo Service)

Scenes (photo: Kozaki Photo Service)

A lot was riding on this. As I mentioned above, there was a great deal of hope and expectation back in Japan that Futoshi could make one last big push with a good car under him to get a 2WD win in the Rally America series. Nearly 2am in the UK meant that people in Japan were waking up and logging onto social media, going on Facebook to see if there was any news from Michigan, checking Twitter, hitting the refresh button on folk’s blogs. The Japanese rally community is, I’ve discovered, very close-knit – and especially if you go overseas people really root for you. It was looking increasingly likely that this would be the last time Futoshi rallied in the United States. Next year will likely see a return to Japan and domestic rallying at some point down the line. When exactly and in what kind of machine, who knows? Going back to Japan as a winner in America would have a big effect on mindset and confidence, and also – much more pragmatically – attracting the interest of potential sponsors and supporters. All of this hanging on the last two stages of the last rally of the year. Heavy stuff.

And then just like that the Fiesta’s spurious-looking time entry at the bottom of the results turned into a DNF (crew thankfully okay after a big crash), Murase was able to run his final stage in the USA as outright two-wheel drive leader, and all hell broke loose as the Hinomaru got unfurled for the podium ceremony. After three seasons, two cars and thousands of kilometres travelled, Futoshi Murase’s goal of becoming a winner in American rallying had materialised with less than ten kilometres of rallying left. Scenes. Scenes, indeed.


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Two hundred over crest, caution blogs outside?

I’m in the process of transforming my blog into something new – Exactly the same idea and content, just with a new name. For a while at least, though, I’ll keep reblogging everything here. Should you be inclined, have a look at the new blog and/or follow on Twitter @thezerocar !

The Zero Car

Last weekend, several thousand miles apart, the second rounds of both the British and Japanese national rally championships happened concurrently. I know who won both rallies, how the top Scot fared on the Pirelli Rally, and how my friend’s team fared on the Kumakogen Rally. I know what happened to one other car in the BRC, and that’s about it. By contrast, I know what the driver of the number thirteen Toyota in Japan had for lunch (tangerines), how much grief the service crew of the orange Yaris had fixing the brake pipes (lots), and which airline one of the Subaru BRZ crews used to get to the island (Peach).

Rally Nasaura - Rally Nasaura –

The key differentiating factor was Rally Nasaura. Over the two days of Kumakogen, my Twitter feed was plastered with a mysterious red flying finish board avatar, each Tweet carrying…

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The Izuno Cup

As anyone who grew up in the eighties or later will know, Japan has past form for producing successful pairs of brothers (don’t be fooled by the names, Mario and Luigi were a Shigeru Miyamoto creation all the way). And if money were no object, the rally world would by now surely know all too well about the Super Izuno Brothers – Kohei and Kenta. The 24 year-old twins hail from Okayama Prefecture but now reside in the mountainous Nagano region. Rather than competing together, they are both pursuing careers as drivers in their own vehicles, and have been taking the Japanese rally scene by storm with some spectacular results and slightly less spectacular crashes.

(c) Kohei Izuno

(c) Kohei Izuno

Unfortunately, though, money is very much an object for Kohei and Kenta, just as it is for the vast majority of junior rally drivers globally. Rather than getting despondent about the situation, the Izunos put their communal thinking cap on and came up with a novel way of raising funds for their upcoming rally campaigns. Enter the Izuno Cup.

The premise is simple. Take one Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 3, some snow-bound roads, and one set of timing equipment. Kohei Izuno goes out in the Evo and sets a time on the 5km-long ice and snow stage, which is recorded for all to see. Anyone who thinks they can beat Kohei’s time stumps up 3,000 Yen (about £20 in UK money) and heads out to attack the course in the same Mitsubishi. Win and you get bragging rights, plus you’ve had a pretty comprehensive practice session on a good stage in a competitive car at very low cost. Lose, and you donate an extra 7,000 Yen (roughly £50) to the Izuno fighting fund. There’s also the ‘no challenge’ option, where for a flat fee of 3,000 Yen you can go out and have a play on the snow in the Lancer without the danger of having your wallet probed further.

Road sweepers (c) Kazuya Suzuki

Road sweepers (c) Kazuya Suzuki

This is all possible due to the winter climate in the higher-altitude regions of Japan, where things get very cold and very snowy. Although this can be a little inconvenient for going about one’s regular business – a truck chock-full of bread got irretrievably stuck in a snow drift a few weeks back and the driver had to give away the goodies to local residents free of charge – it makes ideal conditions for rally practice. It even gets cold enough for lakes to freeze over, so many of the Japanese rally teams head to the hills for several days’ training on ice (including double PWRC champ Toshi Arai and my friends at RS Takeda) during January and February.

Under the command of Kazuya ‘Bear’ Suzuki, in Nagano a small army of Suzuki Jimnys with snow ploughs bolted to the front head out at dawn to clear a course on designated days. Crews then descend on the Ontake course from all over the centre of Japan for a mixture of practice, time trials, and full-blown stage rallies. It was onto one of these time attack events – the Snow Challenge – that this year’s Izuno Cup was bolted.

Supporters (c) Kazuya Suzuki

Supporters with Izuno t-shirts (c) Kazuya Suzuki

The amounts of money involved aren’t huge, but enough to pay for a set of tyres or two on an international rally – and when you’re competing on a low budget, everything counts. More importantly, it’s a fantastic way for the Izunos to raise their profile domestically, and to reinforce a sense of camaraderie with the more experienced local crews who might offer advice and support in years to come.

Sadly, with risk assessments and health and safety and insurance and what have you, I can’t see anyone in the UK being allowed to let people to jump in their car and challenge for money, never mind rally on ice and snow. Mind you, given how many of the Japanese rallies are held on closed public roads, for their current consultation the MSA and UK government could do a lot worse than look to the example of the Far East to see how clubman motorsport can sensibly and safely run on the Queen’s Highway.

The Ontake Stage:

Kohei Izuno –

Kenta Izuno –

Ontake Snowland –

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A hidden gem in suburban Nagoya: Racing Service Takeda’s workshops

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.

Racing Service Takeda's garage in Nagoya

Racing Service Takeda’s garage in Nagoya

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.

Cars in the smart RSTakeda livery

Cars in the smart RSTakeda livery

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.

Inside the RSTakeda shop

Inside the RSTakeda shop

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.

Lancer Evo X

Lancer Evo X (photo (c) Hiromi Takeda)

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.

Team trophies, many from Murase/Miyabe's 2009 championship-winning season

Team trophies, many from Murase/Miyabe’s 2009 championship-winning season

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.

Hiroaki Miyabe (left) and Seiji Oshima (right)

Hiroaki Miyabe (left) and Seiji Oshima (right)

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.

With Hiromi Takeda (photo (c) Hiromi Takeda)

With Hiromi Takeda (photo (c) Hiromi Takeda)

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 –

Hiromi Takeda’s blog (English and Japanese) –

Co-driver Hiroaki Miyabe’s blog (Japanese only) –

Workshop manager Seiji Oshima’s blog (Japanese only) –

Driver Futoshi Murase’s blog (Japanese only) –

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Lake Superior Performance Rally – wheel of (mis)fortune for Murase

One of the things that makes forest rallying so interesting is that it takes place in a living environment. The characteristics of each stage are in a constant flux from the passage of time, weather, and vehicles, hence the rally driver has to (in my opinion at least) be much more responsive to unexpected changes in the surroundings than their circuit racing counterparts.

The flipside of this is that rally cars can encounter situations they were never designed to encounter in roadgoing form – with sometimes spectacular results. I’ve seen turbo cars down on power because the air intake has inhaled a plastic arrow from a chicane, an awkward landing so forceful it caused the dashboard to disintegrate into the driver’s footwell, and my own road rally car getting stuck in a ditch after swerving to avoid a trampoline on course.

Until now, though, I’ve never seen the rim and spokes of a wheel come completely apart mid-stage. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Futoshi Murase on last weekend’s Lake Superior Performance Rally, another weekend of learning for the 2009 Japanese two-wheel drive rally champion. From what I can gather, the Michigan-based rally was one of those events where, given all the circumstances, getting to the finish was in itself a mighty achievement. Having had minor trouble during the shakedown, broken his camera, forgotten his wallet, bust a wheel and had to come down a hillside using the handbrake, Murase-san could definitely class LSPR as a hard weekend’s rallying.

More about that broken wheel in a minute. The Lake Superior Performance Rally was the final round of the 2013 Rally America national championship and Futoshi’s second competitive excursion Stateside. As the name suggests, it was held all the way up near one of the bodies of water that separates the United States from Canada, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan state. A two-day event, the LSPR took in 93 gravel stage miles on the hills overlooking Keweenaw Bay – which leads into Lake Superior and ultimately Canada. The event could have ended up being an unlikely victim of the US Government shutdown, which rendered some of the federal land the rally originally planned to use off-limits – however superb work from the organisers meant the rally was able to go ahead at full capacity.

Kieran and Futoshi at Parc Exposé with the repaired Focus.

Kieran and Futoshi at Parc Exposé with the repaired Focus. Photo (c) Hiromi Takeda

Speaking of hard work, the sheer size of the States meant some considerable distances were put in to get Futoshi and his crew to the rally start. The driver and car came from Indianapolis, and co-driver (Kieran Wright) and service crew (Simon – the car’s former owner – and Kenny) headed up from North Carolina. You could fit Britain in the distance between North Carolina and the Upper Peninsula. And just as he did earlier in the year, Racing Service Takeda team principal Hiromi Takeda flew over the Pacific from Nagoya to watch over proceedings.

Things got underway with a parc exposé (which I think translates loosely as an informal rally car show) in the rally HQ town of Houghton on the Friday lunchtime, before nine stages running through the afternoon and into the night. It was on one of those night stages that Futoshi and Kieran hit trouble, following a solid run through the first six tests. Part of the underbody protection on the Ford Focus ZX3, which had been as high as third in class earlier in the rally, came loose and started making noises as it banged off the road. The crew subsequently carried too much speed over the next crest, ran wide on the following bend and struck a large rock on the front right. Such was the force of impact that the rock broke the rim of the wheel clean away from the spokes. Unable to continue, the crippled Focus limped into retirement for the night.

One of the great things about the Rally America series is that it employs the super rally system -whereby if you retire but are able to fix the car, under certain conditions you can continue the next day with a sizeable time penalty for the stages you miss. This is something I have to admit I’m not a fan of at World Championship level, but at club or national level where people are traveling big distances and funding themselves I think it’s eminently sensible. And so it was that I came to see a video, shot by Takeda-san, of Simon and Kenny having a discussion in the pitch black under the shelter of the service car’s tailgate about how they were going to separate the broken wheel and brake assembly. With the Focus retrieved and the necessary spare parts to hand, the service crew set about returning the US/UK Rallying – RSTakeda Focus to drivable condition.

The arrestingly damaged wheel. Photo (c) Futoshi Murase.

The arrestingly damaged wheel. Photo (c) Futoshi Murase.

The next video I saw was of Futoshi at the next morning’s parc expose in the nearby town of L’Anse, standing in front of a clean and serviceable yellow vehicle. The service crew had been up until almost 4am fixing the Focus, but crucially the rally car now had four round, intact and working wheels. As reward for the service crew’s efforts, Futoshi and Kieran kept the car on the island for the second day’s eight stages, finishing fifth in two-wheel drive class and fourteenth overall. With the Ford fixed, Murase-san was able to demonstrate some of the pace that took him to a multitude of honours in Japan, consistently posting top-twenty times and managing the gap to the class leaders.

“My driving was better than on the 100 Acre Wood Rally, but still not perfect,” believes Futoshi, who hails from Gifu but is now based in Indianapolis. “I could not drive the Focus with 100% performance because I need more time to practice and to develop the car settings – I went into this event with basically zero practice!”

“I feel that I have to improve everything to restore my driving performance, so that I can reach my goal of succeeding in the Rally America series,” the engineer continues. “Anyway, this is all valuable experience for me to improve my skill as rally. I’m looking forward to enjoying my next rally next season.”

Looking at the various videos, pictures and web updates from the Lake Superior Performance Rally, it’s clear that rallying in America is continually improving, all the while debunking us Europeans’ myths about only needing to turn left when you race in the US. The well-attended parc exposés, night stages and spectator specials close to towns are all things that have been tried in the UK, but as with so many sports the USA just seems to be able to do the whole ‘spectator experience’ thing so much better than we can. And given that the battle to win LSPR – and the Rally America title – was a fiercely-fought contest between Britain’s David Higgins and US rally superstar Ken Block (Higgins won after Block crashed out), the quality and depth of field too could soon give many European events a run for their money.

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Rising rally talents from the Rising Sun

October is turning into a busy month for two of the Japanese rally teams I keep in touch with.

Kohei Izuno (photo by Iain Shirlaw)

Kohei Izuno (photo by Iain Shirlaw)

The K’s World Rally Team, who travelled to Scotland to contest the Scottish Rally in June, were back on FIA Asia-Pacific duty on last weekend’s Rally Hokkaido. Nagano hot-shot Kohei Izuno, who was on the pace notes when the team came to Dumfries earlier in the year, was back in the driver’s seat for Japan’s top-level stage rally. Driving a Suzuki Ignis similar to the one he piloted to a class win on WRC New Zealand last year, and with Shogo Ito co-driving, 23 year-old Kohei finished first in class and sixteenth outright on the Obihiro-based gravel rally. Not even twenty five and winning classes on FIA-level events in a club spec Ignis? We really need to start calling Izuno the ‘Japanese Kris Meeke’. Mind you, he did manage to forget to take his class trophy away with him, and had to wait until the rally office posted it to the K’s garage in Ina! Unfortunately the other K’s car – the Civic Type R of Yasuharu Ono and Shinji Yoshizawa – contesting the national event retired with mechanical trouble early on the final day.

The RSTakeda supported Murase/Wright Focus (c) Futoshi Murase

The RSTakeda supported Murase/Wright Focus (c) Futoshi Murase

Meanwhile, spin the globe right round to the other side and you find Futoshi Murase preparing for his second event Stateside, as he continues his campaign of selected events in the Rally America National Championship. The RSTakeda supported engineer, who hails from Gifu but currently calls Indianapolis his home, is back out in the bright yellow two-wheel drive Ford Focus with co-driver (and former owner of the car) Kieran Wright. Futoshi and Kieran head north for the Lake Superior Performance Rally on 18-19 October. The rally is based in Houghton on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan state – I’ve never been to the Upper Peninsula, but from what I can gather, with a low population density, twisty rural roads and strong accents, it sounds like a US version of the Black Isle where I grew up!

RSTakeda were also in action on the national section of Rally Hokkaido, 20 year-old hot shot Hiroshi Tsuji sweeping to the Open Class win under the guidance of seasoned co-driver Hiroaki Miyabe. Hiroshi was driving a turbocharged Toyota Starlet – presumably one of only a few that hasn’t been exported to the UK and fitted with a massive turbo. Seriously, though, as I’ve come to expect the car was immaculately turned out, with a more subtle variation of RSTakeda’s trademark livery. Tsuji-san is another one who looks like a real talent for the future, as the video below of him on another rally earlier in the year attests.

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The Bandeath Trophy

Motor sport has some really awesome trophies. The winner of the Indy 500 gets the Borg Warner Trophy, a garish monstrosity nearly as high as – and much less dignified than – Allan McNish. When I was a student, my fellow Edinburgh Motor Sport Club members and I used to battle it out for such delights as the David Hale Memorial Trophy (a scale racing helmet on a solid silver base), the Wooden Spoon (a two-foot long wooden spoon), and a mysterious steel tankard by the name of Ken’s Third Mug.

But in my view, the event with some of the best trophies of all is the RSAC Scottish Rally. For instance, every year, the rally’s unsung hero receives the Pentti Airikkala Trophy, which started out life as the trophy intended for the winning driver of the 1990 ‘national’ rally. Finnish world championship-level driver Airikkala was fastest through the stages that year by a considerable margin but refused to accept the trophy on the grounds that he was essentially testing a high-powered prototype car for Ford, instead requesting that the trophy be given annually to a member of the organising committee who had gone beyond the call of duty ‘behind the scenes’ to make the event run. The Scotsman Trophy, awarded annually to the top-ranking female driver, is perhaps best known of all among the Scottish rally community on account of its shape, about which I shall say no more here in the interests of common decency.

Kaseya-san admiring the Bandeath Trophy

Kaseya-san admiring the Bandeath Trophy

It was thus with much delight that at the end of this year’s Scottish, I was asked to convey to Motoharu Kaseya and Kohei Izuno that they had been designated as the recipients of the 2013 Star of the Rally Award. The Japanese crew, for whom I had been coordinating media activities and interpreting all weekend long, had tackled the Dumfries and Galloway forest stages with good humour in the EuroRallye – K’s World Rally Team Honda Civic Type R, endearing themselves to officials, spectators and fellow competitors alike along the way. Taking into account that they had crossed continents, oceans and language barriers just to take part in the rally, Motoharu and Kohei’s solid drive to the finish was deemed the star performance of the day.

What I was most delighted about was the fact the K’s team would have their names engraved on one of the historical trophies I was talking about above. For in addition to the two shiny silver stars they received to take back to Narita Airport in their suitcases, Kaseya-san and Izuno-san would have their names permanently etched into the silver of the Bandeath Trophy. At the time of presentation, I didn’t know much about the provenance of this trophy, other than that due to its slight patina and gently battered nature it must have been a few years old. That fact alone was enough to make the entire Japanese contingent grin from ear to ear – niyaniya suru – photos of the team with the trophy appearing on all sorts of blogs and websites over the following days and weeks.

When I got back to the hotel that evening, I endeavoured to find out a bit more about the Bandeath Trophy in order to add a bit of colour to the press release. Onto Google I went, and was immediately confronted with a number of anti-capital punishment American websites. ‘Did you mean Ban Death?’ Google asked me in a somewhat patronising tone. ‘No I did not’, I answered sharply to the monitor as I repeated my search, this time placing quotation marks around the words.

This yielded a slightly better piece of information. It turned out that in 2011, the Bandeath Trophy had been awarded to the Armed Forces Rally Team, the heroes of land, sea and air who keep the crowds entertained year on year with physics-defying feats in their fleet of white Land Rovers. Given how excited Team Principal Kazuya Suzuki had been when he saw the Land Rovers flying through the stages earlier that day, this was rather poignant. Still, it didn’t tell the whole story of where the award came from, so out went the press release stating simply that the Scottish officials had given the pair the historic Star of the Rally Award. I shut down the laptop and flaked out in bed.

I may have collapsed with exhaustion, but despite having spent the best part of a week running an international rally, Clerk of the Course Jonathan Lord was still going strong right the way through Saturday night. I know this because when I turned my computer back on the next morning, an email from Jonathan – time-stamped with some ungodly hour – was waiting for me in my inbox. Not only was Jonathan conscious of my message coming in, he was also alert enough at 2am on Sunday to write me a potted history of the Bandeath Trophy.

The Bandeath Trophy was presented to the RSAC Scottish Rally by Jonathan’s late father Gordon Lord in 1977, to be awarded annually to the Star of the Rally. It was named after the Royal Naval Armament Depot Bandeath, a munitions store on the banks of the River Forth to the east of Stirling of which Gordon Lord was Officer in Charge. The name ‘Bandeath’ also refers to Bandeath Lodge, the house in which the Lord family lived.

Whilst the Bandeath Trophy itself stays with RSAC Motorsport, the winners each year are given an additional award to keep. Kaseya-san and Izuno-san apparently struggled to fit their personal Star of the Rally trophies, two big silver stars on plinths, into their suitcase. They may therefore be grateful to know they did not receive the rally’s more traditional Star of the Rally prize –sheepskin rugs. Two sheepskin rugs were traditionally provided by Jonathan’s parents for the winning crew, but with these kind of rugs going out of fashion in recent years it was decided to furnish the winners with trophies instead. I dread to imagine the scenes in the hotel room if a sheepskin rug had to be squeezed into the suitcase alongside a race suit, helmet and HANS device.

The next weekend, I found myself hit with a pang of disappointment whilst watching the conclusion of the German Grand Prix. For what Messrs Vettel, Raikkonen and Grosjean received for succeeding in one of Europe’s historic motor races were three copies of the Santander banking group logo bolted on to a bit of wood. Follow in the footsteps of Nuvolari, Rosemeyer and Fangio, and get a portable advertisement for financial services you don’t need. Sheepksin rugs for the Stars of the Scottish Rally, though. Now there’s a real touch of class.

Before the K’s World Rally Team came to Scotland, I told them that previous winners of the Scottish included Vatanen, Mikkola and McRae. Whilst the Scottish – and the whole rallying world – has changed drastically since those days, it was wonderful to see that Motoharu Kaseya and Kohei Izuno were able to return to Japan having added their own tiny footnote to the long and illustrious history of the RSAC Scottish Rally.

2013 Bandeath Trophy winners with their personal Star of the Rally awards

2013 Bandeath Trophy winners with their personal Star of the Rally awards (photo by Iain Shirlaw)


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