Getting Sideways

It came from Japan and may turn out to be bigger than Godzilla. It,s drifting - a high-speed, fishtailing race toward a wall without a crash. They hope.

Kevin Darnell, a 22-year-old college student with a Yankees cap cocked at a jaunty hip-hop angle, hops into his maroon Nissan 240SX.

"I'm a virgin at all this, so my technique isn't that good yet," he says. He mashes down the clutch and fists it into third along the racetrack straightaway, as the speedometer needle eyes 50.

"It's all technique," Kevin says calmly. For now. "It's all about steering and how you use the pedals."

A drifter must know the car well, but not be afraid to 
get it banged up.
J. Michael Stovall
A drifter must know the car well, but not be afraid to get it banged up.
By day Alex Bahena does office work. At night he flies 
J. Michael Stovall
By day Alex Bahena does office work. At night he flies sideways.

The 240 comes in low toward the inner wall and then doglegs away to the outside bank of the oval turn. Abruptly, Kevin whips the steering wheel in the opposite direction, back toward the turn, flicking the e-brake and skidding the back end out, so that the motion of the car is now perpendicular to the direction of the hood, somewhere in the vicinity of 30 or 40 miles an hour.

He has gotten "sideways."

They call it drifting, and it's the practice of deliberately fishtailing a car at breakneck speeds. A decade ago, it emerged from the canyons of Japan, and in the past year it has swept across the American underground. On Thursday nights, it shows up on an expanse of noisy concrete in the dense woods of northeast Houston.

The screams rise up over the racetrack embankment and cut across the parking lot like an ice pick to the ear. From the adjacent drag strip comes the familiar growl of linear racing; the chain-saw kick-start, the record-scratch spinout and the distant rumble of speed achieved quickly.

Johnny Bubba Good Ole' Boy zips up and walks out of the john, clucking to a buddy: "Yeah, they got them drifters out there. They do crazy shit, yeah. They tear up their mamas' cars!"

It is nine o'clock at Houston Motorsports Park, two days before the Falken Tire Drift Showoff comes to town. This will include a drifting demo by some Japanese pros -- gods of the underground -- and a competition among these amateurs.

The mesh-cap-and-mullet set (no irony) has assembled along the fence, and people in the grandstand crane their necks to gawk at the automotive freak show. It's like The Dukes of Hazzard on acid: part street art, part thrill ride.

The point, Kevin explains, is not that you're out of control; the point is that everything is under control.

But Kevin hasn't corrected far enough. The car is not under control.

In the midst of sliding sideways, as the world spins around like an action-movie carousel, the outer wall comes rushing up to the 240's hood. Kevin breaks, with room to spare, and cruises back around for another try. "It's just, these walls scare the crap out of me," he says. "This is my daily driver, so I can't afford to mess it up."

On the next run, he guns it.

The 240 starts out rolling into the skid in the same way -- wheel-jerk, e-brake, slide -- but this time he's countersteered too far and the inner wall comes at him, a waist-high concrete barrier looking to slice open the bumper and split the hood of the Nissan.

"Whoa!" he shouts, coming to a stop about a foot from the barrier. "That wall scared the crap out of me!" The 240 staggers back into the pit area.

"Man, I almost hit that fuckin' wall!" Kevin says to his friend as he jumps out of the car.

"Yeah, you did!" Both smile in a half-crazy, jacked-up way.

Kevin has driven all the way from the Katy area tonight to take runs along the racetrack oval. A long way, sure, but it beats spinning out on empty streets and in vacant parking lots, which is how some drifters get their fix in the absence of regulated sessions. Besides, two months ago, Kevin slammed his car into a curb on one of those impromptu night runs. Why, then, is it worth it?

"Man, it's so fucking awesome," says Kevin. "Once you get sideways -- it's just pure adrenaline."

On his way to the track, neither crazy nor jacked up, is Derrick Rogers, our unlikely hero, a levelheaded, unassuming math and physics major at Houston Baptist University. A lot of guys out here come from car families, their automotive pedigree predestined. The oracle of drifting foretold none of this for young Derrick, 22 years old and stick-figure-thin, with a narrow jaw and sandy blond hair.

Derrick didn't come from a car family.

They were Southern Baptists ("a far, far cry from the standard, conservative Southern Baptists," Derrick cautions), and he had to squirrel away his own money for years before he could buy his first car, an '89 Nissan. Derrick used his technically oriented mind to learn how to fix up the vehicle instead of taking it to a mechanic -- frugal and resourceful. Eventually he fell in love with cars, his greatest passion, which is also the last thing he wants to do with his life. Huh?

"Kind of mixing business with pleasure -- you go to the office, chug along all day on a chosen career path, and when you get home, if your hobby is the same, you're burned out after the day's work," he says, revealing a kind of methodical thinking that seems antithetical to drifting. "Work has to be work. And play has to be play." Tonight is play.

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