Few things rip through the blanket stillness of 4am like the redline screams of a Toyota 4AGE and a Nissan SR20DET reverberating off a granite mountainside in concert. For decades, this werewolf symphony played almost exclusively on the winding mountain roads of Japan. But things have changed: touge nightlife inspired the immensely popular cartoon series Initial D, and the internet brought it - and a growing litany of Japanese drift videos - to every corner of the world. Then the Fast and Furious franchise hopped on the bandwagon, and the rest is history. In a few short years, drifting transformed from the pre-dawn vice of an enthusiastic few to an international motorsport phenomenon.
But something was lost along the way. There’s nothing romantic about a 900bhp Toyota splattered in a neon-vomit livery, liquidating tyres on a Nascar speedway’s afterthought of a road course. Drifting lost its innocence to corporatisation and vulgarity at a speed rivalled only by Miley Cyrus. Drifting became a parody of itself.
There are places around the globe, though, where drifting remains wild, rebellious, and underground - an occult speed ritual on moon-soaked back roads. Believe it or not, South Dakota is one of them. The touge scene in this flyover state feels akin to Japan’s in drifting’s outlaw formative years, or at least the popular notion of it. It’s grassroots, not AstroTurf.
The survival of rare scenes like this hinges on scrutiny, skill, and strict adherence to the first rule of Fight Club. With respect to the first rule, no roads or specific areas are named herein. License plates are blurred, and names are changed. And those who recognise anything are kindly asked to keep the info to themselves.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: yes, these are public roads. No, they were not closed. Yes, this is dangerous, reckless, and very illegal. We at Car Throttle neither encourage nor condone drifting on public roads, exceeding speed limits, or breaking any laws in any way…
We meet at 3am on the second floor of a downtown parking garage: three Toyota AE86 Corollas, three BMW 3-series coupes, and a US-spec Nissan S14 240SX with an SR20DET swap. The veteran of the group leads us out of the city in his cripplingly low turquoise Toyota. He’s henceforth referred to as “The Veteran.”
By 4:15am we’re pouring through long sweepers on a smooth rural two-lane, gaining altitude in a thickening pine forest. By 4:30 we’re somewhere else entirely; a craggy Neverland of dancing switchbacks, tight canyon snake runs, and jagged single-lane tunnels cut through solid rock.
The Veteran leads us through some of the finest driving roads I’ve experienced outside coastal California at a pace best described as “spirited plus one.” We pull over and park near the lairiest sections, staging for a few drift attacks back through the linked hairpins and banked alpine esses (no more than five runs at each spot before moving on to the next). One or two drivers pre-run each section slowly before the sideways sessions, scanning for signs of potential traffic.
Traffic is all but non-existent on these roads outside of the busy summer tourism months. The only settlements nearby are campgrounds several miles away, already closed for the season. But pre-running is mandatory. This morning it prevents a potential collision with a mountain biker in a Subaru Forester en route to a dawn ride. After the pre-runs come back clean, it’s on.
Skill levels and experience run the gamut in tonight’s group; from The Veteran, with six years of sliding AE86 Toyotas on these roads, to me, with basically zero sideways experience outside snow-covered intersections and parking lots. I wisely choose to grip the roads to minimise the chance of binning my new-to-me E30 into a tree/mountain/yawning abyss. Everyone else has at least one sanctioned drift day under his belt. They decide to go for it.
It isn’t always pretty. The second most experienced drifter out here spins his battle-scarred, SR20DET-swapped AE86 coupe at least as often as he pulls off graceful, arcing slides all the way through a corner. He never spins off the road, though.
I’m more impressed by the rookies than anyone else. These guys are pushing their cars past the limits of adhesion on the most dangerous roads in the state, if not the region. They aren’t out here to flex their muscles, they’re not even out here to maintain them; they’re out here to build them. And they do so with implicit knowledge that each run carries a fair chance of skidding off the road. There’s no real runoff on the touge. Out here, a big off means impact with a clutch of trees, a sheer rock wall, or both, after a long trip off a short ledge. Learning to drift out here is like learning to fight in the Thunderdome. Makes you wonder what all those brohams in lifted trucks are doing to earn the novelty testicles hanging off their bumpers, doesn’t it?
There are a few small offs this morning but nothing serious. No one hits anything or even comes close to careening headlong off a cliff. But crashes do happen out here. It’s inevitable. “Oh yeah, there’ve been tonnes of wrecks,” The Veteran tells me later. “A few cars have been towed out of there.”
Run-ins with the law occur, too, but they’re incredibly rare. The Veteran says a number of guys got busted drifting in this area about two years ago, but he’s not too sad about them being kicked out of the scene: “They were in the mountains drifting in a parking lot,” he says. “That’s like going to the Super Bowl and watching the game on a TV in the locker room.”
Does the heightened risk and outlaw nature of the touge contribute to its magnetism? Of course it does. It comes down to this: humans have been drawn to unnecessary risk-taking since we switched from a species of loosely organised hunter-gatherers to a species of bored consumers whose every whim is catered for. We flirt with danger because a heavy adrenaline rush is, without a doubt, the best kick there is. We don’t get chased through the woods by vicious apex predators on the regular anymore, but we still have to get that rush somehow.
Want to double your pleasure? Combine unnecessary risk-taking with subversion of authority. Mmmm, that’s tasty. It’s all elementary psychology. Now, who’s going to be the first to paint a cartoon Sigmund Freud on the hood of their drift missile?