Feature: A Man And His Car(s) – Masao Otani

I first became acquainted with Masao Otani back in 2014 when he attended our Attack Meeting in Doitsu Mura, Chiba.  He had brought his 180 to the gathering which, 3 years ago, looked much more tame than it does now.  That was back when the Attack community felt a little tighter knit than it does today, given the recent popularity increase.  Which isn’t to be taken as a negative; with growth comes sacrifice in some areas, and the truth is that there are a lot more people involved in the sport today.  Later that year, Masao and I had the fortune of connecting again through some mutual friends, and actually began talking quite regularly.

Masao is a Carboy, by all definitions of the term.  His entire life has been focused around cars, and for the foreseeable future, it will certainly stay that way.  Growing up in rural Japan, there wasn’t much big city amusement to distract Masao from an automotive focused lifestyle.  As a student, he would enjoy reading about sports cars, and studying magazines in hopes of one day owning one himself.  When he became a teenager, and finally received his license, he would drive the local pass every week in his EF8 CRX; the first of many cars he would own.  This was his first experience with the joys and freedoms that came with owning a car, and a feeling that he did not want to soon forget.  The more he drove and worked on cars, the urge to customize and paint the cars he owned became stronger and stronger.  He decided to succumb to this compulsion and pursued an apprenticeship at a body shop owned by an acquaintance of his.

For many years he enjoyed this style of living; working on cars during the day, and at night, driving them.  As life would have it however, eventually enough time passed and it became more and more unrealistic to keep up a lifestyle such as Masao was living.  He had gotten married, had kids, and eventually had to give up some of the carefree benefits of a carboy lifestyle.  He worked a normal job, sold some of his cars, and acquired a few “strange cars for living”, as Masao put it himself.  For him, it was just not reasonable to drive around a sports car every day; it became very difficult.  And we all know that when things become difficult, often times the joy of doing them vanishes.  However, as the nuances of growing older departed and his children grew up and out, he was once again afforded the stability to dive back into his passion.  It was then, around the year 2001, that he purchased the car you see here; a 1999 ER34 Skyline.

Being able to enjoy the benefits of driving a sports car on the daily, it didn’t take long for him to dive back into the lifestyle he had left all too long ago.  For awhile, he was satisfied with driving the Skyline on his days off on a leisurely basis.  He would do little modifications to it here and there, but nothing major to speak of.  He felt that he didn’t quite yet have the skills he needed to turn the Skyline into what he wanted.  So to satisfy his urge to modify, he picked up the 180 that we featured awhile back.  Eventually the R34 was set aside until he was in a position to build it into the car he envisioned.  For about the last 4 years Masao has been building his 180 with his own unique street style.  Working as shop manager at the Chiba based shop Technical Motor during the day, and practicing making body parts in his garage at night, the 180 soon became a representation of his own style.  Since the 180 was purchased at the track, in rather poor condition, he didn’t have any apprehension about cutting it up; which was the exact opposite for his prized R34.

Presenting these sentiments towards cars and motor sport to others is something I think we can all agree tightens the community, and gives us another outlet for sharing our builds and concepts.  Social media apps go a  long way with advocating this type of sharing, but it really becomes something special when you actually get to meet new people.  Together with a few like-minded friends Yuichi Seki, Hiroshi Amemiya, both from Garage Mak, Takaya-san and Koga-san, he started a group that would celebrate that sort of shared feeling.

‘Fun Ride Sharing’ has a single purpose; to bring together people who enjoy cars.

Starting with small get togethers, the group would gather among themselves and show off new ideas or parts on their cars.  When Masao first told me about the group I was pretty intrigued.  We both agreed that sometimes smaller is better, and that’s how we came up with the concept of the micro-meets we had at the beginning of the year.  And so, once again, Masao had the satisfaction of balancing motor sports into his daily life.  The 180 he had been working on for 4 years was in it’s final stages, he had an outlet to share his passion, and most importantly, he had the skill he needed to create the Skyline he had been putting off for 16 years.

A few weeks ago Masao reached out to me to let me know he was finally ready to shakedown the R34.  I knew he had been working on it for the better half of last year, but I wasn’t aware of the fast progress he had been making.  There is quite a bit done to this Skyline that most people would overlook; admittedly myself included.  First off, and arguably most importantly, the new RB26 is completely rebuilt by Technos Japan, a local Chiba shop with whom Masao has a connection with.  The mostly stock motor was sourced from a R32 GTR, older no doubt, but given a proper refreshing.

A plethora of GReddy pieces replace their OE counterparts; a T78-33S Turbine, 272 degree camshafts, surge tank, Intercooler, and 720cc injectors make up most of the list.  The transmission remains stock with the addition of an OS Giken triple plate clutch.  Tuned using the ever-prominent HKS F-Con V-Pro, the whole package makes a very potent 599ps at the rear wheels (believe me when I say potent, we did a couple first through third pulls when diagnosing a misfire).  Shorter ratios aid in acceleration thanks to a 4.375 final drive, and helping the car stay planted around the corners is a Kazz 2-way LSD.

A closer shot of the GReddy intake manifold and fuel rail.  Despite the clean appearance of the car, there really hadn’t been any maintenance done to it in a rather long time…for the past 5 years the car mostly sat in one spot.  This gave us some issues at the track, but nothing that couldn’t be chocked up to neglect haha.

The exterior of the car holds the most pride for Masao.  It’s somewhat of a showcase of his career in body work, and hand making all the parts himself.  He has a very specific style, and while the R34 is reserved for a circuit build, didn’t want to lose the street look that he enjoys so much.

While he waits for his new wheels to arrive (Gram Light 57CR), the main set of wheels for his 180 take their place alongside the Skyline; TE37V’s.  If you ask me, he should just order another set of these!  The car is placed upon a set of Apex’i N1 Pro dampers paired with Swift springs.

Like I mentioned, Masao made or modified almost all the parts on the outside of the R34.  His subtle approach makes it hard to notice, so allow me to assist in pointing some of the more minimal modifications out.

Most hidden perhaps, is the full carbon underpanel crafted by Masao himself.  Actually, his 180 sports a similar piece; often overlooked for circuit running, the underpanel greatly helps with creating downforce.  It is incorporated to the small splitter up front, and rear diffuser.  The front canards are hand made by Masao as well.  By utilizing the curvature of other cars OEM bumpers, he creates unique shapes that he uses on his own cars.  The Top Secret front bumper has been modified by blending a Top Secret duct, as well as a custom nose piece from Masao.

The rear overs were made using a similar method to the front canards.

Up front, Masao has completely remade the Z-Tune front fenders to add an additional 30mm to each side.  It was a very long, and tedious process, but the result is an OEM looking fender that gives the added benefit of fitting a larger tire.  Adding to the style is a pair of Ganador side mirrors; for the motor sporting gentleman.

Inside Masao keeps it somewhat simple with some tasteful carbon panels that house various Defi gauges, and the HKS AFC and EVC units.  Recaro seats and a Takata harness hold him in place around the track.

Rewinding a bit, I suppose I should mention that when Masao reached out to me letting me know he was ready to test the R34, I flew out to Japan to support him at Mobara; literally, I flew across the Pacific for the weekend.  I must say though, with work as busy as it’s been, it was a nice little break from reality.  Despite sleeping more on the plane than in a bed, it was a good experiment in journalism  for the site.  Sitting in Masao’s driveway, conversing about cars while the Japan sun set over the countryside was something that I had missed for a long time.

Taking a step back and observing the whole scene from an existential point of view, the one thing that stands out to me about Masao and his cars is the consistency in execution.

The way he tied his personal style to everything from his 180, the R34, even the decor and aesthetic of his house made me realize that it takes a special person to successfully pull that off.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little envious of his abilities.

His 180 is rightly his own; no stone left unturned so to speak.  His work comes from his hands, his experiences, and it easily shows.

I mean…just look at it.

No one would second guess that these two cars were built by the same person.

They are truly a matching pair.

Here you can sort of see the custom grill/nose piece that Masao made for the R34.  If you look at a normal R34, you’ll see that the top of the grill is sort of snubbed down against the front.  Masao elongated the nose to further accentuate the Top Secret bumper and vented hood.

As the evening drew to a close, we wrapped up our conversations, ran some errands, ate dinner, and promptly went to sleep, as tomorrow was going to be a long day.

The next morning, I reluctantly rose from my temporary home atop Masao’s loft.  I slept like a rock, albeit only for a few hours, but I was awake and ready to traverse the countryside to Mobara.  Masao’s wife would follow in her EVO X, and Masao and I would drive the R34 to the track.  A quick check of tools/parts, cigarettes and lighter, and we were off.

No trip to a circuit in Japan is complete without a pre-6am trip to a convenient store.  We stopped by the local 711 to grab coffee and breakfast…which for me was salted butter croissants…

…and the new official jelly of NDF.  Really…this stuff is amazing.  It comes highly recommended from this side of the fence.  It’s got all the Aminos, the good ones, and loads of Royal Jelly.  It tastes kind of like Red Bull.

The cloudy countryside of Chiba…doesn’t get much better.  I’ll take this over the metropolis of Tokyo any day.

We arrived at the circuit well before most people.  Masao is definitely a morning person and I happened to learn that first hand this trip.  I’m used to rolling around with Sekinei and being late to everything…what’s all this early bird stuff?

TanTan was strolling around, taking pictures and…I don’t know what this is – morning stretches maybe.  She drives a 180 as well, and is super quick around Mobara.  Admittedly the R34 was there for a shakedown, but Masao was having a hard time keeping up with her around the track.

Plus she wins the award for best dressed; cheetah print long sleeve and Dogfight coveralls.  Solid combo.

It was finally time for Masao to unleash the Skyline around Mobara’s tight turns.  He was apprehensive initially, as the car was really built for Tsukuba, but shaking down at a local track is much smarter in case something goes wrong.

Easily the best looking car in the paddock, he headed out to grid.

Right out of the gate, on the warmup lap, I could tell that this car was going to be extremely difficult to control around Mobara’s compact layout.  At every corner exit he was losing the rear as soon as the boost kicked in.  Shakedown or not, his times around the track were a good pace off of his times in his 180; it just isn’t a car suited to this layout.

Despite that though, the car was holding up very well.  Everything was running smooth, until he came in halfway through the second session complaining of a cutout around 6000 RPM.  As he pulled into the paddock you could easily hear that the RB was misfiring.

Misfires can be attributed to a hundred things, but naturally there are a few things you want to start with.  After conferring about the issue for a few minutes, we check the usual suspects.  We ruled out the fuel system as the majority of the parts were new.  The plugs were old, very overused, but ultimately they were still good enough to provide adequate spark.  We ripped it around the street for a few minutes monitoring the wideband for fluctuations.  I eventually mentioned that he had been running a silencer in the exhaust for years because, naturally, he was a model Japanese citizen and didn’t want his neighbors to hate him, and that because of this maybe his sensors were fouled.

After the fact we concluded that this was the issue; carbon build up.  The issue went away temporarily, enough to clock a few laps around the track anyway.

Masao looking rather joyful as some colleagues admire his work.

On track, the R34 looks just at home as it does in Masao’s driveway.  It sounded just as good too.

It’s always great to see builds come to fruition, and I can’t imagine how Masao was feeling finally getting to drive the car he had waited so long to build.

We were joking about the rubber marks on the fenders and bumpers to his wife when she pointed out that his car was dirty now.  “No, no, this type is ok! Makes it look cool”.

Some may say flying 10,500 miles for a day trip is a little overboard, but the kind of inspiration and motivation that stems from builds like this is well worth it to me.  It’s not too often we can experience such an intimate scene between a man and his car, and to know of the journey that leads to this moment.  I feel like I’m in the middle of my own story now, with my own cars, and just being able to live this with Masao invalidates any doubts I have about what I’m doing.  I think, if we’re all Carboys at heart, it’s important to feel this way about what we do.  Masao is a living example of this, and I can’t wait to see him again – next time at Tsukuba.