You know how I’m always seeking out new and interesting experiences? Well last weekend I went drift racing.
One of my coworkers, Miki, is extremely into cars. He has a Limited Edition Impreza (one of exactly 1,000 made) and spends nearly all of his income tuning, modifying, and driving it. Seeing as I spend 40 or more hours a week with the guy, I figured learning a bit about his hobby would be a great way to bond and become friends – so I’d periodically chat with him about his various racing antics via Mixi, a popular social website in Japan.
One night during our chats, I decided to ask if there really is anywhere to see underground street racing like in the recent Hollywood blockbuster
Tokyo Drift. I thought for sure he’d say “Hell no, that’s just a stupid movie.” Instead, he told me to go to the end of the xxxxx train line at midnight on Saturday.
I never made it out there that night, but his positive answer piqued my interest. When I inquired a bit more he told me that it wasn’t actually drifting-racing I would’ve witnessed, but more high-speed distance-racing, making it difficult to follow without a car of your own. He also told me that the police have been cracking down lately and that you can get arrested simply for being there while a race is taking place. So he suggested instead that we go driving through the mountains in his car one night after work. Apparently the curvy mountain roads outside of Kyoto, which become virtually empty after the afternoon rush, are a popular place for aspiring race-drivers to practice their technical skills without having to spend hundreds of dollars to do so at an official track.
That night was fun, but due to a sudden drizzle we weren’t able to push his still developing skills quite to their limits.
Just before dropping me off back at the office to pick up my bicycle, Miki mentioned that there would be a 走行会 (“race meet”) in Nara a few months later, and that I could come along if I wanted. I said “sure.” That race meet took place last weekend.
So I woke up at 4:30am, rode my bike to Nijo Station, hopped in his car, and we began the 1.5 hour drive far into the mountains outside of Nara. Due to their space requirements and loud noises, Japanese race tracks are almost always built well outside the big cities – the last road leading to this particular track was so small it looked like the driveway to a farmer’s rice field. But sure enough, the air soon filled with the sounds of revving engines and buzzing tailpipes.
And falling rain.
That’s right, despite the recent bright and sunny (and overwhelmingly hot) weather, we were blessed on this day with dense fog and pouring rain. Too bad I’d decided to wear a sleeveless shirt so as to remain comfortable during what I’d assumed would be a long day in the heat and humidity.
The instant we pulled into the parking lot I caught the attention of the crowd. With a little inquiring, I soon learned that I was the first foreigner to ever visit this well-hidden track – and that every time I walked through a new area the conversation would quickly turn to “Does that foreigner speak Japanese?? I hope he can speak Japanese and not just English…!”
But although everyone was clearly interested in how I’d found my way there, only one guy had the guts to actually come up and talk: he was a friend of Miki’s, an older guy with a big belly wearing a greasemonkey outfit who proved to be completely obsessed with cars. And extremely motivated to please his new foreign friend. Within minutes he was introducing me to everyone he could get ahold of as well as offering me rides in their various vehicles.
Well, this wasn’t the type of opportunity Justin intended to let slip through his fingers. So I hopped into a nearby red Impreza and we sped off onto the track. From the outside it looked like an ordinary everyday vehicle, but the inside was completely hollowed out – a non-streetlegal shell of a vehicle with little more than four wheels and an engine. We whipped around a few corners in the rain, periodically losing traction and dodging any out-of-control vehicles ahead. Until the driver lost control completely and skid offcourse, into a wall of tires, and ripped an oil line.
Everyone came running onto the track to make sure we were okay. “Of course!” I said, “That was awesome!!”
This response pleased my new greasemonkey friend greatly.
So after towing the crashed Impreza onto a nearby flatbed he asked if I’d like to see some drift racing. “You mean…they do drifting…here??”
We hopped in his (also hollowed-out-shell of a) car and drove across the complex. This second area was clearly different. The track was much larger, many of the vehicles actually looked like race cars, there were significantly more females (versus the two females and thirty-something males at the other track), and the racing was about 500 times more badass.
Despite Hollywood’s tendency to blow things way out of proportion for the sake of entertainment, drifting really is as fast-paced and exciting as it seems in the movie. At least in my opinion. Even from the sidelines, seeing those cars whipping around corners at a 45-degree angle, spontaneously changing directions, slamming the accelerator, and taking off in a cloud of smoke is not like anything I’d ever seen. Sometimes the drivers would manage three or four turns without ever letting the rear wheels stop to grip the asphalt; just fishtailing back and forth with the continuous screech of burning rubber. No matter how out-of-control they seemed the cars always managed to come out just at the right spot to head into the next turn, sliding along as if on ice. Time after time the racers would pass to within inches of the walls behind them – sometimes so close that they’d tear off a small piece of the rear bumper before slipping around and flooring it into the next turn.
Greasemonkey soon asked if I’d like to go for a ride. His friend was an eight-year drifter, competing for a chance to represent Kyoto in the national championships.
Yes, I would.
First the driver got in, put on his helmet, and buckled his four-point seatbelt.
Then I got in, sat down, and buckled my regular seatbelt.
We idled over to the track’s entrance, windshield wipers and defroster struggling to hold back the rain. Then he floored it and we were off. My torso flew back and forth like a ragdoll as the car accelerated, braked, turned, reversed, and slid around corner after corner. The exhaust was so loud I couldn’t say a word to the driver, nor do I think he would’ve been able to respond – his hands were like a blur, flying back and forth between the wheel, shifter, and E-Brake. This was a totally different beast from the circuit race I’d just participated in, during which the driver’s hands remained almost constantly glued to the steering wheel. Shiftbraketurnaccelbrakeaccelshiftturnaccel. No time to stop and think, just reflex. Periodically, when the other cars started to get too bunched up or another car would spin out in front of us, the driver would slow down and look over to ask “So? What do you think?”
“Holy sh*t!” I thought.
“Holy sh*t!” I said.
After that race I spent quite some time attempting to capture the excitement with my (now repaired) D40, but found this to be pretty much impossible. Not only did the rain make it difficult to get the camera anywhere near the track (I wasn’t about to break the thing again by getting it soaked), but no matter the angle I shot from I just couldn’t seem to capture the concept of “drifting.” When a car would come around a corner and accelerate into the next, it would create an enormous spray of rainwater in a direction completely different from that in which it was traveling. Yet in the photos, the car always seemed to be turning naturally. Maybe to really appreciate something like this you just need the whole experience – the sounds, smells, and most of all, the speed.
After my first Drift race, returning to the normal circuit seemed pedestrian in comparison, but I rode a few more times and took a few more pictures while trying my best to keep the shivers away; in my soaked, sleeveless shirt I was starting to get extremely cold, not to mention tired from waking up at 4am. But with the exception of a quick lunch break at a Tenri truckstop, Miki and I hung around until the conclusion of the very last race before saying goodbye to our new friends. Greasemonkey promised that he’d invite me to come back and race in one of his four high-speed go-karts; I’m eager to see if they’re even faster than the ones I rode in Shanghai.
For the next hour and a half I fought to stay awake as we drove back down the mountain, through Nara, and towards home in Central Kyoto.
So, for a quick analysis of the facts and fictions from Tokyo Drift (for those of you who actually saw it):
- Drifting does exist, and is pretty much as badass as it seems
- You really can drift for ridiculous distances with your rear wheels almost never stopping to grip the pavement
- The racers really do shred through new tires regularly
- Cars really do get trashed constantly (smashing into walls, ripping off bumpers, etc)
- People really do stand next to the track taking videos with their cellphones (so Japanese… 😛 )
- The cars really are extremely noisy riceburners with unnecessarily loud exhausts
- Illegal drift racing is very rare, as police have become strict in recent years
- Underground drift races never took place in multilevel parking structures, but in wide-open spaces out in the countryside (far from the busy cities and law enforcement officials)
- Although some of the vehicles look like racecars, none of them were anywhere as nice as in the movie; very few wacky paintjobs, very few racing stickers, and never polished like untouched showcars. Most of them had pieces missing or dangling from them, smashed head and taillights, and ugly, faded paintjobs (I just intentionally chose the better-looking cars for the photos above…but trust me on this…a lot of them looked like crap)
- There were no crowds of scantily-clad models dancing around and making out with the drivers on their car hoods. A couple girls were sleeping in the passenger seats between races and one or two were sitting on lawn chairs reading magazines, though.
Disclaimer: The above analysis is based solely on my one-day’s limited experience with drifting. Please do not get angry if the things I’ve said are false or mistaken, as some of them almost certainly are.
Note: I love Photoshop CS3. The Quick Selection Tool is almost as genius as the Healing Brush introduced in CS2. Way to earn those salaries, Adobe!