Sunday, September 29, 2019

Day Trip to Jogashima & Visit to Mine’s

Another weekend, another opportunity to discover new roads and explore places I’ve never been to. This Saturday I ventured to Jogashima, a small little island off the western tip of Miura Peninsula, facing Sagami Bay in Kanagawa.

I was completely unaware of this place's existence until Aki suggested I’d check it out on Friday night. The first half of the 80km ride from Tokyo was a bit busy with traffic, but once reached Kanagawa Prefecture the road opened up and I could stretch the legs of the Fairlady through a nice sequence of curves on the super smooth expressway. 

By 10:30am I was at Jogashima and decided to drive on top of the island and check out the park. You can hike up and down some of the cliffs and there are two lighthouses from where a great view of the bay can be enjoyed.

A day-pass parking ticket is available for 450¥ and grants access to the second area at the bottom of the island where the main village is located. 

I love these old Japanese towns and the fact that they are just a mere hour away from Tokyo; they are infused with tradition and local customs and even after so many years living here I still enjoy discovering them. The Z almost looked too modern and out of place!

I then ventured through the inner alleys of the island and realized that Jogashima seems to be renowned also for being a good diving spot. So far I have dived only in Okinawa and it might be worth trying something new.

The more I discovered the island the more I thought that there is enough to do and see that it would probably make a great place to spend a full day.

Apparently an historic car rally was taking place in the morning, as I reached the island with a convoy of classic cars from different brands. 

It didn’t take long for lunchtime to come and I indulged in a great maguro-don (マグロ丼 - tuna sashimi bowl) at a local restaurant. Forget about the fancy sushi: these are the true hidden gems of Japanese cuisine.

Jagoshima turned out to be a great find, but unless you partake in local activities, it can easily be explored in half a day, which meant that shortly after checking out a small local shrine I found myself wondering where to next. 

Well, as it turns out, a small yet rather famous GT-R tuning shop is located just 9km away from the island and en route back to Tokyo: worth a quick visit, perhaps?

When Dino warned me that Mine’s hasn’t changed a bit since 1999 I kind of had an idea (we all have seen the videos), but after visiting in person I have no doubt whatsoever that he was right. The place oozes a late 1990s/early 2000s vibe that is undeniable.

Starting from the odd design of the building that is carried inside the showroom, to the presence of 20 years old monitors and PlayStation 2 joypads, it feels like the whole place got stuck in time. And I love it.

Their world famous hand built RB26 with the signature midnight blue crackle paint finish was on display. I have always wondered why, despite being labeled as less expensive yet better than Nismo engines, cars with complete Mine’s power units are rarely seen.

A tasty titanium muffler for Z33 was also available for sale: priced around 200,000¥ is definitely not cheap, but surely a thing of beauty.

Honestly, the display area is quite small and doesn’t really offer much to see. Sure, I could have asked to be shown the workshop in back, but since I’m not a paying customer I didn’t want to be the annoying visitor that keeps the staff busy without buying anything; not to mention that their two democars were on display at R’s Meeting just two weeks ago. So, after roughly 15 minutes, I decided to jump in the car and head back to Tokyo.

Small, unplanned, day trips like this are exactly the reason why I bought my Fairlady Z and I look forward to the next one.

Until next time.

Monday, September 23, 2019

R’s Meeting 2019

As much as Japan spoils you when it comes to car culture certain things never get old, and the sight of rows and rows of GT-Rs slowly filling Fuji Speedway parking areas on a late summer morning is definitely one of them.

With over 2000 models ranging from all eras R’s Meeting is unquestionably the largest gathering of its kind in the world. Several owners even drive overnight from distant prefectures to attend.

After last year’s massive two-post coverage this time I decided to take it easy, enjoy the day and just take photos of things that truly caught my attention.

In all honesty the organizers could have used a bit more creativity and mix things up: the last two editions of the meeting have been absolutely identical, both in terms of events (like talkshows, etc), but also the layout of the stands was exactly the same. 

Remember the silver pair of 400R and Z-tune from Global Auto? Well, here they are both in the exact spot as last year!

But fair enough, considering that even the newest GT-R is over 10 years old, it is understandable how hard has become to constantly come up with new parts and ideas.

This, however, doesn’t mean that the event lacked of interesting cars or new additions from the previous editions. One of the highlights was definitely the R33 LM making a rare public appearance: who doesn’t remember this car being the star in the opening movie of the original Gran Turismo?

The ever-present Mine’s stand had on display their BNR34 and R35 machines. I was very impressed by Aki’s 1.5 step engine and I wonder how much faster their own democar is.

The engine bay comes as spartan is it gets, and those with sharp eyes will notice both the lack of chassis plate and covered serial number, thus making the car non-street legal. I don’t mind the spartan look, but surely wished they’d swapped those rubber hoses with something just a bit nicer.

There were a total of three 400R on display, but the one that caught my attention the most was this Deep Marine Blue model.

This is chassis #38 and while it had some minor modifications it was still in great condition.

Another “famous” BCNR33 was Nismo factory driver and Super GT champion Matsuda-san’s own car in Super Clear Red. This is a fully HKS tuned car with V CAM and a custom interior with bespoke seats. As nice as it looks, this car is almost daily driven and has close to 200,000km.

In a sense Matsuda-san’s car is a good mix of the two very distinct “stock vs tuned” philosophies that often GT-R owners choose from.

While there has never been shortage of tuning ideas the number of companies offering restoration services has definitely increased in recent years. Famous shop Kanazawa Body Repair was even running a small demo, pulling apart a R32 live in front of spectators.

I also made sure to drop by the pits and check a bit of the trackside action. The morning parade is interesting, but the time attack machines are a lot more exciting to watch, and Fuji is definitely the place to put these monsters through their paces.

Omori Factory was, as always, present with their fleet of Dark Metal Grey democars. They also announced the re-release of the iconic LMGT4 in 19x9.5 and 19x10.5, probably upsetting a few sellers on Yahoo! Auctions as the asking price for older version of the model recently reached insane figures.

There was, however, a much more interesting part that wasn’t really advertised or announced, and it was fitted on their BCNR33 Grand Touring democar: a proper carbon fiber airbox intake duct.

As some of you might be aware, due to slight differences in height, the Nismo inlet pipes don’t leave enough clearance to fit the standard OEM duct. For years this issue was solved with a rather rudimentary solution by simply mold and soften the plastic of the airbox with a heat gun. This new part (although still a prototype with unknown, if any, release date) addresses the issue and provides perfect OEM fitment.

Another R’s meeting is in the books and with autumn around the corner I look forward to cooler temperatures and some well planned long drives in the mountains.

As for Fuji speedway, I will probably be back in November for the joint DTM-Super GT exhibition race and, of course, my favorite event of the year, Nismo Festival in December.

Until next time.

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.