While on assignment in Japan this May, I sat down for a quick Q&A with the new head shachou (boss) of J’s Racing, Hisaaki Murakami. While Murakami-san and I did talk about the past some, I decided to focus primarily on the shop’s future. Remember, there’s a reason our eyes are in the front of our heads, and not in the back.
Long before the days of titanium exhaust, S2000 rear diffusers, and the “hyper ECU,” there stood two friends in Osaka who were merely trying to make ends meet. Outside of the expenses associated with their daily living habits, the pair had to fund an addiction: racing. If racing is considered a pricey hobby here in the States, over in old Nippon it’s a bloody gouger! This is a country where mediocre six-packs of beer run $20, things like tailoring your car to a race can land exuberant fees, and a single matinee ticket to the movies is in the same price range as that six-pack you just snuck into the theater. But forget these trivial facts. The biggest hurdle these two young men were facing at the time was that all of this was taking place in the 1990s.
While Japan might be considered the most advanced country in the world by most, it fell on hard times when its economic “bubble” burst in the early ’90s. At the time Junichi Umemoto and Hisaaki Murakami were doing what thousands of gearheads around the world do every day: parting out cars. But with stricter Japanese laws, limited resources, and the absence of tools like Craigslist, this was no easy task. Abandoned parking lots acted as shop bays, parts were resold to save money, and no one had access to an impact gun. These were trying times, but their friendship endured because they both knew that this grueling daily grind was keeping them active on the track.
Protocol was a lot simpler back then. Buy a modified car that’s past its prime, remove all of its tuner parts, thus restoring it to stock form, then sell off those race goodies while keeping the best for your own builds. Then all you had to do was sell the car. These boys knew that if they kept flipping as many cars as possible everyday, they just might be able to keep Junichi in the driver’s seat. And by god they did exactly that; “J” was officially racing!
Years later things have changed a lot. Junichi’s recent run in with the law doesn’t afford him the ability to drive anymore, and the weight of the company has fallen upon Hisaaki’s shoulders as he is the acting president with a stable full of inspirational horses. We asked him questions about the companies humble beginnings, and perhaps even more importantly, where the company is headed.
Micah: Please tell us about your time with J’s Racing.
Hisaaki: I helped start the company back in the day with Junichi. I have been here for 20 years—it’s my life. Back when we first started, all we did was work and race. Our dreams of starting a shop began forming in the mid-’90s when our little green Civic hatch won some local races and recognition. Once we started truly understanding how the Honda EG6 chassis worked, we were able to find our own ways to improve it. It wasn’t until the late ’90s when we got our hands on a DC2 that we really started making waves.
Micah: Why Honda? If not Honda, then what?
Hisaaki: In the early days it wasn’t just Hondas we built. Back then we would mod anything JDM if the money was right. But we’ve always had Hondas as our daily drivers and as our race cars. The Type R badge’s simplicity, racing heritage, and enduring style have us hooked. These cars have become our lifeblood. Today we focus on creating Honda parts exclusively. If we hadn’t worked with Hondas, who knows what could have happened. I would probably be playing bass guitar in a rock band somewhere. Sounds fun, but not very profitable. God, I’m glad this whole business idea we had took off!
Micah: What sets you apart from your competition?
Hisaaki: Our ability to draw inspiration from anything, and then incorporate that into every imaginable aspect of what we are as a company. We cover the whole spectrum of automotive customization. We aren’t afraid to push the envelope at times with our creative spirit, and its that spirit that will always set us apart from more conservative tuning shops.
Micah: What’s your daily driver right now? Any special Honda dream build in the back of your mind?
Hisaaki: I drove a ZE2 Honda Insight with coilovers, exhaust, wheels, aero bits, and a unique ECU up until March this year. I love how practical it is and yet how well it handles in a sharp turn. I’m thinking about getting a USDM Si next, just to be different. Americans want the Type R, and all I can think about is a new Si! The grass is always greener, I guess…
Outside of that new K24 Si, I don’t really have any dream build. We’ll take on pretty much anything that Honda throws at us. Again, we’re all about thinking outside the box.
Micah: Where do you see automotive racing going in these next few years?
Hisaaki: As far as I’m concerned hybrid racing is here to stay in Japan. It’s a good thing that Honda has released such capable cars like the Insight and the CR-Z. Who knows where it will go from there? Kind of exciting really…
Micah: Have you noticed a substantial difference in demand from your USDM buyers as opposed to JDM enthusiasts in recent years?
Hisaaki: Most certainly. In America, everyone wants parts for an older chassis like the CRX, the EG, and the DB9. In Japan, our customers are always asking for parts for their DC5, GE Fit, and Insight. Thank god America is more lenient on older cars! Without you guys buying our parts in the States, we probably wouldn’t be as connected to those older chassis as we are today.
Micah: As the new president of J’s Racing, what do you want to change in the company?
Hisaaki: I want us to fully recover from the damage done by the events that occurred this past winter. I want to restore customer faith in our company, focus 100 percent on customer satisfaction, and keep the creative ideas coming for future builds.
Micah: Is there a five-year goal for the company?
Hisaaki: (laughs) I want to help increase the number of Hondas sold both in America and in Japan. You can only get J’s Racing parts for your ride if you buy a Honda. Hopefully our dedication to the brand will help sales and make Honda customers truly satisfied.
Micah: There are people here in America who don’t know what the “J” in J’s Racing stands for. Could you please put all of these rumors to rest?
Hisaaki: Most certainly. In Japan, people sometimes wonder the same thing. J’s Racing is short for “Junichi’s Racing” and not “Japan” or “Japanese Racing” like some might assume.
Micah: What do you have in store for the American market?
Hisaaki: Ah, 2011 has a lot in store for all of us. It is a year of change for the entire company. Our focus will shift to America, where we will cease distribution via a group of distributors and instead focus on getting the parts directly to the people via the all-new J’s Racing USA. We want to expand our sales in the southeastern U.S. and the Midwest for starters. There will still be certified local dealers that will offer our parts in certain cities. But we want our American clientele to feel like they can contact us directly if they need parts or advice. That feeling of personal attention is what we strive for everyday here at J’s Racing, and we have extended this same courtesy to our American friends since July of this year!
The J’s Racing crew had grown used to running up massive power bills every month, and their power meter cycles were absolutely mind-numbing. Something combated with the installation of solar panels above the shop. When I inquired about their power bill these days the response was, “What power bill?”
Micah: Tell us about your eco building design? Do you notice a huge difference in your power bill now that your business is solar powered?
Hisaaki: Four years ago we were approached by officials from the Japanese government who suggested we switch over to solar power to cut down on our energy costs and to help lessen our impact on the environment. After some forethought we decided to take a chance and try it out. We filed all of the necessary paperwork, waited patiently on our new solar panels, and then waited again for all of it to be installed. Finally, we were rewarded with a “green light”! We started using this solar system to power our shop, and the cost savings are amazing! The government subsidies we received really helped us out a lot. On top of subsidies we have what you call a “feed-in tariff” over here, where the government pays you twice the standard electricity rate for your unused power. It is so efficient that our solar panels are operational only a few days at a time usually. We keep records of everything, and then we report these results every two years to local officials.
Micah: What were the first important changes that you made to a race car in the ’90s? How different was racing back then?
Hisaaki: After playing with the suspension, gutting the car, and slapping on our (at the time “brand-new”) R-Spec Exhaust, we really started seeing the car’s true potential shine. We used to think that racing was our only option, because back then it really was our only option! Everyone in Nippon was into the EF9 and the EG6 platforms back in those days, so this made competition in our EGs class crazy fierce! We did OK overall, but there were some days in the paddock when nothing would go right. Nowadays everyone is into racing their FD2, Fit, or CR-Z. The handling is exceptional in all of these cars when the suspension is tweaked, but I still fancy that old-school EG6 styling. Americans still mod cars like the EG, so we appreciate you guys in the States for keeping those cars in the loop.
Micah: What was the first part you guys ever officially made, and for what vehicle?
Hisaaki: Our first manufacturing endeavor was an exhaust system called the R-Spec Muffler for the CA4A Mirage, the EF9 Civic, and the EG6 Civic.
Micah: What races and awards have you won with the EG and DC2?
Hisaaki: (smiles sheepishly) Nothing worth mentioning with the EG really. But we did win the Suzuka Clubman Race in ’97 with our DC2, and that was an awesome experience! This was a great launch point for our shop because we were suddenly in the limelight. It had taken us almost a decade of hard work, but it was all worth it for that one win. That was a real turning point for us as a company.
Micah: You opened the doors to J’s Racing in ’88, and shops like Backyard Special, Honda Twin Cam (Feel’s), and Top Fuel had already been around for a few years. How much inspiration did you and Junichi draw from these guys?
Hisaaki: We never really cared about what other shops were doing because they already had their own style of tuning. We wanted to develop our own style. Competition can sometimes be fierce, but that’s what pushes us to make better parts and race cars. While we all make aftermarket parts for Hondas, our style is what really makes us stand out. Creativity is our specialty. Our Maou S2000 is proof of this in every way.
Micah: What is the ugliest Japanese car of all time?
Hisaaki: (without hesitation) Easily the Toyota bB (Scion xB). I just don’t understand why this car is popular with young guys these days.
Micah: What is your take on a bigger chassis, like the Honda Odyssey, with its potent V-6? This year I interviewed some guys who race these vans here in America. Since you are looking to expand your dealings with the American market are you interested in building parts for something like this one day?
Hisaaki: We’ve never even considered these cars until now. Usually you see them slammed with 20-inch chrome wheels and a huge body kit over here in Nippon. I’m sure that the demand is not there from the typical tuner in the States or here. Sorry, guys, creating new parts for an Odyssey just isn’t in the cards right now. (laughs) But we might consider building one someday if we just want to do something crazy.
Micah: Tell us about racing in Thailand. How different is it from racing in Nippon?
Hisaaki: I think there are a lot of differences. The cars have to meet different standards, the driver’s techniques are usually more aggressive, and of course, there are communication issues every now and then with Thai people who do not speak Japanese.
Micah: How often do you come to America? When you do visit do you always stay at the same places, or do you stop off in different ones every time?
Hisaaki: I come to America about once a year. SEMA is almost always on the list, so I plan my trips around what’s going on in Vegas! Of course, there is also a trip to our headquarters at J’s Racing USA either before or after the festivities in Las Vegas.
Micah: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us a little bit about your humble beginnings, current grind, and aspirations for the future. Before we conclude this interview do you have anything to say to all of our readers out there?
Hisaaki: You guys had better get ready for us! We are focusing a lot of our attention and resources on expanding our dealings with America. Keep customizing your rides and we’ll keep creating new parts for them. Honda’s slogan is “The Power Of Dreams.” Our slogan is “Racing Goes On.” Put the two together, and you have “Racing Goes On The Power Of Dreams!”
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