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Japan’s nutter gene: tuning, drifting and speeding

By Ben Barry

Car Culture

18 August 2009 10:15

Nagata at 200mph on the a1

Ten years ago I got my first job on a motoring title: Max Power. Max had become the biggest car magazine in the UK after stumbling on a surprising formula: young guys like fast, lairy cars and fast, lairy women.

At the millennium, Japanese cars and Max Power went hand-in-hand, and the period – flinchingly embarrassing as it can sometimes seem to me – had a huge impact on the way I think about cars. Back then, Civics ousted Saxos and Corsas as meat and potatoes content (remember The Fast and The Furious?), the R34 Skyline was the PlayStation king, and Japanese imports were flowing freely into the UK – cheap, tuneable (and often tuned) fast cars for everyone.

It was also a time when Japan’s big hitters – think Supra and Skyline especially – were officially limited to 276bhp by a gentlemen’s agreement, but often left the factory producing an additional 50bhp, and could be tweaked to – and I’m quite serious about this – 1000bhp and more.

Doing 200mph on the A1... In the UK…

One of the leading Japanese tuners is Kazuhiko Nagata, head of Top Secret. Nagata looks like a stereotype – businessman-like, deferential, quiet – but by night Kazuhiko evolves into ‘Smoky’, hitting ludicrous speeds on Japanese wangans (motorways to you and I).

In late 1999, Smoky shipped his Mk4 Supra to the UK from Japan. In trademark Top Secret Gold, bodykitted and covered with stickers, it looked like a space ship, a Japanese DeLorean about to travel through time. With 1003bhp, it went like one too.

Smoky’s plan was to break 200mph in the dead of night on the four-lane stretch of A1 outside our Peterborough HQ. We might like to watch, he suggested. You’ll see what happened on the video link at the bottom of this page.

On frost-covered roads, Smoky managed a ‘disappointing’ 197mph before the police chased him down. He had enough power and enough skill to outrun any Volvo T5, but he didn’t – Smoky stopped. That kind of summed up to me the slightly skewed universe he inhabited – a reasoned, polite kind of madness, not a thuggish disregard.

Today I still like to watch the video and imagine what the hell the police must have thought of the Japanese-registered car and Japanese-speaking driver that’d inexplicably whizzed past at nearly triple the speed limit – and simply pulled over when the blue lights came on. Smoky’s fate? To be jailed for a night and fined £190 on the basis that he left the country the following day and didn’t drive in England for 28 days.

Japanese and the art of drifting

After Smoky, it was drifting that really inspired me. The story goes that drifting emerged from illegal racing on deserted Japanese mountain roads, the fastest cars sliding at the limit. Ultimately the sliding became the whole point, and you’d get – still do – large groups of rear-drive Corollas and 200SXs gathering on hillsides, blocking the road to a largely non-existent public while the cars first charged up, then charged back down again, sliding from lock-to-lock all the way – etiquette mixed with lawlessness, just like Smoky.

Eventually drifting was formalised into a sport called D1 Grand Prix, and scored by a panel of judges for style rather than speed. The best drivers compete to get into the top 16, and from there cars go head-to-head, taking turns to lead until a winner is declared.

It’s simply gobsmacking to watch – the tyre smoke, the constant teetering on the brink of oblivion, the crashes! – and fun too, a kind of Banzai motorsport where the commentators shout hysterically and the drivers clown for the crowds.

Why drifting is affordable motorsport

I love rallying’s rear-drive era, and for me drifting is like rallying distilled to the most extreme highlights – a small section of track (usually around four corners, sometimes less) you can see from start to finish driven by someone more concerned with showboating than setting times, though speeds can sometimes breach three figures.

Best of all, it’s something you can learn without the massive budgets of rallying and, back in 2004 when I started, it glowed with the special magic of an underground, cultish movement that was yet to have its day.

I’d say it took me about two years to get to a decent standard, and I still enjoy drifting today – favouring the extra seat time of practice days rather than the pressure and lack of time on competitive events. I’ve judged Prodrift events too.

My high point came when Nissan invited Yasuyuki Kazama to launch the facelifted 350Z in early 2006, and I actually got to twin-drift a pair of spanking new 350s with the then D1 champ. Third gear, door-to-door, full lock – it doesn’t, and probably won’t, ever get better than that.

Drifting is my extreme sport, my bungee jumping, my sky diving. It is a massive adrenaline hit, a rush so intense that you cannot focus on anything else.

I wouldn’t want to compare myself unduly to Smoky, but I reckon we’ve both found a release through Japanese car culture, something that, once in a while, allows us to really run riot.