The first thing you notice at a drifting competition is the noise — a crazed shriek of engines punctuated by the sudden firecracker pop of an exhaust pipe under extreme duress.
Then comes the smoke, swelling up like a giant white wave moving steadily and ominously toward the crowd. When it hits, the smell takes over — an evil, acrid stench of burning rubber that chokes the throat and makes the eyes water.
Then the whole scene just collapses into one big sensory overload, with the two cars careering wildly around the track like loose fire hoses as the fans behind the wire mesh fences crane their necks to try to make sense of the madness.
“It’s really impressive to watch,” a 19-year-old fan who gives his name only as Maeyama says as the smoke begins to clear after the final race of the opening day of the Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup in Tokyo’s Odaiba district.
“It’s the closest a fan can get to the action. If you were at a Formula One race you would have to watch it on a screen, but with drifting it’s right there in front of you. You get much more of a physical sensation than you do at other kinds of motor racing events.”
Of course what appears to be chaos is in fact extreme skill on the part of the drivers. The sport of drifting, which was born in Japan, is based around a technique where the driver deliberately oversteers into a corner, throwing the car into a spectacular yet controlled slide.
Competition is split into two parts. The first is a solo run where drivers are shown the correct line to take around the curve-heavy course. The judges then score the drivers on their speed, angle and ability to stick to that line on one run around the track, with showmanship and daring encouraged and rewarded.
The rankings from the solo run are then used to match drivers in a single-elimination tandem battle. Drivers are paired off, with one designated the leader and the other the follower. The leader tears off around the track with the follower attempting to stick as close as possible without touching or overtaking, locking the drivers into a fearsome game of cat and mouse. The score is again determined by judges, before the roles are reversed and a winner is announced.
The cars themselves are capable of awesome speeds, with fully customized engines and massive turbos pushing them to over 1,000 horsepower.
“It’s the most intense type of driving you can do,” says American driver Michael Essa. “The runs are so short but so intense. With a road race, even a sprint race is going to be 12 laps, so there’s time to think it out. Drifting is just all-out: leave the start line and go for it. It’s insane.”
Drifting is a Japanese success story. The sport’s first professional series, D1 Grand Prix, was founded in Japan in 2000 and has since gone from strength to strength, making stars out of drivers like Daigo Saito and Masato Kawabata.
D1GP’s popularity grew quickly and the series began staging events overseas, spreading professional drifting far and wide around the world. At the Tokyo event, hosted by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, there are drivers representing 14 different countries, including Thailand, Brazil, Lithuania, Malaysia, Russia and Taiwan.
“I compete in the national drift championship of Iran,” says Shahab Pishania Dar, who was forced to pull out of the Saturday session after breaking his rear axle three times in practice. “The only thing is, we have a lot of good drivers but there are not a lot of good cars and spare parts.
“Just look at the amount of people watching,” he continues, pulling out his phone and finding a photo of an Iranian drifting event on his Instagram feed. “That’s just the practice. There are even more people there than there are here today.”
With drifting making such a splash around the globe, world auto racing governing body FIA is now beginning to dip its toe in the water. The FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup is the first drifting event ever to be officially sanctioned by FIA, and to lend an air of respectability that the sport has never previously seen, President Jean Todt arrives at the track for the opening day.
“Having FIA involved in drifting is probably one of the best things that has ever happened,” says Essa. “FIA works with Formula One and they’re going to work with drifting. It’s going to make us much more legitimate. Maybe bring more sponsors and fans in and make the cars safer and the drivers safer.”
Sitting in a hospitality tent that offers no respite from the screams of the engines outside, Keiichi Tsuchiya shakes his head and smiles to himself.
“I didn’t think that FIA would get involved in putting on a competition as soon as this,” he says. “I thought it would take longer.”
Tsuchiya has been given the title “honorary event adviser” for the competition, but drifting fans around the world know him by another name — “Drift King.” A slight man with dark, twinkling eyes and a face as inscrutable as a monk’s, no one has done more to popularize drifting than him.
Tsuchiya was born in Nagano Prefecture in 1956 and made his debut as a race car driver in the Fuji Freshman series in 1977. At the same time, he was also making a name for himself on the illegal tōge street racing scene, charging down the narrow mountain passes near the town of Karuizawa at life-threatening speeds.
Tsuchiya had watched the famous motorcyclist-turned-racing driver Kunimitsu Takahashi use drifting techniques in All Japan Touring Car Championship races in the 1970s, and he was determined to take it further. Lacking the money to train formally, he practiced while making deliveries for his family’s die-cast metal business, smoothly drifting his car round the sharp narrow mountain bends to stop the goods in the back from banging together.
At nights, Tsuchiya would take part in illegal street races, earning himself cult status for his audacious drifting maneuvers.
“Good drivers would come from all over to the narrow mountain passes of Karuizawa to race,” he says. “They used to come from Tokyo, Gunma, Saitama, Ibaraki, Tochigi. The rules were just that you had to get to the bottom first. Before a race, all I used to think about was winning.
“People died on the mountain passes. I was aware that I could die and it wasn’t something that I took lightly. When I was 21, I ended up with 28 stitches in my face and I was in the hospital for three months.”
A video featuring Tsuchiya drifting on the mountain passes caused a sensation among racing fans when it was released in 1987, but it also earned him a one-year ban from the pro circuits. When he returned, he brought his showy, aggressive style to the Japanese Formula Three Championship and the Japanese Touring Car Championship, before going on to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
If his life story sounds like a plot from a manga series, that’s because it is. The hugely popular “Initial D,” which appeared in Young Magazine from 1995 to 2013, is set in the world of illegal street racing and took his story as inspiration for its main character.
In 2000, after organizing amateur drifting events for several years, Tsuchiya founded D1GP with Daijiro Inada, the creator of racing magazine Option.
Now, as he casts his eye over the temporary track set up on a giant car park in the shadow of Odaiba’s Miraikan building, Tsuchiya is satisfied with what he sees.
“When we founded D1 Grand Prix, our aim was for it to become as big as Formula One,” he says. “Maybe in 10 or 20 years we can achieve that.”
The crisp white shirts and immaculately coiffed hair of the FIA officials is an incongruous sight amid the grime and the noise of the drifting competition.
Glamorous women clutch flutes of champagne and totter around on vertiginous heels outside the VIP hospitality tent as Todt holds court with the journalists inside. A former rally driver who has held FIA’s top job since 2009, the 71-year-old Frenchman only has time to attend the first day of the event, but he is keen to sprinkle as much stardust on it as possible.
“I’m very impressed to see the layout to host this first international drifting cup here in Tokyo,” he says, after a group of Chinese racing fans has stopped him to present him with an embroidered silk screen. “We will definitely encourage the development of this kind of racing because it’s spectacular, quick, and quite easy to organize in any country around the world. It creates a lot of attraction and a lot of interest.
“Formula One is more than 60 years old. We are talking about the first event and you can’t compare them. Drifting is a very interesting category, which has its own flavor, and you have so many opportunities to create interest.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the prospect of a sport with such wild origins being tamed by the establishment.
D1GP has pioneered a computer-based scoring system in recent years that largely replaces human judges with GPS devices to track the line of the cars. The FIA Intercontinental Drifting Cup is using a similar system, and Essa is not impressed with the results.
“The electronic system is a little bit more difficult to understand,” he says. “In the U.S., there are three judges. They’re very precise on how they judge and you can talk to them after a run and they’ll be able to explain why you got the score.
“The electronic judging is taking away that impact. We’re out here drifting and it’s a show. We want to do the craziest things that we can do in a car, rather than driving to a computer. It becomes a little too robotic, I think. It takes away from the essence, the feeling of drifting. That’s why I like live judges. When you do something and the crowd stands up on its feet and claps, that should be scored higher.”
Everyone at the track for the two days of the event acknowledges that the first FIA-organized event is far from the finished product, but everyone seems to agree that it is a step in the right direction.
Where that takes drifting in the future is anyone’s guess. But for the Drift King, its appeal is something timeless and universal.
“Even for people who have no interest in cars, this is something impressive and very easy to understand,” says Tsuchiya. “It’s like figure skating with cars. That’s the beauty of it.”