Turning Japanese

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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!"

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern