Geat clouds boil, escape made impossible by packed grandstands. The white, burned-hair funk of tire smoke settles onto sweating skin of every age, sex, and color, all united by grit and noise, standing and cheering. Two cars atomize tens of thousands of miles of perfectly good tire before one driver’s subtle misstep erases tens of thousands of dollars of bodywork with a deafening impact on the Irwindale Speedway banking. The crowd leaps to its feet, cheering hard enough to drown the wail of the victorious remaining driver and his engine.
Formula Drift is some serious gladiator shit.
And for the first time, I feel like both gladiator and Roman. My skin reeked of rubber smoke before I’d even spun Irwindale’s turnstiles. After years of focusing my interests elsewhere, ignoring the pop-culture film frenzy for racing, I’ve gone drifting. And I’m hooked.
Funny how a fella can be humbled by little thing like a donut. Maybe you’ve inked a hundred in your lifetime. Maybe you’ve turned them into graceful, lazy figure-eights. Still, if you don’t aim them at a goal besides smoke and noise, you still don’t know a damned thing about drifting. Taka Aono does. His skin scorched into a tan, deep creases around his eyes from squinting laughing and smoking cigarettes, often at once. Aono passes through my view every 180-degrees as I try to hone and control years of bad donut-making habits.
Aono’s English is imperfect. Probably because his sign language skills are impeccable. Right hand down. Smooth on the throttle. Left hand out the window. Less input. He’s my guide to understanding the mechanics of this mad thing. And the nuance. Aono rode the first wave of drifting’s swell into Los Angeles. Parlayed its growth into a competitive career. Now he’s an elder statesman of the sport. Teaching acolytes from his sun-soaked skidpad school at Willow Springs. A perfect ambassador.