What happens when you take 10,000 high-energy fans, 14 ace ``drifting'' drivers from Japan and their posse of leggy ``umbrella girls,'' a handful of determined American competitors and turn them loose to do battle in wildly hopped-up Nissan 350Zs, Mazda RX-7s, Toyota Supras and fabled Japanese domestic market-only rides like Nissan's Skyline or Sylvia?
You end up with a tire-smoking, tire-screeching Call of the Wild.
Drifting is all about style and car control-controlled slides, that is, through turns. To be sure, sports car drivers and motorcyclists have long used power sliding to tap into their inner-child. But some years ago, small bands of road rebels in Japan took counter-steer, clutch and throttle techniques to new levels. Word of their forays along sparsely traveled mountain roads spread, and the runs-which mix aspects of racing, extreme sports and high-speed ballet-attracted fans and car clubs.
Helping bring professional drifting from the realm of arcades and overseas videos to the banked half-mile oval of Irwindale Speedway in northeast Los Angeles was Yokohama Tire Corp., the major sponsor of the D1 Drift Grand Prix on Aug. 31.
The contest-the course layout is decided by a handful of judges who score each competitor-went roughly like this: Two cars would pair off, using the oval's banks to accelerate and then play a tire-shredding, testosterone-laden game of follow-the-leader. Each driver attempted to make his car pirouette cleanly around corners with better style and/or more speed than his rival. The lead position was alternated, but skillful driving was often used to overtake the leader, bringing deafening roars of approval from the crowd.
Too much traction and the car won't rotate; too little and it could be catapulted into the course barriers.
When the tire dust settled that night, the victor was diminutive Katsuhiro Ueo. Piloting a Toyota Corolla (known in Japan by its chassis code AE86), Mr. Ueo out-dueled the Nissan Sylvia of Nobuteru Taniguchi, despite the Nissan having almost twice as much horsepower. Both cars were running Yokohama ADVAN Neovas, a tire popular among drifters in Japan but not officially available in the U.S. Bringing Neovas stateside is being evaluated, said Art Michalik, director of marketing communications for Fullerton, Calif.-based Yokohama. (ADVAN A-046s are standard equipment on the high-performance Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.)
One of the North American drivers to qualify for the D1 Grand Prix was Rhys Millen, no stranger to fast Japanese cars. ``It was more exciting than I thought it would be,'' said Mr. Millen, who drove the same Toyota Supra he used to win the high-performance showroom stock, two-wheel-drive class in the 2000 Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
He'd like to see a homegrown talent pool of drivers compete in longer drifting events. ``The D1 was linked to three corners. It needs to be more like a race,'' he said. ``They have a one-lap chase. It would be quite neat to make that a couple of laps. The spectacle would last a little longer. Rather than say, 15 seconds of action, you'd have a minute of action per tier. If you could do two or three laps, you would possibly have not just one opportunity to pass and display your consistency and control, but several opportunities.''
He said his father Rod, long the driver to beat in the Pikes Peak unlimited class, dropped by Irwindale the day of the drifting event and ``was thoroughly impressed.'' The father and son were looking into possibly doing drifting demonstrations together. ``In-car cameras would be neat. Drifting works well in an oval or stadium environment,'' Rhys Millen said.
But it's not just established drivers who'd like to be the next sultan of slide.
Calvin Wan's love affair with racing began with Sega and Nintendo games before he finally got behind a real steering wheel in 1994 when he turned 16.
Drifting represents the next frontier, and Mr. Wan is stone dedicated. ``It's a different art form. It's a controlled slide, but we use all the same racing theories-we brake before the turn and still aim for the apex,'' the 25-year-old San Francisco resident explained.
Like a lot of drift enthusiasts, he found his new passion eats up tires-lots of them. At $500 a set, drifting is an expensive hobby.
``I was buying only used tires at first. I'd go to special used-tire stores and pick them up for about $40 per tire,'' he said. ``But then I started having to buy four at a time. Then I started buying new ones.''
Mr. Wan said he goes through front tires four times as fast as the rears. Yokohama approached him about sponsorship for the inaugural D1 Grand Prix event, but he had already struck a deal with Falken Tire Corp. and didn't want to renege.
Disaster struck when Mr. Wan's red RX-7 lost power during a crucial power-on transition and smacked a barrier. Though he was able to drive it back to the pits, the unibody sports car was totaled.
He'll definitely be back. Others seemed content to watch the action.
As the happy crowd milled about after the race, Jonathan Villegas, of Gardena, Calif., beamed as he wore a battered ADVAN track banner like a cape. Why did Mr. Villegas, who is studying to be an automotive technician, prize the piece of plastic? It bore a dark, distinct tire print-painful evidence that one of his Japanese heroes had had a too-close encounter with a barrier.
Mr. Villegas vowed: ``I'm going to hang this on my bedroom wall!''