Drifting: D1 Grand Prix USA

Los Angeles—

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A Toyota Chaser with tires ablaze.

A capacity crowd of nearly 10,000 packed the grandstands at Irwindale Speedway on Labor Day weekend to see the first professional drifting event in this country, the D1 Grand Prix USA. Katsuhiro Ueo drove his Toyota Corolla GTS AE86 to prevail over a field that included some of the foremost drift drivers from Japan and eight drivers from the U.S.

Just like drifting itself, the event proved to be a stunning spectacle. The combination of drifting competition, freestyle motocross demonstrations, a fully judged car show with $5000 in prizes, and representation from title sponsor Yokohama Tire plus twenty-eight associate sponsors attracted the largest crowd ever to see a drifting event anywhere in the world. It was nothing less than an explosion of drifting culture, a sign that this sport is about to grab hold of American enthusiasts who drive sport compact cars.

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Ken Nomura in a Nissan Skyline sedan.

Drifting has been an underground activity for about a decade in Japan, but it only became formalized when the media company that organizes the annual Tokyo Auto Salon for aftermarket manufacturers created the D1 Professional Drift series. The Irwindale event on Labor Day weekend was D1's first venture outside Japan, a follow-up to the Falken Tires Drift Showoff held at Irwindale Speedway last spring.

Drifting reduces driving to the thing that all drivers love best—long, smoky slides across the pavement with the engine barking at full throttle. It calls for a driver to negotiate a closed course of long corners while being judged for speed, spectacle and car control. Competition finalists negotiate the course side-by-side. It's like combination of ice dancing and speed skating, only with 450 hp.

Drifing is strong on attitude, zippy decals, expensive hardware and umbrella girls. It's trash sport, but you can't help but love it.

Just like anything else else to do with cars, there's a surprising amount of technique involved. A Braking Drift is begun with a dab of left-foot braking. A Feint Drift is a slide that starts with a steering waggle, just like the well-known racing technique developed by Scandinavian rally drivers. A Kansei Drift is a slide initiated with drop-throttle oversteer. A Long Slide Drift is begun by pulling the emergency brake to start the slide. A Shift Lock involves dropping down a gear to drag the rear wheels and begin a slide, and sometimes a simple kick of the clutch pedal will be used to accomplish the same thing.

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Winner Katsuhiro Ueo in his Toyota AE86.

Rear-wheel-drive cars are the order of the day, and Nissan products seem to be the choice of the professional crowd, notably the Nissan Sylvia (240SX) in S13 and S15 configurations. The cars are tricked out in the style of the Japanese Touring Car Championship with wings, big tires, and oversize turbochargers, but there's not much attention wasted on brakes.

Bryan Norris is a drift racer from Yorba Linda, California, who qualified for the competition in his Nissan 240SX S13 with a Japanese-specification, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, and he offers some interesting insights into car set-up. He is a long-time road racer in single-seat cars who now works for Tamiya, Inc.'s model- and slot-car operation in Southern California, and he has been promoting drift driving in the U.S. for almost a decade.

Norris sets up his S13 with a 1.5-to-one limited- slip differential that engages 100 percent. His chassis set-up calls for 2.5 degrees of camber at each tire, a bit more like a road racing set-up than some drift racers prefer. The front-end alignment calls for a bit of toe out to help rotate the car into corners, but he prefers toe-in at the rear to ensure that his drifts are steady and controllable. Norris races on Yokohama tires and prefers a sticky R-specification compound because of his background in racing. He notes that you want the biggest turbo you can get so there's enough power to break loose the rear tires, but it must spool up quickly because great throttle response is required to keep the drifts going.

Drifting technology won't be much of a secret for long, as new sources of U.S.-based information are bubbling to the surface every day. Drifting Magazine was launched last spring (http://www.importracer.com) and there are a number of promising Web sites, including http://club4ag.com, http://www.drifting.com, and http://www.godrift.com.

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HKS driver Nobeteru Taniguchi

At the D1 Grand Prix USA, some eighteen drivers from Japan were arrayed against eight U.S. drivers. Of the American contingent, Ernie Fixmer and SCCA ProRally driver Rhys Millen qualified for the final round of sixteen. In the semi-finals, Katsuhiro Ueo, the 2002 D1 champion, drove his Corolla AE86 (the classic boy-racer drift machine) to defeat Youichi Inamura, this year's D1 points leader, in his third-generation Mazda RX-7 FD3S. Ueo then narrowly prevailed over Nobutero Taniguchi's gorgeous Nissan Sylvia S15 (240SX) in the finals. Inamura's damaged RX-7 couldn't make it to the consolation round, so Takahiro Ueno was awarded third place in his Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (known in the U.S. as the Lexus SC300).

There's a lot of reasons to believe that drifting will become widely popular. Compared to sport-compact drag racing, it's a relatively low-speed enterprise that depends much on driving technique. At the same time, the cars are rich with hardware, and many makers of aftermarket parts are clearly eager to promote this sport as a means to increasing sales. And there's an enormous buzz that comes with drifting because the connection between the drivers and the crowd is so strong.

The one missing component is the cars themselves. Rear-wheel-drive sport compacts are the lifeblood of drifting, and there aren't many to be found in car showrooms these days, and there are only so many used Nissan 240SXs in this country to go around. Of course, there are sure to be Lexus SC300s, Mazda RX-7s, and Toyota Supras being built up for drifting, but there are no new rear-wheel-drive sport compacts on the horizon, and the Mazda RX-8 and Nissan 350Z are the only affordable alternatives. The good news is, drifting has already made a big impression on the car manufacturers. In the months before the D1 Grand Prix USA, we heard news of a plan for a Jaguar entry for factory test driver Mike Cross and a General Motors entry for a prototype Pontiac GTO.

Once you add up the success of the D1 Grand Prix USA and combine it with the other aspects of drifting culture coming to the U.S. from Japan—which includes everything from the line of drift-replica R/C cars from HPI Racing to TokyoPop's recently imported anime cartoon series, Initial D—it appears things could be looking up for everybody who likes long, tire-smoking slides in rear-wheel-drive cars.

More information:

http://www.d1gp.com http://www.drifting.com http://www.godrift.com http://www.hpiracing.com http://www.yokohamatire.com

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