Tag Archives: Futoshi Murase

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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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 – 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

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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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Japanese translation of rally report | 日本語の翻訳

I was delighted to discover recently that the piece I wrote about rally driver Futoshi Murase was translated into Japanese, and improved with the addition of photos and videos. My written English is not the clearest or simplest  – I tend to get a bit excited when writing about cars and forget to use the full stop button – which makes the translation all the more impressive. Many thanks to Norio Furuhashi – a customer of RSTakeda – for doing the translation, which you can see at the following address:

http://rstakeda.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/translation-was-completed.html

私が書いた村瀬太選手に関わる記事は日本語に翻訳されたようになりました!私は車かラリーについてことを書いたら、とても楽しくて熱心に書きますから、文は長くて分かりにくいなってしまいます!それで、私の記事は全部翻訳されたことに本当に感動させられました。RSTakeda のお客様の古橋範雄様は翻訳をしたらしい、古橋様に誠に感謝をしております。実は、日本語の翻訳の方が私の英語バージョンより面白いと思っています。日本語のバージョンでもっと写真とビデオが入っています!日本語のバージョンはここで読めます:

http://rstakeda.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/translation-was-completed.html

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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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Filed under General Motorsport, Japan, Rally

Amazing how words travel…

“Who reads this shit anyway?” Nearly everyone who writes regularly, be it reports for the workplace, group emails with fifty people ccd in, or a post on their personal blog, will have had this though flash across their mind at one point or another.

Because I write mainly for enjoyment these days, I don’t tend to keep track of who’s reading my blog on a daily basis. One thing I do always look forward to, however, is the end of year report that the good folk at WordPress lay on every December for the people using their service. What I really like about the WordPress report is that they tell you in the most positive way possible just who is reading your shit. For instance, one year they told me how many San Francisco cable cars my readers could fill, and another they put the hit count in terms of how long it would take all these people to climb Mount Everest.

What jumped out at me the most in this year’s report was that my most popular post for 2012 was one I wrote quickly two years ago, in which I listed up in rapid fire the ten drivers whose driving had impressed me most over the last few years. It wasn’t a particularly well-crafted or interesting piece, so I was puzzled as to how its popularity had suddenly spiked. Had I upset someone in the list? Had I sparked a craze for rally enthusiasts to make their own lists? Had someone taken a real shine to my writing and posted a link somewhere encouraging all and sundry to come and read?

Just as interesting, albeit slightly less odd, was the fact the site that most of my visitors came to my page from was a Japanese blog. Given that I post a lot of pictures of Japan up, and write quite often about things going on in the Far East, this seemed quite plausible. Still really interesting to find out, but quite plausible.

As it turns out, these two statistics were intrinsically linked. But first, let’s rewind to 2009.

At that time, I was working as the Media Officer for the 205 Ecosse Challenge, the one-make rally series in Scotland where all the crews use identical small cars. The idea is to keep the costs down so that the team with the biggest talent, and not the biggest wallet, take the spoils. We were concerned that our base car, the Peugeot 205, was running out of road, on account of the fact that (a) they stopped making them 15 years previous, and (b) our drivers were rapidly destroying all the ones left in a series of ever more spectacular accidents.

With that in mind we convened a committee meeting, and after much toing and froing decided that we would start to explore the possibility of introducing the Honda Civic as a step up from – and eventual replacement – for the rapidly disappearing 205. The problem was at that time, nobody with the exception of a few hardy souls was seriously rallying the Civic in Scotland. As such, we had very little access to technical knowledge about how to make an old Civic go fast, and more importantly no video footage with which to impress potential customers.

We divided our labour to resolve these issues. The more intelligent members of the committee took care of the first problem. Meanwhile, I was dispatched onto YouTube, armed with a Japanese dictionary and tasked with the job of finding some footage of a 1990s Honda Civic being rallied competitively. My task was completed before the technical guys had even had a chance to get their suspension settings sorted. The very first result that came up when I typed the magic words into the search box was an in-car from some obscure rally in Kyoto, featuring two guys hammering the absolute life out of an EK9 Civic Type R. For the entire stage, their mission seemed to be to rev the absolute nuts off the VTEC engine whilst hurling the car into corners at angles of ever-increasing impossibility. That ought to do the trick.

The three DVDs that started this long saga...

The three DVDs that started this long saga…

My fellow committee members suitably impressed, I fired an email off to the video’s producer – the mysteriously named ‘rstakeda’ – requesting further information. Two weeks and three emails later a Nagoya-postmarked Jiffy Bag of DVDs dropped through my letterbox. The DVDs showed the Racing Service Takeda team’s Honda Civic contesting the All Japan Rally Championship, with one Futoshi Murase behind the wheel. After the rollicking 2007 season when he drove the EK9 Civic, Futoshi upgraded to a much newer FD2 for the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He drove it so quickly the Japanese pines at the roadside were reduced to a light-brown blur as the Civic screamed past, storming to the 2WD Championship in the 2009 Japanese series.

And then it all went quiet. Futoshi Murase’s antics briefly sprang to my mind in the middle of 2010 as I was trying to compose my ten-minute list of my ten favourite drivers, but after some outings in a Lancer Evo IX I never saw his name on a rally entry list again. It was as if he had been sent by Honda to inspire a group of Scottish youngsters to make their Civics go as fast as humanly possible and then, his task completed, just vanished into the ether.

On the evening of the 30th December 2012, it was with a mixture of bafflement and some trepidation that I struck out to solve the riddle of where all these mystery visitors to my blog had come from. I am a sensitive soul at the best of times, and was more than a little worried that someone out there on the web might be saying mean things about me behind my back. First up was this Japanese blog that lots of people had come to my website from. With the greatest of respects, this site looked like most of the other Japanese blogs I have ever seen. Ever. It had a series of medium-length, well-crafted and regular posts. There were emoticons peppered across it of the Asian variety, ones that look like (^_^) and (笑) rather than our Western 🙂 type. And it had lots and lots and lots of photos of food, all taken with a mobile phone camera. But the title caught my eye. ‘No Rally, No Life,’ it proudly declared in big white letters. And this is where a rally-prepped, shiny silver FD2 Honda Civic-shaped penny dropped, because behind the letters was a photo of Futoshi Murase’s RS Takeda rally car.

One Google search later and I came across a post dated 16th November 2012 which had a link to my blog, in particular the Ten Drivers in Ten Minutes article I mentioned above. In this post, a rather bewildered Futoshi was trying to fathom how on earth a British journalist had come to put him in the same list as Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Loeb. Clearly someone was reading my shit.

Keen to explain the long story of how I’d found his driving on YouTube and also to thank him for linking to my article, I fired a private message off to Futoshi from the fill-in form on his blog. This proved to be a little tricky, because the anti-spam test was harder than some of the Japanese exams I’ve sat. It required me to read out some symbols that phonetically spelt four Japanese numbers, then type those numbers numerically in the box below. If you manage to get that right first time, I think you deserve to be given a shot at trying to sell some discount Canadian meds or fake watches.

Racing Service Takeda's advice was valuable in the run-up to the launch of the Civic Ecosse Challenge

Racing Service Takeda’s advice was valuable in the run-up to the launch of the Civic Ecosse Challenge

Just as it had done three years previous when I responded to the driving video, an enthusiastic message came right back through the web. It transpires that soon after winning his class in the Japanese championship, Futoshi’s company transferred him to Indianapolis and the rallying had to stop. During an office discussion one day over what Murase-san did in Japan, an incredulous colleague went and Googled to see if he really was the 2009 Japanese champion. With the first English language result being my entry, the stunned colleague reported back that Futoshi was ‘famous like Michael Schumacher’.

Rather serendipitously, the week I got in touch again with Futoshi Murase was also the week he took delivery of his new American rally car. Eager to develop his career as a driver, he’s bought a bright yellow front-wheel drive Ford Focus and is going to do selected rounds of the Rally America series this year – starting with the 100 Acre Wood Rally in Missouri at the end of February. Budget and time permitting, he’s also thinking about coming to Europe to compete at some point in the near future.

In the intervening period since fate last brought us together, a lot has happened. Futoshi Murase has moved to the USA, RS Takeda have built a stunning Subaru BRZ competition car in their white, green and yellow livery, and I’ve packed in the serious writing for a 9-5 job. Goodness knows what will happen in the next three years, but in the nearer future, after Takuma Sato’s antics at the Indy 500 last year, Futoshi Murase still has a shot at being the first Japanese racing driver to win big in the USA.

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Filed under 205 Ecosse Challenge, Rally