As I pull away in First gear I'm overcome with a sort of nervous excitement, the kind a teenager might feel as he's about to undo his first bra clasp. While I've never had that pleasure, I have put in plenty of hours with some fairly feisty mannequins in preparation for when my time finally comes. But this day my performance anxiety isn't about the high degree of difficulty of my one-handed hook-and-loop technique. No, I'm afraid of my passenger's opinion of my shift points and corner entry position.
Riding shotgun in my little RSX is none other than Katsuhiro Ueo. He's not giving me any track instruction; we're merely going to an Outback Steakhouse for dinner (Japanese guys love American beef steak). I'm nervous because the night before I was part of the frothing mob, thousands-strong, who watched in awe as Ueo-san won the D1 Grand Prix USA (see our coverage elsewhere in this issue). Now the champion is in my car smiling cordially as I ride the clutch and mistake my wiper stalk for the turn signal. Did I mention that he doesn't speak English? Couple this with the fact that my entire Japanese vocabulary consists of pronouncing every I as an r. While my Engrish bit kills at the ramen house by the office, somehow I don't think it's appropriate in this setting.
Further adding to this surreality is the hotel where Ueo is staying. This D1 champion is not at some trendy joint like the Mondrian or the W. Ueo and his crew are staying at a Days Inn. The accommodations couldn't be more appropriate because Ueo and his '85 Toyota Corolla Sprinter Trueno are the perfect examples of making more with less. Ueo wields his little AE86 like a slingshot, continuously beating up on the drift Goliaths.
Ueo doesn't look like much outside of his car. He is courteous and humble, both very rare traits in a world of big-headed drifters who are more attention-starved than Jessica Simpson. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Ueo is also small of stature. While he may walk softly, he carries a big stick with his tremendous driving talent. The 31-year-old from Kumamoto actually fell into drifting on a whim.
"At 26 years old I used to compete in gymkhana, and one of my younger colleagues took me to the touge [mountain] runs and challenged me," recalls Ueo. "He said, 'You cannot do this,' and I proved him wrong."
Contrary to popular belief, gymkhana is not where Jonny and Russ get their T-shirts; that's Gymboree. Webster's (not Emmanuel Lewis, but the dictionary) defines gymkhana as "a timed contest for automobiles featuring a series of events designed to test driving skill." It's much like a large-scale autocross course. Ueo's gymkhana experience has served him well.
"In Japan in gymkhana, the cornering speed is a lot faster [compared with drifting] because of the slick tires," according to Ueo. "Because I'm used to the speed, I am able to control the car at the slower speeds for drifting. I competed in Class D, where the cars had under 2,000cc displacement with no limit on the modifications."
When he's not unleashing his quart of blood technique on the D1 stage, Ueo runs his own tuning shop, Sift Racing Garage. The shop is also a used-car dealership, which explains Ueo's extensive car history. His list of past cars includes the "R32 and R33GTR [Skyline], KP61 [Starlet], AE86 [of course], Z32 [300ZX], etc., for a total of about 50 cars."
But Ueo's heart lies with Hachi...Roku, that is. An AE86 Trueno was his first drift car, and since then, he has learned much about the setup of this nimble and well-balanced car. But there is the question of power. The D1 judges have always given big points to the high-horsepower turbo cars with their lurid, smoky drifts.
In the final rounds it was almost comical to watch Ueo's cute little Corolla trail Nobuteru's evil 430hp S15 and Imamura's high-revving, flame-shooting FD. During both rounds, the Seven and the Silvia would rocket ahead in cacophony shredded rubber and excess boost pressure. On the fast sweepers at the start of the course, Ueo would fall behind. By the first hairpin where the big boosters of Nob and Imamura would slow to make the corner, Ueo's tricky Trueno would come right up (and sometimes even pass them!) with a smooth, flowing, perfect drift.
"In a 200 meter turn the turbocharged cars must modulate their throttle inputs," explained Ueo. "They cannot step on the gas all the way around the corner. But in my car I can throttle it all the way around the corner. At the D1GP USA, the judges are right in front [of the tightest corner]. The other cars had to slow down and get off the gas, but with my car, I could stay on the gas all the way around."
Ueo's D1GP USA car you see here is the same car he used to win the 2002 Championship; it makes about 180 hp on an engine dyno. Ueo's 2003 season car recorded 204 hp on an engine dyno. Ueo told us that the new car made between 230 and 240 hp on a chassis dyno because the engine dyno he uses has more resistance than a chassis dyno. An unrealistic load was placed on the engine dyno in order to make sure the motor will stand up to the stress that occurrs in competition.
While these aren't major numbers, I was still curious as to how he got 200 naturally aspirated ponies out of the old 4AG motor. I owned a 4AG, but my tuning was limited to an old-school TRD oil filler cap, and I never dynoed it to check the power increase. It's good to see that Ueo's mods are much more plentiful.
For the engine build, Ueo turned to Hitoshi Matsuda of Revolver in Osaka. Matsuda builds all of Ueo's engines, and he selected a '91 4AG AE92-kouki motor for this car. Matsuda bumped the compression and bored and stroked the inline-four with a late-model AE111 crank and rods and Revolver GT pistons and rings. Up top, Matsuda prepared one of his ported and polished SPL AE92-kouki heads with "Ueo Secret Type" prototype cams, Revolver valves, TRD springs, and Toda retainers.
Matsuda feeds his little beast with nothing less than a Skyline R33 fuel pump and a Sard regulator. Big gulps of air are brought in through a Toda air intake, a modified manifold, and factory AE101 throttle bodies. A Revolver header and exhaust handle the spent gases, and a Nissan CA18 catalytic converter was added for good measure. Finally, the brains behind this outfit are powered by a Tomei REYTEC ECU and ignition system. The '85 factory five-speed transmission is still used but an Exedy prototype clutch and Cusco LSD help send the torque to the rear wheels.
"I don't need power," Ueo adds. "It is all about balance. If I have more balance, then I don't need the power."
Ueo finds this balance through his chassis setup. Because he has built so many Corollas, Ueo has discovered exactly which areas need to be strengthened for drifting. Once again, he relies on Revolver's Matsuda for the chassis prep.
First the unibody's seams were stitch-welded and a cage was installed. The Revolver coilovers are "Ueo SPL" units with Cusco pillow ball mounts. Like many of the leading D1 drivers, Ueo uses Largus front and rear stabilizer bars. The rest of the mods include a Revolver front strut tower brace and a host of Cusco pieces such as adjustable pillow ball tension rods up front and lateral links and a trailing rod assembly out back. There are no massive 22-piston big brakes on this car. Ueo likes to keep it simple with just iMAGE pads and Earl's lines.
"With the brake pads, not too strong and not too weak," Ueo said. "The [choice of] pads should depend on the weight of the car. The [D1GP US] driver [Calvin Wan] of the red FD3S had enough power, but his brake bias was not right. Too much in the rear, which is why he spun out in the same spot twice. And because he was unstable, that is what made him crash."
Ueo is also very particular when it comes to tire selection. Last year, he switched between Advan's Neova and Falken's Azenis.
"My tire choice depends on the track. On some tracks I would run Falken in the front and Advan on the rear, and on others I would run the Advan Neova all the way around. The surface of each track varies," according to Ueo. "At Irwindale, you need a harder compound because the track surface is designed for high-grip slicks. It is like sandpaper. If you use a soft compound the tire won't even last one lap."
A new sponsorship at Irwindale put the car on Bridgestone Potenzas, but the change in tires has done nothing to disrupt his game. Just like last year, the tires are mounted on 14-inch Volk TE37s.
While this is last year's car, it wears the same livery as the 2003 season car. Last year, the car was known as the D'Sift/Cusco AE86, but this year, the official title is the Cusco/Yuke's AE86. Yuke's is a video game developer that specializes in wrestling games such as Smackdown! 3 and Royal Rumble. This sponsor is fitting, as the Hachi looks as if it just came out of a cage match.
When our boy Boyd shot this car, it flossed some pretty heavy war wounds from its march to victory. There wasn't much left of the j-blood front bumper, which is only attached with a few zip ties, and the driver-side (right) rear quarter panel had an HKS Silvia sized dimple, but that's all part of the game in D1.
"Some people worry about the cars when we crash into each other, but that's what builds the excitement," said Ueo. "Cars can be replaced, but the feeling of the excitement of the people cannot be replicated. The memories of the experience will last forever."
Ueo also had some advice about how to start drifting and the abilities of the US drifters. "Practice drifting with just upgraded suspension, tires/wheels, and LSD before touching the engine side of the car. Brakes and alignment are also very important. Start with an underpowered car and master it first and gradually work your way up. I practice with an AE86 with only suspension modifications."
"I saw the video of the D1 driver's search and the skill level looked like what we had in Japan 10 years ago," Ueo said. "From that time until [the US D1GP], I felt like they improved. Even from the practice session [held one day before the event] to the actual event, they saw the Japanese pros drifting, and they learned and showed even more improvement during the competition. In order for US drivers to get even better, they need a good teacher or leader to help them learn the Japanese style. If that happens, the American drifters can compete with the Japanese pros--no problem."
"But it would be better for a Japanese driver to come to the US to teach here," Ueo added. "An American drifter will have difficulty learning in Japan because the style is so different. It would be easier to have a Japanese coach here."
"The drifting environment for drivers in the US is much better than in Japan [in terms of available circuits]. I can see how much improvement the US drivers have gained in such a short time. In the future, there will be great struggles between the US and Japanese drivers. However," Ueo was quick to add, "drifting originated in Japan, so we are not going to let the US drivers win!"
While Ueo's final comment was a good-hearted challenge to US drifters, it rings true as his tenacity, talent, and triumph over more powerful rivals underscore the soul and spirit of Japanese drifting.