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The Coolest Man In Japan, The Extraordinary Real-life Story Of Toyota Racing Legend Sachio Fukuzawa: Part Two

as told by R.J. O’Connell and Hiroshi Fushida

Here’s part two of RJ O’Connell’s epic retelling of the story of Toyota racer and Japanese fashion icon Sachio Fukuzawa – Part One can be found HERE

In the world of men’s fashion, Sachio was and is still regarded as a legendary figure. A chance encounter with a man named Ichiro Kurahashi before Sachio left Japan in 1963 led him into the office of an upstart apparel company named Edward’s, who specialized in European-styled high fashion. Shortly after returning to Japan – and in the midst of starting his own racing career, for emphasis – Sachio had risen to the rank of executive director of Edward’s – and had even started his own label within the company, Beau Geste, specializing in stylish shirts for young men.

As a model, Sachio was the face of several national commercial campaigns – not just for Toyota, but for companies like Shiseido Cosmetics, Toray Industries, and Panasonic, from 1967 to 1969. When he was the face of Toyota’s ad campaigns for the modest Publica sedan, he could make it look as cool and desirable as his own 2000GT.

Sachio took the same approach to fashion that he did to driving, prioritizing creative substance above all. As he explains in a December 1968 interview with Boy’s Life magazine: “I always like to create something. I’m more interested in creating cool clothes rather than wearing them. It’s the same for cars. I’m drawn to the mechanical parts, I’m not satisfied with their superficial coolness. Being a model is just a side job, because I can’t eat just with a race driver’s salary.”

Sachio, who always worked long hours between racing and fashion, never stopped finding outlets for his creative passions. In 1967, during a private vacation in Europe, he covered the April Test Days for the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a reporter for auto sport Magazine. In 1968, he appeared as himself in the film The Challenge of Man, a racing drama based on the Japan Grand Prix.

It was reported in a 2012 issue of Navi Cars magazine that Sachio was making nearly 11 million yen per year between his driving, modelling, and fashion work – nearly three times as much as the average racing driver’s salary.

He was one of many stars of sports and entertainment that frequented a well-known Italian café in Tokyo called Chianti, along with his fellow drivers like Ikuzawa and Sokichi Shikiba, and musicians Masaaki Sakai and Hiroyoshi Kayamatsu of the rock band The Spiders, with whom he had a close bond. As for his tales of romance, Sachio may not have too many stories of “losing fifteen pounds in a few days off the track” as François Cevert or James Hunt had in their prime – but it was known that he was a polyamorous young man in a time of free love. He’d fallen in love with Japanese fashion model Kazuko Matsuda, way back when he was in senior high school, and from 1967, he also started dating young actress and singer, Tomoko Ogawa. He had an open, healthy relationship with both women at the time.

Fluent in four languages, with a dry sense of humour in all of them – whenever he walked into a building, oft-adorned in his favourite tan trenchcoat, he radiated pride and coolness, sharp enough to cut through a crowd like a dagger. Yet, he was never arrogant, he was classy and humble to his core.

1968, the year that Sachio won his second Suzuka 1000km with Fushida, was his breakthrough season as a racing driver. After five years of setbacks and sacrifices, this was the year that he finally made his first start in the biggest race of the year, the Japan Grand Prix. The 1968 Japan GP at Fuji was the first running of the event open to FIA Group 7 sports cars, the ruleset that formed the basis of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup (Can-Am). With almost limitless freedom to design the ultimate race car, Toyota’s three-litre 415S would be pitted against the Nissan R381 with its massive dual rear wing “aero stabilizer”, and brash privateer Taki Racing Organisation’s fleet of Lola T70s.

As the new “big machines” obliterated the previous lap record in time trials, Sachio was the fastest qualifier from Team Toyota in 6th. But he was a devastating six seconds slower than polesitter Kunimitsu Takahashi’s R381. The Nissans and Taki-Lolas were all equipped with Chevrolet V8 engines of 5.5 to 6.3 litres of displacement, putting out upwards of 450 horsepower compared to the meagre 300 horsepower from the Toyota 7’s 61E powerplant. Toyota even had their hands full just to stay ahead of the much lighter two-litre Nissan R380-IIs and Porsche Carreras, because the Toyota 7’s streamlined body lacked downforce, and the car actually gained over 120kg of weight from the start of testing due to rigidity failures with the old chassis.

In front of a crowd of 120,000 spectators, the Japan GP began at 2 PM on 3 May 1968. Sachio made an uncharacteristically poor start off the line, dropping eight places before the field got to the first corner. It was a grim omen for Toyota’s Japan GP. “The 415S was not a bad car, but it did not have enough power. Therefore we could not compete against the other big engine cars in terms of real speed and lap time,” says Fushida, who himself suffered an early puncture in the race. “Of course anything could happen during the race – so we could have finished in the top three or so if everything went well.”

Sure enough, attrition took its toll in the first half, with Takahashi dropping out of the lead fight with a wheel hub failure, and all three Taki-Lolas retiring. By lap 32, Sachio was now back up to fourth place. Soon after, Motoharu Kurosawa spun his Nissan R380-II, and then on the next lap, Sachio’s “Chianti Club” friend, the reigning Japan GP champion Ikuzawa, ran off course trying to lap slower traffic in his Porsche 910 – bringing Sachio up to second. The young man was driving his Toyota 7 to the absolute limit, keeping Kurosawa and Ikuzawa at bay, now with a podium place in sight – perhaps a victory if leader Moto Kitano’s R381 broke down!

But on lap 58, as Sachio was coming through the Hairpin Curve, it all came to an end: The left-rear suspension arm of his Toyota 7 bent, causing it to strike and break the driveshaft. After limping back to the pits, Sachio climbed from his wounded Toyota and retired, completing only enough laps to be classified fourteenth. Kitano won the Japan Grand Prix in his yellow-winged R381, with Ikuzawa second, and Kurosawa third despite a clutch issue. Otsubo and Fushida were Toyota’s only two finishers in eighth and ninth, five and six laps off the lead respectively.

It was that run at the Japan GP, fighting for a podium finish, that marked the start of Sachio’s incredible ‘68 campaign. His next race was the record-shattering Suzuka 1000km for himself and Fushida. The next month, on 20 October, Sachio finished a close second in the 540-kilometre NET Speed Cup at Fuji, only being beaten by the more powerful Lola-Chevrolet of Taki Racing’s young star, Masahiro Hasemi.

But it was the last big race of the season – and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the final race Sachio Fukuzawa ever drove – that was arguably his most celebrated result: It came on 23 November at the inaugural Fuji World Challenge 200 Mile Race, an invitational event that brought in ten of the top superstars from the Can-Am Series across the Pacific to race alongside nine Japanese entrants, with a prize purse of 16 million yen (equivalent to $45,000 USD at the time) at stake.

While the dominant duo of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme declined to attend, and Jim Hall’s career-ending crash at the Stardust Raceway in Vegas forced him and his Chaparral out, race promoter Shingo Shiozawa, a huge fan of American motorsport, still assembled a star-studded lineup headlined by the likes of Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Pedro Rodríguez, Joakim Bonnier, Sam Posey, and Al Unser.

The true-blue Can-Am cars had engines as big as 7 litres of displacement, putting out in excess of 600 horsepower! “We thought we had no chance to finish in the top six or so,” recalls Fushida – and to that point, Fushida qualified 12th and Sachio qualified 13th, but both men were ten seconds slower than the pole-winning McLaren-Chevrolet of Mark Donohue. One only shudders to think how deep the deficit would have been for the Japanese teams if they’d run the full 6-kilometre circuit, and not the shortened 4.3-kilometre layout, which was also run anti-clockwise – in another nod to the American-based drivers.

So, come race day, the Roger Penske-owned Sunoco Special of Donohue, and the Shelby McLaren-Ford of Revson, broke away from the field in the 75-lap Fuji 200 Miles, battling for the lead all day while putting even the other Can-Am entrant’s several laps down. Ultimately, the duel between Donohue and Revson was settled when Donohue’s car ran out of fuel with less than ten laps left, caught fire after refuelling, and retired. Revson charged through the open door to victory, by a staggering margin of four laps over second-placed Posey, and third-placed Bonnier another three laps back.

The Japanese drivers were resigned to the fate of having to fight just to be the best amongst their peers, but for much of the race, Hasemi’s red and yellow Taki-Lola was the top-ranked Japanese car.

Sachio was almost an afterthought, having spent the first half of the race out of the top ten and already several laps off the lead. But with about 20 laps left, Hasemi suffered a gearbox issue that effectively ended his race. And when John Cannon crashed out, Chuck Parson’s suspension gave up, and Donohue’s chances went up in flames, it left Sachio Fukuzawa to drive home to an incredible fourth-place finish, the best of all the Japanese drivers!

And while, yes, he did finish eight laps off the lead, it was still a great day for Sachio, who took home a 1.15 million yen share of the purse – and more importantly, finished the race as Japan’s number one driver.

Team Toyota, in fact, saw all five of their cars finish the race – Sachio 4th, Otsubo 5th, Hosoya 6th, Fushida 8th, and newcomer Minoru Kawai 9th, proving the reliability of their Japanese-built cars. “We knew we were not quick enough. but we pushed hard to the end to try and finish as high as possible,” said Fushida. “Although we could have the results we would have liked at the Japan Grand Prix or the Can-Am, we were not downbeat. We were looking forward to the future that was to come.”

Sachio Fukuzawa was on a trajectory, not just to become the new ace driver of Team Toyota and in the Japanese paddock, but to become a star on the World Championship level. As his friend Ikuzawa was racing in Europe to pursue his Formula 1 dream, Sachio had his own ambitions to race in F1, just like Jacky Ickx, the future six-time Le Mans winner that Sachio admired most of any international driver.

Boy’s Life magazine wrote of Sachio in December 1968: “Fukuzawa’s future goal is to be a Formula 1 driver, of course. He wants to be on par with Graham Hill and Jacky Ickx. The progress of motorsport in Japan has been increasing tremendously over the past two to three years, so Fukuzawa’s dream is not impossible. Perhaps, he can fulfil his dream sooner than expected. After all, he’s still young!”

In the autumn of 1968, Team Toyota boss Kawano and Yamaha general manager Chikara Yasukawa attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans as guests of Porsche. Their picture appeared in the local newspapers after the race, as the headline asked: “Will we see a Japanese manufacturer in next year’s race?”

It turns out that it wasn’t just speculation. Over fifteen years before they ultimately made their first entry at Le Mans, the top men at Toyota’s motorsports division in conjunction with Yamaha were developing a car built to FIA Group 6 Sports Prototype regulations, with the goal of entering it in select races of the 1969 World Sportscar Championship – perhaps even the Grand Prix d’Endurance itself – that year. The three-litre V8 61E engine was already compliant with the new regulations for the category, and they looked to the winning Ford GT as a reference for their new car.

“There were a lot of talks and discussions between management about entering Le Mans – but the drivers did not know anything other than rumours, until a closed cockpit Group 6 car was unveiled at Yamaha’s Fukuroi test course in February 1969,” says Fushida. “However the project was soon canned, and the Group 6 car was redeveloped to Group 7 regulations into the new five-litre Toyota 474S that debuted in the Japan GP that year. I suppose at the time, winning the Japan GP was more important than Le Mans for Toyota. I believed that the Group 6 Toyota could have been a car to watch if they participated in Le Mans.”

And if any one driver from Team Toyota was to be the face of a challenge on the World Sportscar Championship – and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in particular – it absolutely would have been Sachio, whose second home was in France: Young, intelligent, handsome, and most importantly, fast, he had all the makings to become a superstar whose appeal reached far beyond his homeland.

But this story does not have a triumphant and happy ending for anyone. The cruel hand of fate would strike Sachio Fukuzawa down, and after death, would erupt an avalanche of sorrow, heartache, scandal, and conspiracy theories that still haunt to this day.

On 10 February 1969, Yamaha Motor Company formally opened its Fukuroi Test Course, a 5.8-kilometre figure-eight modelled loosely after Suzuka Circuit, and unveiled the new Toyota Group 6 prototype, in all black. Sachio spent the next day, 11 February, with his older partner Matsuda, before saying goodbye on his way to a train station in Tokyo. That night, he played cards with actor Yuya Uchida, and designer Ryozo Shibata, and he also spoke with his father Shintaro, and to his younger partner Ogawa over the phone – all for what would be the last time.

“I was to attend that test,” says Fushida, “but because I had the flu and a very high fever, I could not take part.”

The morning of 12 February 1969, was cool, sunny and beautiful. It would never forebode the tragedy that was to come. With Fushida ailing at home, Sachio Fukuzawa stood in his stead, and just before noon, he began his first run aboard the mysterious, black Toyota.

At 11:45 AM, while Sachio was starting the eighth lap of his run, the prototype clocked in at 250 kilometres per hour down the front stretch as he approached the first left-hand corner. Eyewitness reports state that the car became unstable and veered to the right, then crashed into an iron signpost on the side of the track. The car then veered off into an embankment and crashed a second time, erupting into flame upon impact with the banking.

Sachio Fukuzawa never struggled or suffered in the fire that erupted. He died on impact from head and neck injuries sustained in the crash. He was just 25 years old.

His fellow racers were stunned. His family, and his closest friends, were wrought with grief.

“I received a phone call from one of the engineers late in the afternoon of that day when he told me of the accident. Next thing I remember, was that I was to carry Sachio’s coffin together with other Team Toyota drivers for his funeral in Tokyo,” says Fushida. Even a half-century later, it is still a pain point for Fushida, who had lost two of his close friends in a span of four years – first the bright-eyed, bespectacled Tohjiro Ukiya in ‘65, and now Sachio. “I have a few other memories of this time, but…I do not wish to speak of it.”

The most public outpouring of grief was seen on the 24 February episode of the TV show Night Hit Studio, when Sachio’s lover Tomoko Ogawa, in the middle of performing a song appropriately titled First Love, burst into tears and collapsed in front of a stunned TV audience. There would be many musical tributes to come – an album from his college friend and fellow racer Keitaro Miho named for him, a ballad of remembrance written and performed by the rocker Monsieur Kayamatsu – who also had a duet with Sachio’s sister Emi.

After the accident, Toyota released a statement and said that the cause of the accident was driver error. It was this response that enraged Sachio’s father Shintaro, who contested that it was a mechanical fault on the car his son was driving that ultimately took his life. Shintaro fired back, stating that Toyota were ruthlessly protecting their trade secrets more than that of their own people.

And soon, Shintaro Fukuzawa would file a civil lawsuit against Toyota, to clear his son’s name.

It is contested that the remains of the wrecked car were concealed and destroyed by Toyota, who even sent local police a photo of an entirely different car for the investigation – in an attempt to protect their confidential trade secrets. The identity of the car was never revealed, and there are two long-standing theories that the fateful black prototype was either a redeveloped version of the original 415S, or a reworked version of Brock Racing Enterprises’ experimental JP6 prototype – which was seized by Toyota in ‘68 and just so happened to be destroyed in a crash on its first test.

A far more sinister conspiracy emerged that Toyota actively obstructed the rescue attempts, or were at least horribly negligent in their efforts – but a report in auto sport Magazine and even first-hand accounts from Toyota captain Hosoya disprove such twisted conspiracies: Every fire engine was on hand as soon as possible, Yamaha’s automotive director Takehiko Hasegawa brought as many fire extinguishers as he could, and even Captain Hosoya rushed to the scene to try and free Sachio from the car, reaching into the fire and leaving him with burns on his arm.

Finally, in 1981, after the Fukuzawa Trial raged for a decade and even made it to the floor of the Japanese Diet, a settlement was reached out of court, with Toyota paying a sum of 61 million Yen to the Fukuzawa family. The true cause of the accident was never revealed.

“He was one of my great rivals when we raced against each other, but he was also a great teammate and friend to me. Sachio was a very nice guy, and I liked him a lot,” says Fushida. “I often wonder how great he would have become, and what he would be doing if he were still alive today.”

It was ultimately the death of Minoru Kawai during a testing accident at Suzuka Circuit on 26 August 1970, that finally led Toyota to abandon the Toyota-7 project just as they were plotting a challenge on American soil – but truthfully, Sachio’s death the year prior proved a void too big to fill. It would not be until 1973 that a Japanese driver would start Le Mans, those being Sachio’s friends, Fushida and Ikuzawa. Toyota would not enter the race themselves until 1985.

Although Sachio Fukuzawa, has long been gone from this realm, his incredible character is still remembered fondly by a generation of automotive and racing fans, and simultaneously, by a generation of dandy gentlemen well-versed in style and fashion. They remember him as the ultimate playboy racer, yes, but beneath the surface was a determined and dedicated young man who sought excellence at everything he sought to achieve.

And if his incredible tale, hopefully, retold as faithfully as such a tale deserves, resonates within just one person henceforth, it will have ensured that the legend of Sachio Fukuzawa, The Coolest Man in Japan, will never die.

With special thanks to Hiroshi Fushida.