Tag Archives: Kieran Wright

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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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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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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