The Lost Episode: Drift On

(Note: This was originally written in February 2012.)

The year is 2006. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffers a massive stroke, sending him into the permanent vegetative state in which he remains to this day. In the Pacific, an earthquake rocks Indonesia, killing more 6,000 and leaving over a million more homeless. In Germany, Italy wins its fourth World Cup after French star Zinedine Zidane bludgeons a chatty opponent with his expansive forehead.

And in America, millions of young men, ages 16 to 29, flock to multiplexes across the nation, drawn in by a little movie with big ideas about courage, friendship, and the inertia of hope.

I’m talking, of course, about The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Less a movie than a master course on philosophy in motion, Tokyo Drift swept through America with the devastating speed and precision of protagonist Sean Boswell in his climactic showdown against Tokyo’s reigning Drift King, the Yakuza-connected Takashi. Almost overnight, drift-fever seized the nation, and an automotive lifestyle was born.

Actually, no, that didn’t happen. But Tokyo Drift did gross $158M, and if you don’t mind a movie set in Japan where everyone speaks perfect English, it’s pretty entertaining. I saw the movie on TV a couple of years ago, enjoyed it, and hadn’t thought about it since.

Until last month. I was having a conversation over drinks with an acquaintance of mine, Kazu, whose relationship to me will be left ambiguous for obvious reasons. (Note: Not his real name.) Anyway, Kazu and I were chatting about very ordinary matters when the topic of cars came up.

Now, this is a favorite subject of men around the world, but one I’ve always felt a little out of place discussing. I’ve never owned a car. To me, a car is a mode of transportation rather than a status symbol or a fetish object. I know nothing about car parts, car maintenance, car makers, car anything. When cars become a topic of conversation, I just try not to embarrass myself.

This passive silence suits me well in Japan because, even if I knew something about cars, I probably wouldn’t know how to say it in Japanese. So when Kazu whipped out his phone to show me a picture of his ride, I nodded my head and gave a perfunctory response. As I was preparing to change the subject, he said in English, “I practice drift.”

That got my attention. “Uhh… Tokyo Drift?” I said.

A flash of recognition. “Drift is Japanese culture,” he replied. You don’t say?

He didn’t say too much more about it, and I didn’t press him, but later we went back to his apartment, where we drank beer and watched Japanese drifting videos with his wife while his four-month-old daughter slept in the other room. Before I departed, I worked up the liquid courage to ask him whether I could watch him drift sometime. “Okay, okay,” he said, and gave me his phone number.

Over the next month, I tried to follow-up on this offer as delicately as possible. I didn’t want to intrude, but I most definitely did want to see him drift in person. Finally, I got a text in Japanese: “Tonight, I will go. Meet at my apartment at 11.” It was on.

Needless to say, I was excited, curious, and a little nervous. Most of the things I get invited to by Japanese people are work- or community-related functions. Only on rare occasions am I invited to something of a more intimate, less public nature. And this was about as intimate as it gets, since, strictly speaking, what we were going to do wasn’t exactly street legal.

Just before 11, I met him outside his house. Now, let me say this about Kazu: he’s about the most-unassuming lawbreaker you can imagine. Quiet, well-groomed, and a devoted family man at 22, if someone told you he breaks the law on a weekly basis, you would probably guess that he downloads movies illegally on the internet. (He does that, too.) You would definitely NOT guess that he is involved in a street racing syndicate.

Unless you saw his car, in which case you might begin to have some suspicions. Because this ain’t no normal car. It’s a shakotan, or Japanese low-rider, and it’s tricked out with all kinds of custom parts, the likes of which I can’t even begin to describe. It has lights like a spaceship and an engine that roars like its breaking the surly bonds of Earth. The entire back of the car is gutted, save for some rear-mounted speakers, so behind the two front seats, there’s nothing but empty space and other assorted car parts. This is designed to tip the equilibrium of the car towards the front, so that the back wheels will slide more easily.

When he came out of the house, Kazu wasn’t dressed in the trendy, fitted styles that he wears to the office. Instead, he had on a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a wool cap. We made a pit-stop at a convenience store so that he could buy cigarettes. I bought beer. There are no open container laws in Japan, even in cars, so long as the driver has had nothing to drink. And if I was going to be hanging with a bunch of cigarette-smoking, jumpsuit-wearing, drift-racing Japanese guys, I was going to have to loosen up.

We headed to an undisclosed location outside of town, far away from any houses or people. We didn’t talk much on the drive and the sound of Japanese hip-hop played over the car’s growling engine. On the straightaways, Kazu opened her up a little bit, giving me a taste of what his lady can do.

Finally, we saw the lights of two cars idling by the side of an otherwise pitch-black mountain road. Kazu rolled down the window and shouted to the other cars. Abruptly, they peeled out and headed up the mountain. Kazu followed them.

Coming in, I really had no idea what to expect. When someone tells you that they “practice drift,” and this is your only frame of reference, well, you try not to over-think it. And besides, I had only asked to watch, which I assumed meant drinking a beer and standing at a safe distance. As we lurched up the mountain and Kazu floored the accelerator, it became clear that I would be doing more than just that.

Like most things that adrenaline-junkies will do for a rush, the thrill of drifting is hard to describe. What does it feel like to ride a roller-coaster or jump out of an airplane? I’ve done both, but I’m not sure I can describe either in a meaningful way, beyond emphasizing that they are worth trying for yourself. The difference with drifting is that the rush feels more authentic. The appeal of a roller-coaster ride or a tandem skydive is the simulation of danger in a controlled environment. It feels like you could get hurt, but really, the risks are managed and minimal.

Drifting is different. My stomach hugging against my ribs, I gripped the seat-belt with both hands as we came into the first turn. The course Kazu and his friends use is well-suited for drifting, not just because of its remoteness, but also because the mountain roads are banked wide at the turns to accommodate runaway trucks. Even so, the road is not an actual race course, and it has a drainage ditch on one side that is, well, to be avoided.

I didn’t get to see the mechanics of how Kazu controlled the wheel because my eyes were locked on the car in front of us, watching it carve a wide arc across both lanes as the tires squealed and smoked. Before I could steel myself, we entered the turn. Kazu hit the break and cranked the wheel, throwing the car into a (barely) controlled slide as it fishtailed past the guard rail.

Coming out of the turn, I saw the car ahead of us going into another, so I braced for the slide. And by braced for the slide, I mean that I screamed. Loudly. If the noise bothered Kazu, he didn’t say so, though he can’t hear much over the noise of the engine and screech of the tires.

Controlling the car requires all of his attention, anyway. I’ve never really thought of race-car drivers as athletes, but that’s a position I’m reconsidering. As an athlete, I’ve been in the zone enough times to recognize it in someone else.

After the third turn, we slowed and came to a stop. I kept screaming. Turning to me, Kazu smiled. “That’s the feeling, right?” he said in Japanese. It is certainly a feeling. Satisfied, he nosed the car around, and we bombed back down the course in much the same fashion.

Though similar, the ride down had still another surprise waiting in store for me. As the course bottomed-out and we entered the final turn, Kazu threw the emergency brake and, without warning, launched the car into a full 180 degree turn. Afterwards, as I struggled to collect myself, he smiled and calmly said, “Spin.”

After that, Kazu ran the course up and down behind the other car over and over, flirting with the guard-rail again and again. Every so often, the drifters stopped to examine their cares and perform maintenance, changing tires and fiddling with engines. They smoked cigarettes. I drank beer.

Drifting is murder on tires. The back tires take the brunt of it. The course was scoured with dozens of jet-black trails of melted rubber. The tires themselves sprouted ribbons of rubber that had to be peeled away in between runs.

If the tires take the worst of it, clearly, the cars themselves take a beating, too. Kazu’s car, although obviously well cared-for, shows plenty of evidence of this abuse. The front windshield has spidery cracks on one side. The passenger door is dimpled with divots and gouges, none of which are terribly reassuring. And the back bumper is all kinds of beat to hell, cracked and broken and held together in places by some kind of industrial threading material. Certainly, there have been some crashes. Presumably, they’ve been minor, and no one has gotten hurt. I didn’t ask.

Although I referred to this as drift-racing, it’s really more of a club than a competition. They might try to one-up each other a little bit, but it’s not a race. While Kazu was fooling around with his engine, another car showed up, and the guy who climbed out of it announced his presence with a swagger that could only belong to the club’s senior member, or Drift King, as I came to know him. And, like any self-respecting Drift King, he came with a girl in tow, a pretty Japanese swaddled in jackets and blankets against the mountain wind.

Perhaps because he was with his girl, he had come just to hang out and not to burn rubber. I went with him and his girlfriend up to the “Gallery Corner,” an embankment set back from the course, to get another view of the action. From this vantage point, we watched the Kazu and his friend drift, which allowed me to see two things that are easily missed from inside the cockpit: (1) The incredible volume of smoke that comes off the tires during a drift turn, which resembles a forest fire from a distance; and (2) The sparks that fly from the fender and spray into the night, which seem like they might actually cause a forest fire.

I was standing at “Gallery Corner,” watching Kazu lead through the turn, when a huge POP resounded against the trees. The trail car driven by Kazu’s friend immediately slowed up and turned around, limping back to the starting line on three tires. I assumed this would end the evening, especially since it was almost 2 AM, but these guys had spare tires and other ideas.

Evidently, the blown tire had convinced the Drift King it was time for a “lesson.” One of Kazu’s friends, who had been riding shotgun in the other car, was a novice drifter who had recently bought his own shakotan. The Drift King was about to teach him how to use it.

In a nearby parking lot, the Drift King set up shop with an illuminated traffic cone. For practice, the novice drove his car around the cone in tighter and tighter circles, building up speed. Then, he would throw the break and try to drift his car around the cone, with mixed results. After a few attempts, he would climb out and go over to the Drift King, who would give him notes, drawing diagrams in the air with the lit end of his cigarette.

After yet another aborted slide, the Drift King evidently tired of such feeble efforts, because he climbed into the driver’s seat and shoved his protege aside. Without ceremony, he floored the accelerator, hit the break, and expertly slid the car in a circle around the cone. But he didn’t stop there, sending the car into a second revolution, a third, a fourth. After five full revolutions around the cone, he let the car drift to a stop. The Drift King coolly opened his door. The rookie stumbled out, queasy and panting.

Finally, at just before 4 AM, it was time to go. The Drift King’s dutiful girlfriend, who had been sitting idly in his car for hours, had to get back before her mother realized she was gone. And Kazu had to be home before the sun (and his infant daughter) rose to start another day.

When we arrived back at his house, Kazu asked me if I wanted to join him again next weekend. I declined, and he smiled, knowingly. With that, he bid me goodnight and stepped inside his tidy apartment, leaving a thick black streak of tire grease behind on the brass doorknob.


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