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Mayhem at the Ebisu Drift Matsuri

Tagging along—and tagging the wall—at the world’s most famous drift event

It’s morphed from roving packs of midnight sliders attacking mountain passes to a fully sanctioned motorsports discipline and worldwide phenomenon. Sliding a car sideways has been an art form across generations and across countries, from dirt tracks to snow-covered roads to everything in between, but organized drifting is Japanese at its core. So when an invite came to spend some quality time with a legend of the discipline and his family at the world’s largest drifting event, held in Japan, the tickets to Tokyo could not arrive fast enough.

Shinji Minowa, 44, shot to fame thanks in part to the Japanese tuner magazines that in the ’90s published grainy images of his sliding antics. Though it’s heavily frowned upon now, illegal street drifting is how Minowa and many others started in the sport.

“I was at mechanics’ school after graduating from high school, and a fellow student took me up into the touge to see street drifting,” Minowa said at his shop on the eve of one of the year’s three Ebisu Drift Matsuri festivals. “After spending a night in the mountains watching these crazy guys drifting, I was hooked!”
With a nostalgic smile, Minowa recalled his early days on the “touge,” or mountain pass. His driving didn’t start out so well: He wrecked four cars in rapid succession, once ending up in the passenger-side foot well of one of his early 1986 Toyota Corollas after rolling into a ditch.

Undeterred, he started to get the slide of things and built up a rep. Eventually, tracks across Japan began holding drift days at their circuits, with local competitions feeding into the newly created D1 Grand Prix series. Minowa wanted to see if his skills could translate to the track. They did. It wasn’t easy though; due to the illicit nature of his drifting fame, the regulated D1GP didn’t want anything to do with street drifters and he was banned from entering any D1GP tournament.

Undeterred by a ban, Shinji managed to get a chance to prove himself at a local D1GP event in bizarre circumstances. One of his professional drifter friends was due to compete in a round of the drift championships, but fell ill shortly beforehand. Shinji saw this as an opportunity to slide in under the radar, and competed with his friend’s number, under his name (with permission). He made it to the finals until a judge recognized him, and he was swiftly, and aggressively, removed from the competition. Luckily though, the director of the D1GP saw what was happening and pulled rank on the judge, stating that Shinji’s driving style and skill was too good to be segregated from the competition, and ever since, Shinji has been a household name in the drifting scene, both street and licensed.

Since his debut over a decade ago, Shinji has stood on podium after podium, with his greatest achievements including winning 1st place trophies at Formula Drift Japan, Drift Muscle, Drift Kingdom, and Battle Magazine drift championship series’.

Minowa’s rise on drifting scene has also opened up other business opportunities. His HEYMAN Products workshop, located in a sleepy area of Tokyo’s Saitama Prefecture immediately across from a busy industrial railroad, has become the place to come to for modified steering knuckles—a must-have for dedicated drifters. These parts allow for steering angles approaching 90 degrees, which provide huge benefits when sliding around a track.

The shop itself, located inside a non-descript industrial building, is a gritty workspace littered with all manner of parts, tools, and of course special cars representing drifting history. Hidden in one corner is Minowa’s famous ’86 Toyota Corolla (AE86), a home-built car he used to showcase how driver skill can triumph over outright power as he made the transition from street drifter to D1GP star. In the center of the shop on a two-post lift rests another significant car: the Nissan S13 that belonged to Atsushi Kuroi, a D1GP driver who died in a motorcycle crash in 2010.

One modern-day competition car caught our eye more than the rest: a brilliant white machine with pink glitter flakes and a steering wheel coated in faux diamonds. “This is my wife’s car,” Minowa explained. “She competes in Formula Drift Japan, too!” Indeed, his wife, Masayo, has spent the last several years following in her husband’s rubber trail.

After meeting at a shop where Shinji was a mechanic and Masayo worked in the office, they married in 2007 and have an 8-year old son, Hiro. Masayo supported Shinji at his competitions, and one day decided to try her hand at the sport her husband was starting to dominate. Shinji had her do some donuts to give her a taste of the action. She didn’t exactly love it at first, but a traumatic personal experience would change her outlook.

In 2011, Masayo was diagnosed with cancer. The tumor required several operations and radiation treatment to defeat. She is in remission now, but will remain on medication for life. Her battle caused her and the family to reconsider their priorities, and she decided to commit herself to becoming a professional drifter alongside her husband.

The Minowas campaign Toyota Chasers, a rear-drive, Japanese market sedan (Toyota briefly made a coupe as well) that came with a turbocharged, 2.5-liter straight-six popular with tuners. Shinji has even built a Chaser for Hiro, tuned specially for the school-aged skidder. “The suspension is custom made for Hiro,” Minowa said. “I specified the suspension to make the car easy to drift, and my sponsor DG5 created this one-off set just for Hiro.” Minowa’s practice car sends about 600 horsepower to its rear wheels, with Masayo’s only slightly less than this. Hiro’s car doesn’t require major power yet so it’s relatively stock under the hood.

With the cars ready, it was time to head for Drift Matsuri, an event that is no place for polished and expensive competition cars. The matsuri (Japanese word for “Festival”) occurs three times a year, in spring, summer and fall, and is spread over two full days. From humble beginnings as a drift-orientated track day free-for-all, the matsuri is now the biggest and most famous drift event in the world. For the weekend festival there are no competitions, no prizes, and no egos; it is an opportunity for anyone with any car to come along and gain access to five drift tracks, and to rub doors with the biggest names in the industry.

With cars prepared, and stories exchanged with the Minowas, I was ready to attend the biggest event in the drift calendar with one of the biggest names in the game.

The Matsuri

Ebisu Circuit lies halfway up a mountain about four hours north of Tokyo. As soon as you leave the highway, things get rural in a hurry along the route that snakes up past fields of rice. After we got onto the grounds and got our pit area set up, Shinji disappeared then returned with another Chaser. Rusted, dented, and sorry looking, this “missile car” lived at the drift complex. Missile cars have minimal modifications and minimal money is spent on them; they exist so drivers can practice without worrying about big bills in the event of a big off.

Masayo was ready to drift, so she headed off in the missile car for the West Circuit, one of Ebisu’s five main tracks. More suited to traditional racing than drifting, it feeds into progressively tighter bends that drop in gradient then rise again over a steep lefthander that feeds back into the long pit straight. Shinji watched from the pit wall, waving Masayo in or out to help with her entry into the first corner. And what an entry it was. The best technique is to setup on the right side of the track, off the racing line. Flat out in fourth at more than 100 mph with the corner approaching, you throw the car back toward the racing line, then a combination of a clutch kick and jerk of the wheel back to the pit wall sends you heading violently sideways into turn one.

Once she adequately destroyed a set of tires, Masayo pulled into the pits and asked if I wanted to have a go. I jumped at the opportunity and headed out on new rubber. I emulated Masayo’s line the best I could and managed to catch the drift, but as I fumbled for the handbrake I ended up losing momentum and straightening up. For the rest of my outing, I stuck to the slower second- and third-gear corners and linked them together in a bid to maintain some honor. When I got back to the pits, I saw Shinji’s legs protruding from beneath his car and a hive of activity occurring; his practice car’s transmission had blown up after just a few laps. It looked like his weekend was over.

The missile car was still good to go, though, and Masayo headed out again. She increased her speed with each lap, and gradually pushed back her initiation point. She was on fire. A crowd had gathered on the pit wall to watch this crazy driver throw her car in harder and harder, lap after lap. But then it went sideways, literally. After flying past the pit wall at a ludicrous speed, she threw her car into a drift way too fast, overshot the corner, and plowed into a hillside. The car flew into the air and rolled through half a rotation before crashing down onto its roof. By the time Shinji and I got to her, Masayo was already out of the car, laughing.

The car, however, was no chuckling matter. As we dragged it back to the pits, Shinji decided to transplant its transmission into his wounded car. In no time a flock of familiar faces gathered to see what they could do to help. Soon, a team of four current and former D1GP championship drivers were working on his Chaser. Such is the atmosphere of the Drift Matsuri.

With the Minowas preoccupied with the transmission swap, I had a chance to explore the rest of what Ebisu has to offer. It’s so enormous I had to jump into my rental car to scope it all out. The complex even features a zoo—complete with lions, tigers, and elephants. The most notable circuit is the South Course, with its epic jump. Drivers approach a blind dip and huck their cars over it, landing next to a left-hander lined by a concrete wall.

I stopped along the circuit to take in the atmosphere. It’s a truly special event where absolutely anybody—no matter their skill level or bank balance—can get on the track with like-minded car nuts and even professional drifters. Imagine going to a track day in the U.S., with IndyCar or NASCAR stars blasting around in practice cars, free to approach and talk to.

With a smile on my face and rubber in my teeth, I headed back to check on the Minowas. They were halfway through the tranny swap, and by then Hiro was itching to have a go of his own. So we jumped into his practice car and headed to an area where people can safely learn the basics. It was a blast to watch Hiro, who can barely see over the dash, skillfully maintain a slide and link a series of figure eights in his drift sedan. Like father, like mother, like son.

They were still working on the car when we returned to the paddock, and with so many friends around to help I was only in the way. So I headed off again to take in some more Matsuri action. One of the professional drifter’s mechanics recognized me from hanging out with the Minowas and offered to take me onto the track. I accepted the invitation and jumped into his missile Chaser.

What I didn’t know at the time was that “Mikey” has a reputation for being a bit crazy. His first approach was borderline insane. He accelerated through the gears until he hit fourth, and with a huge Scandinavian flick and clutch kick we were airborne, heading sideways toward the concrete wall at close to triple digits. We hit the ground with a huge bang, and Mikey held the drift all the way around the long left hander. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I cheered him on for another lap.

Bad idea. We came around and setup for the same corner. Mikey got to fourth. We were definitely going faster than before. He threw the car over the jump, but we over-rotated, sending us hurtling backward toward the wall. We weren’t going to make it. I straightened my head and braced for it, and then bang, I was out cold.

I awoke lying on my back. The impact had snapped the passenger seat off of its mounts and I hit my head on the bare metal where the rear seats used to be. My helmet was cracked, I was dizzy, and the car was a complete wreck. An ambulance was called. Now I was done for the weekend, too.

But the Matsuri wasn’t by a long shot. As I left the circuit for a medical scan, the big names in drifting were about to set out on the same track. Daigo Saito—famed for his drift-spec Lamborghini Murciélago—was out in his practice car, closely followed by Naoki Nakamura, and yes, Minowa in his freshly repaired Chaser. The crowds flocked to see the three biggest names in drifting going door-to-door at Ebisu’s notorious South Circuit.

While getting some well-earned R&R in my hotel room the next day, I check Instagram to see countless videos of the crazy driving that started as my weekend ended. The three-car train with the three biggest names in drifting cleared the four remaining tracks as everyone was in the grandstand at the ‘jump’ track to see the spectacle.

Lap after lap two Toyotas and one Nissan where hurled sideways over a jump and towards a solid wall, gracefully sliding within an inch of one and other. And after they were finished, they were changing tires and beating bent body panels straight while talking to fans, and discussing setup with amateur drivers.
And although things came to an unfortunate end for me, the Ebisu Drift Matsuri proved to be everything I imagined it would.

Photos courtesy of Dini Dalle Carbonare.

 

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