20 Years of Drifting
Slip-sliding cars earn their place on the American motorsports scene.
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
Twenty years. Two decades. Time rips by when you’re having fun, and there’s no doubt the sport of drifting is fun.
Amazingly, the premier American drifting series, Formula DRIFT, turns 20 years old in 2023 and is stronger than ever, with growing entry lists and enthusiastic sponsor support.
The origins of drift stretch back to Japan in the 1970s, but you could argue it really got its start in the World Rally Championship, where drivers steered using a handbrake and gas pedal as well as the wheel.
Drift focused on that cornering technique and created a judged sport. Japanese drivers such as Kunimitsu “Kuni-san” Takahashi, known as the Father of Drifting, were instrumental in developing the tire-smoking technique.
In turn, another Japanese racing driver, Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya—enamored with Kuni-san’s exploits—developed his skills and in 1987 appeared in a video called “Pluspy” that catapulted him into the limelight.
The following year, Daijiro Inada from Option magazine in Japan helped develop one of the first pure drifting events called Ikaten (short for Ikasu Hashiriya Team Tengoku) and then the Japanese D1 Grand Prix.
Inada was also famous for drifting through every turn of the Tsukuba Circuit, which grabbed further headlines.
In the mid-’90s, Inada and Option brought the sport to the U.S. by organizing demonstrations, but somehow D1 didn’t immediately inspire American fans. It did, however, create a spark that eventually ignited Jim Liaw and Ryan Sage to establish Formula DRIFT as a sister company to their Slipstream Global Marketing (Liaw is now general manager at Performance Racing Industry).
The first FD demo event was held at Irwindale Speedway in 2003. Nestor Cabrera of First Up Graphics in Pomona, California, was there, working on Edelbrock’s nitrous line at the time.
“It was crazy. People had to park miles away from the track because it was to capacity and attendance shattered all records,” he recalls. “Drifting was exhibition-only back then—they even did an exhibition with the Japanese Touring Car Championship at Fontana, which brought all the crazy-looking prototype Japanese cars from Japan to the U.S. It wasn’t until Jim and Ryan made the effort to turn it into a sanctioned event that it really took off.”
A CINEMATIC BOOST
Cabrera notes the first professional Formula DRIFT event was held in April 2004 at Road Atlanta in Georgia.
Many agree “The Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, launched in 2001, helped expand interest, especially in 2006 when the third movie in the series, “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” was released.
Written by Chris Morgan and directed by Justin Lin, it featured “Drift King” Tsuchiya and aided in establishing the sport. And, while it’s still a fan favorite, it’s interesting to note that of all the F&F movies, “Tokyo Drift” grossed the least at $62 million.
Movies aside, for its 20th anniversary year, Formula DRIFT announced a strong program of eight events across the country, kicking off in Long Beach, California and progressing through Atlanta, Orlando, Englishtown (New Jersey), St. Louis, Seattle and Grantsville (Utah) before returning to its spiritual home at Irwindale, California, where the speedway is now known as the House of Drift.
Besides the schedule, Formula D has also announced some changes it hopes will have a positive impact on participants and spectators. First up, the 2023 PRO Champion purse will be $50,000 plus per-round payouts, which are double what was offered in 2022.
Organizers have also removed the 37 driver cap for both the PRO and PROSPEC Championships to allow more teams to enter the series. This change will make qualifying more crucial, as only 32 drivers can compete in the head-to-head competition.
And, to keep the fans informed, an official Formula DRIFT podcast called “The Outerzone” will be hosted by Jacob Gettins, who will talk to racers as the season unfolds. This builds on the incredible success of the series’ free event livestream, which gives millions of fans around the world an opportunity to follow qualifying and competition heats for every round.
NEW HALL OF FAME
Another new initiative is the Formula DRIFT Hall of Fame, designed to honor the people who helped the series reach its 20-year milestone. A hall of fame is a tricky enterprise to maintain, especially in a sport that is only 20 years old, but FD has a roster of famous names who left their marks and went on to greater things.
The first inductees were honored at the 2023 Long Beach opening event April 7-8. Each inductee was awarded a unique diamond and gemstone-encrusted FDHOF ring with a value of $10,000.
Furthermore, Downtown Long Beach will be the permanent home of a Formula DRIFT monument commemorating the sport. And to preserve their places in history, the name of each Hall of Fame inductee will be inscribed on the monument.
From its humble beginnings, Formula DRIFT has evolved into a major motorsports series that enjoys influence beyond its core. For example, Britain’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, one of the world’s most prestigious motorsports events, has hosted numerous drift alumni including James Deane, Vaughn Gittin Jr., Ryan Tuerck, “Mad Mike” Whiddett and Nobuteru Taniguchi.
They have driven everything from a retro Mazda RX-7 to a Ferrari-powered Toyota GT86 and a Toyota-powered BMW M3.
Speaking for Goodwood, Ethan Jupp summed it up succinctly, saying, “Drifting is a melting pot motorsport for the maddest ‘garagistas’ to build the most hairbrained machinery. We love it!”
After 20 years, many fans agree.