Turning Japanese

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"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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern