By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Tom Johnson
The girl racers love each other’s cars. They fantasize about them at odd moments, when brushing their teeth, say, or sleeping, or sitting in class, or at work. Instead of slumber parties or trips to the mall, the girls hook up on Saturday nights to change out a clutch or bleed a brake line. Among the members of Drifting Pretty, the first-ever all-girl drift-racing crew in the U.S., there is a nurse, a mortgage broker, a stuffed-animal collector, a former cheerleader, a high school senior, an accountant and a young mother. But nearly all of them have the same car: the Nissan 240SX. It is not an expensive car. It is not even necessarily a fast car, or a trendy car, or a car with lots of sex appeal. But it is a car they have taken apart and put together on their own. If they know the way its engine purrs, or roars, or screams, or the way its body kit shudders as it glides on smoking wheels just inches from a wall of death, it is because they have driven it hard. Yes, it is the car they drive to the grocery and to visit their boyfriends. But once a month, as if seized by fits of lunar madness, the girls hit the track, and 18 humdrum econo-mobiles become badass racing machines.
On a blazingly bright afternoon, I was in a San Gabriel parking lot watching the racer girls race. The lot had been converted into an autocross track with orange cones marking out the winding lanes. The girls lined up bumper to bumper in a row of Nissans to race against the clock. They drove like banshees. They waved to one another and gave thumbs-up.
“I want to beat 38 seconds,” said their leader Nadine Toyoda, who stayed on track the longest and drove the fastest. “I need to beat it,” she said.
“But did you see me?” said Sarah Nakadate. “Nadine was fast, but she better look out. ’Cause I was right up her ass.”
I first met Nadine Toyoda at a race event called the D1 Drift Grand Prix. A bunch of Japanese men were tearing up the asphalt in souped-up Nissans and Toyotas. They charged around the oval track, tires shrieking, making lots of smoke and pummeling occasionally into plastic barricades. I had never seen a car “drift” before, except by accident. But at D1, skidding sideways while taking turns at high velocities was the whole point. It was only a matter of time before people started skidding around curves, shredding their tires, then competing to see who could do it best. Though drifting had been going on in Japan for the past 10 years, D1 was only the second international competition held in the United States. Already there was a growing rivalry between the Japanese — who had flown in just for the event — and the Americans. Hardly any American men — let alone women — drift on a professional level. Yet that day I had heard tell of a young Japanese-American, a girl, who was trying to break into the scene.
Riding in a car that’s drifting is like being caught in the final seconds of a high-speed swerving accident — over and over again. G force squeezes the air out of your lungs. Your head knocks against the window and roll cage like a nut in a can. You fight the urge to stop the car, which seems to be careening out of control. You fight the disorientation, the cognitive dissonance that your car — once an ordinary car meant for boring commutes to work, a car meant to go forward and backward and occasionally gently to the right or left — is hurtling sideways at 100 mph at a 180-degree angle. Drivers get points for angle of attack, for the amount of smoke output, for the tire squeal and for the nebulous, highly subjective quality of “showmanship.”
Nadine Toyoda was the girl who wanted to drift. She stood by herself at the edge of the track staring at the Japanese drivers. She was 24 years old, skinny in jeans and a powder-blue sweater, all fierce angles and powdery pale skin. Her long light brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Like most of the other girls milling about — the girlfriends, the import models, the car-show women — she was young and cute. She couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds. But unlike most of the other girls, Nadine looked determined. She looked like she was working something out. And that, I thought, made her beautiful.
Drifting is a guy thing because motorsports in general is a guy thing. If you are young and a guy and Asian and into cars, then chances are that you are into imports. If you are young and Asian and a girl and if by some off chance you are into cars, then popular opinion has it that you are only into it marginally, either as a model or a girlfriend.
Nadine devoted her teenage years to being a girlfriend in the street-racing crowd. Honda Civics and Acura Integras were the cool cars then. It was the day before the Drifting Pretty autocross event, and Nadine and I were hanging out at her house in San Gabriel, flipping through car magazines. When she was 14, she said, she would ride passenger with guys. When she was 15, they would drive out to Ontario on weekends at 11 at night to meet up at gas stations or parking lots and race on deserted streets. There were car jackings and shootings. Then the cops would bust it up and the racers would take off, all at the same time, taillights fading into the suburban night. It was scary and illegal and thrilling as an Akira chase scene and an accident waiting to happen. “And accidents did happen. All the time,” she said.