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.

6 comments:

  1. Great article, I enjoy following along! BCNR33 owner

    ReplyDelete
  2. Must've been an awesome track day event!
    May I ask how/when you learnt to speak Japanese fluently? How long did it take to get to the "native speaker" level?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Matt,

      Indeed it was a fantastic experience.
      Well, I’ve been living in Japan since I was 21, so now I’m on my 12th year. I did study in a Japanese language school full time for one year, but using the language on a daily basis is what makes the real difference. I started to be able to conversate at a decent level after 1.5-2 years. Having a Japanese girlfriend also helps! ; )

      Delete
    2. Thank you for your reply!
      I just checked the Omori blog, you're in several of the photos!

      Delete
    3. Yes, I saw them...another life achievement unlocked I guess haha (joking)
      : )

      Delete