May 7, 2017 11:00 am JST

The art of (almost) spinning out of control

Japanese 'drifting' circuits are attracting foreign fans looking to burn rubber

SHUNTARO NIMURA, Nikkei staff writer

The Minamichiba Circuit in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture

TOKYO -- Its called drifting, and although it's not allowed on public roads, the motor sport (it's getting its own world series) is gaining a growing following in Japan. In fact, people are coming to the country just to experience it for themselves.

When a car slides sideways around a turn? That's drifting. It could be described as the art of maintaining control behind the wheel while simultaneously losing traction. Try it on your local street and you're likely to get arrested. Thankfully, there are places where burning rubber is not only allowed, it is the whole point.

Full circle

Just east of Tokyo, in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, there is a stretch of pavement called the Minamichiba Circuit. Stop by and you'll be treated to a nonstop display of cars sliding around, plumes of white smoke curling around their squealing tires. The shriek of revving engines fills the air. It looks like rebel stuff, but when the drivers step out of their cars, they are just regular men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Sharakujin Association, which operates the roughly 1km-long track, holds drifting lessons five or six times a month. First-time visitors pay a minimum fee of 28,000 yen ($250), which includes use of a car (the gasoline is billed separately). People can bring their own cars to the lessons -- in which case the fee starts at 13,000 yen -- but their tires will probably be stripped bald by the end of the day.

Drifting requires a manual transmission car, and although I hadn't driven a stick shift since my driving-school days five years earlier, I decided to give it a shot. For my first maneuver, my instructor told me to do a 360. That involved turning the wheel all the way to the right, revving the engine to 6,000rpm, then quickly releasing the clutch. I wasn't allowed to use the hand brake. The back end of the car described a quarter of a circle before shuddering to a halt. 

"When the car starts rotating, steer the wheel in the opposite direction," the instructor said calmly. I, however, was anything but calm. The engine was roaring, and it felt like the car was going a lot faster than the 30kph displayed on the speedometer. After a few tries, though, I finally managed to spin the car all the way around.

Made in Japan

Drifting is often seen as merely reckless driving, but in the proper setting -- that is, off the public roads -- it is a bona fide sport with its own rules and competitions. Pioneered in Japan, these competitions are based on speed, style, line, angle and other factors, and are held in over 40 countries.

In Japan, the D1 Grand Prix has been held since 2001. The D1GP took off thanks to the popularity of a Japanese manga featuring young drift racers. This year, it is expected to be officially recognized by the International Automobile Federation, which organizes Formula One races, and a D1GP world series is set to kick off.

So strongly is Japan associated with drifting that people come to the country specifically to rip up the track. A few hours north of Tokyo by car, in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, is the Ebisu Circuit. A D1GP venue, it draws about 15 people a month seeking drift lessons, about 80% of whom are foreign visitors.

Let it snow

In Ebetsu, on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, there was a drifting program held from December to March this year. For 13,000 yen, participants could drive for 20 minutes along a 600-meter snow-covered course in a car equipped with two summer tires in the rear. Afterward, drivers are treated to a crab hot pot meal, included in the fee.

"The service began as an activity for Thai tourists who had grown bored with skiing," said Mitsuyuki Chiba, the organizer. But word spread about the program, and eventually some 500 people ended up going.

Drifting allows you to experience driving as something other than merely a means of transportation. The feeling is unforgettable and has me tempted to buy a manual transmission car. Somebody put the brakes on me!

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