BBC Autos

Car Tribes

For the love of Le Mans: Japan’s outlaw racers

HIDE CAPTION

Tomohiro Aono's business card is a pale orange rectangle that simply reads, “Car Maniac”. He hands it over with both hands, in the traditional Japanese style, then laughs.

He has flown to Vancouver, Canada, to meet Walter Wolf, an enigmatic Austrian-Canadian businessman who once campaigned a private Formula 1 racing team, and is thought to have largely bankrolled Lamborghini through the 1970s. Aono is guide and friend to Shin-jiro Fukada, owner of a very rare Lamborghini Countach that was especially built for Wolf, one incorporating aerodynamic and chassis improvements lifted right from the F1 racing cars of its day, and fitted with a hand-built 12-cylinder heart pounding out nearly 500 horsepower.

Fukuda, who speaks little English, slides over a picture of the Wolf Countach sitting in a garage as it undergoes restoration. There is a Ferrari F40 LM to the right, and in the background, what looks like a Vector W8. “Oh yes,” Aono laughs, “I sold that Vector to him!” He talks of his plans to increase the power of the Gumpert Apollo that replaced it, a clenched fist of a supercar capable of running down a Bugatti Veyron.

“Perhaps you've seen this?” Aono pulls out his smartphone and brings up a video. There, on a tiny screen, a Porsche 962C in Rothmans racing livery paces a Jaguar XJ220C – Le Mans racing machines on the empty early morning streets of Hiroshima, Japan.

Aono and his friends Takeshi Moroi and Senji Hoshino are all members of a fairly exclusive club. Not only do they own racing cars bred for the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hours – whose 82nd running comes 14-15 June – but they also drive them on the street. “Everyone calls us crazy, but I don't think so at all,” Aono muses in the video. “We own racing cars, so we may as well use them in our daily lives. It's only natural.” He takes a brief pause before finishing his thought: “I guess we are a little crazy.”

Aono’s Jaguar XJ220C is actually quite well-behaved for a purpose-built racing car. “The car was built to resist 24 hours of racing. That means a very tough car,” he says during his and Fukada’s Vancouver visit. Equipped with a twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V6 engine, the racing version of Jaguar's iconic 1990s hypercar makes 550hp, and despite its age can still reach a top speed approaching 200mph. When launched in 1993, it was campaigned to victory over Porsche in the GT class, though the laurels were eventually snatched away by disqualification for running without catalytic converters.

On the street, Aono says the Jaguar requires “super concentration” of its driver. With no creature comforts, this most un-Jaguar-like of Jaguars is raw, loud, violent and extremely fast. “Just only a few pieces of equipment for battle,” he says. “So exciting.”

Moroi's Porsche 962C is even more powerful. Its air-cooled 2.9-litre turbocharged boxer engine makes 620hp – this, from a car weighing less than a Mazda Miata. “It even has air-conditioning, so it's actually quite comfy,” he says in the video. It may be a surprising sentiment to express about a racing car, but as Le Mans demands long, unbroken driving sessions, the cars are built with at least some thought towards driver wellbeing.

But where the Jaguar is relatively compliant, the prototype-class 962C is unhappy anywhere below 100kph thanks to its air-cooled nature. Regardless, Moroi drives the car frequently, squeezing its wide, spacecraft-shape body through Japan's narrow streets, and then unleashing the beast on the country's glass-smooth highways.

Senji Hoshino's 1989 Mazda 767B is wilder than either the Porsche or Jaguar, which is why it's perhaps best restricted to the track. It is powered by a 600hp four-rotor rotary engine, similar to the one that would give Mazda its historic win at the 1991 Le Mans in the successor car, the 787B. Mazda remains the only Japanese company to have won there.

Aside from relative durability and a smooth-revving nature, the most notable feature of a large-bore rotary engine is the incredible noise. Producing an ear-splitting shriek, Hoshino's 767B roasts its tires in front of a crowd of appreciative onlookers, its orange and green racing livery a battle flag known throughout Japan.

On the morning of the video shoot, near the shattered dome of the Ground Zero monument in Hiroshima, a uniformed policeman – likely expecting to spend his day directing Toyota Crown taxis and supermini kei cars – stops making his rounds.

There, parked on the bridge used as a landmark to drop the first atomic bomb, are three racing cars released onto the street.

It's like coming across a trio of tigers on the sidewalk, fierce creatures out of their element, yet somehow perfectly assured of their place. For Aono, Moroi and Hoshima, their cars keep their serotonin at permanently elevated levels. “The most important thing,” says Aono in the video, “is to have fun in our everyday lives.”