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Sometimes fact truly is stranger than fiction. One story so outlandish that it needs to be a movie ASAP is the unlikely origins of Toyota’s Gazoo Racing. It all began with a man brave enough to insult Toyota’s VP and heir, Akio Toyoda.

Hiromu Naruse’s title at Toyota was “master test driver” because of his extensive racing experience. Akio Toyoda is the grandson of the company’s founder, and his title was more straightforward: Vice President. After Toyota cut the Supra, Naruse supposedly told Akio Toyoda that he was unqualified to make decisions for a car company if he still didn’t know how to drive properly. And by drive, he meant race.

The gauntlet was thrown: Akio Toyoda agreed to racing lessons with Naruse himself. And he was immediately hooked. He soon realized that Toyota’s F1 and NASCAR teams offered no technological benefits for the company’s street cars. He also wanted badly to enter a race. So he pitched the powers that be on a factory team, running lightly modified production cars. And the board said no.

This didn’t stop Naruse and Toyoda. In 2007, they assembled a team of factory workers and mechanics and flew to Germany. They bought a pair of used Lexus IS cars (badged as Altezzas in Germany), and prepped them on a limited budget. Then they entered the 24 Hours of Nürburing.

The Gazoo Racing Toyota IS preparing for the 24 hours of nurburing.
Akio Toyoda with Gazoo Racing | Clemens Bilan/AFP via Getty Images

Akio Toyoda even drove under a fake name: Morizo Kinoshita.

The Nürburing is not an easy track to run, and a 24 hour endurance race adds entire dimensions of additional challenges. But Naruse has more hours on that specific track than any other Japanese driver. So Toyoda and Naruse and the other team members took turns. And they finished the race.

Word spread through Toyota, and things began to change. In 2009, the duo returned to run the 24 Hours of Nürburing. But this time they were driving an all-new Lexus LFA. This was the new sports car, developed for racing, that they had dreamed about. Naruse continued tuning the Lexus for production. At his direction, the LFA ran the race every year from 2008 through 2011. But in 2010, Naruse died during a collision near Nürburing. He was 67.

Gazoo Racing Lexus IS running the 2009 24 hours of Nurburing.
Akio Toyoda with Gazoo Racing | Clemens Bilan/AFP via Getty Images

Naruse had always been an advocate for inexpensive, RWD vehicles. And Akio knew that the $300k+ Lexus was not the car he’d dreamed of.

Just one month after returning to the Nürburing in 2009, Akio Toyoda ascended to the position of President of Toyota. He already knew he wanted a company racing team to bridge Toyota’s specialized teams and the sports car for its consumers: Gazoo Racing. And after Nürburing, he knew exactly the engineers and mechanics to make it happen. In Naruse’s memory, Toyota would push forward with the 86 project. The special edition: the 86 MN was named for Toyota’s forever “Master of the Nürburing.”

Next, learn how manufacturer RallyCross teams may make your next Toyota faster, or hear Akio Toyoda’s Nürburing story and why he settled on the name “Gazoo” in the video below:

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