The infamous and mysterious Japanese street racers known as the Mid Night Club set the bar for top speed and outlaw ethics.
Street racing has never been for the faint of heart. But Japan’s most notorious group of clandestine racers weren’t young hooligans out to make a name for themselves. Instead, the fastest clique in Japan’s underground racing scene was a secretive group of businessmen and automotive executives known as the Mid Night Club (a.k.a. Mid Night Racing Team). They became renowned for their daring nighttime speed runs down the Shuto expressway between Tokyo and Yokohama, reaching in excess of 200 mph. They were also equally as famous for their strict code of ethics to avoid endangering the public during their exploits. Steeped in legend, the Mid Night Club has inspired video games, anime, manga, and successive generations of auto enthusiasts.
Japan in the 1980s and ‘90s has, in recent years, become widely considered a golden age of motoring. An economic boom left many in the country flush with cash. Domestic automakers like Toyota and Nissan sought to capitalize on the situation by producing some of the greatest sports cars the world has ever seen. From Nissan Skylines and Sylvias, to Supras, RX-7s, and NSXs, Japanese automakers were pumping out performance car after performance car.
Street racing became a wildly popular past time for Japanese youths. Racing groups formed, variably referred to as teams (by the racers) or gangs (by the police and media). The advent of high performance at an affordable price meant a lot of horsepower on the streets and at the command of a good many inexperienced drivers. Accidents became a common occurrence. So, to limit the danger, the Japanese government limited production cars to a stock 276 horsepower.
Manufacturers responded by building in restrictor plates or other devices that would limit a car’s output to the specified horsepower (with knowledgeable mechanics easily modifying these cars to boost output). The response of Japanese car enthusiasts was a boom in aftermarket tuning. This was the beginning of tuning culture as we know it today, and it was the nexus point between manufacturer and enthusiast tuning that gave rise to the Mid Night Club.
Much of the information regarding Mid Night Club is spotty and inconsistent, and intentionally so. Members were well respected members of society. As businessmen and executives, they guarded their identities and those of their teammates lest an association with street racing dishonor them. Because of this secrecy, dates vary as to the founding of Mid Night Club. Some sources put the inception in the early 1980s, in ’82 or ’83 while others put it as late as 1987. What we can say for certain is Mid Night Club had quickly become Japan’s most respected and revered street racing team by the late 1980s.
The Mid Night Club had stringent protocols for conduct and entry into the team. Members had to be involved in the automotive business, either at a manufacturer, a tuning house, or a shop. All had to be proficient mechanics and their cars had to achieve a minimum of 160 mph. Prospective members were required to apprentice for at least a year and attend every club meeting during that time. Only around 10 percent of apprentices were eventually admitted, and membership never exceeded much more than 30 total members at any given time.
In the pre-internet age, club meets were organized through classified ads in local newspapers. Such adverts would read something like, “Handbags for a sale at discount prices. I’m available at Diakoku Parking Area midnight Thursday.”
Two things set the Mid Night Club apart from other street racing teams. First, Mid Night Club dispensed with drifting and quarter mile runs. Instead, their focus was on sustained top speed. It was this fact that had made the team legendary. It is one thing to achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph, but doing so for mile upon mile for up to 15 minutes required next-level driving skills and the bleeding edge of performance tech. Given members were the cream of the crop in Japanese motoring, these illegal speed runs on the Wangan were literally testing the fastest production cars in the world.
Speed wasn’t the only thing that the Mid Night Club was famous for. The team’s code of ethics was their defining feature. Never, in their pursuit of speed, were members to endanger the lives of other motorists. The protocols were strict. Drivers were to use their hazard lights and keep at least one lane between them and other motorists. Many of the members’ cars had additional headlights for added visibility for both themselves and cars around them. Runs were made at night and only in light traffic. Reckless driving would get member an immediate ban from the team.
Though Mid Night Club members’ cars were featured in Japanese car magazines, the members themselves shunned the media, only further burnishing their mystique. Imitators were common, with other street racers reproducing the club’s signature Mid Night stickers for their own cars. Often this fakery resulted in a vandalized or torched car.
The cars of Mid Night Club included a who’s-who of classic JDM like Mazda RX-7s, Toyota Supras, and Nissan Skylines, as well as European exotics including Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches. One of the more famous was a 1978 Nissan Fairlady 280ZX. It boasted innovative tech of the day like intercooled turbochargers and weight-saving carbon fiber body panels. Though likely apocryphal, legend has it the Fairlady Z topped out at some 800 horsepower.
The most storied Mid Nigh Club car was heavily modified 930-generation Porsche 911. Known as the “Blackbird,” this car was reportedly capable of a top speed of 217 mph. Lore has it that the owner, a wealthy businessman, had poured in over $2 million dollars-worth of modifications and even had it shipped to Germany where it was worked on by Porsche’s factory mechanics. The name “Blackbird” was a nod and a wink to the only Porsche to rival it, the legendary RUF Yellowbird. In fact, the car wasn’t even black but maroon.
While members of Mid Night Club had a strict code of conduct when it came to racing, others in the racing scene did not. One night in 1999, a group of Bosozoku bikers diverted members of Mid Night Club while on a run, sending themselves and the racers into a high traffic area resulting in a major accident that took the lives of two bikers and hospitalized six civilians. Having failed to ensure the safety of other motorists, Mid Night Club officially disbanded.
While tuning culture remains alive and well in Japan, the heyday of 200 mph runs on the Shuto Expressway is now long past. Rumor and legend continue to swirl around Team Mid Night. Though it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction, these outlaws with honor (and sick rides) certainly earned their place in our collective automotive imagination.