It started in Japan: The history of drifting
From the mountain roads of Japan to the racetracks of the world, the history of drifting is one that every drift fan should know…
What do you know about the origins of drifting? In the past 25-or-so-years the practice of sliding a rear-wheel-drive car around a set course has gone from illegal nighttime pursuit in the mountains of Japan to a globally-recognised professional sport.
There’s an awful lot of miseducation in the mainstream media about the popularisation of drifting. Movies like The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift have become the lazy journalist’s go-to reference point whenever a news story pops up about the sport, but dig a little deeper and you’ll soon learn that the art of drifting has a lot more to do with traditional motorsport than neons, big spoilers and bad acting.
Keiichi 'Drift King' Tsuchiya helped popularise drifting, and the Toyota Corolla AE86.
While the practice of driving sideways has been around for pretty much as long as humans have been racing automobiles, the foundations of drifting as we know it today are often attributed to one Keiichi Tsuchiya, commonly referred to as the ‘Drift King’, who popularised the sport in the mid-1980s. Tsuchiya wasn’t the first Japanese racing driver to master the art of the drift, however – that accolade predates the Drift King’s involvement by some 20 years or so.
The original father of drift
Kunimitsu Takahashi in his two-wheeled days.
Trace drifting back to its absolute beginnings in Japan and the name Kunimitsu Takahashi crops up. Takahashi is a former professional motorcycle and car racing driver, and was in fact the first Japanese racer to win a motorcycle Grand prix, back in Germany in 1961. Following a bad injury sustained in a crash during the 1962 Isle of Man TT, he changed disciplines and started racing cars in 1965.
Kunimitsu Takahashi became a master of sliding his Skyline KPGC10 in all weather conditions.
Takahashi raced everything from Formula One to GT2 throughout his career, but it was his driving style in the All Japan Touring Car Championship (which later became JGTC and then Super GT) during the 1970s that captured the attention of Japanese street racers, and eventually inspired the sport of drifting. To combat the grip inadequacies of the bias ply racing tyres at the time, Takahasi would approach bends at speed in his ‘Hakosuka’ (Nissan Skyline KPGC10) coaxing the car into a slide before the apex of the corner, before powering out onto the straights, holding a high exit speed. His mastery of the technique in all conditions saw him on the top of the podium time after time, with competitors unable to match his speed through the corners.
from racetrack to the road
Tsuchiya in his legendary AE86.
Much like how stock car racing and NASCAR evolved from illegal activities, drifting followed a similar path. Japanese illegal street racers (known as hashiriya) had been racing from A-to-B on mountain roads, or tōge (also spelled touge), in a bid to set the fastest time. Reaching the limits of grip on these twisty roads, and inspired by Takahashi's racing at the time, the drift style began to gain favour in maintaining a fast line through the course. One such racer was a young Keiichi Tsuchiya, whose natural ability to maintain drifts from corner to corner at speed in his 1986 Toyota Sprinter Trueno saw him establish a lofty reputation as ‘Dorikin’, or ‘Drift King’, on the mountain roads.
The animated character Takumi Fujiwara from Japanese cartoon series Initial D was based on Tsuchiya.
Through days and nights practising on the tōge, Tsuchiya rapidly improved his driving ability and eventually entered the Fuji Freshman race series in 1977 before progressing onto the All Japan Touring Car Championship, much like his hero Takahashi. Tsuchiya was near unstoppable, but he couldn’t leave his hashiriya roots behind. Fun fact – Tsuchiya is cited as the inspiration behind the animated Initial D character Takumi Fujiwara.
drifting out of the shadows
In the late ‘80s, Tsuchiya’s fast and illegal tōge drifting style was featured in a short film, called ‘Pluspy’, which led to him having his racing license revoked for a short time.
Pluspy may not have helped Tsuchiya’s racing career in the short term, but it proved a pivotal moment in the growth of drifting as a pastime, and eventually a sport in its own right. Japanese tuning magazine Carboy hosted the first ever drift competition in 1986 and, in 1989, another magazine – Video Option – under the control of Daijiro Inada and with the help of Tsuchiya, created the first sanctioned drift competition, called Ikaten. The competition wasn’t in the format as we know it today, but instead featured teams of five drivers drifting as a team for entertainment value.
The growing popularity of the Ikaten events paved the way for Inada’s All Japan Professional Drift Championship in 2000. The inaugural event took place at Ebisu Circuit in Fukishima, with Tsuchiya and Manabu Orido as judges – a roster of over forty drivers were judged on individual navigations of the course only. This event counted as the first round of the 2001 championship, and the series was quickly renamed to D1 Grand Prix.
From round two onwards, the idea of two drivers competing head-to-head in an elimination tsuiso (twin run) format was born. This format remains today as the basis of all drift competitions around the world.
From the streets of Japan to the racetracks of the world, drifting has come a long way. Photo: Kanon Serizawa
As with Tsuchiya’s racing interests, drifting has always maintained two, very different, paths – the illegal hashiriya street racing side, and the professional competitive side. Many purists will argue that drifting’s heritage is on the mountain roads and that drift competitions aren’t in the spirit of where the art originated. However, as you’ve now discovered, drifting’s birthplace was as much on the racetrack as it was on the roads.