I'M exhausted. It's 2:18 a.m. and I'm at the ports of Osaka in Japan. I've been up for more than 27 hours-16 hours of which I spent in the confined quarters of a Boeing jet, with a two-hour layover in my native Korea. I should be in bed. Instead, I'm sprinting at full speed for my life. Running is an act that I'm not truly comfortable with, nor great at, but making it exponentially harder is running with my Gitzo tripod, fully extended, and my Canon 5D camera acting as a gravity-fighting counterweight. Think Carl Lewis holding a sledge hammer above his head for a baton, but only slower. Much slower.
About a hundred yards behind me, my predator is giving chase, its red eyes glowing, and a howl that gets louder as it closes in. On the other side of the street is Falken drift poster child Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and his mechanic, Mickey Andrade, and in front of me, Andy Laputka and his video camera. And we're all scrambling like wild gazelle trying to reach the safety that is our getaway car a quarter-mile away. We're not going to make it.
Andy, the videographer, jumps in a patch of brush lining the sidewalk. Shit. That's not a bad idea. But before I make the plunge, I hear the unmistakable shriek of tires breaking traction. Startled, I look over my shoulder to a sight I've only seen in movies. A car-a heavily modified S13 Nissan, at that-blocking the black and white Osaka Police patrol car that's been stalking us, with smoky donuts. And as if on cue, our getaway minivan-a Toyota Hiace with fellow journalist Alexi Smith behind the wheel-comes barreling down the street, both sliding doors open. JR, Mickey, my tripod and I climb in.
"Wait, where's Andy?" asks JR.
"Oh shit, he's in the bushes!" I pant.
"Andy! Get in the car!" JR screams into the street.
Andy's head pokes out from the brush. He runs up to the moving van, jumps in, and slams the doors shut. We're off! We pass our savior S13 still burning its tires, and make our way out of the docks. Once we're out of danger, the Nissan transitions from circles to a full-scale drift and takes off in the other direction. After a few quick turns, we make it onto the highway, just as another patrol car with sirens blaring screams toward where we just left. The entire car breathes a sigh of relief.
JR turns his head, grins, and exclaims, "Dude, this is what drifting in Japan is all about!"
When word spread that JR was going to Japan to drift, '10 Mustang or not, I knew it was going to be an experience of a lifetime. Here is JR, the quintessential American (his racing shoes are red, white and freakin' blue, for redneck's sakes), taking his U.S.-built car, and going across the Pacific to drift the mother country. This was historic. Japanese D1 drifters and their smoke machines have been coming to the States competing against Americans for years, but never has the situation been reversed. JR was going to whoop some JDM ass, and on their home court! If drifting was Pearl Harbor thus yet, this was a one man Doolittle raid, and I wanted to bear witness.
Since most of us arrived in Japan around the same time, we'd planned on taking it easy the first night. Apparently, "easy" meant meeting up with old-school drifter/former Falken teammate Seigo Yamamoto at midnight, out by the docks in Osaka for some street drifting. One problem: it's 12:37 a.m. and by Japanese standards (where arriving five minutes before an appointment is considered timely), we're 42 minutes late . . . and we haven't even left our hotel yet. Five of us pile into the three-row Toyota Hiace minivan, hop on the Hanshin Expressway and arrive at the globally universal site of all illegal street racing activity: the industrial park.
Waiting for us, patiently might I add, is Seigo and seven RWD Nissans. The clear star of the group, other than the towering JR, is a purple S13 Silvia on fluorescent yellow 57D Gram Lights, trailered in from Nara prefecture, one and a half hours from Osaka. Driven by Naoki Nakamura, a D1 drifter and the unspoken leader of the group, he answered Seigo's call to show a bunch of Americans the roots of street drifting. It's a good thing, too. Not only did he and the other S-chassis rip it up with seven-car drifts (yes, seven cars at once) Naoki's is the brave S13 that performed the donuts, distracting the cops so we could get away. But why would a pro risk life, limb and legal repercussion by drifting illegally?
"Because it's dangerous and fun," says Naoki. "I started drifting on the streets nine years ago when I was 17 and I still love it. I drift almost every night in my home prefecture of Nara."
Now would be the appropriate time to say: Don't try this at home, kids!
After our stint at dock-side drifting was cut short by the Japanese law, it was on to Seigo's Plan B: Omote-Rokko Driveway. Don't let the "driveway" fool you. One of several streets within the Mount Rokko ranges, it's a touge filled with tight switchbacks and steep elevation changes. The only thing "driveway" about it is its width-an H1 Hummer or a pair of contestants from The Biggest Loser could easily span the entire one-lane road. But from the way Naoki and company were making use of the road, you'd think it was an empty Walmart parking lot. And for over an hour, we stood in a turn-out, watching the drifters attack with solo runs, two-car tandems and full-team drifts, barely avoiding the rocky outcrops of the mountain, while coming within centimeters of the guardrails. Takumi, eat your tofu-delivering heart out.
A handful of times, while Naoki and crew were mid-drift, an unbeknownst civilian would drive through the mountain pass. What should've been catastrophic, only demonstrated the grit and experience the group had in the touge, as they would quickly transition out of a slide and continue on, seamlessly, as on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive.
After being up for more than 29 hours, I start the second day of the trip with only two and half hours of sleep. Today's agenda has JR drifting at Bihoku Highland Circuit in Okayama, Japan. Kenta Ogawara, friend and acting translator for the event, offers to let me testdrive the new Mustang. When I find out it's a three and a half hour drive west of Osaka-a time greater than what I've slept-I politely decline.
Located in the mountains above Niimi, a small city on the western edge of Okayama Prefecture, Bihoku is a small track out in B.F. freaking E. Surprisingly, the circuit is one of D1 Street Legal's stops, although where the crowd would park-let alone how they would make it in the tiny one car driveway-is beyond me. In accordance with Japanese standards however, the track itself is immaculately clean-after each event, a small team of men armed with brooms inspect and sweep the course.
Waiting for us again, still patiently, is Seigo Yamamoto and a different handful of Nissan S13s and 14s. In attendance is our hero from last night, Naoki Nakamura and his purple S13, who it turns out, wrenched all night to get his car ready for the track.
JR, clearly excited about popping his drifting-in-Japan cherry, wastes no time joining the fray already drifting on track. Like a newborn fawn taking his first steps, JR is clumsy in his supercharged Mustang-the car was freshly built and shipped straight to Japan for the adventure. Instead of the brash JR we're all used to-hauling ass, screaming wide-open throttle through clipping points-he circles the track cautiously. The first few solo initiations end in anticlimactic spins.
A pair of S14s catches up to JR and starts to tail the Mustang in full lock drifts. Instead of conceding the challenge, JR pedals it and the supercharged V-8 springs to life, its tell-tale whine reverberating off the circuit's walls. Accelerating into the last corner before the front straight, JR's huge Ford is entering dangerously hot for the small course. He's going to eat it-and he's going to do so right in front of the two Nissans already transitioning into a slide. But then it happens. Small at first, JR's two squealing rear tires start to emit tufts of smoke. Front wheels in countersteer, the puffs turn to full-on horizontal plumes. We. Have. Drift.
The S14s follow suit and the three cars, now in perfect harmony, pass the pits of where I'm standing, the sonorous V-8 roar followed by the tenor of the two turbocharged four-cylinders. And like that, the gaijin Mustang looked right at home.
After a long first two days, the third day's itinerary is more relaxed. The only thing on the agenda is a drive up to Mizunami in Gifu prefecture for a DVD filming the following day. That gave the crew some much-needed downtime and an opportunity to ask JR what he thinks about the trip so far.
"This is crazy" JR replies. "Eight years ago, I was fucking around in a parking lot and now I'm here in Japan, with a crew of 12, filming and providing support, drifting with some of my icons, and getting to experience all of this. I never thought this would've happened in a million years."
After taking in the sights of Ame-mura-the fashionable Harajuku of Osaka-it's starting to get dark. We decide to break for Gifu Prefecture, a 200-kilo drive northeast of us to the heart of Honshu Island. JR and Andy hop in the blue supercharged Mustang, and Kenta and I in the stock red one, with me behind the wheel.
An hour out of Osaka, we pull into one of the service areas that dot the highway. After a quick bathroom break and vending machine raid, JR pulls up while I'm filling up on petrol.
"When we hit some open road, I'm going to signal you. When I do, pull up beside me. When I give you the signal, let's drop it into Third and punch it. I want to see how fast the supercharger pulls."
Maneuvering past the scores of trucks, we find a long and dark stretch of highway. JR blinks his hazards. We slow to about 50 kph and from the faint light of his instrument cluster, I make out JR holding a thumbs-up. I throw the gearbox into Third and both cars lunge forward. My pedal is on the proverbial metal, yet the supercharged Mustang takes off like we're standing still.
"Oh shit, that's fast!" gasps Kenta.
A statement followed by words I thought I would never utter: "Man-I really want to drive that Mustang."
Inclement weather has the Hot Version crew switching from tandem battle to a drift race. How bad was the rain? Three of the greatest drifters lost it during their runs.
It's pouring rain in Gifu prefecture. Similar to Bihoku, YZ Circuit is in the mountains above a small city with a tiny, treacherous road leading up to it. The whole drifting thing, and how Japan's the country credited with discovering it? After four close calls with freight trucks coming around narrow bends, it totally makes sense.
Being that 2&4 Motoring (of Best Motoring fame) is filming a Hot Version video, the venue is filled with camera men, support crew, equipment, and of course, drivers. Akira Iida, Manabu Orido, Nobuteru Taniguchi and Keiichi Tsuchiya are all on hand to put up their drifting skills. But because of the weather, in lieu of tandem drift battles, the Hot Version staff decides to change the event to a drift race-yes, an oxymoron if I've ever heard one-due to the sheer volume of water falling from the sky. When Orido, Taniguchi and Tsuchiya are spinning out every lap of their practice session, you know head-to-head battle is out of the question.
Before the drift race battle is to begin, each driver goes out for one last practice run. JR has to be a little nervous: solo runs in an away court with worst-possible conditions, while the world's best watch? Despite the pressure, he performs remarkably, slipping and sliding like a wet salamander. He comes in from his session and I ask him how it went.
"I feel good," JR responds. "The Falken RT615s are amazing in the wet. It's the first time I've driven them in rain this hard and they have amazing grip."
After days of onigiri rice balls from convenience stores, thanks to the hospitality of the Hot Version crew, we eat a real lunch for the first time on the trip. The rain starts to lighten up and the competition begins. It's JR's turn. As he drifts the course, I ask the Drift King what he thinks about the American drifter's skills.
"I've been a fan of the Mustang ever since I saw JR drifting one at D1 USA," states Keiichi-san. "In my opinion, JR is the best drifter in the U.S."
That's like Jordan declaring Kobe the next Jordan. But for the sake of JR's head being able to fit in his Falken helmet, let's keep Keiichi's last comment between you, the 2NR reader, and I. As for who won the tournament, you'll have to check out the Hot Version video. Eiichirou Yamada, Hot Version's deputy editor-in-chief, threatened to make sashimi out of my left pinkie if I revealed the winner. OK, not really. But he did kindly ask if I'd abstain, after treating us to Yakiniku barbeque the night before. I'm such a cheap whore.
It's 2:10 a.m. on my last night in Japan, and I'm driving for my life. Five-hundred hp might be great on wide American roads, but on the narrow, crowded streets of Tokyo, not so much. It takes every ounce of concentration to keep the torquey rear wheels of the supercharged Ford from getting too sideways.
Of all the times I've been to Tokyo, I've never had the opportunity to drive. Wanted to, and believe me, I've tried, but no one was crazy enough to hand me the keys to their car. Except JR. And after a long, four-hour drive from Gifu, here I am, screaming through the streets of Tokyo, in of all things, a supercharged Mustang, with Kenta sitting shotgun. The translator's new responsibility for the evening? A Tokyo native, my human GPS.
Driving from our hotel in Roppongi Hills to the nightlife district of Shibuya, the meaning of the trip came to full light. Here I am, an Asian guy from the import scene who's never driven a Mustang, driving one for the first time in Japan. On the other hand there's JR, a White dude who's as American as they come, competing in the most Japanese of motorsports, here in its homeland. Talk about some weird Yellow-White yin-yang. And JR didn't come to Japan to defeat the greatest on their home court; this is a cross-cultural exchange-an international exhibition on par with a World's Fair . . . only more rubbery and with a whole lot more driving. Japan gave us Americans the gift of drifting and here we are bringing it back, but with a Yankee twist-and who better to exemplify that than JR?
"Watch out! There's a cop!" cries Kenta, pointing at an officer investigating the rumble of our burbling exhaust. "We need to get out of here-can't let him see the slash (temporary) plates!"
As if I needed an excuse. I hit the throttle and the supercharger whines to life. In half a heartbeat, I hit the 40kph speed limit. Two short murmurs later and I'm breaking all known international speed laws on a major Tokyo artery that would barely pass for a Manhattan alley. It sure beats running.