Turning Japanese

Blair Sato edges his white '95 Nissan 240SX up to the front of the line, out in front of about a dozen other cars waiting their turn to race around the wide oval of a racetrack, and grins.

"We're next," he says, tightening his grip around the steering wheel and tapping the brake and clutch pedals like a rock drummer psyching up for a performance.

The flagman drops his arm, giving Sato the signal to go, and immediately his car is off like a supersize slot car, locking into some invisible groove on the first turn and skidding around the corner at breakneck speed.

Suddenly, a row of bright orange cones snaps into view through the windshield, and Sato slams into a hard left turn. In what looks like the product of a bold high school prank, someone has set up a V-shaped wall of cones smack dab in the middle of the oval, right at the 50-yard-line of the bleachers, forcing every car on the track to go spinning out into the pits in the infield and then making a tight, squealing U-turn to get back on the track.

Sato hits the brake quickly, but just enough to make the rear wheels lose traction, whip the back end around, and send the car careening sideways off the track and into the infield, where a small crowd of spectators stands behind the pit area.

At the last millisecond, he whips the car around the opposite way, making a spiraling U-turn around the last cone and fishtailing madly back onto the track, throwing the rear into one last counter-clockwise spin to make the hard right necessary to get the Nissan back on course.

It's an amazing bit of driving, leaving behind an awesome series of burnt-rubber doughnuts on the track -- like Sato's tires just traced around the cones with a giant Spirograph.

But for Sato, a hefty guy whose combination of Asian features and blond-streaked hair make him look like a Japanese pop star, the line he burned on the tar was apparently a few parabolas short of perfect. Pulling off the track before the end of the lap, Sato lets his passenger out early, then sits for a few moments in silence, staring blankly at the steering wheel.

It's the third event Sato's group has staged at the Tucson Raceway Park, held on an off Sunday, with virtually no one in the stands except a few friends of the drivers. And although today serves as largely a practice session, the drivers are preparing for bigger things.

"If this was a contest on a pro course, that last spin would have cost him a zero," comments a kid named Chris, in a blue Care Bears hoody and pants imprinted with red and black chile peppers, sitting on a fence by where the rest of the cars are lined up to go.

But Sato doesn't stay long on the sidelines. Within two minutes, his car is back at the end of the line, waiting for another chance to spin around the skid pad like a two-ton ballerina.

Blair Sato, a.k.a. Jiinkz, is part of AZ240SX, a small club of Arizona drivers determined to import to the U.S. the wild Japanese motor sport of drifting, a driving style enthusiasts liken to figure skating or skateboarding -- only performed with cars. In drifting, a driver strives to make the car do what it's designed not to: glide sideways, for as long as possible, floating around corners as if hydroplaning on the water.

It's a controlled exhibition of all the screw-ups people love seeing at a traditional auto race -- the screaming tires, the out-of-control spin-outs, the death-defying brushes with the wall -- without all the boring, uneventful laps around the track.

In Japan, where the sport originated more than a decade ago on the twisty mountain roads of Osaka, drifting is already a multimillion-dollar phenomenon, populated by star drivers, sexy "umbrella girls" and a sponsored pro league called D1.

In California, where the first international D1 Driver's Search took place only last August, drawing 51 U.S. drivers and more than 10,000 spectators (breaking the all-time attendance record at venerable Irwindale Speedway), drifting is already being heralded as the next big thing, replacing street racing as the latest craze of the urban car culture. Hawaii has latched on to the sport as well: On the islands, where monthly Drift Sessions now draw as many as 5,000 fans, the natives consider it "surfing with cars."

Arizona might seem an unlikely next stop for the sport. Driving sideways is murder on tires in any climate. But when the asphalt heats up to the extreme temps of a Valley summer, a drifter can burn through a set of top-grade Yokohamas in two 20-minute sessions. The cities here are laid out in a grid system of unimaginative straightaways, giving the street drifter a paucity of corners to practice on. And because of the heat, and the way it tends to keep the populace indoors, the opportunities to drift at organized track events are few and far between.

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.

"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."

Some of the disposed parts of Japanese drift cars -- the Japanese models of the Nissan 240SX and the Toyota Corolla are still regarded as the ultimate drift machines -- become the U.S. drifter's eBay treasures. Phetsomphou's coupe, for example, sports a front end he had specially shipped from Japan to make his American 240SX look and behave more like the sought-after Japanese Silva model.

He's yet to have the black fenders repainted white to match the rest of his car, however, and the disregard for cosmetics typifies the roughrider attitude of the drifter -- and points to another reason drifting has yet to capture the full attention of the Fast and the Furious crowd.

"Everyone wants to see nice cars," Phetsomphou admits. "And drifters are not known for spending a lot on their cars' looks." At the PIR event, in fact, most of the drifters run on stock wheel rims, while the sports compact racers shine their oversize spinners under the awnings.

The strapped drifter's "all go, no show" attitude makes it hard to attract sponsors willing to affix their logos to the hopped-up hoopties. "You can be a great driver, active in all the drift events," says Phetsomphou, who's been courting several tire manufacturers, hoping to secure support for his $200-a-month rubber addiction. "And the first thing they ask you is, 'So what are you doing in external modifications?'"

Not all track owners welcome the insurance liabilities of hosting amateur drift events, either. "Everybody thinks you're just spinning around in a car and you're gonna kill yourself and everyone in your path." As a result, many drifters hit the autocross tracks during the slow season, skidding around corners only when no one's looking.

"The autocross guys don't like it if you go to one of their events and start drifting every corner," says Phetsomphou, who personally loves the turns at a particular police training track in Casa Grande. "So we try to keep it on the down-low. Maybe slide on one or two corners and make it look like an accident, like you just lost control for a minute."

It's a drag, Phetsomphou admits, having to effectively hide your skills at the autocross courses just to get seat time. "But that's the closest thing to drifting you can do on a regular basis around Phoenix."

At the Cyberstation arcade across from the Metrocenter food court, two teens, one Asian boy with long blond hair and a tall white kid in a scruffy goatee, duel it out in customized Mazdas and Toyotas on the linked monitors of the arcade's twin Initial D machines.

Like Sony's Gran Turismo 3, Initial D attempts to simulate the wild ride of a drift car in an arcade driving game. The boys argue over which of the two titles delivers the best drifting experience -- the tall kid insists GT3 does a better job of simulating g-forces, and the blond complains Initial D's second gear lasts forever.

But Initial D, hands down, has the best story line. Modeled after the Japanese manga comic book and anime TV series of the same name, Initial D is based on the adventures of Takumi Fujiwara, or Tak, a teenage tofu delivery boy who accidentally becomes the local drift king out of boredom, from having to drive his race vet dad's Toyota Trueno AE86 down the same treacherous mountain road day after day.

In the anime series (a major ratings-puller in Japan since its 1998 debut), rivals challenge Tak for the crown he never sought, dad remains unimpressed, and his doe-eyed girlfriend invites him to the beach when he should be practicing corners. All in all, the show bull's-eyes all the universal teen angst buttons, and the DVDs have, not surprisingly, become a hit among America's car-obsessed young males.

But both the cartoon and the game share something else: a marked attention to automotive detail, and an almost tutorial-like approach to its subject. Keiichi Tsuchiya, Japan's "Drift King" universally acknowledged as the inventor of the sport, serves as technical adviser on the show, and his expert tips show up regularly in the characters' dialogue. While each episode opens with the standard "Don't try this at home" disclaimer (in Japanese), the racing scenes -- rendered in ultra-realistic 3-D, in contrast to the flat manga style of the rest of the show -- are told with enough how-to detail, the show virtually taunts, "Go ahead!"

"A lot of teens get into drifting directly from watching Initial D," says Han Wong, co-owner of Intense Motorsports in Gilbert, a custom high-performance shop specializing in drift conversions. "You get the feeling, when you watch the cartoon or play the game, 'Wow, I can actually do this!' Part of the appeal of drifting is you get to drive like you do in a video game."

"There's a rebellious thing about drifting, kind of like skateboarding was years ago," says T.Y. Yap, visiting his friend's shop. "This idea of doing the wrong thing. You're not supposed to be doing that with a car -- 'Look, that guy's throwing his car around a corner. That's against the laws of physics!'

"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.

"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 [email protected], or call 602-229-8478.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern