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.