Drifting Attracts Next Generation Of Racing Fans

Competitive drifting is a growing niche in auto racing. There's no checkered flag, just judges scoring drivers on their screeching, sliding skids around hair-raising curves.

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After years of surging popularity, NASCAR has hit a speed bump. Same with IndyCar. Meanwhile, Formula 1, the premier motor sport in the world, has never really gained traction here in the United States. But as NPR's Nina Gregory reports, there is a new entry in the racing world. It's called drifting.

NINA GREGORY, BYLINE: You may not know it but you've seen drifting.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR)

GREGORY: A car screeches around a corner, sliding through a turn with wheels smoking. But drifting is more than a car chase or a scene from a "Fast and Furious" movie. It's a sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR RACE)

FREDRIC AASBO: Drifting. Well, long story short, it's a crash waiting to happen.

GREGORY: Fredric Aasbo, known as the Norwegian Hammer, is a professional driver for Toyota's Scion team.

AASBO: It's two cars going at it on a set portion of a course, typically three turns. They're sliding their cars, the tires smoking. Each of the cars have about 1,000 horsepowers. They are rear wheel drive and they're just as crazy as they can get.

GREGORY: Drifting got its start in Japan, where drivers would careen down mountain roads, barely skirting the edge of the cliff. It evolved from streets to race courses, and now to this one at the Long Beach Grand Prix here in southern California.

One thing that sets drifting apart from other motor sports like NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, is that there's no prize for speed. No checkered flag. It's not even really a race. In Formula Drift, the professional circuit for this kind of driving, there are judges, which makes it more akin to an action sport like skateboarding or even figure skating.

The judges look for style and skill as drivers slide through corners, their cars just kissing the guard walls so paint smudges off onto their bumpers. That's a challenge for traditional motor sports fans who expect a race. Ryan Sage is the co-founder of the Formula Drift professional series.

RYAN SAGE: You know, if you're from the old school, or in the old boys' club, this might scare you a little bit because it is the antithesis of racing.

GREGORY: This is the start of professional drifting's tenth season in the U.S., and so far half the shows are already sold out. Erika Gonzales is a 20-year-old fan who was in Long Beach with her boyfriend, Mychal Dizon.

ERIKA GONZALES: I like everything. The cars, the smell, oh, just everything, the sound, everything.

MYCHAL DIZON: A car isn't supposed to go 60-miles-per-hour sideways. Is it?

GONZALES: No.

GREGORY: While NASCAR has its Dads, this sport attracts a young international tech-savvy audience. Think "Fast and Furious" movies. These fans tune in online from around the world to watch drivers from Europe, South Africa and Japan compete.

And demonstrations like this one in Long Beach, at an IndyCar event, expose traditional race fans to this emerging sport. Kelly O'Neal and his twelve-year-old-son Kyle are in the stands watching the action.

KELLY O'NEAL: It's incredible. All the smoke. And the crowd. And all the noise.

KYLE O'NEAL: I love how fast the cars go and it's just a really fun time all in all.

GREGORY: The O'Neals go to races as often as they can. When asked which he likes better, drifting or IndyCar racing, twelve-year-old Kyle points to the clear winner.

O'NEAL: It's more energetic and fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

O'NEAL: See?

GREGORY: So while drifting may not have checkered flags or the glamour of the big guys in motor sports, smoke and burning rubber seem to be enough to lure in the next generation of racing fans. Nina Gregory, NPR News.

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