Turning Japanese

Desert drifters import "car surfing" to Arizona's hot streets

Yet Arizona is surprisingly well-represented in the U.S. drift scene. Sato himself has only been practicing the art of drifting for six months, but already he's considered one of the best in the West. He was recently selected as a driver in the next Formula D races in Sonoma, California, a still-infant international championship dedicated to introducing drifting to the NASCAR-bred American race fan.

In fact, three of the top 20 drivers picked from around the world to compete in the first ever North American Formula D series hail from Arizona, including Chandler's Ryan Hampton, a former Grand Am and Indy racing champ who left the pro racing circuit to pursue drifting.

"I think drifting has the potential to get bigger here than even Houston or Atlanta," says Hampton, noting the cities where Formula D events have already sold out racetracks.

Blair Sato prepares to give another passenger the ride of his life. To ride along at most tracks, all you need is a borrowed helmet.
Blair Sato prepares to give another passenger the ride of his life. To ride along at most tracks, all you need is a borrowed helmet.
"Part of the appeal of drifting is you get to drive like you do in a video game."--Han Wong
"Part of the appeal of drifting is you get to drive like you do in a video game."--Han Wong

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Photography by Matthew Garcia

"It's perfect for the desert," Hampton says. "It's The Dukes of Hazzard on crack!"


It's Mother's Day at Phoenix International Raceway, and Brady Dohrmann, another member of the AZ240SX club, has managed to talk the owner of NASA into letting his drift crew piggyback onto the rest of the association's racing schedule, getting a few sessions in between a high-performance go-cart race and a challenge involving a fleet of too-cute Mini Coopers.

Even offered up as a side-show attraction to the more straightahead racing events of the weekend, the drifters, in their banged-up, mismatched fenders, squealing their tires on every turn, come off just a little bit ghetto. The drifters' cars of choice are late '90s rear-wheel-drive Toyotas, Nissans and Mazdas, modified with fatter tires up front and skinny, overinflated tires in the back, to reduce traction. Negative camber is applied to the front tires for better steering control, which tends to make the cars look pigeon-toed. If a fender gets smashed against a wall, it's often just ripped off and tossed in the trunk.

It's all in the service of the slide, but the driftmobiles are definitely the ugly ducklings of motor sports.

"The smokers are out there right now," dirt stock car racer Eric Jacobsen tells his mother, who's complaining about the noise from under a tent in the PIR pit area, while brother Jeff videotapes. "They're doin' crazy things."

Nevertheless, the inclusion on the roster, even as a novelty, represents quite a coup for the club. While Tucson Raceway Park has already staged five Drift Days since the inaugural meet in January, the May event is the first time drifting has been officially demonstrated in Phoenix, and the infield track at PIR, consisting of 11 turns of varying difficulty and angles, offers tons of bitchin' opportunities to slide and glide.

Still, only six drifters have shown up for the event, and two are already sidelined because of broken parts or damaged engines. Part of the reason for the low driver turnout is the cost. There's a $150 registration fee to get in on the four 20-minute drift sessions, plus another $35 for the NASA membership fee required to race at the sanctioned event. At Tucson, it costs only 50 bucks for a day of drifting. But even that can add up for these guys, who can burn through a set of premium tires in a single weekend.

"There's a lot of money you need to put into the sport," says Champa Phetsomphou, 27, whose '89 Nissan 240SX coupe is overflowing with 11 spare tires in the truck and back seat. "And if you don't have the money for entry fees and tires and for going out of state" -- which you need to do, Phetsomphou says, to get any consistent practice -- "you're not gonna get much seat time as a drifter."

Even if a drifter avoids the tracks and just practices his doughnuts late at night in empty parking lots -- which almost all beginning drifters do -- the car will invariably require repeated and expensive visits to Mr. Goodwrench.

"Drifting is abusive on cars," says T.Y. Yap, a 28-year-old aerospace worker and drift enthusiast, tightening the lug nuts on the right front wheel of his well-scrubbed '97 240SX. "If you get into drifting, expect to destroy your car. It's a given."

Yap believes one of the reasons the suspension-smashing sport originated in Japan was because of that nation's upside-down vehicle registration system. "In the U.S., our registration gets cheaper and cheaper as the car gets older," he notes. "In Japan, it's the opposite. There, once your car gets to a certain age, the tags go sky-high. So at some point, it's not worth it to keep running your vehicle. Cars become disposable."

Indeed, visitors to Japan are often amazed by all the shiny new cars they see in the scrap yards. In addition to escalating registration costs and an annual vehicle ownership tax that also increases with the car's age, a national biannual safety inspection system called the "shakken" requires vehicles to pass far more than a simple emissions test. "They look at the chassis, the suspension, the body," Yap says. "It can get to a point where you have to rebuild your whole car, just to pass inspection."

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