Photos by Tom Johnson
The girl racers love each others 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.
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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 thats 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 couldnt 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.
And then, when she was 17, she got pregnant. Maybe it was becoming a mother that changed things for her. Or maybe it was something else entirely. On her left shoulder, Nadine has a tattoo that she got right after her daughter was born. It is of a tiger clawing at the air, surrounded by flowers. Live life with no regrets, it says in Chinese characters. She decided that street racing is stupid. It isnt about racing. Its about immature male egos. I cant believe I risked my life every time I went.
Nadines house is a modest one-bedroom bungalow that she shares with her boyfriend, Benson Hsu, himself an accomplished drifter. In the corner of their living room is a floor-to-ceiling, first-place gold trophy that Benson won last year at the big national Drift Show-Off competition where every drifter in the country worth his salt battles for dominance. The trophy itself is taller than Nadine, who has yet to win one of her own. Their house is one of the smallest on the block, but it has by far the longest driveway long enough to fit six cars end to end.
Most guy drifters come out of an automotive background. Nadines parents are landscape designers formal Japanese and English gardens and there is a bit of the spare Zen aesthetic to Nadines front walkway, save for the chalk hopscotch squares her now 7-year-old daughter had added. Nadines car was parked right outside the front door. Just before she got her drivers license, her cousin had given her the gunmetal-gray Nissan as a gift. It had never been washed. The window tint was bubbly. So it sat in the driveway for a while, doing zero miles per hour on the concrete. Then one day while she was in Little Tokyo, she stopped into a bookstore and saw in a Japanese auto magazine that her battered little 240SX was actually one of the most popular cars to get fixed up in Japan. This is a good car, she thought. This is a car with potential.
I asked her how she got into cars in the first place, and by way of explanation, Nadine grabbed a thick glossy magazine saturated in Japanese text, more of a book, really, that she bought in Little Tokyo. It was an encyclopedia of all the known parts one can buy for a Nissan 240SX. This is my bible, she said. See this? This is called a coilover. Its the thing that keeps your wheels from bouncing-bouncing. Look at all these cute colors they come in. We could have been looking at Prada purses or prom dresses or nail polish, but instead we were lusting over bumpers and body kits. And thats how it starts. The car lust. The equipment fetish. You see all the pretty parts you can put on the car and go, Thats cute! Nadines guy friends would be talking about which suspension they were going to get theyd point to a green or purple one in the catalog and Nadine would ask, Does it come in pink?
Like most of the girl racers, Nadine leads a double life. In one, she is training to be a certified public accountant. In the other, shes a drift dragon, the future empress of a thousand-girl drift army. Drifting Pretty is the love child of those two lives. Nadine likes to run the program as a hybrid between a sorority and a military boot camp. She started it last Christmas, and there are 18 active members so far. I give them guidelines for behavior because, you know, girls like to show off and get attention. I want them to be joining for the right reasons. They got points for showing up to meetings and racing events. If they failed to show, they got put on probation. The racer in Nadine liked to haul ass on the oval. But the accountant in her had a thing for charts and spreadsheets.
This is serious, Nadine said. This isnt playing Barbies, its driving. Every month, they have a track event. Yet they also have nights when the girls get glammed up and go clubbing. In addition, they have had tech nights where they would get hands-on with power tools (because knowing how your car works makes you a better driver); a learning how to model day (because people were always asking to take pictures with them at car shows); a meeting about how to get out of a speeding ticket (smile, be positive, act responsible, and if all else fails, flirt or cry); a go-karting day to practice steering (because you also steer with your body); an engine-anatomy day (because Nadine would be quizzing them at a later date); and a movie night to watch Initial-D, an anime DVD series about a young Japanese guy turned drifter (because, well . . . just because).
That evening at Nadines, we sat in her car in the driveway. It was dark in there, close and self-contained, a small world. Plus, it smelled like tropical fruit. She had stiff racing seats that clenched your body like an iron fist, that had the brand name Bride plastered all over them, as if to say Now we are married! Now we are one! The cool things about her car are, in no particular order: the three-piece mesh Work VS-XX wheels which are 9 inches wide and 18 inches high that were special ordered from Japan. The blind-spot mirror with a puffy flower sticker on it. The Japanese front bumper, paid for by her sponsor, Nissan. The ball-locking anti-theft mechanism that allows her to detach her steering wheel, the key for which is really cute and which I had mistaken for an air freshener. And the flowery Hawaiian surfer girl floor mats.
Back when Nadine was sitting passenger a lot with guy drivers, there was always one girl driver at the street races. Her name was Kimbo. She was this chick in a Civic. And I was like, that is so cool. Kimbo would usually lose. But still people cheered her on. Go, Kimbo! Go go go! They were talking about that girl. That one. She drives. Everyone had respect for her. Getting respect was big with Nadine, and when she saw the drifting scene, she saw her chance. Im gonna be the only one this time, she said.
And for a while, she was the only one. And for a while, that was cool. But it is a delicate balance between admiration and scrutiny. Nadine began dreading events. She would pull into the pit, and time would stop as guys eyed her. I felt like I was being watched. I didnt like the idea of people hanging on my every move. They see one run you make and generalize: She spun out, she sucks. Girls suck. Loneliness kicked in. Man, she thought, I want more girlfriends that love cars. I know theres gotta be girls out there because guys love cars and girls are always with their boyfriends, and it rubs off on them, just like it did with me.
Like a wish granted, Nadine started seeing another girl on the tracks. Dont talk to her, shes a bitch, guys warned. Yoshie Shuyama was 31 years old, aggressive, had a perpetually stern expression and spoke an abrupt, halting mix of English and Japanese. She was a ladies autocross champion and, like Nadine, she looked like she could kick a little ass. She was competition. Nadine asked Yoshie to be her driving partner anyway. Each time they got together, they bemoaned the dearth of female racers in the import car scene. We were always asking each other, Wheres the rest of the girls? Theres no girls here, said Nadine.
What about those girls? said Yoshie, pointing to a clump of import models.
No, theyre just sitting passenger. But we can do something, Nadine thought. We can start something. We can recruit them.
A few of the racer girls live in the San Gabriel Valley. But most of them are spread out through the vast snake nest of freeways that is Southern California. There were girls off the 57, off the 405, off the 10 and the 5. At the autocross in the San Gabriel parking lot that day, the course was hot and the girls veered through orange cones as fast as they could, making times just under a minute. Helmets on, they were unrecognizable save for their bumper stickers the name Drifting Pretty in cursive script plowing through a cloud of pink petals.
The point of the autocross was for the girls to learn the racing line. It was just one of many driving skills that Nadine insisted they practice. The racing line is the quickest, most efficient way through a turn. It is where brains and skill and technique kick in over sheer power, and one of the great equalizing factors for girls on the track. You learn the correct way to hold your steering wheel, the correct way to sit. You learn the correct way to execute a turn, when to brake, when to gas because if you dont youll spin out. Yoshies got 80 horsepower. Ive got 205 horsepower. But she kicks my ass on the track because her racing line is so good I cant pass her. This is what Nadine teaches the girls. And, in a manner of speaking, to me.
The world in the window blurred as we took off cones trees cones white lines chalk sprays of asphalt smoke a man waving a flag sunlight streaming glinting sliding blinding alive! The track seeming to tilt as we squealed around turns. We weaved through slaloms, sped through straightaways. She had her shoes off, one small sock-foot pumping the gas pedal. Nothing else mattered except the road, not time, not place, not the thing you forgot to do last night. And then, too fast, it was over. She was a talented driver, even if your only measurement was not having crashed and died.
At the end of the day, Nadine and Yoshie sat side by side at the edge of the track, knees pulled up. They had both taken down their ponytails. A wind had kicked up and it blew their hair in wispy tendrils around their shoulders in a way that made me think of the melancholy heroines in manga fantasy novels. When you got right down to it, all theyd done was drive in circles for hours and wind up in the exact same place.
Or had they?
I tried to imagine what it would be like for them without the drift, without the races and the short times, the camaraderie of girls. Would it mean a life of number crunching, where an engine was nothing more than the sum of its parts? I tried to imagine Nadine 10, 15 years from now. I couldnt picture her living the slow life for long without doing something fast and new. The car is an escape in more ways than one.
Drag is the science of straight lines, a vector shot from point A to point B. But drifting is the physics of the curve. There was something romantic about that, I thought. Drift was about aggression, but it was also about style. Falling in love with Benson and falling in love with drifting went hand in hand for Nadine. Yeah, his car was pretty nice. He had this front that I wanted, and I told him, I want that, she said, which was her way of flirting. Benson, who had just started learning how to drift on corkscrew canyon roads up in the San Gabriel Mountains and in industrial parking lots late at night, let Nadine do donuts in his car. Together they drove tight 360s, pushed together by centrifugal force. Someday I imagined they might drift in tandem, two cars gliding side by side, inches apart on two parallel lines that never intersect. Its really technical, said Nadine, You cant just drive side-by-side with anyone. You have to know their drift line. You have to know the driver that youre driving with.
Other boyfriends were threatened. Why did their girls have to go to meetings? Did they really think they were going to race? One girl told Nadine that her boyfriend was mad because she was at meetings when she should be spending time with him. Nadine shrugged.
Dude, if I wasnt doing this, Id probably be sitting at home by myself thinking about Starbucks Barista Bears, said Noelle, who collects Beanie Babies.
Dude, at least you dont have to get up at 5 in the morning to wash sick peoples butts, said Khristine Barras, who is studying to be a nurse. We watched as several guys affixed a gold Tanabe sticker to the side of Bensons car.
Motorsports is expensive, prohibitively so. Who stays in racing and who doesnt may, in the end, depend upon sponsorship. A custom fire suit, required for when Nadine starts to compete, costs a thousand dollars. She has spent $10,000 on modifications the wheels alone are worth more than the car. Nadine is the only girl drifter sponsored by Yokohama, by any tire company in fact, and they give her tires that cost $270 each. Since high-performance tires wear out faster than everyday ones, a professional drifter can go through 10 sets of them on a race day. None of the Drifting Pretty girls have significant sponsorship yet. The girls pay for their own car parts, for entrance fees to race events and a $50 annual membership due to Nadine to cover the cost of the pop-up tent, chips and drinks, a cooler, two T-shirts and stickers.
A good thing, then, that clothing companies love girls and driving. Schikane, a street racing lifestyle brand, sponsored one of the Drifting Pretty girls, Kat Andrade, a petite Filipino girl with a sweet, childlike smile that made you want to take her home and feed her ice cream. Reps approached her at driving meets and asked her if she would wear T-shirts for them. She had the look that a lot of guys liked. Plus she was unusual because her car was an automatic. She doesnt even know how to drive stick, and shes kicking ass in drifting. She gets a lot of attention, said Nadine.
In a way, you have to not get too attached to your car. All the Japanese pro guys have totaled cars before. Nadine never has. You have come to love your car, but because of the nature of drifting, you have to then be willing to smash it up. Whats hard for girls is that theyre not driven by testosterone, said Benson. Theyre not ready to be aggressive and rough with their cars. You make a lot of noise when you drift, a lot of smoke. You have to throw the weight of the car around. Benson, who is reserved and conservative in daily life, has an excellent racing line, but not the crazy, jerky showboating style that drives the crowds wild and keeps spectators on the edge of their seats thinking of flaming infernos. Nadine, for her part, said she tended to analyze things too much. Its all in your head. Ill drive and Ill look at a pole. And the rule in drifting is youve always got to be looking ahead. You look towards where you want to go . . . And I kept looking at the poles.
One evening at Autolink Motorworks, deep in the San Gabriel Valley, the Drifting Pretty girls were in the process of replacing Nadines clutch. Nadines mechanic friend Chinky Chao was providing expertise on-call. Chinky had patience bordering on the Christ-like and a face riddled with piercings a bar between his eyebrows, lip studs, and two wicked spikes that looked like he had swallowed a steel-fanged insect that had then tried to claw its way out of his mouth by way of his chin. Nadines car, raised on the hydraulic lift, loomed above our heads. In the half-light, it felt as if we were inside an Egyptian tomb, squinting up at the cars vulnerable underbelly, its parts laid out like hieroglyphs. Nadine held up a fluorescent flashlight, illuminating the dark, tangled mass of metal.
Last time they took off the drive shaft, it bonked another girl, Amanda Lam, on the head. Amanda, not surprisingly, stayed home this particular evening, and only four girls were present. There was Khristine again, eyes ringed in smoky liner, who, as Nadines designated screw bitch, had the job of collecting the screws that came out of the car as parts were expelled. There was Lorraine Ragosta, one of the two non-Asians in Drifting Pretty, nicknamed the other white girl. She and a sprightly girl named Thao Nguyen took turns being Nadines tool bitch. And finally there was Casidi Tanaka, with a cute bobbed haircut and pleasant girl-next-door looks, who was Nadines light bitch.
The exasperating thing about car work is that just to get to one simple part, you have to remove all this other crap around it. Next time Ill bring little Tupperwares for the screws, said Lorraine, who was in a Martha Stewart kick. We can even label them. Next door, a car roared. A lanky, bald mechanic with a wiry goatee fiddled with a laptop attached to the cars engine. Dr. Charles, as he is known, was dyno-ing the car to measure its horsepower. Gridlike patterns flickered on his laptop. Dr. Charles was famous in his day, Nadine said. That was eight years ago. Which is a long time in our world. He was the king.
Allll right! she said. Quick tech lesson. My darlings, what are these? Nadine pointed to a part of her car.
Tension rod! shouted Thao.
What are these?
Sway bar! said Thao again.
Whats this thing-thing? Nadine explained which parts go bad fast, which parts are stock and which are popular upgrades, which parts made funny noises when they hit bumps. Oil pan. Side-mount inner coil. Steering rod. Transmission. Differential.
Whats this? she asked, shushing Thao, pointing to another girl.
Gas tank? ventured Lorraine.
Yes, said Nadine, tapping the part. Dont fuck it up.
What is this? Benson wandered by and pointed nonchalantly to a tiny part, a part so small and random it seemed to be merely a part of a part.
The girls and Nadine paused.
Thats the traction rod, he said nicely. Nadine smiled, sheepish. Oh yeah, we didnt learn those yet.
It was midnight by the time they began the laborious process of putting back in all the parts theyd taken out. So far, they had talked about car things: which driver cut who off on the track while drifting, which jerk driver drifts badly and illegally. About girlie things: being single versus having boyfriends, the cost of a Tiffany ring, the ultimate man, about already having names for the kids they havent yet had. About current events: how Khristine wants a belly-button ring with a little car on it, about who hadnt yet seen The Princess Bride and about how the new Liz Phair song was about breaking up. They had also talked about less girlie, more perverted things: like Nadines Playgirl subscription and the naked model they had dubbed Nadines favorite, the one hanging from the tree; about sluts and whores; about how her friend Alex saw the magazine and spent hours examining it. And the car still wasnt done.
Its all worth it when we drift, Thao sighed. Drift Day, when the girls would spend an entire day at the track, was one week away. Im gonna dress up like a pit honey. Or like those Umbrella Girls from D1, Khristine said, tracing out the curves of a low-cut dress over her mechanic suit, Im gonna wear stripper heels and a booty skirt and bend over to check my tires. The girls giggled. Oops, Kristine said playfully, bending over from the waist and arching her back. I dropped something.
At one point the conversation turned to the subject of rice. Thao had said that all true motorsports aficionados were family, but that they just didnt like rice. Whats rice? Id asked.
Rice is when you spend tons of money making your car look fancy, but put no money into making it perform better, said Thao.
Rice is when a car has cheesy neon running lights all underneath that make the street glow blue, said Khristine.
Rice are the ones that try to drift around corners on the street for no reason, said Thao.
Rice are the ones that trick out their mufflers to make them sound like bumblebees stuck in tin cans, said Khristine.
Or the ones that smash into walls while canyon racing, said Thao.
Or the ones that pull up next to you all gangstered up and rev their engines.
Or the ones that put wings on their cars that look like park benches.
Or the ones that have chicks riding passenger who think theyre cool cause their boyfriend drives a rice car.
Or crazy yellow tinted windows.
Or Honda Civics.
Or Hot Import Nights.
Or the little import model that comes to the meets every Thursday dressed in a tiny little dress even though its freezing cold outside.
Rice was slippery. It was a noun, a verb and an adjective, and might signify either a person, place or thing. It was an insult, an expletive, a fighting word, but it was also a silly word. Rice was both the joke and the punch line, all show, no go. Traditionally, it was an abbreviation for rice rocket, which was a nickname for a tricked-out import car, which was a car made in Asia, driven, usually, by Asians. But, to Nadines girls at least, rice was the state of thinking youre hot, but youre not.
At the Drifting Pretty Awards Day, held in one of the girls living room in a palatial, marble-floored house in Irvine, Nadine gave a pop quiz on engine parts. Amanda, who was the only one to sketch out cartoon diagrams of coilovers and differentials, won the award for Highest Points Holder (a.k.a. Points Whore) of the Quarter. Lisa, who was shipping off in a few weeks to Japan to pack parachutes for the military, was named Miss Congeniality. And for the coveted Girl Drifter of the Quarter award, Thao was a unanimous choice. Nadine, beaming proud mama, handed each of the winners certificates printed on petal-pink stationery, as well as new floor mats the same Hawaiian surfer-girl mats she has in her car.
In Nadines cult of girl racers, there will be, as in the Girl Scouts, a rule book for everybody to abide by. They will all be connected, a society of girl drifters in America. There will be Drifting Pretty chapters across the states. No, not like a cult! she corrected. More a network. Im not like, Die, guys, die! She dreams of the day when her girls will be excellent enough drifters to merit a visit from one of Japans all-girl pro-level drift teams. Team Kumakazoku perhaps. It will be like a United Nations meeting. They will discuss drifting techniques and watch drifting videos. Perhaps they will go clubbing.
But the truth is that there are no really good girl drivers here yet. Nadine and her girlfriends are okay, but theyre not great. As much as theyve improved, theres still the intimidation factor, the one-girl syndrome. I feel that the reason Im not that good yet is because all last year when I was at the monthly practices at the track, it was just me and occasionally Yoshie, said Nadine. And all the guys were watching me. And they were like, theres that one girl. I was like, just drive. I didnt want to compete, either. Because theres that . . . expectation. You have to have the right mindset. If youre not confident, youre gonna hit the wall. That really kind of screwed things up, she said. Now we have to get good.
Recently, a new girl appeared on the scene, an Asian model named Verena Mei who enrolled in a driving school. She just popped up this year. I saw her at an event and said, Who is she? Nadine said. A twinge of cattiness bubbled to the surface, then was gone. Nadine generously admitted that Verena Mei was cute, but noted that she only drives the driving schools car. Shes actually going to compete in the middle of this year at one of the events. Im happy for her that shes not going to be a typical model and that shes going to get out there and drive . . . Im going to try to get to know her.
In July, it is Yoshie who will get to know Verena Mei as a driver. The two will be the only girl competitors in Sonoma at the semiannual Formula D, which will feature all the top drifters in the U.S. I dont know how good she is, mused Yoshie in a sprawling parking lot at the California Speedway in Fontana, where the girls had gathered for their monthly practice. Nadine wasnt there, having gone to play pit honey to Benson at a drift competition in Georgia. Sometimes there is less pressure when shes not here, said Yoshie meaningfully. We wondered how Nadine would do at this years D1 in December, when it was her turn. She has a better car than all of us, but she has not yet experienced that kind of harsh environment, said Yoshie, who has. She says shes not yet ready. I dont know whats stopping her. In the coned lot, the girls skidded around, timidly at first then more aggressively as the day wore on. I thought of the stares from the guys. The walls. The poles of doom.
You rocked out there! one girl said to another. You were crazy. It was thrilling to see the girls throwing the weight of their cars around, kicking up dust, making smoke. The radio in someones car played a Jessica Simpson remake of Take My Breath Away. It was Thaos 20th birthday, and at the end of the day, the girls gathered around a cake atop the trunk of Noelles Nissan. They cut the cake with a chopstick and passed messy chunks of it around on paper napkins. In a few months, Nadine and Yoshie would be choosing the five best girls to make up Team Drifting Pretty, the first official girls competitive drift-racing team in the U.S. Yokohama had promised them tires. This was a generation of girls who had no readily available role models in a sport that was itself just coming of age. So in a way, they were pioneers. Whatever happened, whichever of them won or lost or made it onto the team or didnt, in the end this was how I wanted to remember them. Just a bunch of girls covered in a fine layer of track dust, laughing, complex; drifting together, with purpose, on burning wheels.
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