THE DAMPERS NEEDED ONE MORE CHECK.

The dampers always needed one more check. It was midmorning on June 23, 2010, and Toyota’s most senior test driver had just completed another lap of the Nürburgring in a Lexus LFA. In his 47 years at the company, Hiromu Naruse had accumulated the most Nürburgring laps of any Japanese driver, and it all led to the LFA he was driving, his life’s work.

After 10 years of development, Naruse was finally, visibly pleased. The car he was driving, an orange LFA Nürburgring Package, had more power than the standard LFA, a fixed rear wing and a more focused suspension. Naruse had been involved with many of Toyota’s legendary performance models, but he had never shown such delight in a vehicle—not the AE86, the Celica, nor the MR2. Not even the Supra.

Naruse turned to test driver Yoshinobu Katsumata, sitting in the passenger seat. The car was almost ready, he said. The closest Naruse had ever come to achieving his dream—building a car that could topple the best from Europe on their own turf. Naruse asked Katsumata if he wanted to take the wheel. Katsumata hesitated—he’d tested vehicles with Naruse for years and only drove when the car was nearly complete. There was still another week of testing on the schedule. Katsumata politely declined and stepped out of the car. Assistants began to clean the Toyota garage, preparing for the next test session. This far into the program, their movements were familiar, almost rote.

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Naruse and a small team of engineers had constructed a supercar lifted straight from his personal tastes, shaped over decades of study and relentless tinkering. But the dampers needed one more check. Naruse prepared to leave, to go back to Toyota’s nearby engineering facility. An assistant normally rode along on these drives, but Naruse told his colleagues not to call for that man. “I’ll just drive back alone,” he said.

The drive was less than two miles. He’d driven it hundreds of times. Naruse pushed a helmet over his flattened white hair, rolled up the window, and pulled onto the highway.

Wolfgang Grube / Toyota

I LEARNED ABOUT HIROMU NARUSE the way most people did: from the news reports when his LFA didn’t make it back. Photos of the crumpled supercar flooded the internet. There were a few days of tribute. Toyota published a video in remembrance.

Once mired in obscurity, test drivers have become minor celebrities of late. There is no shortage of stories about people like Walter Röhrl at Porsche or Lamborghini’s Valentino Balboni. Even Nissan’s chief driver, Hiroyoshi Kato, has a public profile and a devoted following. All of which makes sense—who wouldn’t want to watch the masters, creators of the world’s most impressive machines, at the top of their craft?

Yet here was a driver who had spent nearly half a century with one company. And not some niche automaker, but Toyota, one of the largest in the world. Naruse climbed that company’s ranks to lead a global team of test drivers. His fingerprints could be traced across Toyota’s history of performance cars: the Sports 800, the 1600GT, the 2000GT, the AE86 Sprinter Trueno. The Corona, the Celica, the MR2, the Supra, the Altezza (our Lexus IS), the MR-S (MR2 Spyder). His legacy spanned decades, woven through the history of the modern fast car.

Naruse’s story, however, was harder to find.

To chase it, I went to Japan. I wanted to see where Naruse-san built a legend. I wanted to meet the people with whom he sweated under drivetrains and debated suspension design. At Toyota’s sprawling corporate headquarters, in Toyota City, the story began to appear.

“He was a driving doctor,” said Katsumata, the Chief Expert driver who had been at Naruse’s side on the day of the accident. Seated across from me at a walnut conference table, Katsumata had a kind, round face and unruly black hair. He spoke with the gravitas that comes with 44 years in an industry. Our interview kicked off a series of meetings with Toyota employees, all of whom were wary of giving too much credit to any one person. Everything was described as a team effort, reflective of a corporate culture where drawing attention to oneself is discouraged. That could explain why Naruse never gained as much public acclaim as some of his peers. But after a few questions, without fail, each of Naruse’s associates began to open up about the man they called the Master.

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“The way Naruse drives was completely different,” Katsumata said. “You can see he’s talking with the four tires; he’s having a dialogue. He would truly understand the characteristics of the tires.”

In a department of car nuts, Naruse stood out. “Mr. Naruse was always saying that we should stay under the vehicle forever,” said Toshiyuki Sekiya. At age 25, Sekiya was pulled into Naruse’s orbit during development of the Celsior (sold in America as the Lexus LS). “We should think only about the vehicle [Naruse told the crew] for one month long, and never think about anything else. During dinner, we were talking about the vehicle only.”

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The philosophy dated back to Naruse’s early days with Toyota. He came aboard in 1963, as a temporary mechanic, smack in a golden age of Japanese motorsport. Naruse was assigned to Toyota’s Engineering Department No. 7, the dedicated motorsport group that had developed the 2000GT in the mid-1960s, in near secrecy. It was as close to a skunkworks as Toyota has ever had. A few years later came the Toyota 7 race car—akin to a Can-Am car, and one of the company’s early experiments with racing prototypes. Naruse tested it around short courses a stone’s throw from the conference room where I conducted interviews.

Department bosses back then would bark orders from behind their desks with little explanation, leaving the engineers to figure out solutions themselves. Perhaps as a result, Naruse developed a habit of constant tinkering that followed him throughout his career. He rarely left the work site. This idea, known as Genchi Genbutsu, is one of Toyota’s famed 12 business principles. It means, loosely, “Go and see for yourself.”

“He was always touching the vehicle,” said development leader Hiroyuki Koba. That led to an innate understanding of vehicle behavior and dynamics that became second nature. “Naruse said on the shop floor [that] if you attach reinforcement material here, then the movement of the vehicle would dramatically change, and you can grasp how the car will move.”

Department No. 7 was shut down in 1973, and its members dispersed across the company. Naruse was assigned to vehicle development, where his legacy would take root.

Wolfgang Grube / Toyota
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NARUSE CONSTANTLY DEMANDED CHANGES, even when others deemed it too late in the production cycle. He often made these changes himself, without telling anyone. Engineers would work on parts only to later realize that they were outdated, because Naruse had changed those parts in the middle of the night. “He wanted to do things by himself,” Sekiya said. Six months before the 2009 Avensis sedan debuted, for example, Naruse demanded that the car’s ride height change. Koba, who was the project manager, complained that it was too late. “Many design changes were necessary,” he said, “and if we make changes, we have to redo reliability evaluations. It was a lot of work to do in that limited time.”

Naruse insisted.

“We worked very hard to fulfill that request,” Koba said. Naruse was able to make taxing demands in part because his colleagues respected his dedication. He had no hobbies, did not smoke or drink, and worked hard enough to leave an impression on others. Engineer Hironori Adachi told me that Naruse liked to cook but confessed he’d never witnessed it. Then he said Naruse often ate plain tofu without seasoning. The most consistent complaint about Naruse, either as a man or as an employee, was that he would eat the same meal, at the same restaurant, three times a day, for weeks at a time. “He didn’t challenge new food,” Toyota Grand Master driver Nobuaki Kanamori described it. Ironically, one of the philosophies that Naruse drilled into Toyota engineers was the need to develop the “flavor” of a car. He believed Toyota’s distinct engineering should be recognizable throughout the company’s lineup, via characteristics like steering feel, responsiveness, and composure. These were the ingredients that could be adjusted, within a larger broth, to suit individual tastes. And if those flavors were to come alive, the broth itself had to be good.

“What I focused on was the base of the car,” said Minoru Takaki, a Naruse disciple who is now a Grand Expert test driver. “It’s important that first, the car can drive very smoothly and stably. If you can keep those features, then you can go on next and make the flavor.”

Wolfgang Grube / Toyota

To fine-tune that flavor, Naruse sometimes pushed his teams to their limits. They would spend hours running prototypes around Toyota’s short course, under the baking sun, then wheel them straight into the vehicle-testing division, hidden at the back of the company’s campus.

Toyota representatives invited me to tour that facility, but not before asking me to leave my camera and phone behind. Even employees need special clearance to enter. Today, the unassuming sheetmetal warehouse is a modernized facility with open work spaces and glossy cement flooring. The clank of metal and the whir of impact wrenches fill the air as mechanics tinker. One corner is stuffed with freshly buffed, race-prepped Toyota 86s huddled in a flock. But years ago, the building was stifling and windowless, essentially a glorified shed. Naruse practically lived on the shop floor. Adachi said Naruse would stalk engineers in the upstairs cubicles. “He [would say], ‘Why are you sticking to your desks in the office? Why do you not touch the vehicles more often?’ ”

A typical day might consist of extensive high-stress testing of a new model. Takaki described how the team would push the car directly from the searing track into a walled-off section the size of a shipping container. A flimsy canvas gate slid closed for privacy. When we visited, a young mechanic was there, under the hood of a Lexus IS. I had to watch my feet to make sure I didn’t kick the bumpers, wheels, and other parts piled high against each wall. The three of us barely fit in the space.

Takaki said Naruse and his team spent hours in this area, with no air-conditioning. During smothering Japanese summers, Naruse would lie on metal plates underneath cars to take apart still-glowing brakes or to demonstrate where a suspension needed reinforcement. The rest of the team—sweating in jumpsuits, longing to be released—looked on and took notes. Takaki had a secret signal to get co-workers to call him away so he could take a bathroom break.

“We were all so hot,” Takaki remembered. But Naruse never displayed discomfort. “I think he was having fun.”

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THERE WAS ONE SECRET TO NARUSE’S driving skill: He simply thought about nothing else.

“The road shapes us,” Toyota president Akio Toyoda told a room of employees in 2012, echoing words he’d heard Naruse use for years. “We make the cars based on what we learn from the roads.”

After a long day at work, Naruse would go home, say hello to his wife, then go back out. He often headed to the misty roads of the nearby Mikawa Mountains. He was a mainstay at Toyota test tracks across the country, but more attractive were short detours to the Hakone Mountains in central Japan, or the Ezo Mountains on the country’s north end.

“You have to understand how to drive safely and have the skill to evaluate the car in various conditions,” Takaki said. “Naruse would point out, ‘Well, you see the forest in this certain shape, therefore we can assume the roads will be in this kind of shape. That’s why we have to control the steering wheel in this way.’ ”

The Nürburgring Nordschleife is both the world’s greatest winding road and unlike any stretch of pavement on earth. With 73 turns and nearly 1000 feet of elevation change over 12.9 miles, it remains a stalwart of manufacturer vehicle-development programs. From the moment he first visited the iconic German circuit, Naruse worked to persuade Toyota to move development of all sports cars to what Jackie Stewart had famously dubbed the “Green Hell.”

“He felt that if a car is not able to be competitive with those cars developed in Germany, it wouldn’t be a qualified car,” said Yurika Motoyoshi, a Toyota spokeswoman and Naruse biographer.

With the third-generation Supra, in the late 1980s, Naruse finally succeeded in convincing the company to ship prototypes to the Ring for testing. After that car’s success in the market, he assembled a squad of top test drivers, nicknamed the Naruse Team, that would travel to the Nürburgring for skill development. The team had its own rules. One, established early on, said that one Nürburgring test lap had to be completed for every rated horsepower of a new model. For a car like the Supra, that meant more than 300 laps. At roughly 10 minutes each.

“The target is to be able to drive safely,” said Takaki, an original N-Team member. “If we are able to drive safely, our mind will not be occupied with just driving the car. With this relaxed drive in mind, we will be able to think about the whole car.”

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Executives took notice. In 2000, when company heir Akio Toyoda returned from a stint in the United States, preparing to assume the presidency, his father, former president Shoichiro Toyoda, suggested he meet with Naruse.

At the time, Toyota was deep in the throes of the Prius revolution. Much of the company’s engineering and culture were focused on a model that would legitimately change how the world viewed green cars. Toyota had not produced a competitive sports car since the Supra, and Naruse privately bristled at this drought. He also disliked the new hobby that Akio had picked up in America: golf. In his time there, the future president had barely touched a steering wheel.

If it wasn’t clear that Naruse had established himself as a hallowed presence within the company, that fact was cemented by one of the first things he said to Toyoda: “I don’t want to be preached to about cars by someone who doesn’t even know how to drive.”

In Naruse’s world, this was to be interpreted as an invitation to begin driving lessons. Toyoda accepted, and the two men became inseparable. Naruse started with the basics—teaching Toyoda how to stop. They ran braking drills for weeks. He taught Toyoda how to escape from an overturned car and how to retain control on icy pavement. They drove mountain roads and traveled to test courses across Japan.

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“They would go to Hokkaido and take driving training on snow courses,” Kanamori said. “I remember Naruse would be very lightly dressed, with a sweater, making instructions to Akio. I was thinking, He’s so enthusiastic and passionate—but wouldn’t he catch a cold?”

Toyoda valued Naruse’s ideas about the company’s direction. He also believed that learning to drive made him a better leader. Superiors, although reluctant to see their future president inside a roll cage, came to accept that the driving would continue. Whenever he left for trips with Toyoda, Naruse’s wife would call to him, “Make sure you protect the president!”

Toyoda renewed his passion for cars. Naruse gained a source of corporate backing and support.

He was going to need it.

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BY 2002, Naruse had completed recent evaluations of the Prius, the MR-S, and the Altezza. He hadn’t worked on a game-changing sports car in more than a decade. Nearing 60, he undoubtedly felt retirement looming. So when the opportunity came to create the LFA, he jumped at it. Naruse was given complete authority of the project, even over the chief engineer—the first time anyone could recall that happening. Naruse insisted that the LFA be fully developed at the Nürburgring. He was not a damper engineer, but he chose Japanese supplier Kayaba (KYB) to build the dampers and helped them engineer every part. He was not a tire engineer, but he called Bridgestone engineers to Toyota’s testing facility and showed them exactly where to improve the tires—so many times that his colleagues lost count.

“Bridgestone engineers are thinking about tires 24 hours a day, but Mr. Naruse is not shy,” Katsumata said. “Then it turns out, he’s right.” Those who worked with him said that Naruse viewed the project as his shot at building a dream. He would not fail.

“What he wanted to do was be on an equivalent level with the European automakers, like Porsche, Audi, and BMW,” Kanamori said.

Slowly, the car came into focus. Along with an excellent engine—a 553-hp, 4.8-liter V10 designed by Yamaha—the dampers and tires were brilliant flavors; the complete dish was the challenge. With the influence and knowledge of its Formula 1 team, Toyota built a giant loom to weave carbon fiber into the shape of the LFA’s A-pillar and roofline. When an outside company struggled to supply the carbon-fiber-reinforced-plastic chassis that Naruse wanted, Toyota built its own loom for that, too. This kept the curb weight of the LFA low without any loss to strength or rigidity.

The LFA had its broth.

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Naruse obsessed over the project. “One day I would see him with a very frustrated face,” Takaki said. “The next day, he would be very happy for making certain progress. A few days later: frustrated again. He was aiming for a higher level.”

One thing the team knew it had right was the engine note, perhaps the LFA’s most universally beloved feature. The V10 emits a concerto from its triple exhaust pipes that wipes the senses clean. “He was really persistent on the sound of the engine,” Katsumata said. “It makes you feel like you want to ride in the car again.”

Next, Naruse wanted a real test. He approached Toyoda about funding a racing division, one staffed by Toyota employees, to give them on-site experience with his prized principles: develop flavor; the roads make the car; Genchi Genbutsu. Toyoda bought in, and Gazoo Racing was founded. Employees were assigned two-year stints, with instructions to take what they learned back to their departments. In 2007, the team entered two Altezzas into the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.

Wolfgang Grube / Toyota

The Gazoo team worked through the night to keep both cars on track. In the car, while racing, Naruse was conducting evaluations, same as ever. During one pit stop, he pulled into the garage and said, “Do you think we should change the dampers? It could get better.” Every mechanic within earshot rolled his eyes.

In 2008, Gazoo Racing returned to the Nürburgring 24 with a camo-clad LFA prototype. By now, the word was out: Toyota was developing a super Supra under the Lexus moniker, and the car was making its public debut at the world’s most challenging track.

The race served its purpose. Pro drivers, including Super GT champion Akira Iida, collected invaluable data on how the LFA behaved under extreme conditions. Toyota executives saw Akio Toyoda, racing under the code name Morizo, whipping a homegrown supercar while the world looked on. The race helped the LFA project gain important support, and one more passionate boardroom plea from Toyoda sealed the deal. He was named president of Toyota the following January, and the production version of the LFA made its official debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 2009.

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The team wrapped up the LFA project and began to fine-tune the LFA Nürburgring Package edition, of which only 50 would be made. They were just about done by the time Naruse waved off an assistant, rolled up the window on a preproduction prototype, and pulled off.

“I believe, in his mind, [the LFA Nürburgring Package] became closer to what he was aiming for,” said Kanamori.

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NARUSE GREW UP IN IKEDA TOWN, a sparsely populated farming community in Gifu Prefecture, at the foot of a mountain range in the central part of Honshu, Japan’s main island. He was born on July 18, 1942, the youngest of four siblings. When his father died in World War II, his mother moved the family to Ikeda.

Today, the town’s population hovers around 25,000 residents. The place is so small that when I mentioned to Naruse’s colleagues I was visiting, they first assumed I meant a different, much larger Ikeda about 100 miles to the west. On the way to Naruse’s hometown, my taxi driver had to stop at a 7-Eleven to ask for directions.

The rural atmosphere gives a certain insight into a focused, driven man. At ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning, Ikeda was sleepy. Rice-paddy ponds gave way to lush mountain backdrops as we squeezed through the narrow streets. Not a single restaurant was open. We turned up a steep road into the hills, rows of ocha-tea crops lining the road.

After a short drive, we reached the Yuugen-ji Temple, nestled in the foothills. It was a tranquil perch from which to look down at the town sprawling below in shades of farm-plot green. The skills learned there had launched Naruse on a career that took him around the world. He spent his childhood learning to wrench, by necessity, when the family’s charcoal-powered car—a popular conveyance in postwar Japan— broke down. It needed to be fixed on the spot. Genchi Genbutsu.

Naruse knew the most challenging roads on earth intimately, and his career gave him a lifetime’s worth of understanding, which he poured into building Toyota’s ultimate supercar. He knew every inch of the LFA. All of which makes it shocking that he lost control.

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On June 23, 2010, on a long right-hand turn near the Nürburgring, the LFA drifted into the opposite lane at high speed. It bore down on a maroon BMW 3-series, and the cars collided head-on. Two BMW employees in the 3-series were hurt but would recover. Toyota employees rushed to the scene, but Naruse was dead by the time they arrived.

Today, the site of the accident is adorned with two tributes: a Japanese weeping cherry tree and a German cherry blossom. Akio Toyoda delivered the eulogy at his funeral. And Toyota engineers still idolize Naruse. “He was my ideal grandpa,” said Masahiro Matsubara, an engineer who worked with Naruse for three years. After long days at the track, Naruse and Matsubara would exercise in the hotel together. They played Ping-Pong for hours. Naruse always won.

“I would like to become like him when I’m older,” Matsubara said.

Ten months after Naruse died, Iida piloted the LFA Nürburgring Package to set a new Nürburgring production-car record of 7:14.46. It toppled the previous mark, set by the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, by more than three seconds. Production of the LFA began that December, with the cars priced at $375,000. In the middle of a global recession, most of the 500 examples produced were spoken for before the first one rolled off the line.

Toyoda considered shuttering Gazoo Racing, but he ultimately decided that Naruse would want the team to continue. The LFA returned to the Nürburgring 24 Hours, finishing third in class in 2011 and taking a class win in 2012. That 2011 racer sits today in the Toyota Kaikan Museum in Toyota City at the company’s headquarters, still carrying the dirt and scrapes from its victory. A few feet away, in a tall glass enclosure, is a black Nomex racing suit with “H. Naruse” stitched into the belt. Along with his helmet and gloves, and two Nürburgring trophies, it watches over the car.

At the temple, I took one last look across the plains of Ikeda and climbed into my taxi, a jet-black Toyota Crown sedan. We turned back down the mountain, where the roads are never straight. They rise over rivers and dip under canopies, narrowing through forests and unfurling along farm plots, where the ocha crops and the Yamazakura cherry trees fly by in a blur. The lace seat covers on the headrests—so common in Japanese taxis—swayed, but my seat stayed flat as the car floated over the pavement and pointed south toward Toyota City, headed home.