Naruse only 'half way up stairs' when Nurburgring claimed him

TOKYO -- When I met Hiromu Naruse, the so-called Godfather of the Lexus LFA, last month, the man before me was a focused, unflinching, car fanatic with little time for neophytes.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s weathered 67-year-old master test driver exuded an almost mystical air.One never doubted his confidence or control behind the wheel. I certainly had no inkling, as we talked trackside at Germany's Nurburgring race circuit, that he would die there just a month later.

“I'm only halfway up the stairs,” he said, regarding plans for future racing and fine-tuning of the LFA super sports car he was instrumental in creating. “I'm still ready for the next step.”

Hiromu Naruse Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL
Perfectionism seemed to ooze from every pore: “On every team, everyone does 99 percent. But it's the additional 1 percent that makes the difference in the pursuit,” he told me.

Perhaps it was a fitting end, dying strapped into the car he dedicated his golden years to. The LFA is the pinnacle of the Toyota lineup, not only in price but performance and engineering.

Toyota on Wednesday confirmed earlier press reports out of Germany that Naruse was killed when the yellow LFA he was test driving crashed on a road just outside the circuit.

Press reports said his car crossed the centerline on a road near the Ring and smashed head-on into a BMW carrying two other test drivers. Both BMW drivers survived -- one is in critical condition.

Pictures from Germany's Rhein-Zeitung newspaper show the mangled LFA lying nose-to-nose with a badly damaged purple BMW. Police quoted by the story said all the victims were wearing helmets and that cars were packed full of electronic equipment.

Naruse, who joined Toyota in 1963 and was a personal driving mentor to President Akio Toyoda, is believed to have logged more hours at Nurburgring's notoriously demanding track than any other Japanese. Last year, he drove an LFA in Nurburgring's 24-hour endurance race.

As the head of Toyota's Gazoo Racing Team, he earned the nickname Meister of Nurburgring.

Naruse loved the thrill of racing and pushing a car to its limits. But he was also keenly aware of his role as a test driver in tempering cars that will eventually be sold to the public.

“We want a car that people feel and comfortable in,” Naruse told me. “Until you try it out at a place like this, you just don't know.”

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