Sunday, September 8, 2019

Track Day with Omori Factory at Sodegaura

I’ve never made a mystery out of my limited driving skills. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m a reasonably safe driver who can enjoy some speed on normal roads and get a decent sense of how a car feels. I even had some respectable results during a few outings on go-karts, but when it comes to proper track experience I am a total novice and I’ve been hitching to fix that. And would there be a better opportunity than a private track day with fellow GT-R and Z owners, coached by Japanese Super GT Champions and Nismo works drivers? I think not.

Omori Factory organizes a handful of track days and “skill-up programs” every year and when I heard about one coming up on September 2nd I signed up right away. These are customer-only events (usually up to max 20 people) and owning an Omori Factory tuned and maintained car are prerequisites for admission. 

On Monday I woke up nice and early and headed to Sodegaura Forest Raceway, a relatively new (built in 2009) 2.4km circuit located in Chiba prefecture. The weather couldn’t have been better and the track gives a very Gran Turismo-like kind of vibe as the design and surrounding landscape are unmistakably Japanese. 

The event is organized to the highest standard: the track is closed to public, hospitality and technical support are provided by Nismo and Omori Factory cars used for demonstration runs. The icing on the cake is the coaching, performed by professional drivers. This time legend JGTC champion Masami Kageyama, GT500 driver and Bathurst 12h winner Katsumasa Chiyo and Nismo athlete Tomonobu Fuji were our coaches for the day.

We kicked off the morning by fitting lap-time sensors, radios and numbers to the cars as well as checking tire pressure. We were then divided in two groups (novice and advanced) and headed inside for the morning briefing. The day was roughly split into two halves: drills such as cone slaloms and J-turns in the morning, and 1-on-1 coaching and free laps in the afternoon.

Additional bonus for the day is that Sasaki-san from Omori Factory was attending the event with his Z34 Nismo in the pit next to mine. Nicknamed “ikijibiki” (生き字引 - literally “walking encyclopedia”), Sasaki-san started his career as a Nissan rally driver with the Silvia 240RS and then moved to Nismo as a Team Manager for N1 and Group A racing. Today he still works at Omori Factory as an advisor. Besides being super friendly (and lending me some of his tools) he spent the day giving me tips and advices - another experience I’ll never forget!

The morning session went by quite quickly and I could put into practice the basics of circuit driving such as trail braking, cornering, clipping apexes, heel & toe and overall finally getting a feeling of my Fairlady Z on track. Some drills, like the cone slalom, revealed more challenging than expected and I ended up hitting a few of them. Oh well, practices make perfect and each session was designed to be applied during the free run afternoon session.

As the first half of the day quickly came to an end we checked the cars and let them cool off in the shadow of the pits; we then headed to the small restaurant next to the last corner for a light yet delicious Japanese lunch.

Me being me I just couldn’t resist and had to take a closer look at some of the other cars attending. Besides Sasaki-san’s car, which was even fitted with a racing suit cooling device, one of the most impressive machines was this Bayside Blue BNR34 in full track spec. But I thought I’d better be mindful of the owner’s privacy and avoided taking too many photos.

However, the true star of the day was the one and only Z-tune prototype. This is the very car that ran on the Nürburgring with Tetsuya Tanaka behind the wheel and was once fitted with the 600ps Z1 engine. Many people “accuse” Nismo of being antiquate, but few are aware that back in 2000 this GT-R defeated every single tuner in Japan (including names of the likes of Top Secret, MCR and Midori Seibi) in a proper 5 laps race at Fuji Speedway during Nismo Festival. At a time when it mattered, Nismo did show everybody that they were easily capable of building the fastest streetable BNR34.

Far from being retired (and with an impressive number of kilometers on the odo), today this car is still used as a development mule for new parts and serves as a demonstration machine during events like this. Completely hand built this is possibly the most unique BNR34 on the planet in terms of construction and has some special modifications that can’t be found on any other car, Z-tune and CRS included.

After a short coffee break we then started preparations for the afternoon session. This time we were off to 5 free run sessions of 15 minutes each. I tried to soak in all the tips shared during the briefing, but Sasaki-san offered to run in front of me for the first stint so that I could try and copy his lines.

With my car being completely stock I had to be careful not to overdo things and Morita-san advised me to let the Z cool off every 3 laps. I ended my first session with lots of mistakes, but also progressively improved each lap. Once back in the pits I tried to compare lines and braking points with the more experienced drivers that were running in the upper class.

Parts of the afternoon session included 3 laps in the passenger seat with one of the instructors, and this is when things got really extra special. Not only I was assigned to ride in the Z-tune prototype, but Masami Kageyama was going to be behind the wheel. For those not familiar with Kageyama-san, he won the JGTC championship in 1998 with the iconic Pennzoil R33, raced the Nissan R390 GT1 at Le Mans in the same year and piloted other iconic GT500 machines like the Pennzoil Zexel GT-R in 2001, the Motul Pitwork GT-R in 2003 and even the Fairlady Z in its debut year in 2004. 

It really doesn’t get any better than this and those short (and incredibly fast) 3 laps are something I’ll never forget. And if this wasn’t cool enough, the second part of the 1-on-1 session included following Kageyama-san’s driving lines and pace with my own car. So here I was chasing a GT500 champion and Nismo legend in the Z-tune prototype while driving my Fairlady Z at Sodegaura. Not bad for a Monday!

The sessions went by way faster than I wished, but I was very happy with my improvements as I was able to shave over 5 seconds off my first session times. The car didn’t skip a beat, but the engine eventually succumbed to the brutal summer heat and I could feel a sensible drop in power as well as strong brake fading. I clocked my best time in the last attack lap of the final session and ended up just 0.3 seconds behind Sasaki-san. 

I must admit that I approached this event a bit anxious for a variety of reasons, starting from the car being completely stock to me being the only foreigner (ever) to attend the event. While some of the instructors and participants were visibly slightly surprised to see me at the morning briefing everything changed once they realized that language wasn’t a barrier and we had quite a few laughs throughout the day.

From the perfect technical organization and beautiful weather to being coached by a Nismo legend in one of the most iconic R34 on the planet, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to have my first outing on track. A big thanks to the Omori Factory staff and all the other participants for turning a simple track day into a fantastic experience that I’ll never forget. 

Until next time.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

CRS and Z-tune Feature on Omori Factory Blog

Back in late March both my car and the freshly restored (and repainted) Z-tune #15 shared the same garage bay at Omori Factory for a few weeks. While undergoing pre-delivery inspection the staff decided to take them outside the factory for a little photoshoot and commemorative feature on their blog. What a cool surprise!

As pointed out in the post, despite obvious similarities in appearance, the two machines were built following very different philosophies. Coincidentally they are finished in reverse purple and gray color schemes. Who knows if one day these two cars will be reunited again, but seeing them in person was definitely quite special.

Until next time.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Farilady Z Shakedown at Hakone Turnpike

After a rainy season that felt endless, the past couple of weeks have been nothing but summer blue skies and proper hot temperatures. Clear weather and a set of freshly scrubbed Michelin’s means it’s time to enjoy my Nismo Z for what I bought it: touring Japan’s best winding roads.

Last Saturday I set my alarm nice and early at 4:30AM with a clear plan in mind: drive from Tokyo all the way down the Izu Peninsula for a 400km plus round trip through the mountains and down the coast.

After beating the morning traffic on the Tomei Expressway I reached the true starting point of my itinerary: Hakone Turnpike. Source of inspiration for endless anime, video games and illegal drifting/street-racing, Hakone is widely regarded as one of the country’s best driving roads. 

And for good reason - the turnpike offers the typical out-of-a-movie Japanese scenery combined with a sequence of bends and turns that are a pure pleasure to drive in a sports car. Being privately owned, the tarmac surface, guardrail, signals and road markings are all kept in absolute perfect condition and offer, in true Japanese fashion, an incredibly smooth driving experience.

Whether you are pushing your car or just cruising through the bends, the drive is nothing short of fantastic. Reach the top at 1,011 meters and you’ll be rewarded with a view of the valley below, including Hashinoko Lake and Mount Fuji on the horizon.

This is an ideal place to put the Fairlady through its paces, although the overly conservative traction control kicks in more often than one would wish. The weight of the Z is definitely noticeable, as well as a slight loss in power due to the altitude and the exhausting summer heat. Nonetheless, I climbed the turnpike twice without any issue and I’m sure that the car would be way faster in more capable hands.

After a quick coffee stop to refresh and let the engine cool off a bit I headed towards the second stage of my itinerary - Izu Skyline.

Way longer than Hakone Turnpike (40 vs 15 kilometers), the Skyline leads through the mountains of the Izu Peninsula and connects Atami-touge to Amagi-kougen.

Besides a few stretches the road is considerably more twisty compared to Hakone and the lanes definitely narrower. As always, the impeccable Japanese manners shine through, with many drivers on slower cars pulling to the side to let you pass. As all sort of vehicles, including bikes, travel the road it’s important to keep in mind that this is not a circuit. Safety should always come first.

Eventually I reached the other end of the Skyline, almost at the bottom of the Peninsula. I then decided to park just to realize that, for some reason, the pearl white (or the heat) of the Z is a magnet for Japanese giant hornets! 

With a few of them plastered on my doors and bonnet I decided to steer clear and take a break. As funny as it might sound, if you have ever ran into one of these monsters you would probably share my decision.

Now, what are then chances of driving your 2008 Fairlday Z 130 kilometers away from Tokyo, park it on the top of a mountain, and run into a 1969 Farilday 2000? 

Very slim - one could say - but here I was standing in front of this example, built exactly 40 years before my car and looking absolutely fantastic. Despite not sharing much except the badge I couldn’t help but think how incredibly cool of a coincidence this was. 

After chatting with the owner for a bit it was time to get back on the road for the final stint of my trip. The drive down the coast to reach Shimoda is fun, but the closer you get to the beach the more the traffic intensifies. Nevertheless, it was great to reach the sea through the mountains; the diversity of sceneries that Japan can offer within a relatively small radius never ceases to amaze me.

Driving through these roads is both rewarding and inspiring at the same time. Cruising through Tokyo expressway at sunrise, sipping a hot coffee on top of Hakone Turnpike, the sweaty palms as you push the car through the tight bends of Izu Skyline all make the early morning rise well worth it. Looking forward to the next adventure.

Until next time.

Monday, August 12, 2019

New CRS Parts

Back in April, when I took delivery of my GT-R, I mentioned about three parts that were still missing as they couldn’t be fitted on time for collection day. Truth is that I came up with the ideas way too late and still wasn’t sure whether they would grant my request, nor if production was actually feasible. A whole two months went by when finally, while I was at the Nürburgring, I received a message with the news I was waiting for!

Once back in Japan I literally rushed to Omori Factory to see the final result in person. The problem (or fun?) with one-off parts is that you’ll never know how they’ll turn out until they’re finished. The long hours spent tinkering and the matching price tag make it a fairly expensive exercise, so you really hope that they’ll meet expectations. Luckily, they did! So, what are the parts? This will have to wait for a future post, but in the meantime I’ll leave a little sneak peek below.

Chatting with the guys I was surprised to hear that preparations for Nismo Festival 2019 were pretty much already ongoing. Considering that the event is still several months away it gives a pretty good idea of the logistic efforts that go into keeping all these old cars in running condition.

Speaking of which, it’s been a few years since the 400R has made an appearance at the festival and it would be great to see it again in December. This time it was sitting at the showroom and is probably still on display at the time this post is being published.

I always had a soft spot for Nismo very own model finished in Lightning Yellow, it’s such a 90’s color and suits the car incredibly well. If I’d ever own a BCNR33 I think I would probably repaint it in this shade and add a set of black LMGT4s. Could this be the ultimate Gran Turismo poster car?

Speaking of Gran Turismo, I was recently hit by a nostalgia wave while surfing Yahoo! Auctions. Predictably, it left my wallet several thousands yen lighter and me a little bit happier. Hope that eveybody is having a great summer.

Until next time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

VR. G2 Omori Factory Spec

Back in Japan, finally! Traveling is great, but after two weeks on the road nothing feels quite like being back home. This time I had an extra reason to be excited as something special was awaiting at Nismo Performance Center in Setagaya. My Fairlady Z Ver. Nismo is back, with a twist!

Some of you might be familiar with my tire-fiasco earlier in June, when the old Bridgestone Potenza literally crumbled under the weight of the car. The Z was at Nismo for the whole duration of my trip, which gave the guys plenty of time to perform a through health check, change all fluids, renew the shaken and, obviously, fit some new rubber (Michelin PS4). What I hadn’t anticipated was being able to find a set of VR. G2 Omori Factory Spec. This was a Japan-only limited release for the Fairlady Z and featured dedicated offset, extra knurling, a gloss black finish and the Nismo logo machined on one of the spokes. I think they look fantastic and give the car a whole new look!

More good news come from the weather front, as the rainy season is over and it finally feels like proper summer - time to drive! I clocked over 800km in the past two weekends alone, mostly running around the Shutoku Expressway.

This also included a 4 hours Saturday night session where I hit the holy trinity of Wangan parking areas Tatsumi/Daikoku/Umihotaru twice in a row. Running the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line (an underwater, 24 kilometers tunnel with no speed cameras connecting Chiba to Kanagawa) I also realized that the Z is still electronically limited to 180km/h. Time to do something about it?

Clear weather also means busier parking areas, and Tatsumi never disappoints. I remember seeing this group of R34s parked at Omori Factory on the very day I took delivery of my CRS. Small world, uh? 

Besides my Fairlady there was also another Nissan in the parking lot, a rather nice R35 Nismo finished in silver. 

You could be forgiven to think this was a car meet of sort, but no, it’s just a standard Sunday afternoon in Tokyo on a nice, hot summer day.

After a few days of consecutive driving the Z feels less grumpy and the engine revs more smoothly. It probably had been sitting for quite a while and it’s getting better after each drive, almost as I’m breaking it in again. I even went to extreme lengths to test the drink-holding capabilities of the spoiler with this limited edition “Shonan Coke” that tastes exactly like standard Coke!

Driving the Fairlady on the super smooth Tokyo expressway is fantastic, however, now that is fitted with fresh new tires, isn’t it time to take it for a proper shakedown somewhere more appropriate? I think so. 

Until next time.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Italy’s Dream Factories

Second and final destination of my European trip was Italy, where I planned to visit my family. I go back every couple of years, but, while I usually tend to stay local, this time I decided to carry on with the car-themed vibe of my holiday. After all, is there a better place when it comes to explore automotive culture?

So, after three very stressful hours on the Italian expressways we finally reached our first stop: Pagani factory in San Cesario sul Panaro.

I guess by now most long time readers will be well aware of my fascination for this brand, but fear not, this blog is not turning into “” anytime soon. However, these cars are so unique and rare that it would be a crime not to feature them. 

Admission to the Pagani Museum is not cheap, but this is the only opportunity that most of us mere mortals will ever have to see so many of these cars in one place. With roughly 300 units produced over 20 years and an average price tag of several million dollars, what are the chances of running into one?

The museum is really nothing more than a large gallery hosting a small collection of the most iconic variations of the Zonda and Huayra.

Most of them are cars that Mr. Pagani had to buy back from their original customers, while others are bit more special

Like the Zonda development mule, nicknamed “La Nonna” (grandmother in Italian), this car served as the development rig for most parts and upgrades of the successive evolutions and, after covering over 500,000km, it was meticulously restored before being retired.

Having known the brand for years I didn’t find any big surprise, yet it was cool to to see in person some of the things that really set Pagani apart. Look at this set of A/C unit control covers, made of ivory and mother of pearl! I can’t imagine this working well on any other car, but for some reason they would fit beautifully in a Zonda.

Talk about rare, they even had one of the only five Zonda Cinque Roadsters in the world.

This car was bought back and added to the collection for an impressive 11 million Euros.

After exploring the museum we headed inside the factory for a 30 minutes tour. As you can imagine no cameras were allowed in, but the place really lives up to the expectations. This factory takes the meaning of “handbuilt” to a whole different level.

After leaving Pagani we headed to Bologna for a night out and some food.

I couldn’t quite understand back then, but after 12 years living in Japan I now get it why Italy is such a popular country for tourism. Nothing quite matches the vibe you’ll get exploring restaurants and bars on a hot summer night.

The next day we headed to Maranello for a mandatory visit to Ferrari.

Ferraris are a fairly common sight in Tokyo and I believe I’ve been lucky enough to see in person pretty much all the most iconic models. Nonetheless, the museum is definitely worth a visit.

The selection of cars exhibited was fantastic and included both road and race cars from all eras.

I know some might be outraged by this, but after Pagani even the hyper-exclusive LaFerrari looked like a normal production car.

The trophy hall with the F1 World Championship winning machines was definitely special.

I just recently started to follow the sport back again, but in the early 2000s I remember witnessing the absolute Ferrari dominance in F1 during the Schumacher era.

Despite being the only car guy in my family I was glad to see them enjoying the trip and getting up and close with cars that otherwise would be a rare sight in Italy.

As a final verdict looks like my dad became a bit of a Pagani fan and my mom declared the new Ferrari Portofino the most beautiful car she’d ever seen.

We then headed back home for a few days filled with pasta and way too many espressos.

Going back is always enjoyable and nothing is as special as family time. On the other hand, having moved to Tokyo at 21 I now consider Japan home when it comes to daily life.

Overall this trip was absolutely fantastic and I managed to tick quite a few boxes off my list of must-try car related experiences. Now time to head back to Japan for more adventures!

Until next time.