The New York Times

May 7, 2004, Friday Late Edition - Final

Section F Page 1 Column 1 Desk: Escapes Length:1534 words

DRIVING; Drifting: The Fast Art of the Controlled Slide



LEANING into the cockpit of a rumbling 2003 Dodge Viper, TerenceJenkins has a few envious words. ''You're very lucky,'' says Mr.Jenkins, the manager of the Dodge/Mopar Lateral G drifting team.''This is the first time a drifting car has been allowed to drivearound Laguna Seca.''

Moments later, in a cloud of tire smoke, Mr. Jenkins's driver,Samuel Hubinette, launches the 550-horsepower Viper straight towardthe Andretti Hairpin, a notorious switchback at this famous raceway.But charging into this 180-degree turn at 90 miles per hour, Mr.Hubinette, a 32-year-old Swede, does not hit the brakes. Instead,before a crowd of 5,000 cheering fans, he slings the Viper into amagnificent, terrifying slide. As tires scream and smoke pours intothe open window, Mr. Hubinette, a former ice racer, soon reaches ashort straightaway. But he doesn't go straight. In fact, for theentire 2.2 miles of the track, he makes dizzying sideways slidesacross the pavement, then rolls toward the pit area with a whoop.''That was a 75 to 80 percent run,'' he says. ''Now I'm fired up.''

Mr. Hubinette, who was competing in the $10,000 Winner-Take-AllInternational Drifting Shoot-Out last weekend, put on a rathergraphic display of the motor sport phenomenon called drifting.Originating in Japan over a decade ago, drifting was first practicedillegally on treacherous mountain roads. The drifter's goal was, andis, to put the car into controlled slides, maintaining speed andangle of attack through the curves. Unlike races, driftingcompetitions are judged events, and winning takes a combination ofspeed, angle and excitement. With the addition of synchronized tandemor ''battle'' drifting -- the main event at Laguna Seca -- thestakes, and risks, increase sharply.

Though drifting reached the United States only a couple of yearsago, the sport has grown explosively. There are more than 50 driftingevents, from competitions to clinics, scheduled at North Americantracks this year. In the last two weeks, both Road Atlanta and LagunaSeca, two of America's most storied road-racing courses, have heldtheir first drifting contests.

And these days, the heroes for tens, or perhaps hundreds, ofthousands of young American drivers are people like Mr. Hubinette;Alex Pfeiffer, a driver for Team R-Sr; Kenjiro Gushi, a 17-year-oldwunderkind who doesn't even have a driver's license; and TakumiFujiwara, known as Initial D.

Actually, Initial D is not a real person; he's a Japanese Mangacomics character and is also featured in a PlayStation game. He makesa living delivering tofu along the winding roads of Mount Akina forhis father, Bunta, a legendary racer. During the course of his work,Initial D reluctantly comes to realize that -- in an underpoweredToyota Trueno AE86 (a rear-wheel-drive Corolla) -- he has become thebest driver on the mountain. In the comics and in the game, all themysterious young man wants is to deliver his tofu on time; all thelocal drifters want is to find out who he is and beat him.

Like many young drifters, Richard Tang of Team Rotora, sponsoredby a performance brake manufacturer from City of Industry, Calif.,learned about drifting from the comic-book exploits of Initial D. Inthe pits at Laguna Seca, he pointed out parallels between thefictional hero and the young Mr. Gushi, who also drives for TeamRotora. ''Ken is very talented,'' he said. ''Believe it or not, hestarted driving at around age 13 with a Corolla, and his dad has aWRX rally car just like Bunta.''

Tsukasa Gushi, 37, a former rally and motorcycle racer who owns aperformance garage in San Gabriel, Calif., was standing nearby andcorrected Mr. Tang. His son actually learned to drive at age 8, whenhe used to get behind the wheel at his father's shop. Then, when Kenwas 13, ''I took him to the desert and drove him rally style. Ishowed him some moves, then said, 'O.K., do whatever you want.' Henever stopped driving.''

Ken Gushi recalled sliding across the floor of El Mirage, theMojave dry lake, in his father's 1986 Corolla. Today, behind thewheel of his 300-horsepower 1992 Nissan 240 SX, he's one of the topdrifters in the country. For him, the appeal of drifting is visceral.''At any point you can crash,'' he said. ''There's a big risk, andthat's the biggest thrill of it.''

And unlike more established motor sports like Nascar racing,drifting doesn't yet require a $200,000 car. All it takes to getstarted is a crisp-handling rear-wheel-drive car and $80 worth ofused tires from a junkyard. For established teams it's anothermatter. Factory-sponsored drivers can go through as many as 10 $400high-performance tires a day.

At Laguna Seca, Donald Ahn and Todd Ho of the NorCal Drift Academyin San Francisco actually entered a stock 160-horsepower 1990 MazdaRX-7 that sported a large swath of red tape over a dent in the rearquarter panel. ''We drove our cars here,'' Mr. Ahn said. ''Everyoneelse has a trailer. The track guy didn't even want to let us park. Hesaid, 'What are you guys doing here?' We said, 'We're racing.' 'Whatcar?' 'This car!' ''

Why spend his time putting his old car into death-defying skids?''Why do you pop a wheelie on a bicycle?'' Mr. Ho asked in response.''You don't go any faster -- it's just fun! It's very much likefreestyle motocross. The best way to describe it is freestyle withcars.''

FOR the fans all along the shortened three-quarter-mile driftcourse, the sport's appeal seemed clear. Pressing up against thechain-link fence, they cheered loudly as competitors pendulumed backand forth amid choking clouds of smoke. At least once each run, acrash between sliding vehicles was narrowly averted, and several80-m.p.h. fender scuffs and spinouts elicited roars.

''There's just no ignoring the cool factor,'' said Ed Nicolls,Laguna Seca's spokesman, who added that the track was holding itsfirst drifting event to draw younger fans than traditional races do.''The best part of racing is when the tires break away. That's whenpeople stand up.''

Peter Stark, a senior writer for Racing magazine, had a similarview of drifting's excitement value. ''It's phenomenal,'' he said,''that there's an organized act of driving cars like you stole them.This is a sanctioned version of what every idiot high school kid hasdone in a parking lot.''

While many of the drifting professionals emphasized the importanceof putting rubber to the road only on approved courses (Mr. Ahn andMr. Ho's Drift Academy offers $80-to-$110 drifting lessons at severaltracks in the San Francisco area), many in the crowd acknowledgedhaving drifted under less than official circumstances.

''It's something that keeps me out of trouble, but in trouble,''said Brandon Gilbert, 19, of Seaside, Calif., rolling an autographedtire (drivers give away the bald ones). His friend Brian Palmer, 17,added: ''It keeps you away from drugs. But you're still, like,addicted to it.''

When asked where they go drifting, the boys grinned sheepishly.''Parking lots,'' said Jason Nguyen, 17.

Out on the track, Mr. Hubinette and Mr. Gushi made a spectacularrun that kept them inches apart through a series of deadly lookingskids. On the back stretch, the cars even scraped each other. Thoughhe had won in Atlanta the week before, Mr. Hubinette's performancewas not enough, and the three judges awarded Mr. Gushi the round,moving him into the next elimination heat.

Mr. Gushi then went on to narrowly squeal by some impressivedriving from Tanner Foust in Jasper Performance's Toyota Supra Turboand Rhys Millen in Team RMR's Pontiac GTO (Pontiac and Dodge are thefirst two American makers to sponsor drifters). Mr. Gushi's grandprize: a $10,000 check and a teary-eyed father.

Though he didn't win, Mr. Ho called breathing the rubber smokefrom Mr. Hubinette's Viper one of the most thrilling moments of hislife. ''That's the point I'm trying to make,'' he said. ''I didn'thave the money for a 400-horsepower motor or 18-inch wheels. You canstill do a lot with stock wheels and stock alignment.'' Still hecould not help being impressed by the cars with stratospherichorsepower. ''I think I've hit the limits of my car,'' he said andsighed. ''I might have to abandon the RX-7.''

Images: Photos: SMOKING -- Alex Pfeiffer in a red-and-white Hondaand Todd Ho in a red Mazda competed last Saturday at Laguna Secaraceway in Monterey, Calif. In drifting competitions, agility mattersmore than speed. (Photographs by Thor Swift for The New YorkTimes)(pg. F1); TO THE VICTORS . . . Kenjiro Gushi, center, istoasted by Tanner Foust, left, and Rhys Millen in California lastweekend. ''Initial D,'' a Japanese comic book, has popularizeddrifting. (Photo by Thor Swift for The New York Times)(pg. F10)