Even before the “Fast and Furious” franchise, the underground racing sport categorized as “drifting” was quickly becoming one of the most exciting extreme sports in Japan. As with most modern-day competitive racing, the spin-off from the circuit was born out of a unique style of racing with its roots in Japan.
Back in the 1970’s, ex-motorcycle racer Kunimitsu Takahashi began his career on four-wheels bringing his thrill of speed and crowd-pleasing performance to the track. As more than just a showman, Takahashi’s precise and aggressive racing technique utilized the practice of occasionally purposefully over-steering to power through corners. Although it can be easily criticized as not being the fastest, or most efficient way around a bend, there was no doubt that the display of brute force and tire smoke was an immediate hit with racing fans. However, it was a different racer inspired by Takahashi’s racing flair that would be crowned as the “King of Drift.”
When it comes to drifting, Keiichi Tsuchiya is a household name. His perfect balance of driving skills and crowd pleasing character continues to place him as one of the best racers of all time, and a keystone to the popularity of motorsport in Japan. Most interestingly, Tsuchiya honed his career off the track in illegal street racing through the cities and mountains of Japan. It was not until 1977, that he got off the streets and onto the track, with his debut in the Fuji Freshman series which showcased rising talent.
It was easy to see that the practice he had done outside of the circuit only complimented his aptitude for professional racing. As Tsuchiya’s racing career continued to take him to the global stage, his experience in the 24 Hour events such as LeMans and NASACAR (Suzuka Thunder 100), gained him the necessary experience and pedigree to make his title as a racer unquestionable. However, his inevitable thirst for pushing his car to its limits got the best of him as he was caught street racing, suspending his racing license.
Instead of damaging his reputation, it made his fanbase grow even stronger as they could now identify with Tsuchiya as a regular guy who made it to the big leagues. His story would go on to inspire a widely-known manga series with the title “Initial-D” that showcased a young, unassuming character who perfects his driving skill on the mountains as a Tofu delivery boy. As Tsuchiya’s popularity increased, so did his car of choice, the Toyota AE86 Sprinter Trueno.
The Toyota AE86 produced between 1983-1987 never set out to be a vehicle that is still sought after today as a modern classic. Also branded as a Toyota Corolla Levin, the affordable, light, and reliable car was meant to be an entry-level vehicle that was sold both domestically and overseas. However, its unique production as being one of the last rear-wheel drive cars in the Toyota Corolla lineup made it an ideal vehicle for racing enthusiasts.
The AE86 engine was also a big hit with mechanics for its ability to take a beating and the ease of which it could be modified. Even though the Toyota was also favored as a tuned rally racer, it was ultimately its power and weight distribution that made it the perfect vessel for swinging around corners in drift racing. Even today, as the sport has become modernized with international races around the world featuring brands from almost every car maker, the AE-86 is always a crowd favorite.
Since its production, few cars in the Toyota line have been able to conjure up the same amount of attention and respect in the racing industry. Recently, with the relaunch of the “86” branding in 2012, Toyota has pulled the best of aspects of each of their legendary cars into the new Toyota 86 (also known as the FT-86, Scion FR-S, GT-86 and rebadged Subaru BRZ). It was not long before the drifting community had a chance to through Toyota’s new kid on the block around the track, and the entry level, rear-wheel drive coupe seems to be holding up to its name well enough.
To catch a glimpse of what modern drifting is all about, be sure to take a peek at our video coverage of the Nagoya 2013 D1GP below.