The Story of Drifting: From Illegal Mountain Roads to a Worldwide Phenomenon
Oh Drifting, how much we love you!
There are many growing communities thriving today. Amongst the many that exist lies a wide audience of tire-shredding enthusiasts into undoubtedly the most exciting, flamboyant and exhilarating automotive sport there is. Before the likes of Initial D, Fast & Furious, and the plethora of media that popularized drifting in North America, the unique history and deep roots behind the sport dates back over 50 years.
In actual fact, drifting had been going on since the 1930s but back then it wasn’t a recognized driving technique or skill, just some random person driving too fast into a corner, losing their grip, and having to correct with the opposite lock (oh if only they knew!).
The true drift technique we see today traces back to the 1960s with a famous Japanese motorcycle racer by the name of Kunimitsu Takahashi. Takahashi’s skills were truly unmatched and his achievements go to show for it. As he is the first-ever Japanese racer to win the motorcycle Grand Prix far back in 1961, it is rather shocking that his name is coming up in drifting. However, after he sustained a terrible injury in a crash during the 1962 Isle of Man TT, he changed gears and started racing cars in 1965.
Takahashi in his motorcycle days
The Grandfather of Drift
Takahashi, now a race car driver by profession, raced in every competition from Formula One to the Japanese Touring Car Championships to GT2. His driving technique in his beloved “Hakosuka” Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC10 led him to over 50 straight victories in a row and captured the attention of many Japanese street racers.
Takahashi in his beloved "Hakoshuka"
The technique, now known as drifting, is what Takahashi used to combat the grip inadequacies of the hard bias-ply racing tires that were used in racing cars at the time. He would essentially approach bends at full speed, coaxing the car into a slide before the apex of the corner, then use his throttle to control the car until he made it around the curve. Time after time, this led to him finishing off at a high exit speed and exceeding all the other racers. His skills were unmatched and very hard to beat.
The legend himself!
Then came illegal racing …
Takashi’s special way of rounding corners blew everyone’s minds but most notably, it inspired a crowd of illegal street racers who in the dead of the night were tearing down the mountain roads of Japan and bidding on who can set the fastest times from one point to another. As the curvy mountain roads set limitations to speed, the drift style became a common tactic used to maintain a fast line through the course. The question: who drifted the best?
The Japanese mountain roads
The Drift King
Amongst the racers was a young man by the name of Keiichi Tsuchiya who studied, mastered and perfected Takahashi’s drift techniques. In his 1986 Toyota Sprinter Trueno, Tsuchiya’s racing flair and natural ability to slide sideways allowed him to set many unofficial records and earn the title of the Drift King. Tsuchiya, like the true king he is, was truly unstoppable. With constant practice on the mountain roads, his driving ability continued to improve and in 1977, he entered the Fuji Freshman Race before progressing on to the All Japan Touring Car Championship. Despite dominating in official racing events, Tsuchiya’s street racing days never left him. In fact, in the late ‘80s, his fast and very illegal mountain drifting style was featured in a short film called “Pluspy” (fun fact: the video is still up on youtube today) which led to his racing license being suspended for a short while.
Instead of damaging his reputation, the short film only helped Tsuchiya grow his fanbase. Not only was he gaining exposure from professional street racers, but he also gained massive credibility rights from his alliance with the illegal racers. Truly, it was a pivotal moment for the sport of drifting we see today. In 1989, Tsuchiya, together with the founder of Tokyo Auto Salon, Dajido Inada, created the first official drift event Ikaten. Later in 2001, the first D1 Grand Prix was held and well, the rest is history.
The Drift King himself Keiichi Tsuchiya with his Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno
Now a Worldwide Phenomenon
Drifting has certainly come a long way since the mountain roads and championship matches in Japan. Across the globe, we see a growing interest in the sport with Formula Drift in the states, European Drift Championships, Power Drift in Norway, Drift Australia, the Malaysian’s Star Drift Challenge, and many more. It has become a professional passion that keeps winning records and inspiring drivers around the world. There is no doubt whatsoever, that the future of drift is big, bold, and absolutely smoking!