A chat with Hiromu Naruse, chief test driver for Lexus and the driving forceliterallybehind the LFA supercar.
Editor’s note: On June 23, the automotive world experienced a tragedy. Hiromu Naruse, Lexus’ much belovedand globally respectedchief test driver, died while performing the job he lived for: developing superb automobiles. As Autoblog journalist Damon Lavrinc writes in his excellent tribute, Mr. Naruse was reverently nicknamed “Meister” by his peers and protégéesand a man who helped give the world “dream cars.”
We, too, had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Naruse, who this spring granted Lexus magazine the wonderful profile and interview below, which we posted back in May. Not only did Mr. Naruse reveal much about a test driver’s fascinating, sometimes hazardous world; he also showed us his naturewarm, witty, modest, absolutely passionate about cars, and at nearly seventy years old, still pushing powerful automobiles to their limits.
Mr. Naruse, thanks for letting us get to know youyou’re an inspiration.
If you’ve never heard of Hiromu Naruse before today, all you really need to know is that he’s a legend. So much of a legend, in fact, that the performance-auto elite has nicknamed him the “Nur-Meister,” which sounds sort of amusing until you run it through a German-to-English translator: Sole Champion, Only Master, One and Only Master. To call that a nickname with cred is a major understatement, no matter what language it’s in.
Naruse has earned it. It’s hard to find a prime test course the man hasn’t driven on during a forty-year career that led to his current job as Lexus’ long-time chief test driver, a position that requires him to put new Lexus modelsat some point, it was probably your modelthrough nutty, high-speed maneuvers, both in closed courses and on the world’s open roads.
Put differently, he’s the guy who takes an engineer’s brilliance and translates it into real-world performance, suggesting enhancements here and there, and even determining the best places to test a Lexus prototype.
Case in point: it was Naruse who first suggested actually racing early LFA supercars at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, Europe’s infamous version of the grueling Rolex 24 at Daytona raceand where international racing reputations either skyrocket or go down in flames. Ask him why he suggested the idea, and he’ll tell you that he did it not just so he could actually race the LFA (which he did, and well), but so Lexus could “speed up the development process by three years.”
Which is another thing you should know about Naruse: Despite his love for what is essentially scientific stunt driving, he’s also vested in the quality of the vehicles he tests, which he knows will end up in your driveway. He’s a thinker. He’s precise.
So, with all that in mind, here’s a few fast, precise questions for The One and Only Master.
LEXUS: Bottom linewhat makes a good test driver?
NARUSE: To create the best car, you need the ability to feel it, and to understand it. Think about food. If the first, middle, and last impressionslook, taste, and finishare good, people remember it with a good feeling. Creating a vehicle is the same. Test drivers are like chefs, and I take the role of head chef.
What was it like to drive the Lexus LFA prototype the first time out?
I have to say, when I drove the LFA for the first time, it was scary. It was like a monster.
What’s your most memorable moment as a test driver?
Well, I can you that for a little while during the LFA races, I knew how to draw the back of a Porsche without lookingwe had been behind them at first. But when the Lexus LFA passed Porsche for the first time, we had such big emotions! After that, other racing manufacturers started showing us respect. They told us, “Lexus has created such an impressive car!”
What are your top words of wisdom for Lexus’ younger test drivers?
I tell them that the digital technology used to design vehicles, such as a CAD program, does not by itself create a vehicle’s aji, or flavor. As drivers, they need to push to get into their project vehicles and drive them as soon as possibleto me, this is the most efficient way to understand a new vehicle’s challenges. I tell them to trust in the power and ability of a human, a driver, to accomplish this.
So how did you add aji to the LFA?
Here’s one example: at one point during test-driving, while driving the prototype around a high-speed curve, I realized the response I was getting at 4,000 rpm was not what it should be. When I got back to the engineering team, the best way to describe what I wanted was to tell them to make the engine respond “sharp like a Japanese sword.” That’s what they did, and I hope Lexus owners who get a chance to drive the vehicle can feel the results.
Any advice for new owners of the LFA?
First, don’t get caught speeding. I am joking, but let me tell you: the LFA goes fast.