For nearly 35 years, Richey Watanabe was a fixture on the import race, rally, and tuning scenes. Unassuming and unflappable, he could be found at circuits from Sebring to Laguna Seca, from the Baja 1000 to a World Rally Championship round in Australia. Working out of various shops in Southern California, Richey and his older brother, Howard, built, modified, and prepped cars too numerous to catalog here. Richey himself was also a championship-winning rally driver (with Howard serving as his co-driver). Not that you ever would have learned that from Richey. He was far too modest and soft-spoken, despite all that he had to brag about.
Richey Watanabe—devoted son, loving brother and uncle, loyal friend and godsend to countless racers—was born on July 30, 1954, in Sendai, Japan. His father, Shinichi, was a Japanese-American who’d lived in Seattle as a young man. But after being interned at the notorious Tule Lake Relocation Center during World War II, he moved to Japan. There, he found his future his wife, Takako, and took a job with Coca-Cola that required him to move frequently around the country. With his parents and brother, Richey moved 17 times before the boys attended high school and technical college in Tokyo.
In both their personal and professional lives, the Watanabe brothers were nearly inse-parable. “In our whole lives,” Howard recalls, “we never spent more than a month apart.” So when they decided to go racing, it was only fitting that they chose to compete in rally rac-ing—the one form of motorsport that requires two people in the car at the same time. Richey assumed driving duties while Howard served as co-driver. They began racing in Japan in ro-tary-powered Mazdas, but eventually put their rally careers on hold in 1977 when they de-cided to move to the United States.
After briefly studying English and attending vocational school, the Watanabe brothers found full-time jobs; Howard working for a local gas company and Richey for body shops, first in North Hollywood and later in Pasadena. Meanwhile, they attended their first American rally in Bakersfield, and agreed to get back into racing. “We gotta do it,” Richey told Howard. The following year, they entered their first U.S. rally, racing a Corolla at Bakersfield.
Although Howard and Richey were working full time, they managed to prepare their car with all the attention to detail of a professional race shop. “Even after the races,” Howard says, “we made sure it was beautiful.” Their craftsmanship put them on the radar screen of Toyota Racing Development, where they were hired in 1984; Howard to work on race motors while Richey prepped race chassis. They made it a point to request to be given time off to compete in SCCA Pro Rally events, which were contested all over the country. The two of them pulled an open trailer with a Chevy van. “In three days,” Howard recalls with a grin, “we could get anywhere in the United States.”
Richey, humble to a fault, rarely talked about his exploits and downplayed his ability. Howard, from his position in the right seat, remembers the crashes more vividly than the vic-tories. But the record reflects that Richey knew how to pedal a car. He won back-to-back California Rally Championships in 1983 and 1984 and then a Pro Rally Group A champion-ship in a Corolla GTS. Still, much as they loved rallying, they grew bored at TRD and wanted to create something of their own. So in 1988, they opened their first shop: HMR America, and before long the two were so busy working on other people’s cars that they no longer had time to go racing themselves.
HMR was a one-stop shop for the import racing community. Howard focused on en-gines, and Richey did the fabrication, earning top marks for his artfully welded roll cages. “We probably worked on 20 projects together,” says Mike Kojima, who met Richey while both were at TRD. “He had a real, meticulous, Japanese work ethic and always got things done on time. Some fabricators think they’re artists. You have to hold their hand, and you can’t give them too much money at a time or they’ll blow it, and they’re usually late. Richey always did exactly what he told you he was going to do. He liked to tinker, and I think he was happy that he could make a living doing something he loved.”
Over the years, Howard and Richey worked on countless rally, drift, off-road and road-race cars as well as dozens of tuned street cars. When Japanese racers such as Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima came to the States, they inevitably made a pilgrimage to HMR, and later, to Technosquare. Howard and Richey were equally hospitable to newcomers. Cheston Chiu remembers that Richey not only allowed him in the work area—a no-no at most shops—but also freely shared his immense technical knowledge. Adds Scott Webb: “Richey was a huge part of my early racing endeavors in my Supra. Without support from him and Howard, I don't think I would have made it through those first two years.”
Early on during the HMR years, Richey formed a cherished friendship with Dono Soeharto when he bought Howard and Richey’s old Corolla rally car. Later, he hired the Wa-tanabe brothers to build a Celica All-Trac Turbo to race in WRC rallies. The three of them embarked on expeditions to Australia and Indonesia, braving deadly snakes in the Outback and supremely spicy fried rice in Jakarta. “For Richey and me, the common denominator was food,” Dono says. “He was very adventurous and willing to try anything. But what made him so special was that he was such a warm person and nice guy. Even when I was just a client, the money wasn’t important to him. He always watched my back.”
Shortly after getting involved in road racing, Dono rolled an SE-R at Willow Springs. After inspecting the deformed bolt-in roll cage, Richey told him: “You’re not driving another car unless I check the cage first.” Richey built all of Dono’s subsequent cages, starting with one in a Sentra Firehawk car and then a some for a fleet of 240SXs designed for the Speedvi-sion Cup. Later, after Dono sold his S14s, Howard and Richey continued to work with GTI Racing, prepping the Nissans and crewing at tracks from coast to coast.
When GTI quit racing, and after a two-year stint at the UPRD import tuning shop, Howard and Richey went back into business for themselves, partnering with Tadashi Nagata to form Technosquare. The decade that followed brought an incredibly diverse assortment of cars. Among them were the Formula D drift rides of Yoshie Shuyama, Taka Aono and Dwight Tanaka; Cheston Chiu’s street-legal 350Z time-attacker; the World Challenge-winning Scion of Dan Gardner; a slew of Mike Kojima’s projects; Dono Soeharto’s Sentra road-race car; and the seemingly indestructible 240SX of Michael Jordan and Preston Lerner, which Richey built . . . and rebuilt . . . and rebuilt.
No matter how fast or slow the car, and no matter how blasé or committed the owner, Richey approached each project with the dedication of a Zen master. Roll cages were his specialty, featuring welds that looked like zippers and were stout enough to survive the most hellacious hits. But Richey was expert in a wide range of fabrication work. “He could take a piece of metal and make anything out of it,” says Marc Jones, who raced several of the Nis-sans Richey built. “Not only would it look nice and clean, but it would be strong and rigid.”
Richey was tall and taciturn, at least in the company of strangers. Coupled with his customarily impassive demeanor, he could cut an imposing figure. But that deadpan expres-sion hid a surprisingly sly sense of humor. Those who knew him best describe him as com-passionate and sincere, generous with his time and knowledge, always willing to go the extra mile to help. He was, in short, a supremely nice guy—kind, gentle, unfailingly polite and in-corruptibly honest. Howard insists that he had a temper, but nobody else recalls seeing it. The strongest rebuke Cheston Chiu remembers came during a Formula D event at Long Beach, where Richey was the crew chief on Dwight Tanaka’s Corvette. Cheston was leaning on the horn of a golf cart as they tried to carve through the crowd to get back to the pits—until Ri-chey requested softly, “Don’t do that.”
Richey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2009. He underwent major surgery, but the cancer resurfaced earlier this year. Richey faced his impending death with the same grace, courage and equanimity he always brought to his life. He continued to go into Technosquare until the spring, and no matter how badly he felt, he never complained. When the end came, at his home in West Covina, it was mercifully quick and relatively pain-less. Fittingly, Howard was at Richey’s side when he took his last breath. Richey was 55.
Richey Watanabe is survived by his mother, Takako; his brother, Howard; his sister-in-law, Michiyo; his 8-year-old niece, Maya; and a legion of friends.