If you’re looking for confirmation that Japanese classic car culture has truly arrived in the United States, the following statement may or may not provide it: on June 22nd, somewhere between Springfield, Missouri and Oklahoma City, a Nissan Fairlady Z432 was rear-ended by a farm vehicle. We’ll give you a moment to regain your composure before we explain how this calamity could possibly occur.
The Z432 was one of eight nostalgics that had been shipped from Japan to the U.S. to compete in the Great Race, a nine-day navigational rally for pre-1972 automobiles. Held annually since 1983, Great Race is at once a celebration of America’s vast and diverse landscape and a test of skill and endurance for owners of classic cars. Offering a prize purse of $150,000, Great Race has attracted top-level vintage rallyists throughout its history, and yet, it was only last year that either a Japanese contestant or a Japanese car accepted the challenge when Toshi Akasaka shipped his 1970 Nissan Laurel across the Pacific for 2014’s Maine-to-Florida event. Historically, Great Race has been dominated by classic American iron and its very traditional owner base, so did Akasaka and his Laurel find acceptance?
“The first year, [Akasaka] got a lot of inquisitive looks,” said Wade Kawasaki, president and COO of Coker Tire (the event’s title sponsor). Jeff Stumb, director of the Great Race, added, “But by the end of the event, he became everybody’s best friend.” The admiration was mutual: though far from contending for a win, Akasaka had such a great experience on his first Great Race that he vowed to return in 2015… and to bring five Japanese teams with him.
Maybe it was Akasaka’s sales pitch, or maybe it was the fact that the 2015 Great Race would follow America’s most fabled highway, Route 66, but ultimately eight Japanese teams signed up for the adventure. Among them were luminaries including Ricky Chiba, founder and team principal of Team Taisan Racing who would tackle the course in a KP510 Bluebird, and Kuniaki Shimizu, a popular television and recording star in Japan, who would compete in one of two Fairlady roadsters. In all, a contingent of thirty drivers, navigators, support staff and media would make the journey to the U.S. under the collective name “Team Japan.” In January, race director Stumb flew to Japan to meet with the entrants and present them formally with their car numbers. It was then that the real work began.
“This was a monumental undertaking for them,” commented Stumb. The cars would be shipped from Yokohama to Long Beach, where after a lengthy hold in customs they would be freighted by truck to the start in Kirkwood, Missouri. Meanwhile, the drivers and navigators were faced with learning to understand Great Race’s unique combination of written and “stick-map” instructions… printed in English, which none of the Japanese contestants spoke fluently (if at all). And then, said Stumb, “We threw them on the backroads of America.”
Though members of Team Japan participate in vintage car rallies in their home country, the level of difficulty of Great Race took many by surprise. The challenge of running against the clock in this TSD-format rally was compounded both by the language barrier and by a general lack of familiarity with American-style traffic patterns (and with the oppressive heat of the Mojave desert, which briefly sidelined at least one nostalgic with cooling problems.) “It was a steep learning curve, and their scores showed it,” said Stumb. However, Team Japan’s performance improved on each successive day, and more importantly, they were having a blast.
We caught up with Team Japan at Santa Monica Pier, the 2015 Great Race finish line and terminus of Route 66. Great Race’s motto is “To finish is to win” and by that standard all eight Japanese cars were winners. To the initiated, watching these iconic machines roll down the boardwalk having just completed a 2000-mile journey across the American heartland was a spine-tingling experience.
As cars go, the star of Team Japan had to be the Toyota 2000GT of Norihisa Morita and Akitaka Yamaguchi. A regular competitor in Japanese vintage rallies, Morita’s 2000GT drew a surprising amount of attention on Santa Monica Pier… more than once, bystanders were heard to make reference to the rare Toyota’s status a million-dollar car. To see its fenders spattered with half a continent’s worth of road grime was at once disturbing and invigorating.
If any car came close to drawing the same level of attention as the 2000GT, it was Nohiro Muramatsu and Kojima Munemori’s Hakosuka Nissan Skyline GT-R, which was clearly a favorite among younger spectators. We asked Nohiro to describe his Great Race experience, but our inability to speak Japanese limited us to learning only that the Skyline’s passenger window had become stuck in the down position. Fortunately, Touge California veteran Julius Metoyer was on the scene, and quickly obliterated any language barrier by whipping out his smartphone and showing photos of his own Hako, to Muramatsu’s visible delight.
Relatively (and shamefully) overlooked by the crowd was the other hakosuka in the Great Race, the sedan of Shinji Takei and Jun Nishikawa. If there’s one area where Japanese classics are on equal footing with their cohorts from Europe and the US, it’s this: four-doors get no love.
Aside from the aforementioned Fairlady of Kuniaki Shimizu and navigator Hitoshi Dobashi, the event’s second Datsun roadster was driven by the husband-and-wife team of Yoshiaki and Reiko Ninomiya. Veteran rallyists in Japan, where they compete often in their 1935 Bentley 3.5-liter, the Ninomiyas expected Great Race to be difficult, but even they were surprised at how much so. Though smiling, the strain was evident on Reiko’s face as she explained (through her sister, who speaks limited English) that the export-market SR311 overheated repeatedly in the Arizona desert. “Lake Havasu,” she said, as if spitting out a profanity.
A pair of S30 Zs took part in Great Race. Masahiro Yokota and Akitaka Yamaguchi’s garden-variety 240Z ran without incident. And then, there was the hard-luck Z432 of father-and-daughter team Shigekazu and Ayako Yasui. The opportunity to compete in Great Race this year with Team Japan was a bit of kismet for the Yasuis, both experienced vintage rallyists, as driving Route 66 at age 66 was an item on Shigekazu’s bucket list.
It’s doubtful that being struck by a farm truck in the middle of America was part of the plan, but Ayako seemed to keep a sense of humor about the experience, playfully exclaiming “Americans! Noooo!” while pointing to the bent bumper. We first thought this was her nod to the rarity and value of the Z432 rather than an indictment of our country’s collective driving skill, but after the event we learned the truth behind the sentiment: the Z432 does not belong to the Yasuis… it was borrowed from what we can only assume is a now-former family friend.
As the members of Team Japan reconvened on the Santa Monica Pier, exhausted but elated, we wanted to know how they had been received by the Great Race community and by the American public-at-large. Unfortunately, our inability to communicate in their language held us back from getting a direct answer from the contestants. Thankfully, Coker Tire’s Kawasaki was able to add his insight.
“Car people are car people,” he said. “Team Japan was unbelievably accepted.” Quite encouragingly, this sentiment extended beyond the Great Race community. Spectators in the Heartland were extremely open to these unusual classics. While younger fans instantly recognized the Skylines and the 2000GT, Kawasaki explained, the reaction of the older crowd ran almost uniformly toward “Hey, that’s a cool-looking car! What is it?” Does this mean that the days of snobbish, anti-J-tin sentiment in the U.S. are over? It’s likely too soon to tell, but perhaps when an American team selects a Japanese car as their weapon-of-choice for the Great Race, we’ll be able to answer in the affirmative.