It’s just before 6 a.m. local time, and I awake to race car noises outside my window – proper ones, too, not like the racket generated by the backfire bros back home.
I quickly toss on some clothes as haphazardly as a college kid who’s late for a test and run outside to find a collection of some of the finest automobiles I’ve ever seen. But this isn’t some sort of show and shine – it’s a lineup of cars waiting to access Japan’s legendary Fuji Speedway, about half of which are there for a number of different sanctioned race events. Just to reiterate, these epic pieces of machinery – showroom-quality Nissan Silvias and Skylines, and Toyota Supras of various vintage, among others – aren’t just here to bask in the sun on a Saturday morning. They’re here to be driven.
A Long Time Coming
Like so many of you, I’ve been infatuated with Japanese car culture since I was a kid. Not to wax too poetically about it, but there’s a level of passion for the automobile in this island nation of some 126 million inhabitants that I simply don’t see back home.
The tuner scene in particular is the one I grew up obsessing over, with every bootleg video magazine I could get my hands on reinforcing my fantasies about what it must have been like in Japan. There seemed a pureness to the passion, not to mention an innate understanding of what was cool.
That was more than two decades ago; and while the scene at home that exploded around the same time – think early Fast and Furious franchise – fizzled shortly thereafter, the one in Japan is still going strong to this day. It’s like a time capsule in the best ways possible, with the same cars and clean modifications making for a certain sense of timelessness.
Akio’s Pet Project
And that brings us back to this day at Fuji. Well, it actually started the night before with a tour of the facility that houses Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda’s Rookie Racing outfit. Separate from the automaker’s factory-backed efforts, Rookie Racing is personally owned by Toyoda – a renowned racer and enthusiast in his own right. (For those wondering, the team is named after Toyoda’s dog.)
The first stop is a reception area, where some of the team’s former entries are on display. Perched just above them is an homage to Initial D – yet another Japanese car culture phenomena I’m still a huge fan of to this day. What’s different about this Toyota Levin is apparent almost immediately: it’s electric. Powered by a 95-kW electric motor fed by a Lexus NX battery pack, this Levin still has three pedals and a proper gear stick. (Adding to the coolness is the collection of stickers hinting at its all-electric powertrain, including the one on the back that reads “non cam” instead of twin cam.)
But it’s the back half of the building that’s home to Rookie Racing’s operations. That’s where we see a Toyota GR86 race car unlike any other. That’s because it’s powered by the same turbocharged 1.6L three-cylinder as the GR Yaris and runs on synthetic fuel that’s carbon-neutral. And further down the line is a Toyota Supra that races in the Japanese Super GT series – the successor to the JGTC stuff of the 1990s and early ’00s that helped fuel my passion.
Best Morning Ever
Waking up to the sounds of idling 2JZs and RB26s – with a whole bunch of FA engines from the Toyota 86 and GR86 thrown in for good measure – certainly isn’t a bad way to start a day. Wandering through the neatly and respectfully arranged lineup of cars – this is Japan, after all – is even better, with track-ready Nissan GT-Rs of R32 and R34 vintage strapped to the backs of flatbeds.
It’s obvious by the assortment of cars that some are here for different reasons than the ones with the roll cages and outrageous spoilers, yet the majority of what turn out to be show cars participating in a Toyota GR86 meet at the track have been driven here. I’m more than 10,000 km from home, and the language barrier is very real, but I’m speaking the same language as everyone here with each smile and nod we exchange. It’s a shared passion and appreciation for the same corner of car culture that bridges the gap, and it’s a special feeling I won’t soon forget.
I also won’t be forgetting the sights and sounds of some of those same cars flying around Fuji Speedway as part of on-track activities including the famed Hiper Challenge. Watching Supras and Skylines bomb around any track would be amazing, but doing it here just feels right. It’s a bit like watching the Boston Red Sox play at Fenway Park. It’s home. It’s why I wasn’t even mad that we were forced to use the gymkhana course at Fuji instead of the main track during a brief – albeit informative – test of both the Toyota GR Yaris and the GR Corolla. Some moments in life are perfect even when you aren’t an active participant.
I’ve never quite understood the euphoria of Beatlemania or Bieber Fever, or any other celebrity fandomonium, but this is by far the closest I’ve ever come. For any of you out there with a similar passion for Japan’s car culture, I implore you to take a trip of your own and enjoy the special kind of culture shock that’s sure to come with it.