David Williams gets a taste of drifting – with a 19-year-old behind the wheel.
UK Allstars set to screech into UAE
I'm at the world-famous Wembley Arena in London, England, to see some of drifting's top drivers during a practice session for the 2012 Drift Allstars European Series. And - for a close-up on the action that will soon be thrilling crowds across the UAE when the spectacle moves east for the four-month 2012/13 season - I'm getting a passenger ride, too.
My driver? Nineteen-year-old James Deane, who will be among the talent entertaining crowds at Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Umm Al Quwain, Sharjah and Al Ain from December.
At the wheel of his Nissan Silvia, Deane, from County Cork, Ireland, grins, guns the throttle, dumps the clutch and unleashes 470hp. We scorch down the track trailing tyre-smoke and aiming straight for a barrier until Deane whips the wheel to the right, plants the throttle and kicks the rear of the Silvia out to the left. We're sliding sideways towards the concrete.
We come close to grazing it in a 60m slide and the next barrier approaches in a blur. But instead of lifting off, Deane keeps the pedal nailed, flicks the handbrake and flails the steering wheel, sending us penduluming to the right. Finally, he forces the Silvia into a massive powerslide, lets go of the steering wheel entirely and hits the brakes, bringing us to a smoking halt in front of his fans.
It's precisely the kind of showboating that 28-year-old promoter Niall Gunn, who is taking his Drift Allstars Series to the UAE, hopes will draw bumper crowds, with a series of up to five race meetings at key venues.
But, he says, there's a serious message behind the tour, too. "It's going to be educational," says Gunn. "We are still setting the series up but we will very much be highlighting safer road driving and we plan to work with the police as well as the Emirates Driving Institute. There's a high number of road fatalities in the region - partly from young people carrying out illegal road racing out in the desert - and we want to address this. In the UK, we've been very successful in highlighting our Save it for the Track campaign. We want to duplicate this in the UAE by encouraging young drivers to save speed for the race circuit. Our stars will be ambassadors not just for the sport, but for road safety, too."
In a move that fans of the sport, which originated on the streets of Japan, may find hard to resist, Gunn also plans to introduce his Drift Academy to the UAE from December, offering a taste of what it's like to control a powerful car in a slide, at hand-picked circuits with skilled instructors.
"Drifting is a great way for people to increase their car control techniques in a safe environment," adds Gunn. "Not only will we be in the region with eight to 10 of the best professional drift drivers in the world, but they will be acting as role models."
To find out more, I later join Gunn to try it myself, at Brands Hatch Circuit, Kent, England.
"The aim is to get the back end out and keep it there," says Gunn. "People panic when it first happens so it's all about showing drivers how to turn it into a powerslide."
To make it easier, the arena is slippery with water. I'm told to drive at a crawl in first gear in tight circles and hit the throttle. I do, the back end shoots out, and I lose it. And again. But soon I'm catching the slide, keeping steering and throttle full on as I spin like a pro.
"Now for a figure of eight," says the instructor. "When it slides to the right, let go of the wheel and it will spin to the left. Hold it for a second, keep the power on and then spin back to the right." It works like magic.
"Now we're going to get you drifting," says the instructor. "So less steering lock and more power, for a larger slide." Before long I am pirouetting in intoxicating, tyre-smoking arcs. Who cares about the tyres, the clutch - the blood rushing to one side of my head? It's pure joy.
It's impossible to maintain for more than a lap or two but that's all it takes - I am now, officially, a qualified drifter.