Monday, July 20, 2009

Up close with the Drift King

The atmosphere at the Shah Alam D1 Grand Prix media booth is a frantic one as reporters and photographers jostle for the Drift King’s attention. Outside, the roar of engines and the sounds of screeching tyres make conversation nearly impossible.

Keiichi Tsuchiya, however, is a picture of calm amidst all the excitement about him. The 50-year-old, who looks younger than his age, sits comfortably. His hands are clasped together and a slight smile on his face lights up the cramped booth. Flanking him are two shapely models in tube tops with the D1GP logos emblazoned on their chests.

A glint in Tsuchiya’s eye suggests a predilection for mischief, but he is on his best behaviour right now.

This is Tsuchiya’s third visit to Malaysia. He says he started drifting at age 18 on the mountain roads of Japan. But Tsuchiya realised early on that racing on the streets would lead to nowhere. So, at 21, he decided to go legal and made his début at the Fuji Freshman Race in 1977. That same year, he managed to convince car magazines and tuning garages to produce a video of his drifting skills.

From top to bottom: Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya at a drifting demonstration in Shah Alam. — Starpix by LOW LAY PHON
Though the video became a hit, the Drift King would not actually make his mark until 1984.

He was running last in a stock car race. Instead of losing gracefully, Tsuchiya began to do a series of kamikaze turns, stunning the crowd

“I was just trying to catch up with the rest,” he says, simply.

But Tsuchiya is not here to talk about the past. He is here for one reason. The D1 Grand Prix. It is the third round of the drifting challenge in Shah Alam, and the main focus is on the drift circuit and the competitors, for he is the official judge.

Genji Hashimoto, 40, of Amprex Motorsports who holds the D1GP franchise in South-East Asia, says that Tsuchiya was picked so that the competitors would be judged fairly.

“Everyone respects his decision because he is the Drift King,” says Hashimoto.

And at the Shah Alam circuit (last Saturday), respect is not the only thing Tsuchiya gets. He has the crowd’s adoration as well. Shrugging off the strict formalities that judges so often affect, he waves like a celebrity. When Tsuchiya, who has a cameo appearance in the Tokyo Drift, got into a Nissan Skyline GTR for a demo drive, the spectators went wild.

However, in one demo run on a 300m circuit he designed himself, the Drift King actually came to an embarrassing halt in mid-drift at the first curve pin.

As the crowd gasped in disbelief, Tsuchiya spun back to the starting point. There would be no mistake the second time round. Zooming in at 100kph, he commanded the GTR into a sideways position at the first curve pin. He glides it to the opening of the second curve pin and snaps it back into a sideways angle again as the car hurtles dangerously close to the tyre barriers. At the last moment, he brings the car back into a straight line and exits as the crowd cheers him on.

Later, Tsuchiya gives a post-mortem of what went wrong.

“The engine just stalled,” he shrugs.

Through his interpreters, he explains that a malfunctioning third gear was the most likely cause.

Slip-ups notwithstanding, riding with the Drift King is an exhilarating experience.

Orgasmic, I’d say. One gets the impression that he is completely in his element as he kicks the clutch and switches gears, quickly and with ease.

Datuk Ahmad Nawawi, the exco for the Selangor state council, also went on a demo ride. He describes his ride with Tsuchiya as “scary”.

“I knew that I would be okay because he is a pro but after the ride, I felt a little off balance,” says the slightly dazed but exhilarated politician.

Later, Tsuchiya says he had not gone all the way with the demo rides.

“I was only putting in about 75% of my abilities,” he shrugs.

While Tsuchiya may have been a daredevil in his younger days, it looks like age has mellowed him a bit. Safety comes first.

Catch a glimpse of the Drift King at Round Four of the D1GP in Penang in August or the finals in Shah Alam in October. For enquiries call Ginny Ng of Amprex Motorsports at 012-2923955

published in The Star on Saturday, July 8, 2006.

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