Kenjiro Shinozuka, Mitsubishi works driver and Paris-Dakar champion, 1948 — 2024

Famed Japanese rally driver Kenjiro Shinozuka has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 75. Best known for his achievements as a works driver with Mitsubishi, Shinozuka brought glory to the Triple Diamond in both the World Rally Championship and the Paris-Dakar Rally, becoming the first Japanese citizen to stand atop the podium in both events.

The Early Years

Shinozuka was born in Ota-ku, Tokyo in 1948. As a child, he was fond of anything that made the human body move faster than it was born to do. According to his biography by Yoshikazu Nakajima, in elementary school Shinozuka took up horseback riding, in middle school bicycling, and in high school motorcycling. While attending Tokai University, a friend invited Shinozuka to serve as navigator in his first rally, which got him hooked.

He continued rallying as a driver, and by his junior year his skills were noticed by the Colt Motorsports Club, Mitsubishi Motors’ employee team. Upon graduation in 1971 Shinozuka joined Mitsubishi as a regular employee while racing for its semi-works team on weekends and off-hours.

Driving a Colt Galant 1600L, Shinozuka won consecutive titles in the All-Japan Rally Championship from 1971-72. In 1974 he raced internationally for the first time in Australia’s Southern Cross Rally, and in 1976 he entered his first WRC competition, the grueling East African Safari Rally, placing 6th on his inaugural run.

However, just a year later Mitsubishi suspended their motorsports activities to focus on emissions reducing technologies. With no rally car to drive “Lightning Shinozuka”, as he’d been nicknamed, went back to his office desk where he would remain for the next eight years.

The Paris-Dakar Era

After a Pajero surprised the world with an overall win at the 1985 Paris-Dakar Rally, the pull of rally racing proved irresistible to Shinozuka. He vowed to take on the next Paris-Dakar, climbing back into the driver’s seat  at age 37. With a stock Pajero diesel under the banner of the then-privateer team Citizen Natsuki, he finished 46th in 1986’s running.

The following year Shinozuka returned to the Paris-Dakar, this time with a turbocharged 2.6-liter Pajero. He obliterated his previous year’s performance, placing an astonishing 3rd overall. When he returned to Japan a large crowd of press had assembled at the airport gate. “Was there a celebrity on my flight?” Shinozuka reportedly wondered, before realizing that the reporters had been waiting to see him.

In 1988 Shinozuka returned to Dakar, placing 2nd overall. At the same time, he became Mitsubishi’s team manager and star driver in the newly established Asia Pacific Rally Championship. After pushing his Galant VR-4 to first place in Malaysia, Australia, and India, he became the first-ever APRC champion.

Shinozuka’s continued rise reached a milestone in 1991 when his Galant VR-4 took the checkered flag at the Côte d’Ivoire Rally. With that victory, he became the first Japanese to win a WRC race, a feat Shinozuka repeated at the same venue in 1992.

In 1993 Mitsubishi debuted a new weapon to take on the world’s rallies, the Lancer Evolution. All works drivers, Shinozuka included, switched to this soon-to-be-legendary machine. Shinozuka kept his calendar packed by racing the Evo in the APRC and the WRC’s Safari Rally, and continued to make yearly pilgrimages to his first love, the Paris-Dakar, in a Pajero.

Those pilgrimages culminated in Shinozuka’s career high point in 1997. That year’s new rules for Paris-Dakar put a purpose-built buggy with a 660 pound weight advantage in the same class as the Pajero. The race spanned 4,950 miles over 15 days, passing through Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Senegal, but Shinozuka and the Pajero dominated the race, claiming his first overall Paris-Dakar victory. In fact, Mitsubishi swept the top four spots, and Shinozuka became the first non-European driver to ever win Dakar outright.

He continued to race for many years but funnily enough, despite being a world-renowned driver, Mitsubishi never gave Shinozuka any special treatment. As he wrote in his 2006 book Rally Baka Ichidai (which roughly translates to “Rally Idiot”), Mitsubishi paid him the same salary as an ordinary office employee. Even as he risked his life charging through some of the planet’s most hostile terrain, Shinozuka described his activities simply as “overseas business trips”. Under the “Accommodations” section of the expense report, he would write “slept in car”.

Still, Shinozuka was an ardent advocate for Mitsubishi. Along with fellow Dakar champion Hiroshi Masuoka, he toured Galant dealerships across Japan for a series of events called the “Paris-Dakar Report” where he spoke about his exploits, promoted the Pajero, and met with supporters. Shinozuka was known for being warm towards his fans and always willing to sign an autograph.

After Mitsubishi

In 2002 Shinozuka abruptly quit Mitsubishi. As he tells it, the powers that be suddenly decided he should retire from racing due to age. Shinozuka opted to resign instead, and signed on with Nissan the next year. Unfortunately, Shinozuka didn’t see the same success with Nissan’s Navarra pickup as he did with the Pajero.

The 2008 Paris-Dakar Rally was canceled due to threat of terrorism. Though still named for the Senegalese city, it was moved to South America for 2009, closing a chapter on one of the world’s great races. Shinozuka declined to compete in the event again, saying that he had a unique love for racing on African soil.

Each year after the race he had paid a visit the Kenjiro Shinozuka Elementary School, which he had established in 2002 in Yoff, Senegal, near the Dakar finish line, with prize money from the race. Shinozuka would carry school supplies in his team’s support vehicle and pass them out to the children at the end of the race. His 2022 induction into the Japan Automotive Hall of Fame specifically cited not only his racing successes but his philanthropy as well.

Though retired from the Dakar Rally, Shinozuka remained active in motorsports well into his 70s. He often participated in vintage rally events, typically driving a 1970s-vintage Mitsubishi Galant or Lancer. Additionally, Shinozuka coached university students in solar car competitions and instructed road safety courses around Japan. He was in the middle of preparations for the 2025 Africa Eco Race when he passed away.

An outpouring of condolences when the news was announced March 18. Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan, Michelin, the Dakar Rally, and the WRC all issued words of support on their social media accounts. It was a moving show of respect to a pioneer of Japan’s international motorsports efforts. As is Japanese tradition, Shinozuka’s funeral will be held for family and close friends, but a farewell for associates and fans will be announced at a later date.

Images courtesy of Mitsubishi, Kenjiro Shinozuka.

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2 Responses to Kenjiro Shinozuka, Mitsubishi works driver and Paris-Dakar champion, 1948 — 2024

  1. Nigel says:

    RIP Kenjiro Shinozuka.

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