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Sideways to Stardom 

The future of a rear-wheel-drive phenomenon

Thursday, May 13 2004
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Photos by Jack Gould

On a clear, blue-skied California morning in February, the stands at the Irwindale Speedway have filled to their 10,000-person capacity for the first-ever American D1 Grand Prix (D1GP). Behind the track, the San Gabriel Mountains look brown, gray and green against a sky of white, grease-filled haze. I work my way to the hairpin turn where the fans are standing three deep, hands holding on to the steel safety netting, jockeying for a better viewing position of the track about 10 feet away. At 60 miles an hour, defending world drifting champion Youichi Inamura comes screaming around the corner just three inches from the wall in his 500-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive, third-generation Mazda RX-7. A trail of dust and smoke follows him as tire debris rains down. My once-white T-shirt is now flecked with bits of the black tire rubber. The fans next to me go absolutely apeshit — a chorus of “Fuck yeah”s and “Inamura-san”s rise up from this young, predominately American, mostly male crowd. Drifting has come to America.

Drifting was created in Japan by tribes of illegal street racers who ran their souped-up, rear-wheel-drive Japanese automobiles on the wet and treacherous mountain switchbacks outside the towns of Rokkosan, Hakone and Irohazaka. These dangerous races, called Touge in Japanese, combined aspects of rally racing, street racing and hill climbing to invent modern-day drifting. The most aggro of these Touge racers were called the Rolling Zoku — or “hoodlums,” some of whom then went on to fame as professional race car drivers. Dori-Kin or Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya is credited with perfecting both the tail-slide form of driving that is the essence of drifting and pushing the sport into mainstream Japanese culture. Fans in the States and overseas treat him with the reverence usually reserved for big-time race drivers like Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher. Every time they spot him at the Irwindale event, the throngs call out his name: Dori-Kin. Keiichi-san.

You could think of drifting as a fusion of road racing and the import tuning scene; you could also think of it as an automotive slam-dunk competition. The organizers of the D1GP refer to the sport as figure skating with cars, but that sounds a little less masculine than some of the drivers would prefer. Freestyle automotive motocross works just fine for some, where others liken the sport to a motorized X Games event. The idea is that a small, lightweight, high-horsepower, high-torque, rear-wheel-drive automobile races through a marked and paved course, sliding from side to side through the varied permutations of turns — from full hairpins to slight banks. The driver’s goal is to apply enough power to the rear wheels to break the tires’ traction and initiate a drift. Then the driver maintains that drift in a seamless line through the course with steering, braking and throttle input.

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Judges evaluate each driver’s skill on execution, meaning how well a drift is initiated; entry speed, or how fast the driver approaches the drift; and, finally, the angle of attack — how much the driver actually drifts. Style and excitement matter, too: The judges assess the smoothness of the driver’s transitions into the drifts, the proximity of the driver’s automobile to both the wall and the other automobiles, the straightness of the line on the track that the driver follows, and also how pumped up the driver gets the crowd.

Those drivers who advance in the solo competition go on to race head-to-head in a tandem drift, or Twin Dori, where the front driver pulls the sickest drifts possible while the rear car tries to mimic the run precisely. Then the drivers switch positions until the judges determine a winner. Mind you, all of this occurs while these 500-plus-horsepower cars, driving sideways at over 60 mph, are within inches of each other and the wall. Sometimes the cars careen off course and hit the wall or, better yet, each other, as the sound of crumpling carbon fiber throws the crowd into revelry. Heats can last as little as a minute. (Think of the gambling possibilities.) One fan referred to drifting as “watching the last lap of a great road race over and over and then they do it again.”

 

Drifting is the only motor sport I know of where the best and most expensive car and gear doesn’t guarantee a winner. It’s more about driving skill than speed; about true honor instead of the fattest wallet. The setup and quality of parts on the driver’s ride matters too, as does its weight. It’s awesome when, during a tandem drift, the heat goes to the broke-ass privateer and not a fully-sponsored factory team. You can set up a drifting car for under 15 grand, which might be why drifting is catching on, not only in car-crazy Southern California but all over the United States. The Sports Car Club of America has already sanctioned a four-round, countrywide competition called the Formula Drift to run through the summer with two events in California. Circuit City, Mazda, Mopar, Yokohama Tire, Falken Tire, Toyo Tire and Dunlop Tire have all signed on as series sponsors.

At the D1GP event I attended in late February, I met drift fans who came from all over the United States and Canada just to watch the action live, some for the first time. The crowd was one of the more ethnically diverse I had seen at an automotive race; you had the sense that a real subculture was developing, a culture big companies have only begun to latch onto. These were fans who found something all on their own. It felt like a good thing. The one factory-backed car — a brand-spanking-new Pontiac GTO, driven by Rhys Millen — got a serious razzing at the D1GP. Drifting fans can tell when a big company buys its way into an event. Which, unfortunately, looks to me like it will happen a lot more as drifting gets more popular (read: lucrative). In fact, Dodge announced its own Viper factory drifting team last month.

Justin Chadwick, a tall, preppy 22-year-old kid from Arizona, comes to the Los Angeles area three or four times a month just to drift in his 1991 Nissan SR201 (that’s a 240 SX to you and me). When I asked him why he doesn’t move to Los Angeles, he told me that if he could find a good job, he would, just for the drifting scene.

Almost every American I spoke to told me the same story: Growing up they had Japanese friends who introduced them to Option Video Magazine, a monthly Japan-only automotive video series, which turned them on to first the import tuner scene and then to drifting. American drifting fans refer to their cars by their Japanese names — it’s not a Toyota Corolla, it’s an AE86 — and address other drivers with the proper term “san.” They don’t care much about NASCAR or the Big Three; in fact, they don’t care for newer cars at all. (That may change, however, if automakers continue to reintroduce to market the rear-wheel-drive cars used in drifting.)

Thirty-year-old Bryan Norris grew up in the predominantly Japanese neighborhood of Anaheim Hills in Orange County, where he consumed a steady diet of anime and Option videos. Back then his friends had to translate the Japanese for him, but these days, Norris — who is as Anglo as they come — can reel off the language like Blade Runner’s Deckard ordering a meal at the local soba bar. The day before the event, Norris took me for a spin around the Irwindale track. It felt like a ride on the best roller coaster ever, only you really can die. Right when I thought Norris would hit the wall, he’d drop the clutch and boom — pull the e-brake and drift sideways around a hairpin as smooth as anything. Norris started out racing open-wheel cars and road and rally racing, but drifting has become his true racing love. Norris still has his day job, but he has in the past secured sponsorship from tuning-parts manufacturer JICUSA. “People are starting to recognize me more,” he said. “Before it was like, man, I need a new set of tires, and that’s like $600. Now it’s free tires and I get to drift.

“In the States it’s going to get bigger,” he continued, “and I think a lot of us are already getting famous.” One way that fame may manifest is in video games: The speed and length of drifting events suits the video-game generation’s aesthetic. In fact, at least three video games already feature drifting in some form. Electronic Arts plans to expand the sport into an even more dynamic, pixelated version.

Norris thinks his car may soon make it into a game. “That way, you can pretend you’re me in my JIC car,” he offered. “That’d be cool.”

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