It was overcast that Saturday that wet South Florida summer day, when the professional drifters of the D1 Professional Drifting league finally made their way down to Dade county. Perfect for drifting, the wet asphalt lets the tires break free easier and saves rubber, sure you don’t get the big smoke, but it is still just as fun.
The rain was annoying, but not enough to cry about, besides, it immediately led me into the same tent as the professionals from Japan. I found myself staring at Takahiro Ueno, the guy with the bright red Vertex Toyota Soarer. Watching Nomuken, the “monkey man” puff on a cigarette. This was a different kind of motor sports experience, the drivers were so accessible, its almost like they knew the fans were everything, I wonder if this is what racing used to be like.
Continued after the jump.
It was interesting to look see the Japanese drift teams, made up of three men, a driver and two crew members. Team Orange’s two mechanics resembled the pair from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “The Hidden Fortress” these two were as different as R2-D2 and C-3PO. Daigo Saito’s team was made up himself pulling double duty, a man in overalls and Converse all stars and a guy wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. Last year’s champion drove the Chaser and worked on it alongside his mechanic. What was nice to see is that while all the other D1 guys traveled around in Toyota SiennaMinivans, Ueno had arranged a Ford Expedition so his crew could stealthily blend in on the American highways. What was most interesting was seeing the young and the old ways of Japan come together that rainy afternoon. The older men from Japan all wore flip flops, while the younger, more Americanized youth rocked sneakers, but all of them were deeply fond of drifting.
One of the first things you notice about the pits are the tires. Not only are they everywhere, but they are huge. Contrary to the popular belief that you want skinny tires for less grip, these guy want as much as their boosted engines can handle. The grey Toyota Chaser of Daigo Saito was shod with 295 series tires, the tread blocks looked like huge chunks of asphalt they were so wide. After a conversation with the guy in the clean jeans and still white t-shirt he told me that the 2JZ engine in Saito’s car was making between 600 and 650 HP, mind you we didn’t speak the same language. Even Yoichi Imamura’s S15 Silvia was spinning 26.5 cm wide tires. His turbo four was nowhere as powerful as Saito’s straight six, but getting around 450 HP from the SR20 was enough to make the car drift. It didn’t matter anyways, because if you tried to look as the sidewalls of his rear tires, the chameleon colored lips on the rear wheels would simply entrance you. On a technical note, the American drifters who made it to the final rounds of qualifying were all riding on 245 and 255 series tires, it was a lot of rubber for most of the cars, sticking way out past the body.
There were 90 drifting hopefuls waiting at the gates of Calder Race course, attempting to qualify for the first D1 competition in South Florida, and it was a local who qualified second that Friday. But that didn’t mater because, D1 competition works like March Madness, at the beginning of the day there are 30 cars and drivers trying to make it to the show, literally, because Option Video makes a DVD from every event. Then tandem runs start with the Super 16. In tandem drifting, each driver takes a turn leading the pair and then a turn following his competitor. The object is for the driver in the rear to push so hard and go so fast, that the driver in front is forced to make an error. The ultimate move is to make a pass while in drift, this almost always is rewarded with a victory, but the driver mustn’t straighten out at all in order to execute the maneuver, or else he is disqualified. Whereas the objective while leading is to go so wide, while still maintaining momentum, that your opponent is forced to make an error, it is the ultimate form of blocking.
The drifting took a break so that everyone could eat lunch, and the remaining 16 teams attend the final driver’s meeting. This was the perfect opportunity to take in the sights. You would think that the wet weather would mix perfectly with models in bikinis, but there were none to be seen. The ROADSTAR car show was mediocre at best, with a few big money machines peppered throughout.
There was a custom wide body turbo NSX, it featured a trick carbon fiber roof scoop channeling air into the blacked out intercooler. The Drift King would have been proud. There was also a classic panda style Toyota Corolla, this looked like an exact replica of Takumi’s 20 valve 4A-GE powered Sprinter Trueno from initial D, right down to the tofu shop decals on the side. As a Nissan fan it was nice to see an ultra clean black S14 with a hamburger sourced V8 and huge red brake calipers underneath some beautiful Work wheels. All of these diamonds in the ruff were starting to make the rat fink inspired Scion look good.
Gettign back to the real action, by the time only the Elite 8 were left standing quite a few drift cars had already been sacrificed to the D1 Gods. Some were minor, with problems like an electrical malfunction in the engine, or in Forrest Wang’s case, he’s the third place finisher at the opening round, pretty impressive considering he was standing on the podium with last year’s champion and a seasoned veteran, a broken axle that ended his day early. There were also a few cars that were total write offs, like the maroon Nissan S14. The front end is completely gone, the bumper supprt has been replaced by three pieced of steel tubing resembling a “roo” bar from a WRC car. The back end is completely gone, and a vinyl D1 banner replaces whatever GT wing might have been there, at least it looked like the engine and gearbox were o.k. There was a black FC RX-7 so clean, that it was a shame to go the way of most drift cars.
What I had seen so far was a guy named Chelsea in a black BMW tearing up the track, he especially liked to hang the tail out and get close to the wall coming out of the final corner, maybe it was to scare the crowd, maybe he was just crazy. There was also a pair of pretty damn committed white S13 drivers representing South Florida, with their extreme combination of speed and angle. Tanaka in his Team Orange Subaru had pushed Nissan S14 from Finland so hard that the Silvia slapped a cone and lost its bumper, and the first profession al to be eliminated, Ueno’s Soarer was taken down by Harri Hokkanen one of the other guys from Finland drifting a green S14.
The last four competitors standing were a trio of Japanese ringers, Saito, Nomuken and Tanaka; and Rintanen was the only non-JDM item on the grid. The first match up of the Final 4 pitted Nomuken and his Skyline against the green S14 from Finland. In their first run, the baby Skyline was being pushed so hard by the 40 year old man in the 550 HP four door Nissan that the Silvia’s right rear taillight popped out. Despite his best efforts, the Finish drifter just wasn’t able to get back on track for the second run, the Monkey man advanced to the finals.
Next up was the Tanaka in the Team Orange Subaru going up against the young gun Daigo Saito in his trusty Toyota Chaser. The grey four door pushed hard, Saito kept his foot on the throttle and made good smoke. In the end it was Tanaka’s corrections that gave Saito the advantage for both rounds.
As if take revenge for his fellow Finish drifter in the orange S14, for dropping a bumper, Hokkanen’s green S14 beat out Team Orange’s rear wheel drive rally car and secured a spot on the podium for the non Japanese native.
The championship round pitted two similar rides that couldn’t have been drifting any differently. Both the Chaser and Skyline are four door drift cars, powered by boosted straight sixes. Saito’s Supra engine is making about 50 to 100 HP more than Nomuken’s R34, but Nomuken has quite a few more years experience getting things sideways, and what looks like a much more heavily sponsored ride.
By initiating early, sucking in his opponents, keeping the pressure on and always making big smoke; Daigo Saito’s youthful persistence paid off. As the South Florida crowd chanted for a “one more time”, the Judges made their decision. It was the Toyota Chaser and last year’s D1 GP Champion Daigo Saito who would take home the win.
The D1 GP was a refreshing motor sport experience. Despite the excessive amount of metallic paint covering these cars, drifting is grass roots motor sport, one where drivers work on their cars in between talking to the fans. It was almost too simple, to think that these guys shipped their cars all the way across the Pacific, and then drove across the U.S. to spend their Saturday like this. There is only one reason that could make a person do such a thing; an absolute love for what they are doing.