Turning Japanese

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

"But personally, I think that's a misperception. Drifting is really about car control. You're pushing things over the line to discover the limits of your car and your driving skills. Ultimately, drifting shows the capabilities of the driver. If someone can consistently come within two inches of an object and not hit it, going at it sideways at 70 miles per hour, that's a good driver."

Yap admits a lot of drifters like living on the edge, and winks that he knows a few drivers who still prefer spinning out on rural Arizona's mountain roads, where the treacherous turns often rival the Japanese touge courses made famous in Initial D.

But after hitting a patch of sand on an Arizona mountain pass a few years back and nearly skidding off a 30-foot drop, Yap came a little too close to that edge for comfort.

Spectators watch cars emulate the Japanese motor sport of drifting.
Spectators watch cars emulate the Japanese motor sport of drifting.
"Everybody thinks you're just spinning around and you're gonna kill yourself."
"Everybody thinks you're just spinning around and you're gonna kill yourself."

"If you fall off a mountain road, who's gonna find you? For me, it's worth spending the $150 to go to a track where if something happens, there are people around to help you."

At least one death has already been attributed to drifting. In 2002, a driver in Hawaii plummeted off one of the hairpin turns on Tantalus Drive, a mountain road high above Honolulu, in what police suspected was a tandem drift race. Since then, even Hawaii's most daring drifters have been taking the action to the raceway.

At the tracks, there are also lots of people around to bum a ride off the drifters, which happens "all the time," says Yap. "The better you are as a drifter, the more people want to ride along with you." At the loosely organized Arizona meets, all you need to board the wild Tilt-O-Whirl ride is a helmet -- which are always in short supply ("Nobody wants to spend money on helmets," says Phetsomphou).

But Yap feels a sense of duty in schooling the curious on the realities of drifting beyond Initial D.

"Watching Initial D, you don't have that g-force sensation, you can't experience what countersteering feels like, or what it feels like when the back end comes up," he says. "There are some things about drifting you simply can't understand unless you're actually doing it."


For young Asian-Americans like T.Y. Yap, Han Wong and the Laos-born Champa Phetsomphou, there's an unmistakable sense of pride in the fact that the baddest dudes in drifting all hail from the Far East. One Elvis-haired, daredevil-driving Keiichi Tsuchiya is cool enough to make even the most rednecked trucker forget all about those William Hung jokes.

But some of the U.S. drivers, who are often pitted as a team against the unbeatable Japanese pros in classic Globetrotters fashion, are clearly determined to claim this most extreme of motor sports for America.

"I think drifting's gonna eventually be bigger here than it is in Japan," says blond, all-American-looking Ryan Hampton, one of only eight U.S. drivers chosen to compete in the first North American D1 competition and a member of Formula D's elite Drift Alliance. "Just because it's so over the top. It's controlled mayhem -- closer to skateboarding than it is to any other motor sport. It's about showmanship, impact on the crowd. It's judged on, ÔHow far does the car look out of control?' You gotta make the car look like it's absolutely ready to spin out at any given moment, and basically pull that maneuver off. The closer you can get to the wall, the better."

Hampton, a former Indy Racing League contender who gave up "normal" race car driving once he discovered drifting, is also the first Arizona driver to go pro.

"I won't drive unless I'm getting paid," says Hampton, who also teaches part-time at the Bondurant racing school in Chandler. "And right now, drifting is where the money is, if you can get sponsorship. And a lot of big companies are starting to come on board."

Already, Hampton says it's not uncommon to see companies like Yokohama and Toyo shelling out up to $40,000 a year to keep their tires on a sponsored driver's car. The California-based parts maker APC ponied up $150,000 this year in team sponsorship and launched a special lightweight products line, Drift Works, especially designed for the drifter. TV is getting in on the act, too. Premi'ring this month, cable's Spike TV will begin offering Redline TV, a series that promises to bring "the kinetic world of drifting" to Spike's estimated 90 million viewers.

For Hampton, drifting is a performance, the closest a race car driver can get to feeling like a rock star.

"It's the ultimate MTV mentality in motor sports," he says of the drift shows. "There's a new car coming out on the track every 20 seconds, and there's lots of mistakes. If people go to races for the crashes, you're almost certain to see some at a drift event."

While Hampton professes much respect for the sport's Japanese originators, he clearly feels it's something Americans should have cooked up first.

"It's absolutely on the bleeding edge and out of control," he says, getting excited. "I mean, people deciding it's more fun to drive sideways than it is to drive straight? Why didn't we think of that?" •

E-mail jimmy.magahern@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8478.

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