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Getting Sideways

A drifter must know the car well, but not be afraid to get it banged up.
J. Michael Stovall

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."

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.

He arrives at the track a short time later to do some practice runs. In two days, the gods will know his name and they'll want to drive his car.


An auto sage lays out the Tao of drifting. Cue the gong.

"I would say that drifting has always been around," the representative at the Los Angeles-based Drift Association responds when asked how long ago the sport started. "Because the nature of the vehicle is, when it's basically oversteering, that is what is considered drifting."

Pinning down a date for when it first slid through in Houston is similarly vexing. If you're going to start with anyone, you might as well start with Alex Bahena.

On the far side of the track, where the cars queue up to run through the curves, Alex sizes up the night. As much as anyone, Alex is in control out here -- in the sense that he both sets up the big meets and takes runs as one of the top local drifters. This Saturday, he's helping organize the Drift Showoff.

By day, the 30-year-old is the shirt-tucked-in SAP guy for Marathon Oil in the Galleria, with a résumé that includes a stint at ITT Tech and work for a pneumatic conveying company. By night, he flies sideways, feeling out the limits of his 240. Among drifters, the Nissan 240SX is the most common of the rear-wheel-drive imports used.

"None of us compare to any of the guys from California, the guys that are coming down," he says. "Man, they're freakin' bad. I mean, their speeds are way much higher than ours. I mean, we probably drift around corners about 40, 50 miles an hour. They'll probably do it over 100."


Alex, of medium build with short brown hair and a quick smile, grew up in the import street-racing scene on Westheimer in the early '90s.

"That's when it was really cool. Because back then people didn't act like asses on the streets," he says. Back then, the Westheimer peel-out hadn't yet become an illegal cliché.

For many import enthusiasts, drifting was the next (il)logical step. But the front-wheel-drive Maxima Alex used for street racing inevitably went into a spin every time he tried to drift. So two years ago he bought a 240 and, with no place to practice, sought out bare streets and open lots in the dead of night. The underpasses of the Loop made for wicked turns, as did the quiet industrial areas around U.S. 290.

Married but without kids ("can't afford 'em, man -- too many hobbies"), Alex is instead the proud parent of Daily Drifter, an organization that connects local drifters through its Web site. Last summer, in the midst of a nationwide trend to shift drifting from the underground into official, sanctioned events, Alex approached Mike Permetti, director of sales at Gulf Greyhound Park, about using their vast parking lot to host the first Grind 101, an all-day drifting practice session.

"They didn't know what it was, either," he says. "I kind of told them it's a little bit between road racing and rally. I didn't really want to tell them that people are going out of control into a corner, 'cause they'd probably freak out."


Naoki Kobayashi, a partner at Drift Association, which helped stage the Drift Showoff here, has seen the same challenges elsewhere.

"The toughest part is always to explain what drifting is," he says, comparing it to the beauty of figure skating or even surfing. "The one thing about drifting that really hampers people's ability to organize an event is the fact that it looks like out-of-control vehicles, but at the same time, it's not."

Watching things grow from a few scattered drifters two years ago to about 65 strong at the last Grind 101 in December -- plus the fact that people were coming in from neighboring states to practice -- convinced the local crew to make contact at Houston Motorsports Park for the Thursday-night practice sessions. Starting March 11 of this year, the 150-acre race park began holding what could very well be the only weekly drifting practice venue in the nation.  

With that in place, Daily Drifter wanted to stress that it doesn't condone drifting on the street and encourages it only at tracks and in safe environments. That puts it a long way from wild rides down the mountainsides of Japan.


Derrick Rogers firmly maintains that he has never, ever gone drifting anywhere but at sanctioned events. He says he hasn't had a ticket in six years. He plays by the rules and stays inside the lines. And that is exactly why Derrick needs drifting.

"I thought this up not too long ago, and it makes perfect sense: I like driving on the edge of control without the fear of actually going out of control. And drifting does exactly that," he says. "Any other kind of sport, or any other kind of motorsport, when you go out of control, bad things happen. And to be right on the edge of control, you're going to flirt on that edge and you're going to go out of control sometimes and so, in drifting, and also in autocross and stuff, you can really, really walk that line without worrying about consequences."

The screams testify to that. Hear them anywhere else and you wince, anticipating the sickening crunch that should follow. For Derrick, the crunch never comes, the rush is achieved, and death is averted.

"I've heard drifting being said as 'an accident waiting to happen -- that never does.' " He adds, "Now, I should say, it does happen sometimes."


Just ask Jacob Y'Barbo. That same racetrack wall that tortures Kevin got Jacob two weeks ago. The 16-year-old is sitting on the pit fence with a gaggle of fellow high schoolers, watching the plumes of tire smoke float up from the spinouts and breathing in the sooty air laced with hot rubber.

"Dude, I've wrecked it, like, five times," he says on the phone the day before. "That was, like, my fifth time. I actually think it's kind of fun." He lets out a devilish little laugh. "I mean, it happens when you're drifting."

What happens is this: Jacob takes his '91 240 out to the track for a Thursday-night run. In the middle of a "feint drift," the back-and-forth slalom slide around cones set up in the straightaway, he loses control on what he estimates is a patch of tire soot and careens into the wall, mangling his front bumper.

What's funny is that he almost had the car at a stop; he was only rolling at about three miles an hour when it smacked into the barrier. What's less funny is that he'd just gotten the car out of the shop that same day for bumper repairs. And taking it back in would cost him, he figures, another $1,500.

"Every time I busted it up, I'll always tell [my parents], 'Yeah, I was drifting,' " he says. "My parents are like, 'Whatever, you have to pay for the repairs.' "

Jacob, who's on the sidelines tonight because of that war wound, has been drifting for about two years. (Although, he admits, he's had his license for only one.)

Among drifters, a certain pride develops in those battle scars -- "it's the anti-car-show mentality," reports one drifting expert.

"Most drifters understand that going off-course or damaging your car is part of drifting. If you need to improve, you should not be personally attached to your car," says Drift Association's Naoki Kobayashi. It seems a Zen contradiction: Know thy car intimately enough to drift well, but not so much that you become attached to it. Wei wu wei.

At center, a red Toyota covered in decal freckles executes a swift, elegant feint through the cones, its tires clawing at the pavement as the rear end traces a perfect parabola of motion. Done well, done gracefully, a car drifting is Kristi Yamaguchi on bald tires; it is the unexpected feminine counterpoint to chest-beating "I'll get there first!" car culture.

Which is not to say this is a woman's scene yet: One of the only females in sight is a girlfriend stashed in the back of an SUV watching a movie. Most can count the number of female drifters in the United States on one hand -- the most famous of whom is an Asian-American driver out in SoCal who started a program called Drifting Pretty.

Anyway, Jacob is kind of annoyed, because drifting's getting to be somewhat trendy at his Woodlands high school.  

"A lot of people around here are like, hey, yeah, let's go drifting, let's go drifting," he says. "I don't like it getting big at my school and stuff…I mean, I'm only 16, but I'm a controlled 16.

"At first, I was kinda like, that is pretty crazy. Once you ride in a car while someone is drifting, I mean, I can't even explain it, it's just so much fun," he says. "I mean, you're getting sideways and just basically doing things you're not supposed to do."


Legend holds that drifting first took shape in Japan in the 1980s, with hot shots swerving down the mountains at breathtaking speeds. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Japanese folklore holds that ghosts inhabit the mountains, yet even so, street racing there appears to have never gotten the bad rap it has in the States.

"Over here, street racing is really bad, but over there, it's not legal, but it's a different sort of thing," says Dan Brockett, writer and director of a recent documentary called Pure Drifting. "It's more like kids here in the '50s. Like hot-rodders." Indeed, as one local import enthusiast put it, "the Civic is the hot rod of our generation."

Keiichi Tsuchiya, "the drift king," ushered the technique into prominence and, after breaking out of the Japanese underground in the mid-'90s, a full-fledged professional circuit was born: the D1 Grand Prix series. As much as anything else, an enormously popular anime, Initial D, helped spread the concept to the United States.

"See, when Initial D was initially introduced, you had a lot of kids about 13 or 14 who kind of knew about the series, watched it maybe on the Internet, got a bootleg copy, so now these 14- or 15-year-old kids, who are now 16 or 17, are driving and trying to [drift]," says Kobayashi. "I think that's where they got the inspiration to purchase a rear-wheel-drive car."

The first American drifters appeared in California and Hawaii -- bored kids with sick imports and steep hills. Pure Drifting was filmed over the course of 2003 and charted drifting's popularity as it shot from a few hundred grassroots-types in January to more than 12,000 who turned out for a Labor Day event in Irwindale, California.

Edward Loh, editor of Drifting Magazine, puts it this way: "You can look at drifting and import stuff as a rebellion of hey, this is my thing, it's not what my dad did. Sure, my dad fixed up cars, but that's a V8 Mustang or Camaro. This is my own deal. Same thing. My dad may be into NASCAR or NHRA, but I'm doing something else, I'm doing front-wheel-drive drag racing, or I'm going drifting.

"It's also like short-attention-span theater. You're out there and it's not like the Indianapolis 500. You're out there, these guys are, they're swappin' paint, they're crashing into walls. And it's again, it's the highlight reel. That's why I say drifting is like a highlight reel from, like, an NBA basketball game. You get the crashes, you get the dunks, you get the smoke, you get the tire noises -- there's no boring lapping, there's no pit stops." It takes video game fantasy and imports it into reality.


Derrick Rogers starts up his '86 El Camino, and the old car roars to life. Cue the banjo strings.

It's not even an El Camino, really. It's an '86 Caballero (the GMC version), but "El Camino" is just easier to identify with, so that's what everybody calls it.

And it's not even his. It's the property of his buddy James Evans, who bought it in Baytown seven years ago for $750. Derrick just borrows it to go drifting.

It's not quite noon on a warm spring Saturday at Gulf Greyhound Park in La Marque, and half of the 5,400 spectators who've come out for the Drift Showoff seem to be standing in line trying to get in. On one side of the fenced-off parking lot, scores of young people, almost exclusively male, wander around the booths and pose with the shiny cars that the half-naked Asian models rub up against. It's unclear which part of the autoerotica gets the guys off more.

The gods of the underground -- D1 pros Seigo Yamamoto and Yoshinori Koguchi -- sit underneath one of the tents, their racing suits peeled down to the waist.

Their magic is this: Yamamoto and Koguchi can "tandem drift," riding the slide at as much as 100 miles an hour just feet apart from each other in competitive or cooperative sequence. The tandem drift, and the confidence and skill required to execute it, sets the Japanese apart from the Americans here. It's why fans approach Yamamoto and Koguchi for their kanji autographs, even though they can't speak to them in English.  


No one's asking for Derrick Rogers's autograph just yet, but that doesn't mean no one notices him, idling in line for the drifting competition a bit later on. If a truck mated with a car -- and the two were somehow related -- the faded gray El Camino would be the inbred offspring. It stands in stark contrast to the spruced-up, tricked-out, well-manicured rice rockets idling alongside it.

But the crowd goes bananas when the El Camino pulls away from the pack for a run, rumbling and spitting and popping. In it, they see the ugly-duckling underdog -- the gangly, clumsy kid with acne who shows up for prom in a baby-blue tux with ruffles.

"From what I hear, from people standing around in the audience, I've been told a couple of times that before the runs or anything, people would be pointing at it and laughing at it and making fun of it," Derrick says later. "But they say my first run shut 'em up pretty quick."

Shut 'em up, no. Rallied them, yes.

"Look at him! Throwing it! Throwing it!" a loud voice exclaims over a cascade of cheers as Derrick rolls the wide ass of the El Camino around the first turn at nearly 60. Hunched over, he's got the windows down and his helmet on, but if he hears their encouragement, it doesn't register on his face.

You might think his mind looks like a mechanical physics textbook right now -- vectors and angles and equations sliding into place.

It's too fast for that, he says. You just operate on instinct.


The judges are evaluating the 40 or so competitors based on speed, angle and overall execution, and Derrick makes it through the first cut, down to 16 drivers for the second round. Alex, who's painted a "Grind" decal across the side of his 240, also survives the first cut. A rumor goes around that the winner might get an invitation to compete at a D1 event. By now, the afternoon sun is reddening forearms and baking necks.

"All right, go Alex! Show 'em what Texas can do!" yells one of the Drift Association reps, standing near the judging panel, as "Grind" whooshes by. The El Camino follows soon after.

"Yeah! Show 'em what '70s American metal can do! Four tons of drifting madness!" Derrick makes the cut to eight, then to the final four. The gallery roars with approval as he cruises up to the starting line. He's looking the opposite way as the others drift, trying to stay cool, trying to keep his mind off the competition. He's going the distance. He's going for speed.

"The first time I saw him, I was like, 'Oh, my God, what is this queer doing?' " says a voice in the crowd. Now Derrick is closing in on the unlikeliest of scenarios: upstaging the more expensive, better-looking entries. On a little piece of concrete halfway to Galveston, the outcome is bizarrely, uniquely, overwhelmingly -- American.

"That's what's so cool!" gushes Dan Brockett, the documentary filmmaker, when he hears about the event. "We're taking a Japanese sport, drifting, Japanese cars, a Japanese mind-set -- and in Texas, we're going to Americanize this sport. We are…I think it's going to be kind of cool, because in a few years we're going to forget that it's so Japanese."


Derrick parks the car after his final run and hops out, getting mobbed by his friends.

"Even if you don't win, very fucking cool!"

"Dude, Derrick, you rock!"

Someone jokes that the El Camino will show up as the secret car in some drifting video game one day and Derrick will be the driver, exporting reality back into video game fantasy.

"Man! You're going to be all over the Internet!" shouts James. "Now there's gonna be a run on El Caminos!" Another friend asks him, if they got a rope and a cowboy hat, would he drift while lassoing out the window?

"I expected to get my ass kicked," says Derrick. Then he corrects himself and asks if he can be quoted as saying "butt" and not "ass." They walk over to the stage for the announcement of the winners. Fourth place goes to a 240SX.

"You're not fourth!" one of Derrick's friends shouts at him.

"I'm not fourth!" Derrick repeats clumsily.

They announce someone else's name for third place, too.

"You're not third either!"

"Are you nervous?"

"Oh, hell, yeah!" says Derrick. Manners go out the window. This thing might really happen.  

When the other guy's name is called, his buddies swarm him. From the stage: "The big daddy of them all: No. 21! Derrick Rogers!"

"Derr-rick!" "Derr-rick!" "Derr-rick!"

The unassuming math and physics major from HBU looks woozy as he walks up on stage to claim a trophy that's almost as tall as he is. An Asian model rubs up against him for photos. He tries catching his breath as a reporter from the Game Show Network interviews him. The word gets around that the Japanese pros want to drift his car, but they can't because of liability issues.

"I came out here expecting to get beat pretty badly," Derrick tells the camera guy. "I just got the feeling of the car and the track…" He trails off with his answers.

He tosses the trophy into the back of the El Camino, and he and his friends watch the Japanese guys drift some more before the sun goes down.

To view photographs from the Falken Tire Drift Showoff click here.


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