Ah Japan, where the narrow streets are packed tightly with stock kei cars and minivans, each one even more dull than the next. It’s the automotive equivalent of grandad reading the Financial Times on Sunday while wearing beige trousers and eating gloopy porridge.
But Japanese roads haven’t always been this dull. There was a time when carmakers were frantically competing with each other for power, torque and ultimate street credibility.
These days, companies are competing for Instagram follows and Facebook likes, and the majority of cars on the market look and sound the same. There are notable exceptions of course, and we’ll get to that, but let me have a whinge first about how the world has changed.
A couple of Sundays ago, I headed deep into the hills of Gunma Prefecture, to the Gunma Cycle Sports Center (Gunsai for short) to witness what automotive delicacies were on offer in Japan 20 years ago.
This is a Hardcore Tokyo event, and it was far from tame.
Drift events like this aren’t uncommon in Japan, with various circuits across the country holding drift days for amateur and semi-pro drivers all year long. With 99% of the cars being of a certain vintage, it was all pretty nostalgic.
Throughout the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s – and after the top speed run craze died down – drift was king in Japan. But there weren’t any neatly-organised events like we see today. Kids of driving age were out on the streets and deep in the mountains, drifting corners like nobody’s business.
With population density booming during Japan’s bubble period, citizens becoming annoyed and an increase in road accidents – and the subsequent damage to public property that came with it – saw illegal street racing quickly clamped down on. That’s why events like this attract large crowds and sponsors.
It’s pretty unreal seeing these 20 and 30-year-old cars still loved, raced and being constantly upgraded and rebuilt. Unlike today, back in the day there were plenty of rear-wheel drive machines to choose from too. Skylines, Corollas, RX-7s, Silvias, Supras, Chasers and even your parents Crown all had the ability to get sideways with ease.
Also unlike today, there wasn’t much else for kids to do anyway. The internet was basically non-existent and computer games were in their infancy. Books? Not exactly fuel for the adrenaline junkie.
Unfortunately though, all these gas-guzzling, Earth-polluting performance platforms had to be replaced by eco-friendly family cars with greener footprints. Don’t get me wrong, that’s exactly the direction I want the world to be going in, but it seems that engineering and technology have found a way to make the Earth happy and keep enthusiasts happy too.
Take a look at the GR Yaris for example; it’s packing a massive punch from a 3-cylinder engine and achieving 34mpg, something which would have been impossible 20 years ago. Performance will always come at some cost to the environment though; the base Yaris expels 92g/km of CO2 while the GR mini monster churns out 186g/km.
The most popular, if not only modern drift car on the track at this event was the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, but I only spotted two examples ripping it up and didn’t see (or maybe notice) any parked in the paddock area.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Japanese sports car. The new Fairlady Z looks like it will make for a great drift base – if you have money to sprinkle across the hairpin corners of a Japanese touge-style circuit. You could happily swing a new Supra around a few corners too, but you may want to check your insurance coverage first.
While the old days of secretive touge drifting may be the sport’s purest form, it was – and still is – the most inconvenient, not to mention dangerous. Walking around the paddocks and seeing the stacks of wheels, trolly jacks, tool kits and spare body parts people bring to events like this, I think the idea of standing on a roadside in the dark in the middle of nowhere now seems pretty unappealing.
Some may say it’s too easy now, but I say events like this give drifters a chance to hone their skills in relative safety, and without the constant stress of police interference. Taking drifting off the street and onto circuits like this means that rookie drivers can gain the skills needed to enter the world of pro series like D1 or FD.
It also means that drift cars like the Silvia, 180SX, RX-7 and AE86 can live out their lives doing what they were designed to do – going fast in the most intense way possible, sideways. If there was no longer anywhere for them to race, they may well just end up on the scrap heap, and the magic that surrounds them would fade into history.
That would be a real loss. Because, at the end of the day, drifting is as much a part of Japanese culture as sumo, or the bullet train, or Mario and Luigi.
It’s a sport that has influenced music, anime, manga and fashion in Japan and across the globe. It’s become a mainstream sport internationally not just because it’s a fashionable thing to do, but because it’s incredibly intense to watch, let alone participate in as a driver.
Even on a closed circuit like Gunsai, accidents are inevitable. But the difference between hitting a side rail here and on a mountain side in the middle of nowhere is that help is just a radio call away. Tow trucks, medical staff and plenty of spare tires are on hand. That doesn’t make having an off any more enjoyable though…
Nosing around under the bonnets of old drift cars will always be interesting, and seeing the crews beat body panels back into shape and fix ripped up tyres with nothing more than a crowbar and a blow torch will always be a spectacle. Let’s face it though, the reason we’re all here is to see some smokey sideways action.
But for that, you’ll have to wait for next time. Don’t worry though, I’ve a got a special treat for in store for you. You’re about to get as close to the action as you’ll ever get…