TOKYO -- The death of master test driver Hiromu Naruse, killed last week in his beloved Lexus LFA sports car at the Nurburgring complex in Germany, is a loss not just for Toyota Motor Corp. but for President Akio Toyoda.
The 67-year-old veteran, dubbed the Meister of Nurburgring, helped fine-tune a generation of Toyota's best cars, from the 2000GT of the '60s and Supra of the '80s to today's LFA. But his impact as mentor of the founding family's scion was just as important.
The weathered, white-haired Naruse was the first to challenge Toyoda's car guy street cred by pushing him to become a certified performance driver, not just an armchair aficionado.
"The second thing he told me was that test drivers have a very dangerous job. You must understand the risks," Toyoda recalled Naruse warning him at the start of his training.
On Wednesday, June 23, Naruse's yellow-orange LFA crossed the center line on a road just outside the race course and smashed head-on into a BMW carrying two other test drivers. They both survived, although one was in critical condition a day later.
It was easy to understand Naruse's sway. Within Toyota, he loomed as an Obi-Wan Kenobi figure commanding cultlike reverence. When I met him last month in Germany on the sidelines of the Nurburgring 24-hour endurance race, I found an intense, no-nonsense car fanatic who left no doubt about his confidence or control behind the wheel, despite his age.
His exacting standards helped perfect the $375,000 LFA, which stands at the pinnacle of the Toyota lineup, not just in price but in engineering and performance.