The idlers 12 hour endurance race is one that’s consistently marked with a big red X on the Speedhunters calendar.
For a few years now, Dino and a string of other contributors have taken the two spots behind the wheel that Nakai-san consistently reserves for his favourite camera-toting gaijin. Only this year Dino decided to step back from driving duties and offer up the role to the two new guys – Ron Celestine and myself, Blake. We had no intention of breaking with tradition, so the two of us donned our dual driving/photographing hats and dived straight into the mad 24 hours of preparation and racing that is the idlers 12 hour.
Blake: So, Ron, has your body recovered from last weekend yet?
Ron: I could use another day or three to fully recover, but I’m good. How about you?
Blake: By Wednesday I’d caught up on missed sleep, but my shoulders still feel like they’re recovering from an intense session in the gym. So yeah, I’m a bit tender. That was a pretty intense 24 hours, right?
Ron: It really was! I kind of knew what to expect since we went to idlers last year, however what I didn’t predict was the fact that I would actually be racing in this year’s event.
Blake: Yeah, it was a pretty last-minute thing – senpai Dino gave up his regular spot so you could have a steer for the first time. Two first-timers jumping into a 12-hour endurance race, what could possibly go wrong…
Ron: As if that wasn’t going to be challenging enough, Nakai-san decided to ‘spice’ things up a little bit this year.
Blake: Ahh, I know exactly what you’re talking about. This year, Nakai-san decided he’d had enough of people abusing the expensive gearboxes in his race cars, so provided some encouragement to shift carefully, in the form of small, sharp spikes on top of the shifter. That was a bit too Death Race for my liking; trying to learn a new car is hard enough without the constant threat of an impaled hand. Did you have a chance to drive the car prior to your stint?
Ron: Nope. The plan – or I should say, the dream – was to get drive the car from RWB headquarters in Chiba to the first rest area at Moriya. However, returning drivers and paying customers get first dibs on driving the cars, so I was out of luck on that end.
Blake:Blasting down the Joban Expressway in Project NSX alongside seven race-prepped RWBs was an awesome experience, but I would’ve killed for some seat time before race start, just to get comfortable. But I guess that’s Rough World – man up and get on with it, or go home!
Ron: Pretty much. So, once we were able to get inside Twin Ring Motegi, were you able to get any sleep before the first drivers briefing?
Blake: After we’d prettied up the cars with some Speedhunters katakana stickers and done our first photo edit session in Dino’s Toyota Alphard, I closed my eyes for about 20 minutes. Dino said I was snoring, so I guess that counts? Side note: I think that Alphard was my favourite car of the whole weekend; the hybrid battery could run A/C and even Japanese TV (guaranteed to put anyone to sleep) for a decent amount of time before the petrol engine kicked in. Bliss. Thankfully the weather wasn’t too hot this year, though.
Ron: Oh, I know. Although, the cooler weather meant rain was in the near future which would alter the racing conditions later on. And yes, you were snoring. In fact, you and Dino were snoring. So, combo snoring with Japanese TV playing in the background meant that there was no chance I was going to fall asleep in the Alphard. So I gave that up and decided to walk around the pits, mingle a bit with the other drivers, and make sure our gear was given the all clear by the official.
Blake:Oh, my bad. Lucky we brought that Red Bull, eh! You were so busy all weekend, even becoming the unofficial translator between the English and Japanese speakers in our team. Being able to understand what the other drivers were saying about the car’s handling and track conditions was so valuable; it meant that you half knew what to expect before diving in to your 30-minute stint. Thankfully, car guy sign language is basically universal!
Ron: Haha, this is very true! As they say, the best resource is information. Often, the drivers would come up to me and explain how the car was acting, or try and warn us about the track conditions. It was a little late, but during development of your ‘situation’ during your first stint, the previous driver told me that the rear tires felt as if there was very low air pressure, and that making minor steering inputs would cause the rear to dance around more than normal.
Blake:Yeah, that was information I wish I’d had a little earlier. After five laps of struggling to get a feel for the car and build up to a decent pace, the rear end let go at the exit of the final corner, and I spun it. The left-rear tyre was the one that let go, and it had de-beaded after the spin which makes me think it had lost pressure almost completely. All I could do then was limp the car into an escape road and wait for the recovery vehicle. Not a great way to start the race, but the recovery team worked quickly and once Nakai had replaced the rear tyres I think we’d only lost about half an hour of time. I have to admit my confidence was pretty much shot after the spin; when all the other drivers asked me for advice all I had to say was “take it easy, keep it out of the wall!” What were your first impressions of the car?
Ron: I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep or my brain being exhausted from dancing between English and Japanese more than I’m used to, but I was not as nervous as I expected myself to be, especially when you consider all the things going against us, such as driving an unfamiliar car for the first time on a race track that I’d never driven on with well over 80 other cars and drivers with various skills. Oh, and don’t forget the spikes in the shifter! The car felt and drove amazingly; I only wish we could have fully explored its potential. Being limited on how high we could rev her out and not being able to really shift properly left me with mixed emotions. Don’t get me wrong now, it was an epic experience and I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to do something so reckless like this, but watching the competition fly by and truly battle it out seemed like leaps and bounds more fun. In hindsight though, this was an endurance race and handicapping yourself to ensure you make it across that finish line 12 hours later is all a part of the game.
Blake: Mate, you were weirdly calm. There was some zen master vibe you were giving off all weekend.
Ron: Right?! I need to figure out the cheat codes so I can always do that on command. I just remember getting out the car after my first stint, and both you and Dino came up to me with concerned looks on your faces asking what was wrong? You both thought that something serious had happened, but it was just time for a driver change. Fortunately, nothing happened during my stints, even when the rain decided to pick up a little bit which resulted in many spins and accidents. I look pretty stressed in this photo, though.
Blake: Mindset goes a long way in these sort of races; giving into fear or aggression invites in the opportunity to make rash decisions, and that can end very badly on such a congested race track. Winning is a second priority to just finishing these races – we all remember what happened to Adriana last year. There were some pretty unique (and expensive) cars we were racing against.
Ron: That’s exactly correct. Winning or lap times wasn’t even a thought I had the entire time behind the wheel; just making sure the car got back home safely for the next driver was all that I really cared about. Without a shadow of a doubt, the most expensive car was Car Guy’s freshly-purchased AMG GT-R; it was absolutely stunning and a monster on the track. I do wonder if it’s fun to bring a tactical nuke to a knife fight, though?
Blake: That GT-R was scary quick; I always gave it a wide berth when it came up in my rear-view mirror. Same went for the 991 GT3RS. As usual for amateur races in Japan, there were so many cool cars, but my favourite car of the day was this bright pink wide-body Nissan Micra. I had a pretty fun battle with it towards the end of the day; it was surprisingly quick through the corners.
Blake: I also loved this completely Spoon-prepped Honda S2000. Those fenders and that hardtop really add a bit of aggression to the car’s understated lines.
Blake: And of course, it’s hard to go past an NSX when I see one. This silver NA1 was especially interesting because it was still automatic.
Ron: I had a couple of battles with that wide-body Micra myself and you’re right, it was very quick through the corners. The little March was another car that was surprisingly good through the twisty bits. It was no match for the raw power and torque we had, but it could always catch up thanks to being able to brake much later, and overall being more nimble. So how did you find the 911 different to other cars you’ve driven on and off the track?
Blake: Where to start… I’m pretty inexperienced when it comes to rear-engined Porsches. I’ve driven some water-cooled 911s at low speed on the street and ridden shotgun in a 996 Cup car at race pace, but this was my first time driving an air-cooled 911 on track. Once I got past the slightly weird ergonomics (offset pedals) and vague gearshift, I started to focus on working out what line would produce the best results. Whereas in a modern FWD or AWD you can steam into corners and adjust your line with the brake/throttle, I found the 911 really unforgiving to this approach. It’s slow in, apex, then hit the throttle and use that supreme rear traction to catapult out of the corner.
Blake: Our car seemed to be especially hard on the left rear tyre around the Motegi course. Towards the end we made the tough decision to pull it off track one more time for a final tyre change after the drivers started complaining about the grip falling of a cliff. Lucky we did, as the belts were already showing through by then. But the one thing that stayed with me is that sound – it’s absolutely intoxicating, isn’t it? I’ve been dreaming of it since.
Ron: It really is. Again, I wish we could’ve wrung it out a little more, but more to hear that flat-six sing. Even at 5,800rpm the sound was aggressively pleasing. The only experience I’ve had behind the wheel of an air-cooled 911 was back in Houston when Jordan of Modern Aircooled tossed me the keys to his 993 and let me drive it around the city. The pedals do take some time to get used to, but once I’d worked them out heel-and-toeing was an absolute joy. I also found that plowing into the corners at speed and then trying to adjust your line resulted in the back wanting to step out. Entering slow, and gradually blending the throttle in around the middle of the apex and rocketing out of the exit yielded the best results. I found myself just playing around with finding when I could start to feed in the throttle without letting the back get away from me.
Blake: Any sketchy moments?
Ron: The only sketchy moment happened when it started to rain and I was approaching the small chicane. It was towards the end of the race; some of the drivers were driving more aggressively for some reason, and one lost it and spun in the dirt. He then entered back on the track facing the wrong direction and barely missing another car.
Blake: Some of the drivers were really pushing out there. More than once I found myself having to give up the apex at the last second to a mad dive down the inside. It seems a bit unnecessary in such a long race and I’d always make sure to give the faster cars enough room to get past. The way I saw it, we were only really competing against the other RWB teams, because they were the only cars we really had any kind of spec parity with.
Ron: It’s completely unnecessary, but I guess when you’re in the heat of the moment, you are prone to make questionable decisions. Did you ever have any battles with any of the other RWB teams out there? I rarely saw them on track during my stints. Not till the very end when it was dark, raining, and we were trying to conserve our last bit of fuel did I get the chance to battle it out with one of our team members.
Blake: The best battles I had were with the other RWB cars. In my last stint as the sun was setting, I’d finally worked out the car and managed to pass a few of the other teams, but I have no idea whether or not that affected our overall position. You got to go up against Nakai-san in the last session right? Did you show him how it’s done?
Ron: Haha, I sure did! I showed him the best line to take as I steered clear out of his way. Nakai-san is a madman behind the wheel; the way he threw Adriana into the corner, slightly sideways and at stupid speed, then rocketed away like it was nothing was an epic sight to watch – from far behind of course. You got a chance to see him drive too, right?
Blake: Haha! The only time I saw him drive was from the pit wall, when he’d blast past me clearly ignoring the 5,800rpm rev limit. Not fair! I’ve spent some time with Nakai, but the race really made me realise how much of a machine he is. From intense car prep in the days leading up to the event, organisation of all the drivers, fixing the cars, and then going out and driving the wheels off Adriana – he’s got some sort of superhuman endurance. Especially to be smiling at the end of it all.
Ron: Speaking of smiling and endurance, I still don’t know how he can do it knowing that two of his cars ended up damaged. I know that’s the risk involved with racing, but I don’t know if I would be as cheerful as Nakai-san. That is truly remarkable.
Blake: By my count there were three damaged cars – the matte brown car and Lomianki took damage to the front, and of course Charlene had that race-ending rear end impact. I felt pretty bad for the guy who was driving it, but I guess that’s racing.
Ron: Luckily, nobody was hurt. If Nakai-san was able to pull that miracle of resurrecting Adriana, then Charlene will be back on the circuit before you know it.
Blake: Yeah absolutely. I’m really grateful for the huge effort he and his team put into bringing this event to life. There’s no way he makes any money out of it – it’s purely to give the RWB family from around the world the opportunity to experience Japanese club racing culture.
Ron: At the end of the day, sometimes it’s not always about making a profit. Sometimes, just being able to share your passion with other liked-minded enthusiasts makes it all worth it.
Blake: So true. The team spirit was so strong at idlers, both at RWB the other teams.
Ron: Yes, team work was something that was truly remarkable. We essentially were a group of strangers from different backgrounds and walks of life, asked to work together to make sure the car got back home safely. From taking three team members for refuelling to helping the drivers getting strapped in fully. I even stabbed my elbow making sure you were tightly secured.
Blake: When I was walking through the other pits, the thing that impressed me most was how hard the teams that had broken cars were working. Remember, that these people aren’t mechanics nor professional racers, and there’s no sponsors or prize money compelling them to finish the race. They could easily pack the car up on to the trailer and go home, but they persist through heat and tiredness to try and make the most of the event. There was even this team swapping the whole engine out of a Mini; it blew my mind.
Ron: That’s crazy! I did not know that even happened. I think everyone entering an endurance race has the same burning desire to just finish. OK yes, there are some teams that were out to set record-breaking laps and achieve personal best times, but I think the common dominator for everyone was just to finish. Towards the end of the event, I received the news that we were running low on fuel and if we ran out, then we would be out as well. Without even thinking about it, I decided then my next stint would be a preservation run, shifting around 4,500rpm to make sure we finished. There was no way we weren’t going to finish the race.
Blake: How was that last stint at night? I’m kind of glad I finished my driving with natural light still available, because it looked pretty dark out there.
Ron: Truth be told, since I was in conservation mode, it really didn’t faze me. It was pretty dark, but I was only concerned with saving gas for the next two drivers. As I said earlier, there seemed to be more accidents, but I’m sure it was due to the darkness and rain.
Blake: You did well mate, especially for your first time driving competitively. I’m guessing you’re absolutely up to do it all again next year?
Ron: Thank you! It was an absolute blast and great experience. Of course I’ll be down to help the team out in whatever that may require. If it’s driving, cool. If it’s only taking pictures and translating, that will be cool too. If the spikes are removed for next year (can you tell I really dislike them?) then I’d be more keen to give it another go. How about you, itching to get behind the wheel again?
Blake: We might need armoured gloves next year. Yes, I want more Porsches, more track time, more of everything! It’s been too long since my last track event, and it’s inspired me to get Project NSX track-ready. I think we need to make Speedhunters track time a more regular thing – Tsukuba is next on the list.
Ron: Ooh, now that I can get with! Maybe we make a Speedhunters project time attack car – everyone would love to read, and watch that, yeah? And yes, Project NSX needs to see some track time.
Blake: Haha, we’re going to get ourselves into a ton of trouble at this rate. By the way, did you see where we finished relative to the other RWB cars?
Ron: I actually don’t know to be honest. But I’m sure we were the quickest, right?
Blake: Out of seven cars, we finished fourth, and only two laps behind third place. Not too bad considering the car spent at least 30 minutes off the track (twice) for tyre changes that the other cars didn’t have. Nobody is going to confuse any of us with Hamilton or Vettel, but I think we can hold our heads high.
Ron: Wow. You know for our first time, I can live with that!
Blake: I’ve got an unopened envelope from Red Bull Racing sitting on my desk, maybe I should get to that? But let’s not get too caught up with results – that’s not what I’m taking away from the event. It’s getting to know a new car and track and – excuse the cliche – the camaraderie and laughs with new friends.
Ron: Agreed! The connections and meeting of strangers that became good friends in the course of a day is what really makes this idlers event all worth it. Even the lack of sleep, and yes, even those spikes.
Blake: Well, I guess that’s a good time to wrap from us here at #spikehunters.
Ron: I really don’t like spikes. Till next year!
Additional Photos by Dino Dalle Carbonare
Cutting Room Floor