Touge driving is not meant to be easy. This is doubly true when the car you’re driving ranges anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. Earlier this month, 28 Japanese nostalgic cars queued up at the start of the 2016 Touge California. By the end of the grueling 8-hour, 200-mile tour, we had lost four of them.
For California-based JNC staff, the day began pre-sunrise. We convened at title sponsor Mazda’s R&D facility in Irvine, California, where we were joined by our checkpoint crews, assembled media, and Mazda personnel. Secret doors opened, and before long three treasures from Mazda’s Heritage Collection emerged from a bunker.
The first was an unlikely touge steed, a 1975 Rotary Pickup. Of all places to house one though, it makes the most sense that it was Mazda North America, for the REPU was sold only on this continent, never Japan.
Following closely behind was a 1978 GLC with fewer than 8,000 miles on the clock. With just 59 horsepower fed through a 3-speed automatic it was not the odds-on favorite to tackle 29,000 feet in elevation changes, but it immediately endeared itself to everyone present with its plaid-tastic seats and whitewall tires.
Last but not least, Mazda pulled out a 1985 Mazda RX-7 GSL-SE, the last and pinnacle of the USDM first-gens. Although Touge California is pre-1980, continuation models — generations introduced before the cutoff — are allowed.
Amazingly, Mazda’s example looked brand new. Mainly because it was, with only 1,124 miles on the odometer. We would add another 300 by the end of the day. “Are you sure you want to bring this on the Touge California?” we inquired of Mazda PR man Jacob Brown. His reply: “The cars in our heritage collection aren’t just museum pieces. ‘Driving Matters‘ is not just a slogan.”
And with that, we were off to rendezvous at the starting location, Lake Wohlford in Escondido, about 90 minutes to the south. The caravan must have been a motley sight to the Truman Show contestants that populate the planned communities of Irvine: accompanying the three ancient Mazdas were a fleet of ND MX-5 Miatas for journalists from the likes of Car & Driver, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Autoblog, as well as CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9 support vehicles for the Touge staff — all wearing matching Touge California roundels.
It was a beautiful day. The idyllic lakeside could have been painted by Monet, except for the row of brightly colored Japanese cars. “A bag of Skittles” was a phrase we heard over and over again. From the CVCC Honda Civics to the grand Toyota Century, Japanese cars of all stripes had gathered.
We had automotive royalty among us too, in the form of a 1972 Datsun 240Z — actually, the 1972 Datsun 240Z — once owned by Yutaka “Mr K” Katayama. The first president of Nissan USA personalized his car by painting his preferred non-factory yellow and installing a G-nose imported from Japan.
Cars continued to roll in. The braps of ported rotaries reverberating off the hillsides, the precision thrum of a Lexus straight six gliding in beneath the hood of a resto-mod Celica. It was a sight to behold, and the fun part hadn’t even started yet.
At 10:30 our Rallymaster Patrick Strong, a veteran writer of SCCA-sanctioned time-distance rallies (and, full disclosure, one of my best friends from our Texas middle school) laid down the rules — Touge California is not a race; do not cross the double yellow or you’ll be instantly ejected — and handed out the driver packets, each containing:
- A Touge California roundel provided by Yokohama Tire
- Instructions for complimentary towing should a breakdown occur, courtesy of Hagerty Classic Car Insurance
- The all-important Route Book provided by Koyorad containing the 200-mile course, something the drivers were privy to until this moment
- A sealed envelope containing bypass instructions for the Touge Stages, sections of challenging mountain roads in the truest spirit of the Japanese summit passes that inspired the event. If any drivers opened the envelope, they wouldn’t earn an “I Survived the Touge California” decal.
The cars were then divided into pre-determined run groups and staged. At 11 o’clock sweeper Joe Batwinis released the cars in intervals, and the 2016 Touge California was off!
The route fed the teams, each with a driver and mandatory navigator, straight into the scenic roads of the San Pasqual Valley. With the morning sun glinting off of chrome bumpers and a rainbow of single-stage paints, it was beauty in motion.
The first Touge Stage came 13.1 miles in, on a hilly stretch of California Route 78 (San Pasqual Valley Road). A six-mile stint of medium curves and 1,000 feet in elevation changes, it would be the easiest of the day.
At mile 35.9, Checkpoint 01 took the rally to Santa Ysabel’s (pop. 1,244) most famous intersection. Why? Because it’s the home of the renowned Julian Apple Pie Company. Checkpoint Team A was there waiting with pre-cut slices of the famed dessert served out of the back of a Mazda CX-3, because what’s more Japanese than apple pie?
That’s when we learned of the day’s first casualty, Scott King and Sandy Edelstein’s 1977 Honda Civic CVCC, sidelined with a clogged fuel filter. As it happens, we had the perfect person to help. Honda guru Tim Mings was navigating in Thomas Marquardt’s B18-swapped 1978 Civic (driven all the way from Colorado to attend).
Mings is the man Honda has entrusted to restore the first automobile Soichiro built for US import. Unfortunately, however, Team Mings was already on his way to the next checkpoint. There was no way for him to turn back and the ’77 was towed home. Touge waits for no one.
There were twisty roads between the pie and Checkpoint 02, but nothing that qualified as a Touge Stage. Still, by the time we arrived, another casualty had emerged. Jack and Danny Mardikian’s 1971 Datsun 240Z looked like one of the most formidable Touge weapons at the day’s start — reinforced frame rails, a Rebello 3.0 stroker, and custom subframe with race geometry. Sadly, the former time attack champ was crippled by a leaking brake line.
John Sahs, a designer at Nissan, and his navigator Michael DiTullo also suffered a minor setback when a hubcap on their Fairlady 1500 roadster decided to jettison itself into the woods. Fortunately, they were able to find it and posted the triumphant moment on Instagram.
Lunch was a clusterfuck. Though we had made reservations at The Round Up Grill for 70 long before the event (and re-re-confirmed just five days before the event), they truly lived up to the “Slow Food” motto, understaffed and unprepared. It was a blemish on an otherwise delightful day (sorry, everyone).
The next leg was quick, taking us to Checkpoint 03 at the gorgeous Lake Henshaw Overlook. It was a brief respite for what was to come. The next section would be the most challenging of the day, back-to-back Touge Stages.
Comprising the East Grade Touge was a 9.5-mile 2,200-foot climb up Mt Palomar (Palomaryama, if you will), offering some of the most incredible top-of-the-world views this side of a space dive. At elevations of 5,300-feet above sea level, you can see clear to the Pacific Ocean despite being over an hour’s drive inland.
It was here that Mark Nakashima and Victoria Viramontes earned the nickname “Masters of First Gear” in their 1973 Subaru 1400 GL. With a 70-horsepower boxer pulling the front wheels, it struggled mightily to scale the mountain, but succeeded thanks to the the winning strategy of “holding it in first and hoping it didn’t overheat.”
Following a sharp left at the summit, The uphill flowed immediately into the Palomar Touge, a twirling rollercoaster descent of 2,600 feet that had ears popping and stomachs dropping.
Checkpoint 04 was a much needed fuel stop, particularly for aftermarket Mikunis and thirsty rotaries. In true Japanese fashion, a 7-Eleven was nearby. Instead of a towering rural pachinko parlor, however, a Native American casino loomed behind.
This is where we lost our third car, the 1971 G-nose Z driven by Randy Rodriguez and Julien Thiebaud, both designers at Nissan. To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Randy’s race-prepped L28 Z; it was him that wasn’t feeling well. As some of you may know, Randy is a passionate Zed-head and responsible for the design of the Nissan 370Z. Since his talents are needed for future Nissans, we thought it best to bid farewell and let him recover.
We were only 76.5 miles in, but the next bit was a doozy. The longest leg would cover 60 miles, opening with the guardrail-free hairpins of the Couser Canyon Touge, unwinding through the hills of Temecula and Murietta wine country, and finally stopping for a quick coffee break at Checkpoint 05 near the banks of Lake Elsinore.
Located at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains, the 3,000 acres of freshwater was once home to the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix, an off-road motorcycle race held in the 60s and 70s. Honda even named one of its bikes the “Elsinore” due to its successes there, and it became a machine that drew the likes of Steve McQueen.
On this day, however, any Japanese steel from that era was headed up and over the mountains, the longest and final Touge Stage of the event. Spanning over 15 miles, the Ortega Touge begins with a skyward climb eastward. The ascent afford a spectacular view, with a sprawling lake below and colossal peaks ahead, each alternately swinging into view as you negotiate switchback after switchback.
Upon emerging from the Cleveland National Forest, the stage spit us out in San Juan Capistrano and the famed Pacific Coast Highway. 170 miles had passed. From there, it was a coastal push through the upscale drags of beaches Newport and Laguna, but that didn’t mean we were home free.
Now it was a race against the sun. The final checkpoint at Corona Del Mar would provide an oceanside photo op, but as is often the case when herding over 30 drivers, we were running behind schedule and daylight was disappearing fast (the issue of a plane crash on I-15 also threw a wrench into the equation). There was nothing we could do but lower our visors and press on headlong into the radiance.
The first cars to arrive at caught the sun just as it was touching the horizon, basking Checkpoint 06 in California’s famous golden glow. Drivers and navigators emerged from their cars to offer congrats for having conquered the toughest parts of the rally. Cameras materialized to capture the day’s last remnants of light. By the time the last car rolled in, the sun had dipped below the horizon and the sky was dark.
It was at this point that we got news of the last casualty. The Mazda REPU, driven by a team of Motor Trend journalists, had blown a hole in one of the mufflers and was limping back to the finish line at the Mazda facility while trying not to cause permanent hearing damage to innocent commuters.
We were nearly done. Just one final stretch to the endpoint was all that remained. The sound of waves crashing in the darkness soon gave way to waking engines. Sealed beams flickered on, and the cars took off into the night.
It was nearly 8 o’clock as the field rumbled into the parking lot of Mazda’s R&D facility. Ever the gracious hosts, Mazda invited all of us to their private courtyard, usually reserved for studying concept cars. Tonight, however, instead of clay models on turntables, Mazda had set up a sumptuous affair with mood lighting, actual tablecloths, and a display of classic, race, and modern cars from their collection.
After a hard day’s driving, we feasted like kings amidst Soul Red steeds on pit barbecue, decadent helpings of foods covered in cheese, and yes, more pie. Then Patrick and I got on stage and asked for each envelope with the alternate routes. We are proud to report that of the 24 cars that finished (not counting the MX-5 press cars), none were tempted to take the easy way out. Each envelope was traded for an “I Survived Touge California” decal that can only be earned by, well, surviving the Touge California.
Meanwhile, Mazda PR head Jeremy Barnes had quietly crept into the Mazda RX-782P race car sitting against the wall. With a chirp of the starter, he he fired up the last of Mazda’s legendary 4-rotor race cars. Even during warm-up, its 700-horse rumble was ferocious. Once operating temps were reached, Barnes revved the R26B to the delight of the cameraphone-wielding audience, its banshee wail echoing off the courtyard’s high walls.
Mazda wasn’t done yet. Barnes then led the crowd around the corner and opened the doors to Valhalla. Actually, it was a corporate basement in Irvine, but it was hallowed ground for any lover of cars. The remainder of Mazda’s collection — vehicles that weren’t displayed upstairs or driven on the rally — was here, a vault that is normally never open to the public.
Barnes proceeded to give a tour, explaining the significance and history of each classic or race car in the collection. Mazda had made some additions to the fleet since the last time we were there, including the last third-gen Mazda 626 built in the US (a 5-speed sedan) and a stunningly beautiful if dusty Mazda Atenza Wagon (no, it’s not coming to the US).
Afterwards, the participants collected their swag bags and fired up their engines one last time. They would put even more miles on their trusty steeds on the drive home. It was probably pushing 10:30 pm, but we can’t be certain. Most of the JNC staff was delirious from heat, lack of sleep, and hydrocarbon inhalation. By the time we finished cleaning up, it was midnight but it was truly one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done. Like we said at the start, touge driving isn’t meant to be easy.
Special thanks to Yokohama Tire, Hagerty Classic Car Insurance, Koyorad, Mothers Polishes and Waxes, Model Citizen Diecast, and Mazda North America. We’d also like to thank the Touge California and JNC staff, Rallymaster Patrick Strong, Checkpoint crews Ricky Silverio, Dave Yuan, Natalie Strong, Chris Hoffman, support driver John Moran, and sweeper Joe Batwinis.
Some images courtesy of Larry Chen for Mazda.