Marble, oak and Bach: a garage fit for a rally team going places

Following a grinning man beckoning me into a toilet goes against all my better instincts. Even more so when I’m told to lock the door behind. Somewhat apprehensively I comply and turn the latch. Classical music starts playing out of a speaker on the roof. The man gestures at the speaker, sniggers, and motions towards the lavatory pan, which opens automatically as we approach. He presses a button and the sound of running water plays. Relief flows as I realise I’ve been brought in here to be shown the fixtures and fittings. Before I’m allowed out the bathroom, I also have to admire the sink, the soap dispenser, and the bin.

That Hiromi Takeda has spent the best part of five minutes showing me round the bog is a fair indication of how proud he is of his new premises. This is not a private dwelling either – it’s a commercial motorsport garage. A garage loo with a heated toilet seat and Bach on cue. I am quite certain most Rolls-Royce dealerships do not have this, so it can be taken as a pretty good sign that business is booming for Nagoya-based Racing Service Takeda.

Rally cars on the forecourt

Rally cars on the forecourt

Last time I visited RS Takeda – in autumn 2013 – they were based in a big prefab hut at the edge of town, ten minutes’ walk through a park from a station near the end of the suburban line. They are still ten minutes’ walk from a station at the edge of town, but now the new garage which was being talked about has come to fruition. Via social media I’ve watched the foundations, structure and interior go up at a great rate of knots – this being Japanese and not British construction – but seeing the finished building for real is still mightily impressive. The low early-evening sun casts distorted, bloated shadows of Minis, Chrysler Crossfires and 3-series BMWs across the freshly-laid forecourt asphalt. Light creeps out from the garage, where a Mitsubishi stands up on the jacks with chief engineer Seiji Oshima cranking the spanners underneath, and the headlights of passing traffic reflect back off the glass-and-steel façade of the new building.

Inside as well, RS Takeda’s new headquarters is a professional motorsport base of the kind I’ve only ever seen from factory teams. There’s a bank of trophies on one wall and a plasma screen TV showing World- and Japanese Rally Championship highlights on the other, big leather chairs round solid wood tables, racks of brochures, a coffee machine, private meeting rooms, and – of course – the aforementioned FIA-homologated toilet. All of this is shown to me with great gusto. I’m given a token for the coffee dispenser – which does, for an automatic machine, do a mean caramel macchiato. I’m told to stand on the scissor lift, and then raised eight feet into the air in an experience more entertaining for everyone else than for me. There are magazines to leaf through, fluorescent marker tabs picking out the pages on which the feats of RS Takeda-backed crews are printed.

Shaccho-san discussing his approach to motorsport

Shaccho-san (left) discussing his approach to motorsport with Tsuji (middle) and my wife!

Much more fascinating than the equipment or cars in the garage is the guy showing me round. Takeda-san – or Shaccho-san (Mr. President) as he’s known to all and sundry – is a one-man publicity whirlwind for his business. The garage is still open when I arrive, but any customer who happens to arrive between now and closing time gets dragged into the showroom to meet the foreign guest. Shaccho-san soon has his iPad out to show me interviews he’s shot with his drivers on recent events, which invariably start with a panning shot of the service park and finish with a good minute’s worth of advice to the driver from the cameraman himself. Go on Facebook on any particular day and you’ll find photos of the latest cars in stock, the team’s most recent results, and whatever the boss had for dinner at the auction house canteen that day.

This enthusiasm extends to developing the careers of the team’s drivers and customers. “This is a talented young driver – later this year, he debuts in the All-Japan Championship in a new-build Suzuki Swift”. A gangly young gentleman in a fisherman’s hat and pale zip-up sweater is shepherded in front of me. “Talk to Leslie in English. Practice your English. Young drivers need English ability to compete overseas.”
The driver in question is Hiroshi Tsuji, one of the youngest members of the RS Takeda stable. So keen is Shaccho-san for Tsuji to get multicultural experience that he insisted I speak to him over the phone when I came to visit in 2013, handing me a live mobile over which the two of us awkwardly conversed for a few minutes. Now I finally get to meet the junior face-to-face, and despite linguistic and cultural differences I immediately get the same atmosphere I’ve felt from countless 205- and Civic-driving youngsters in Scotland – outwardly modest, quietly ambitious, taking in all the advice and guidance, but more than anything else just desperate to fill the car up with petrol, get out on the stages and do some rallying.

RS Takeda showroom - note Futoshi Murase on screen before Guy Martin was put on!

RS Takeda showroom – note Futoshi Murase on screen before Guy Martin was put on!

Tsuji and I are happily blethering away about the challenges and opportunities of competing in Toyota Starlets when the Japanese rallying on the TV is cut and a familiar northern voice takes over. A Guy Martin TT DVD has been put on in the interests of pronunciation practice. As we are encouraged to look at some spectacular bike crashes on the screen – which I am not entirely sure are conducive to forming vowel sounds – I notice posters put up around the TV for a talk event starring Futoshi Murase, one of RS Takeda’s most successful drivers and the example held up to youngsters like Tsuji. Futoshi will soon be back from the USA for a fortnight’s family visit, and Shaccho-san has big plans for while he’s here. Driver training to ensure he keeps his skills sharp. Mentoring for some of the younger competitors. And an afternoon-long rally forum in the showroom where Futoshi will talk about his rally experiences both Stateside and in Japan.

There is no doubt that everyone at RS Takeda is hugely proud of Murase-san’s achievements, not least the gaffer himself. However, there is another equally decorated and successful athlete in the factory who I am fortunate enough to be able to meet – Hiromi’s wife Toshiko. A woman of barely one-and-a-half metres shielded behind a thick white mask to stop a nasty cold from spreading, I get a sense she might be good at some kind of sport when she comes to meet us at the station and hoists two 25kg suitcases at once into the back of her equally tiny Daihatsu. What I do not know until I am told later is that as well as running the business side of the garage, Toshiko is among the top kendo fighters in Japan. At a recent ranking event she reached the sixth dan of black belt, a level held by only a handful of people nationwide – at present, no woman holds a higher level.

The Oshima Library

The Oshima Library

I make an off-the-cuff remark about sword-wielding skills being useful for protecting a garage full of high-performance cars from intruders and thieves, but it turns out there is a lot of similarity in the psychological demands of kendo and rallying – especially when it comes to harnessing fear. “Before a fight you face off against your opponent, only a few centimetres from each other’s faces,” explains Toshiko. “At that point you can’t show or sense any fear. You have to look into your opponent’s eyes, feel their breathing, and know that you can beat them.” Now I’ve seen enough bent cars down the years to know there are a fair few junior drivers out there who could maybe do with having a bit more fear, but the underlying point about being in the right frame of mind to engage in combat holds regardless of whether the weapon at one’s disposal is a bamboo cane or a Lancer Evolution.

This psychological musing also says a lot about how RS Takeda develops its young competitors. For all his wild enthusiasm when it comes to talking about his business, rallying and his customers, Shaccho-san has a very patient approach to nurturing talent, one focused not on going as fast as possible from the off but on building car control, technical knowledge and personal attributes like English language and media skills. Young competitors are brought into the Takeda fold via audition, and once part of the family will stay there for years or even decades. They’ll co-drive and service (Tsuji is currently completing an apprenticeship as a mechanic at a nearby dealership) as well as taking to the wheel, and when not rallying will be put out to do ice driving, circuit meetings, gymkhanas, karting or anything else that develops technique. Even more experienced competitors are encouraged to progress their careers incrementally – after clinching the class win in the All-Japan Gymkhana Championship, Suzuki Swift driver Yuya Ishihara is now getting ready to make the move over to rallying.

New showroom at dusk

New showroom at dusk

RS Takeda is a car club as well as a business, and if a member is out on a rally then everyone goes with them. It reminds me rather of one of the big Scottish car clubs like Coltness or Border Ecosse. Newcomers or class rivals help to service, and stalwarts are on hand to keep the juniors on the straight and narrow. “On your first rally, a finish is a win,” is how two-time Japanese class champion and top RS Takeda co-driver Hiroaki Miyabe prepared new recruit Hitomi Masada for her first-ever rally recently, his advice paying off as the pair got round through the rain and mud while others were falling off the course at every opportunity. Not that Shaccho-san followed such advice when he himself was rallying in the eighties. “In the middle of the night you’d slide off, fall twenty feet down a bank and have to climb back up to the road. Then, in the dark, still in your suit, you’d find the nearest house, sheepishly knock on the door at something like two in the morning, and be like ‘erm…can we use your telephone?’” With experiences like that to draw on, no wonder he is so keen to tell junior drivers to build it up slowly.

The famous toilet

The famous toilet

“We all need to be able to eat food and to pay the bills – that’s why I sell cars.” Shaccho-san is disarmingly frank about the commercial nature of his business. But what makes this business run so successfully is that it’s supported by a loyal band of customers who like the service they receive and are happy to help each other out in the name of their shared rallying passion. The new garage at the edge of Nagoya has quickly become a focal point for rally nuts from all over Aichi Prefecture, functioning like a giant shiny clubhouse. Not that this is necessarily what the proprietors always want. “Even when the lights are off at the end of the day and the rope is up across the car park, customers will still park up and come in to talk,” Toshiko tells me. “People will be driving back from work in the evening, maybe they have some time to spare before they’re due home, and they’ll pay us a visit no matter what time of day it is.” Back in the UK, I know that creating at atmosphere where customers feel comfortable dropping in for a chat is a sure-fire sign you’ve got the rally business cracked.

It took me an awful long time to realise that I wasn’t so much interested in cars as the people around them. This is probably why I don’t see any huge disconnect between what I do during the day – scholarship in social science – and the time I spend in evenings and weekends blogging about cars. It also explains why I find the whole Racing Service Takeda setup absolutely fascinating. From Honda test drivers to anime-obsessed doctors to Peugeot 106 Rallye enthusiasts, the garage and the club that’s sprung up around it connects all kinds of people. The phrase ‘social capital’ gets bandied about – and abused – an awful lot in scholarly and policy circles to describe the value and quality interpersonal connections bring to a society, but in the case of RS Takeda, building and maintaining these connections really is what keeps this unique business going round.

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