Akio Nishimura is a real off-roader: He enjoys shedding his corporate navy blue suit and getting out in the dirt. This made him an ideal chief engineer to develop and launch the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser, and a natural to step up to engineering the new 2010 Toyota 4Runner.
In August 2009, in an effort to uncover any potential weak spots in the new 4Runner, CE Nishimura and a team of engineers from the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground (TAPG) took two prototype "Trail" edition 4Runners to run the Rubicon Trail in northern California.
After three days on the trail, they came out with nothing to report: no problems, no drama, nothing broken, just a few desert racing stripes. Before the TAPG team drove back to the Phoenix test track in the dusty 4Runners, Nishimura said he was "disappointed." They hadn't found any opportunities for kaizen (improvement) of his design, and he was still looking for a more extreme durability test.
Nishimura had heard a story about Joe Bacal, a cancer survivor and former TAPG test driver who entered a Lexus LX 570 in the Baja 500 in July 2009 and won his class. This may have been the first-ever Lexus entry in international off-road racing and was certainly the world's first victory for a Lexus in off-road racing.
Putting this together with his experiences in working with desert racer Rod Millen during the launch of the FJ Cruiser, Nishimura determined to put the prototype 4Runner to a similar test and began planning for a "high-speed accelerated durability test" in November in Mexico—he wanted to enter the 42nd Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, the famous race across the peninsula of Baja California, Mexico, in which barely half the starters are running at the finish. And to clear up the numbers, the Baja 500 race course is designed to be close to 500 miles in length, whereas the Baja 1000 is 1000 kilometers (621 miles), except in the first year of each decade, when it really is 1000 miles. The Baja 1000 race course for the 42nd running in November 2009 was based on the July 2009 Baja 500 course, but with a big loop added around San Felipe and a short extension down to Mike's Sky Ranch, for a total distance of 1082.85 kilometers (672.85 miles).