From The Streets of Japan, Formula Drift Takes America By Storm

Sliding / Two racers drift around turns in round one of the 2014 Formula Drift competition in Long Beach / Courtesy Larry Chen

By Emilio Rodriguez

Orange County’s Jim Liaw and Ryan Sage are prepping for the 12th season of Formula Drift, which starts in April.

Inspired by illegal street races using modified cars, professional drifting is an automotive sport that started in Japan with D1 Grand Prix, a competition series where cars slip and slide around bends at over 80 mph with tire smoke billowing out of the rear bumpers.

Formula Drift, the American series for the Japanese-born sport, started in 2002, when the operators of D1 Grand Prix approached Liaw and Sage, who at the time were at Slipstream Global Marketing, an automotive marketing company in Irvine. D1 Grand Prix had an idea to import experienced Japanese drivers and invite local street racers to compete against them. The competition series wanted to host a United States exhibition in which Japanese and American drivers could duke it out on the track.

After a year of convincing and explaining the premise to automotive enthusiasts, drifting had its first U.S showcase in 2003. Its huge attendance at Irwindale Speedway proved viability of the sport stateside and Liaw and Sage wanted more.

“We wanted to work with them, we wanted to be D1 USA,” said Liaw, who is the current president and co-founder of Formula Drift.

D1 wasn’t interested in committing to a U.S. market though, so the duo took it upon themselves to create an American organization of professional drifting, essentially replicating what was happening on the Japanese circuit in the U.S.

“We wanted to create something where more people could get involved,” Liaw said.

Formula Drift hosted its first official event in 2004. At the beginning no one knew the sport and introducing it to new fans was, according to Liaw, “a big educational hurdle.” Still, the sport consistently showed growth and by 2006 Liaw and Sage dissolved their marketing company to run the series full time. They moved the company to Long Beach, where round one of the series is now held every year, one week before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Since its introduction to the U.S., drivers, sponsors and locations for Formula Drift have grown immensely. Sponsors today include big names like GoPro, Falken tire, Hankook performance tires and Ford Motor Co.

Even in the automotive sports world, drifting is unique. The sport isn’t just about getting from point A to point B, but doing it with style. Two drivers run at the same time and drift in tandem around long bends as fast as possible, while trying to get the car out as wide as possible without making contact. Drivers are judged on line, angle and style.

“Its not typical stick and ball sports. Its like skateboarding of the ‘70s with rebellious stereotypes and the goal is to become the skateboarding of the ‘90s, something that people can make into a profession,” Liaw said.

Santa Ana College automotive professor Noemi English is a fan and goes drifting with her husband.

“Its fun but keep it on the track,” she said, referring to those who use public roads to illegally perform the sport.

Formula Drift’s drivers come from all walks of life. They compete in their respective country’s drifting leagues but come back to the U.S. to compete in Formula Drift every year. The organization has hosted the series in 11 different countries such as Panama, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates.

“We’re young and adaptable,” Liaw said.

The 2015 season starts next month in April for round one in Long Beach.

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