Top Fuel Japan
The month of September is a time of year that has always seemed somewhat peculiar to me. As a culture, we automatically associate autumn with raking leaves, football, the start of school, and cooler weather. The last part of that equation is the only factor that seems to waver. When September begins, it's just as bloody hot as August, and there's no magic cool-down valve. However, that's another diatribe for another day; right now I am concentrating on not vomiting from the excessive heat. I'm from Alabama, so I know heat and humidity, and I sure as hell know sweat. But Japan hits me with a level of humidity that feels entirely overpowering. The feeling is best conveyed using just one word: sweltering. Uchinaka, Nakagawa-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi, Japan is no exception to the rule. This little town north of Nagoya truly surprised me, for it has many notable aspects outside of the blistering temps. Firstly, it has one hell of a tongue twister for a name, and like many rural parts of Japan, it sits in a land-locked valley filled with farmers. Rice has to grow in stagnant water, so all of this still water significantly increases the humidity levels. Plus, being a good bit inland doesn't help because there's a lack of natural breezes to offer relief. Add to that the absence of the typhoons that consistently hit other areas of Japan this summer, and things are even worse in the shadow of a drought.
About an hour and a half drive outside of this tiny town is a track that I'm sure most are familiar with; it goes by the name of Suzuka Circuit, and it is arguably one of the best (as well as most dangerous) courses in all of Japan. With infamy comes competition, and a handful of smaller, lesser known tracks quickly popped up along the countryside nearby. Being this far away from Nagoya does have its perks, and this is one of them. Talk of upcoming races, races passed, and the cars that make it all happen run rampant through the confines of local yakiniku shops. If you don't know the word yakiniku, now is the time for you to learn some basic Japanese. Yaki means "burnt," while niku is Japanese for "meat." Mmmm ... burnt meat. Actually, this tiny town features some of Japan's best beef. It's called Matsuzaka-gyu and this particular cut of meat's supposed to be even better than its cousin: the infamous Kobe Beef. So thus far this town has some of Japan's tastiest cows, blistering weather, and race tracks out the wazoo. So where in the hell are all of the race cars?
Along the back alleys and side streets of Japan you can find the most amazing treasures. I always keep my eyes peeled for interesting Shinto shrines, old Japanese cars, and great mom and pop shops in places like this. Years of traveling in Japan have warranted many unique finds, and I'm always searching for something new. This time around I was elated beyond compare when I stumbled upon a tuning shop, the likes of which I have never seen in Japan. By American standards, this would be considered a medium sized shop; but in Nippon, a tuning shop like this would be labeled "monolithic." It has half a dozen bays and each can fit four to six cars without issue. The shop consists of two buildings, the newer one with its own showroom, dyno, office, 20-plus car parking lot, and second floor filled with God knows how many JDM goodies. Many have tried to make cars the way these guys do, but only a few have ever come close. For them, setting new world records, designing incredible intake systems, and custom fabricating pie-cut titanium exhaust systems is just another day at the office. To us that's amazing. This is "Top Fuel!"
Yasuji Hirano was born and raised in the heart of the town where Top Fuel has always resided. He's made countless dollars off of his automotive designs and races won. This is a man who is firmly connected to his roots both as a family man and as a car enthusiast. His life has taken him many different directions, but one thing remains constant, and that's his immeasurable love for his hometown. Why move somewhere else, when your hometown has close to a half dozen racetracks? Since its founding in 1984, Top Fuel has only moved once, and that was next door. They even kept the old building for welding and storage. When I asked him why he decided to stay put all of these years he just smiled and said, "The countryside is just so much more beautiful than the city."
Hirano-san came of age watching the races at Suzuka Circuit and partaking in the highly illegal and dangerous drag races off the track. His preference has always been for drag racing, and from an early age, he's made the most of this passion. When it was time to go head-to-head with a rival crew, Yasuji was the one to turn to when the chips were down. His gift for tuning and proper engineering skill sets always landed him under the hood, while the guys on the team stood back and out of his way. Around 1984, Mr. Hirano was tired of not making a living off of his passion, so he opened a small tuning shop in the middle of that giant rice paddy he calls home. Little did anyone know that this little place would soon change the face of car tuning the world over.
For the first five years, life in the shop revolved around tuning and suspension swaps. As recognition for his tuning skills grew, Hirano-san realized that he should start patenting some of his ideas. After some deliberation and much needed advice from key advisors, Mr. Hirano released the "power-chamber" air induction system. While a bit of a rarity here in the States, these canister-shaped intakes have seen great success in Japan. With an oversized dry-carbon chamber in the middle, and a spiraled filter on one end, these intakes look sharp and boost horsepower at the same time. The bottlenecking shape was a concern at first for Mr. Hirano; but it actually showed substantial gains after a little R&D time. Since their release two decades ago, they have sold thousands of units. The system's unique design, carbon-clad body, and time-proven worth make them a best seller to this day. They are also still 100 percent manufactured in nearby Nagoya for quality assurance.
Over the years there has been great speculation over who first offered performance intake systems to the Japanese public in the early '90s. Many would think that Mugen holds this honor, primarily due to the fact that they started tuning Hondas way back in 1973. They have to be the originators right? By 1975, Mugen was selling performance parts for the Civic Sedan to the public, way before Top Fuel was even a consideration. But when carburetors took a back seat in the late '80s and fuel injection systems became the norm, who made the first short-ram intakes? Mugen has always preferred the "stock box look," so that rules them out. J's Racing didn't arrive on the scene until 1988, and Spoon Sports made its debut that same year. By this point, Top Fuel had already been established for four years. As a racer, Hirano-san had been studying trends in racing and was already familiar with the concept of fuel injection way before anyone else in Japan. When Hirano-san realized that he wanted more power on and off the track, he began these extensive R&D sessions that concentrated exclusively on filtration technology. So with a determined intellect and some serious funding he took it upon himself to design a better flowing intake for the average car enthusiast. His goal was to increase both power and fuel economy at the same time. His carbon intakes sell better than any other product they make, and it is the initial bolt-on of choice for countless enthusiasts all over Japan. Since these intakes appeared on the market well before all others, it appears that Top Fuel could have produced the first cone-filter SRI! Amazing to think that it has come this far since the late '80s when no one even knew what a short-ram intake was.
After the apparent success of his dry-carbon intake systems, Yasuji Hirano moved on to design those sleek Top Fuel gauges we all want, along with some super-slick weighted shift knobs, and various other interior accessories. Forged pistons came next, as did connecting rods, valvetrains, and every other component that needs beefing up under the bonnet. To this day, all of these components are still made locally in Nagoya. Hirano-san has seen his authority in the tuning world increase by leaps and bounds, even after the economic bubble popped in Japan during the early '90s. When asked about memorable racing experiences, Hirano-san says that racing with Skunk2's Dr. Charles at Battle of the Imports some 15 years ago is his favorite memory. His greatest automotive accomplishments include a mid-engine Del Sol, creating his own line of forged products, and holding the lap record at Tsukuba Circuit consecutively for the last three years (55.350). (This last feat has never been achieved by another tuner in the history of racing, and Hirano-san always beams with pride when he mentions this fact.)
In racing things inevitably break, and that's why a donor car is often mandatory. Like a scary movie about harvesting organs, the team's original AP1 sits on an operating table in the old shop next door, nervously awaiting its viscera to be removed. The windows are covered in layers of silt, and rust runs rampant through the building, like a slow moving malignant cancer. There's a scent of grease, mold, and dust in the air that reminds me of my grandfather's garage when I was a boy. This is where it all started two and a half decades ago. It was within the confines of these walls that they manufactured some of the first carbon-fiber parts the world has ever seen. They have since improved their setup, but the old building still stands as a reminder that Top Fuel was not always the powerhouse they are today. They too were once a tiny upstart with big dreams.
But achievements aside, Top Fuel is just like any other automotive business. Hirano-san has 10 employees at the location I visited, and their positions vary from secretary and tuners, to sales and technical engineer. You see, when you're the boss of a multi-million dollar franchise like Top Fuel, your work is never done. "Making the rounds" is a daily occurrence for Yasuji Hirano; and whether he is under a car or meeting clients, Hirano-san stays busy. He is often out of the office for great lengths of time during the average workday, so for the first hour and a half I was there, I spoke with a man by the name of Yuya Nakagawa. I have this terrible habit of underestimating people, so when I first met Yuya, I thought to myself: "Would you look at this rookie? He's just as wet behind the ears as I am." Little did I know that this young man standing in front of me with dyed hair and tattered Nikes was about to blow my mind.
Yuya Nakagawa is Top Fuel's chief engineer, and he's the guy to talk to if you want specific work done to your ride. Yuya's the man responsible for every nut and bolt you see on their boosted CTR and all-out bonkers S2000. Friendly, polite, and extremely knowledgeable, this shy young man warms up the minute you start asking questions. As we strolled through the paddock discussing cars, a boisterous character by the name of Yasushi Morimoto joined us, and man, was he funny! This kohai (apprentice) of Yuya's is the total opposite of his master in every sense. Where his sempai (master) is forever the calm, collective type; Morimoto-san lends himself to being extraverted, opinionated, and very witty. I can see why these two get along so well, both in the shop and in the pit when the chips are down. They have chemistry and they've seen what works and what doesn't in the pits during those stress-filled time attack races, so that is where I decided to start my technical inquiries.
Tune in next month when we dig into the jaw-dropping, record setting, carbon-fiber Top Fuel S2000RR time attack monster!