Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Duane McKeever: Teenage drifting sensation

When he's not in school, the 15-year-old Irishman is smoking the tyres of a 760hp Nissan Skyline.
He may not be legal to drive on the roads of Northern Ireland, but Duane McKeever travels the world on the JDM Allstars drifting circuit.
Satish Kumar / The National
He may not be legal to drive on the roads of Northern Ireland, but Duane McKeever travels the world on the JDM Allstars drifting circuit. Satish Kumar / The National

Plans for the inaugural UAE Drift weekend were tossed in the air last week, after problems with the shipping of some of the cars. It was rescheduled from last Friday to yesterday, which was only a bonus for one of the JDM Allstars in Dubai to showcase his high-horsepower drifting skills at the event.

The change meant that Duane McKeever managed to get an extra week off of school.

Hailing from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, the 15-year-old - yes, 15 - came fifth in this year's JDM Allstars competition and has been winning and placing at drifting events since he was 12.

Duane cannot start learning to drive on the roads of Northern Ireland until he is 17 but he has been driving in paddocks, on tracks and airfields since the age of nine. His father owns a car scrapyard and where Duane first learnt to drive in a paddock using some of the old cars that had been dumped.

"There was plenty of land, plenty of old cars," he says.

He showed a natural aptitude for driving and kart racing, and a few years later, his uncle stepped in.

"My uncle said he was going to build me a drift car," Duane recalls. "There was a car raffle, we weren't expecting to win it, but we did."

The prize was a Nissan 180 SX that was then modified into a dream drifting machine; Duane was taught by professional drivers such as Paul Conlon and Alan "Chubby" McCord. Because of his tender years, Duane was required to have an instructor in the passenger seat for his earlier competitions but he is now licensed to drive alone - at least on the track.

His Nissan is still his drifting car and it now boasts a 760hp Nissan Skyline engine, a huge spoiler and safety kit including a rollcage, fire extinguisher and race seats. He competes under the team name McKeevers Imports.

Duane also attributes a popular computer game as another factor that helped hone his driving skills: "Forza on the PlayStation!" he says with a laugh.

Despite the fact he still has braces on his teeth, it is easy to forget that Duane still has to go to school. "It is a bit annoying," he says. "But [drifting events are] usually after school and on weekends and in the summer break."

After he finishes school, Duane plans to pursue a full-time career in motorsports and is keen to stick with drifting, which he describes as "more exciting" than Formula One.

But like many young drivers, Duane still needs sponsorship money because the car is largely self-funded by his father's business, providing most of the cash for mechanics and maintenance. "I have some small sponsors but things like tyres are expensive," he says.

Paul McCarthy, one of the event organisers, hopes that this event will be the start of a growing drifting scene in the UAE, with the focus being on developing local talent and doing it safely.

SSK, a UAE-based drifting organisation, has already benefited from the JDM Allstars' visit with a training session at Yas Marina Circuit. McCarthy says he could see the drivers improve throughout the course of the day.

"There is some real talent here; we want to see UAE drivers be as competitive as the JDM Allstars," says McCarthy. "This place has become the new home for sport in the Middle East with the F1, the tennis, the Rugby Sevens. We want drifting to be just as big and, judging by the hits the videos get [on Vimeo and YouTube], the interest is there.

"The UAE deserves exciting motorsport and we know the local drivers will improve really quickly."

McCarthy says the main difference between drifting and motorsports such as F1 is the accessibility fans have to the drivers.

"There is a carnival atmosphere; fans can be five metres away from the cars, but it is still a safe environment, and they can meet the drivers," he says.

A big focus of such sessions is to encourage drifting enthusiasts to do it safely and legally away from public roads.

"This is a great opportunity for us to work with local road safety authorities and to make sure people know not to do it on the street," says McCarthy. "We want to make sure everyone gets to and from our events safely."