It's official: Motorsport history was made August 31, 2003, in Irwindale, Calif., as the inaugural D1 Grand Prix was the largest event to ever be held at Irwindale Raceway. The previous track attendance record of 8,700 was eclipsed as approximately 10,000 spectators witnessed D1 2002 series champion Katsuhiro Ueo take home first place in the first-ever U.S. D1 Grand Prix competition.
As I roll up to the track at 11:00 a.m., thinking I have the advantage of arriving early to the event, I was in for a rather large surprise. "Holy shit! Wait a minute. This event isn't opening to the general public until 3 p.m. right?" I muttered as I sat in my car waiting to enter the parking lot of the Raceway. A long line of cars began to trail around the gates while a larger line, reminiscent of Disneyland rides, begins to form at the front entrance gates. If this was a typical ride at Disneyland, the proper sign would have been "The wait from this point is 4 hours." That's how large the crowd was that was waiting to enter. With seating capacity at 6,500, the grandstands on either side of the track were at mass capacity, while trackside was crammed to standing room only, packed in nearly three rows deep. The chaos continued out into the streets of Irwindale as cars lined the borders of the event and spectators willingly took the 20-min. walk to reach the racetrack. For those parked illegally alongside the road there was always the chance of being towed away by the local police.
The practice runs had begun for the 24 drivers in the qualifying field and drivers began testing and tuning their cars for the inaugural D1 Grand Prix.
The Chaos Ensues
Keiichi "Dorikin" Tsuchiya, Orido "Helmet Hair" Manabu and legend Daijiro "Dai-chan" Inada, executive of Option Magazine, sat high above the crowds in the makeshift podiums, carefully analyzing each of the drivers and their abilities. When I asked Tsuchiya-san what he expected from the U.S. drivers before qualifying he smiled and enthusiastically said, "I'm so excited to see such a big crowd with lots of fans attending this event. In Japan the usual crowds range anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 people max. This is a complete surprise! I hope the U.S. drivers put on a great show and I really look forward to watching their drifting skills." Among the 24-driver field for qualifying, eight of the D1 competitors chosen are U.S. drivers ,while the remaining 16 represented the Land of the Rising Sun. Before the competition began, the fans and drifters were in for a big treat. Keiichi "Dorikin"(Drift King) Tsuchiya and legend Manabu Orido took to the wheels of the RSR 350z and S15 Kei-Office Silvia for some tandem drifting around the track. As Keiichi suited up and began to roll onto the track, psychotic crazy man Tarzan "Vaka Mon" Yamada hopped on the top of the Kei-Office vehicle. Dorikin calmly put the car in first gear and began doing doughnuts around the track while Tarzan held on for dear life. The crowd erupted in a roar of laughter. Damn those crazy Japanese drivers!
U.S. drivers don't stand a chance? Shieet!
Ueno, Ueo, Imamura, Fixmer, Koguchi, Daijiro, Taniguchi and Nomuken all advanced to the final eight along with two U.S. drivers. It's been talked about in chat rooms and at car shows and drift events that the U.S. drivers can't compete with the Japans D1 pros. Well, for all you doubters out there: Go suck a big one! Ernie "Gung Ho" Fixmer and his spectacular performance at D1 Grand Prix have been the talk of the town for the past month. Fixmer went head to head with Japan's top driver, Imamura, and performed at such a high level that the judges were in complete shock. They requested the drivers go for a second-round duel to see who would advance to the next round. Although Fixmer lost the round, the crowd and judges gave him a standing ovation, while Imamura clapped in praise as he looked on.
The Tears of joy and the agony of defeat
"What's wrong with Ueno?" asked people in the crowd as he exited his Vertex Soarer. Ueno crawled out of his car sobbing after he completed his run against Taniguchi in the semifinals. Judging the two cars from trackside, it was a close race. The car control, speed, angle and line was nearly perfect for both drivers, but Taniguchi had the overall advantage with the smoother of the runs and more angle going into the turns. Was the loss to Taniguchi too hard to swallow for Ueno? Quite possibly a significant factor, but I can honestly say that was only one side of the story. As I watched Ueno and Imamura of A'PEXi embrace each other, they both began to cry profusely. Compelled to see what was going on I approached Ueno only to overhear him whisper in Imamura's ear, "We did it. We're drifting in the U.S. We finally did it." Shoot, I'll admit it; it even made me misty-eyed.