Drifting is, in essence, controlled chaos: The goal is to lose traction in the rear wheels of your car, kicking out the back end, while maintaining grip and directional control in the front tires as you careen around a corner. Along with creating clouds of burned rubber, drifting is kind of like a screeching, roaring automotive ballet. But it's far from the fastest way around a turn.
Not that you can't drift quickly. This spring Japanese driver Masato Kawabata set the drifting speed record — 189.5 miles per hour — in a stunt at Fujairah International Airport, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That's nearly the speed a nascar Sprint Cup racer hits on a straightaway — with all four wheels pointed in the same direction. Kawabata, a 38-year-old from Osaka, set the record in a specially prepped 2016 Nissan GT-R. In three attempts down the 1.86-mile airstrip, he managed to drift the car from 34 to 55 degrees of yaw. (The higher the angle, the more impressive the drift.) Kawabata's speed bested that of prior record holder Jakub Przygoński, a Polish driver who hit 135.4 miles per hour while going sideways in 2013. "When I was first offered the opportunity," says Kawabata, "it was for a commitment to break the record. But eventually we decided just to see what would happen in the uncharted territory beyond 250 kilometers per hour [155 mph]."
Tanner Foust, rally racer and Top Gear USA host, says he was planning his own attempt at the record, but Kawabata's feat — 55 miles an hour faster than the previous record — will be hard to beat. "What you have to understand is that to drift consistently at 180 miles per hour," Foust says, "your wheel speed actually has to be something like 200 miles per hour." The sideways movement also creates extra lift, which could flip the car in an instant. "If that had happened," says Foust, "he could have entered a barrel roll that he wouldn't have come out of."
The Nissan GT-R that Kawabata piloted is a high-tech sports car known as Godzilla by gearheads — a car that has the performance of a Ferrari at a third of the price ($109,990). Kawabata's GT-R was tweaked by Nismo, Nissan's performance division, and GReddy, a Japanese aftermarket manufacturer. It was outfitted with rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission, and a four-liter engine tuned to give it a healthy 1,380 horsepower. (The standard GT-R at Nissan dealers has a paltry 565.) Kawabata tested the car extensively at Fuji Speedway in Japan, then fine-tuned it at the UAE airport for three days before setting the record.
Drifting became such an art form in 1980s Japan that drivers eventually designed competitions around it, culminating in the D1 Grand Prix, first held in 2001. (The American equivalent, Formula Drift, is now in its 13th season.) These aren't simply races: Drivers are judged more like figure skaters, with points awarded for their line, angle, fluidity, and style. Style being that tire cloud, of course.