The news came totally unexpectedly and out of the blue. But then, surprising sad and tragic news tends to arrive that way. A phone call from Kaizen Factor co-editor Ryan (Flipside909) on the afternoon of Wednesday 23 June asked, “Have you seen the story on Autoblog? Naruse-san, Toyota’s Master Test Driver, was apparently killed in an accident in an LFA near the Nürburgring.” I spent the next couple of hours at work in something of a stunned daze, unable to get to my computer to find out more. Once I finally did, I made up for lost time and sought out all the information I could about this unspeakable tragedy. Not much was out there, though, except for the fact that, on Germany’s highway 410 just outside the fabled German track, Hiromu Naruse, piloting a prototype Pearl Yellow Nürburgring Package Lexus LFA en route to Toyota’s nearby workshop entered a blind curve and collided head-on with a Vermilion Red Metallic BMW E90 3-Series sedan. Naruse-san perished in the crash, while the driver and passenger in the BMW were injured, but, according to BimmerFile, the driver in the 3 Series received minor injuries and has been released from the hospital. The passenger is still in the hospital with non life-threatening injuries and is expected to make a full recovery. Although some initial reports (such as Motor Trend and Automobile) erroneously mentioned a passenger in the LFA, Toyota officials have confirmed that Naruse was alone in the Lexus supercar. As of this writing, an ongoing police investigation has not determined the precise cause of the accident, but, ultimately, those particulars pale in significance to Hiromu Naruse’s enormous talents and contributions to the enthusiast performance legacy of Toyota and Lexus.
In 1963, Naruse joined Toyota. As his profile on the Gazoo Racing website reveals, he was nearly placed in the carmaker’s accounting department but, thankfully, wound up in the Vehicle Evaluation and Engineering Division instead. Soon enough, the first Toyota to bear Naruse-san’s touch appeared: the 1965 Sports 800, a rival for the Honda S600 / S800 sports cars. The “flat-twin” (two horizontally-opposed cylinders) two-seater also pioneered the concept of the removable “targa” top, beating Porsche to the punch. Two years later, Naruse helped develop the original Japanese supercar, the legendary Toyota 2000GT. Yet, another of his contributions from 1967 caught this author’s eye: the Toyota 1600GT, a sporting version of the 3rd-generation Toyota Corona 2-door hardtop with a 9R DOHC engine developed by Yamaha. Coincidentally, both the aforementioned Gazoo Racing page and Autoblog portray it in pastel yellow. Picture that very same car, in the same color, with a different grille, a black vinyl top, whitewall tires and a far more mundane 1.9-liter 3R overhead valve 90 hp 4-cylinder engine coupled with a 2-speed Toyoglide automatic and you have this author’s first car, received as a surprise 1972 Christmas present. After a less-than-stellar ownership experience, I strayed from the Toyota fold for nearly three decades, but, to put it in Biblical terms, another Naruse creation brought this prodigal son back into the fold: the Toyota Altezza, which was exported as the Lexus IS 200 and IS 300. Other Toyota models that are credited with Naruse-san’s input are the Toyota 7 racer, the original 1970 Celica, the AE86 RWD sports Corollas, the 1st and 3rd-generation MR2, the Mk IV Supra and, of course, Lexus’ IS F and LFA.
So, while we should be very grateful that Hiromu Naruse did not wind up as a “bean counter” accountant, he hints that, perhaps, he might have made a very talented Iron Chef, for both an interview titled What is “Automotive Seasoning?” appearing on the Gazoo Racing site and Lexus Magazine‘s Tales of a Lexus Test-Driver are chock-full of parallels between cooking and seasoning and getting a car to feel and handle just right. In the latter article, Hiromu Naruse succinctly reminds us to
Think about food. If the first, middle, and last impressions—look, taste, and finish—are good, people remember it with a good feeling. Creating a vehicle is the same. Test drivers are like chefs, and I take the role of head chef.
while on Gazoo Racing he goes into more detail:
People may think that seasoning a car generally entails replacing parts such as the suspension or the wheels to make the handling firmer and adding aerodynamic parts to enhance the aerodynamic performance. This, however, is remodeling, and is not seasoning. Seasoning (fine-tuning) and remodeling are completely different. We want the customer to feel that the product is delicious and be happy with their choice, and to think, Wow, I want to eat (i.e. drive) this again!
When making omelets, the flavor will vary depending not only on whether salt or soy sauce is added, but also on how much is added, in what order, and when in the cooking process. The very best chefs can make all the difference to a soup by adding just the right amount of salt at the very end. The “automotive seasoning” that we do is exactly the same. The feel of the ride can change completely by changing the shock absorber shims by just two-tenths of a millimeter. Also, the quality of the ride that humans feel when driving is related to longitudinal G-force (lateral G-force is related to fear), and through experience and training, we can feel and adjust the force in units of 1/1000 of a G. The longitudinal G-force normally felt in an elevator is about 0.2 G, so this gives an idea of just how subtle our adjustments are. If these minute differences are taken in isolation, ordinary people won’t feel anything different. But when combined together with all the other minute differences, a big difference can be made to the taste of the car.
An excellent, deeply moving must-read eulogy for Hiromu Naruse was written by Damon Lavrinc of Autoblog. Titled Seat Time with Hiromu Naruse, it tells of Lavrinc’s finally getting the opportunity to meet Naruse-san on Thursday 22 October 2009 at the Lexus LFA Press Preview at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Apart from his vivid, descriptive writing, it truly resonated with me, for I, too, along with Kaizen Factor co-editor Ryan (Flipside909), had just had the immense privilege, the day before, of meeting Naruse-san personally at the same event and venue. Frankly, I wrote relatively little about him on my The Pinnacle of the Passionate Pursuit of Perfection, Part 2 article for LexusFforum.com, yet, he certainly made an impression beyond my words:
First, though, came a familiarization lap as the passenger of a very distinguished driver: Hirose Naruse, Toyota’s Master Test Driver and the highest-ranked among Toyota’s 300 test drivers… Soon enough, Naruse-san presses the gas pedal, and the otherworldly, Formula 1-influenced howl makes this Lexus sound like no other one ever… The familiarization hot lap as Naruse-san’s passenger ends quickly enough, and now it’s my turn to get in the driver’s seat… Naruse-san was not my designated passenger for my drive, but rather, another of Lexus’ test drivers with a better command of English, all the better to curse me out if I do something seriously wrong, I suppose… As I got underway, I noticed that the shifts in the black LFA felt far sharper and rougher than they did in the White Avenging Angel. Car-to-car variation? Possibly, but a far more likely explanation is that gearshift speeds can be adjusted in seven stages – from approximately 0.2 seconds for intense track work to 1.0 second for smooth cruising – using the Shift Speed Selection dial, and I’d venture a guess that Scott Pruett prefers the faster response time even at the cost of smoothness versus Hirose Nasure’s slower but smoother shift setup… Shortly after returning from my date with the Matte Black Beast, this author learned that his Club Lexus counterpart Ryan had been given a lap on the Turn 3 and 4 portion of the oval with Hirose Naruse at the wheel. Hey, we’re not about to let that be a Club Lexus exclusive, are we? No, sir, and, soon enough, I donned my protective headgear and jumped into the passenger seat of the White Avenging Angel once more. (The stuff this author does for you people, I swear…) Naruse-san seemed more enthused this lap around, and as we made our way just to the right of the cones that politely suggested we enter Turn 10 instead, our entry onto the Oval Turn 3 meant that we were on the so-called Modified Road Course. Riding in the LFA on the banking and into Oval Turn 4 was a surreal experience as the car tilted leftward and paved track surrounded – no, enveloped – us.
Left to right: Ryan (Flipside909), Hirose Nasure, Scott Pruett, Joaquín Ruhi (jruhi4)
Hirose Nasure’s face showed every one of his 67 (or maybe, at that point, 66) years, yet his physical demeanor and an undefinable twinkle in his eye were certainly decades younger. We barely exchanged words, merely smiles, nods, bows and handshakes that transcended language. Unlike Damon Lavrinc, I didn’t have the presence of mind to “thank him for the ride with a (decidedly gaijin) ‘arigato’ “, but I will be forever grateful for the two laps of Homestead-Miami Speedway that we shared. Naruse-san was a fascinating mix of external zen calm and wisdom with an internal strength and intensity that was evident even in our brief encounter. American theater and film describes Southern women that are outwardly delicate but internally tough as steel magnolias, but, when it comes to veteran Japanese male test drivers, carbon-fiber bamboo stalks might be a far better analogy.
As authors Brian Gill and Doug Knox wrote in what would probably turn out to be Hirose Nasure’s final interview:
If you’ve never heard of Hiromu Naruse before today, all you really need to know is that he’s a legend. So much of a legend, in fact, that the performance-auto elite has nicknamed him the “Nur-Meister,” which sounds sort of amusing until you run it through a German-to-English translator: Sole Champion, Only Master, One and Only Master. To call that a nickname with cred is a major understatement, no matter what language it’s in.
It is also possible to view Nur-Meister as shorthand for “Master of the Nürburgring”, a title he would richly deserve. Yet, in an almost creepy premonition, the interview with Gill and Knox reminds us that constant high-speed driving isn’t all fun and games. Here’s a quote from Hiromu Naruse:
I have to say, when I drove the LFA for the first time, it was scary. It was like a monster. When we raced the LFA in Nardo, Italy, I thought I might not return to Japan alive. The purpose of this “test” was to evaluate the car’s durability at 200 mph for a long period. The race was in the dark with no lights on the track, plus there were birds flying at me—and imagine if a tire burst! We created the final LFA through these kinds of test experiences.
With Naruse-san gone, the question remains as to which of Toyota’s other roughly 299 test drivers would fill his awe-inspiring Pilotis or Pumas. Toyota certainly has a broad and deep bench to draw from, but he won’t be easily replaced. Naruse himself expounded on the Gazoo Racing site as to what qualifications his successor should bring:
A restaurant has a person who is responsible for determining the flavor of the dishes. That is the chef. The decisions of the chef are final. Dishes that the chef has determined unacceptable are never brought to a customer’s table; if the chef gives the okay, the dish will appear on the restaurant’s menu and will be served to customers no matter how many others object. Determining the flavor isn’t done by a majority vote. Deciding things by compromise is also highly objectionable. European automakers employ a master craftsman (meister) who is responsible for determining the flavor of the cars, and until that person gives the okay, the cars cannot be sold. I believe that Toyota needs this type of person in the future. A restaurant chef not only determines the flavor of the dishes, but has the authority to make decisions on all stages of preparation, right from procuring the ingredients. To me, the ideal would be for a member of the Toyota management team to be such a chef who understands completely the ingredients and the flavors.
It is rare to find an internet article, blog entry or thread on Hiromu Naruse’s untimely passing whose commentary doesn’t include at least one plea to rename the Nürburgring Package option outfitted to 50 select Lexus LFAs the Naruse package as a fitting tribute to his irreplaceable legacy, and we wholeheartedly agree.
Our most heartfelt condolences go out to the entire Toyota family and, above all, to his wife, to whom he referred thusly in the July 2008 Gazoo Racing interview:
It has been commonly said that people get tired of a beauty after three days. With a car, as in the case of my dear wife, the true flavor comes out after years of being together, through thick and thin. As with one’s spouse, it is the odd imperfection that gives a car its unique character and appeal. Even at my age, I feel that I still have a long way to go.
Godspeed, Naruse-san, we’ll miss you. You are surely giving God Himself the ride of His life in the ultimate LFA.