At this year’s 24 Hours of Nürburgring, Toyota’s Gazoo Racing Team entered an A90 Supra with a curious driver: Mr. Morizo. It turned out — as you’re likely aware if you’ve followed this year’s race — ‘Mr. Morizo’ was none other than Toyota’s CEO and President Akio Toyoda.
Before the race even started I felt the wake of the entry of Mr. Morizo to the Nürburgring 24 Hour. Tons of people were excited by the entry, but there was also a strong contingent of skeptics eager to spew complaints. Most cried ‘it’s just a publicity stunt,’ which isn’t a conclusion that requires genius-level intellect to arrive at or near. Sure, it was a publicity stunt, but — admit it — it was a good one.
Besides, it was so, so much more than that.
Akio Toyoda was out driving in, arguably, the most grueling endurance race in the world on the most insane track in the world. Mr. Toyoda’s dedication to and passion for the driving experience is obvious not just in his efforts at the race (as well as a dozen previous personal N24 entries, his work as a development driver, and so on) but also in the trickle-down effect on Toyota’s lineup.
As Mark Riccioni pointed out to me after the race, the GR Supra entry with Mr. Toyoda had a far deeper meaning than publicity or R&D — meaning that is very honorable (and very Japanese). This year’s entry really started in 2001 when Akio Toyoda was Vice President at Toyota and launched Gazoo Racing with the philosophy of building “ever-better cars.”
Part of this plan involved a driver training program at the Nürburgring which leaned heavily on a man named Hiromu Naruse, co-founder of Gazoo, who trained Akio Toyoda behind the wheel. Toyoda recalls, “With the Supra, I could be a master driver. I trained my master driver ability by driving Supra a long time ago. I went to Nürburgring and together with Mr. Naruse, who taught me how drive the car.”
It’s worth pointing out that Akio, Naruse, and Gazoo did this training by purchasing a used A80 Supra as production of the car had since ceased.
Sadly, Naruse passed away suddenly in 2010, before development on the next-generation Supra was announced. Coincidentally, he passed away near the Nürburgring on June 23rd, around 9:00pm. When Toyoda drove his stint during the N24 (which ended on June 23) he drove around the time that his friend and mentor Naruse passed away. After the fact, Akio Toyoda released the following statement:
“Many things came to mind when I was driving this third stint… entering the 13th year of competing in this race, with this car, the Supra, and so on. Yet to tell you the truth, I found it difficult to concentrate on driving. I’d like to think Mr. Naruse is listening to us as we discuss all this now… We started to enter this race with Mr. Naruse 13 years ago, but our team was really a ‘hand-made’ team. We could not even use the name ‘Toyota’… We regretted that we practiced using a Supra that was no longer in production… We didn’t have anyone cheering for us, and everyone always seemed to focus on the negative.”
It’s funny how how in 2019 — years after Toyoda made these first memories — he found himself in a factory-backed, current-model Supra, yet some things still don’t seem to change. While negativity still abounds in the corners of the internet, it was clear that Mr. Toyoda experienced a certain sensation while he was racing in the Nürburgring 24. He had something, in a car, that the vast majority of cars on the market today just don’t offer.
Fun. And, perhaps, even something spiritual.
When the Gazoo Supra finished 41st overall from roughly 150 entries — and third in class out of eight cars, two of which didn’t even finish — the team was ecstatic. Especially considering that the car had only been entered in four-hour events prior to this. It was a massive team effort, and one that was successful.
It wasn’t about setting records; it wasn’t about being the fastest. Beyond getting seat time and data, and simply finishing the race, it was about something more. History, honor, and simply having a good time behind the wheel of a car. The latter few of which, I’m afraid, we forget about all too often.Enter Amir
As I was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook the night before the race I came across a well-thought-out post that my friend Amir Bentatou from RS Future had written.
Note: Amir himself hardly needs introduction, but I’ll quickly catch you up to speed. This is his 911, which “was built to be fun on track, a platform that was my dream car with all of the parts I thought were cool.” And this is his NSX, which has since been K-swapped and turbocharged for GTA Street Class. He has owned a plethora of other driver’s cars as well, but there just isn’t enough room here to get into that.
I reached out to Amir and asked if he’d like to expand on his post a bit, a request to which he kindly obliged. I’ll hand it over to Amir to finish this one off…
Amir Bentatou: I say what I’m about to say as a Honda guy that has never thought much about Toyotas.
There has been a lot of hate towards Toyota over the last few years: ‘Their Le Mans wins were hollow.’ ‘The 86/FR-S/BRZ sucks and underwhelms.’ ‘The new Supra isn’t a Toyota,” and so on. This seems to be accentuated by the fact that people think it’s cool to complain, or to just act cool on the internet.
Despite what you may like or dislike, the overarching theme to all of this is a manufacturer that has shown commitment to motorsport and making fun cars. We are in an automotive landscape that sees Ford discontinuing models, an industry-wide move towards electric vehicles, and manufacturers who are building cars that are larger, heavier, and more autonomous.
This makes Toyota one of the few manufacturers attempting to build usable and affordable cars aimed at enthusiasts. What has Toyota received in return for this? Constant criticism and hate directed towards the cars they’re developing for enthusiasts.
This isn’t 1995. Toyota is building cars that are relevant to the modern market, yet still fun to drive. Building cars is risky and expensive. Partnerships allow manufacturers to combine resources minimizing the risk, allowing them to build cars that would typically never exist.
These partnerships are not a new concept, either. Automotive manufacturers have worked together for decades, the only difference seems to be that modern technology equips ‘enthusiasts’ with platforms to complain, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so.
Toyota gets it. What other CEO would enter the 24 Hours of Nürburgring? Or personally oversee their Le Mans/WEC program?
Back to the current standard complaints flying around the internet about Toyota.
First, their Le Mans wins are legit. It’s not their fault no one else showed up. Audi had plenty Le Mans victories with no real competition and got wrecked when Porsche came back to play. No one questions Audi’s success. Furthermore, I’m glad Toyota has signed up for the new FIA WEC regulations. Seeing Toyota battle Aston Martin/Red Bull and whoever else joins Hypercar is going to be great.
Next, the 86/FR-S/BRZ is a good car that fills a void in the market no other manufacturer will enter. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of the 86, however, I appreciate what Toyota has done by building it. I spend 40 to 50 days at the track a year, and the massive amount of 86, FR-Ss and BR-Zs I see out there is enough proof for me that people are buying and using these cars how Toyota intended.
Realistically, the new Supra is going to be fast and awesome. The JZA80 really wasn’t that great (fight me). It’s a formidable drag car, but other than having a 2JZ, what does it do well? Even the successful race versions of the Supra used the 503E and 3U-Z rather than the 2J.
With the possible exclusion of total power potential – which is still unknown – the new Supra’s engine is leaps and bounds better than the 2JZ. Finally, the new chassis is going to be lightyears better.
I cannot wait to get behind the wheel of a new Supra and I’m grateful for the effort Toyota is making to provide us with what may well be some of the last attainable driving-minded cars ever made.
Introduction & Photos by Trevor Yale Ryan