Nestled in the quiet corner of Thompson, Connecticut, a 1.7 mile road course hums and rumbles with the chest-rattling sounds of engines. A line of cars with undercarriages nearly skimming the pavement, stylish rims, and raised spoilers, pump plumes of smoke out of gaping exhaust pipes on a cold, November afternoon. Bystanders bundled up in heavy winter coats, hats and gloves, are dispersed behind the fencing along the track. Their breath is visible, as a deep green, convertible BMW slides its way down the course. A sticker reading #NOBADDAYS in large block letters lines the side of the windshield.
The driver, Bobby Gegetskas, sits low in his car, face shielded by a white helmet. Clutching the steering wheel, he oversteers his car around turns—the tires lose traction, front wheels cocked in the opposite direction of the curve. The engine thunders as the car swings sideways, his tires slide against the asphalt. The high-pitched screech echoes across the track. A white cloud of bitter-smelling burnt rubber billows from the undercarriage, leaving another trail of skid marks that tangle on the track.
This is drifting.
To perform the art of drifting, the back tires must lose traction when turning, limiting it to rear-wheel drive cars only. The goal is for the car to slide around corners and even skim the rear on barriers, just barely brushing off a coat of paint. With a powerful enough engine, proper control, and the willingness to replace a countless amount of tires, one might consider drifting. Such a unique driving method has become a sport across the world and in the United States.
The technique originated in Japan in the 1970s after Japanese motorcyclist and racecar driver Kunimitsu Takahashi flaunted his innovative drifting techniques. His skillful control stirred up interest in racecar driver, Keiichi Tsuchiya, known as the Dorikin, or Drift King. In the grainy 1987 film Pluspy, Tsuchiya races down winding mountain roads at night in his Toyota AE86, drifting around the turns. The act of racing down mountain passes is known as touge in Japan. His street racing roots spurred the creation of the popular anime Initial D, bringing drifting to the forefront of Japanese culture, and invoking an illegal, nighttime drifting scene in Japan.
Drifting has since slid into car subculture in the United States. In 2006, The Fast and the Furious film franchise released Tokyo Drift, which popularized drifting in the States. With cameos by Vin Diesel and even the Drift King himself, Tokyo Drift appeals to a wide audience. Some of the most classic drift cars appear in the film, such as the Nissan Silvia, Mazda RX-7, and Mitsubishi Lancer. All of these cars can be seen on the track at Thompson Speedway.
With YouTube and the media propelling interest in drifting, the sport is rapidly gaining popularity. Like many American drifters, Gegetskas was also influenced by the media: “I got into drifting when I was introduced to this guy about two years ago, who now is one of my best friends, and he had a drift car. I’ve always loved watching videos of people drifting on YouTube, and watching Fast and Furious movies, but this was my first ever taste of real life drifting. He took me to a parking lot and did some donuts, and that was it. I was hooked on drifting from there on out.”
Drifting is now a recognized sport, there are small and large competitions across the United States. The most well-known drifting series in the United States is known as Formula Drift. Established in 2003, it attracts the best drifters from around the world to its annual drifting competition. In the main event of competitions, two cars tandem one another, meaning they drive together down a track—one leads, while one chases. The goal is not who finishes first, but who executes a better drift. Drivers are evaluated similarly to the way skateboarders or snowboarders are judged. Seated in a high tower, a set of drifting judges determine the winner by taking into account the car’s speed, ability to follow a preset line, the vehicle’s angle, and the driver’s personal drift style.
While there is no competition during the Lock City Drift Event at Thompson Speedway, it is still a place to show off builds. A lot goes into making a car drift-ready. Gegetskas has done several modifications to his 1997 BMW 328i (E36): “I’ve put on coilovers, a welded rear differential, extended lower control arms and modded knuckles—for better steering angle—welded a roll cage into it, bucket seats, hydro e-brake, solid and polyurethane bushings and mounts throughout the whole car, race harnesses, and many, many more things.” That being said, the sport can get hugely expensive. One mistake can destroy all of the effort put into the car.
So, why drift? Do the expenses outweigh the satisfaction that comes along with building up a car, and then dominating on the track? “It’s a great way to test the limits of not only my driving skill, but mechanical skills like making modifications to my car to help me perform better on the track. It’s a great, clean way to have fun. It keeps me out of trouble. And the friendships and memories I’ve made from drifting and cars in general are nothing I could ever replace.”
As Gegetskas passes underneath the bridge, his car escapes from the line of vision. Spectators smile as they anticipate the next car to slide by, the sound of an engine roaring in the distance.