How Ken Gushi Went From Initial D Fandom and Corolla Donuts to Formula Drift Champion
All those donuts at El Mirage in the Corolla paid off for Gushi, now a racing champion and sought-after stunt driver.
Head to any Formula Drift event and Kenshiro “Ken” Gushi will be there, signing autographs in his black racing suit and behind the wheel of a white Toyota Supra going sideways. Always sideways and belching out thick columns of tire smoke.
Gushi’s career is intimately connected with the rise of drifting in the United States, as he was one of the earliest drivers on the scene and has been drifting cars since he was 13 years old. He has multiple top-three finishes in Formula Drift championships from over the years under his belt. In 2005, when Ford was looking for its first professional Formula Drift driver, it chose him.
Currently, Gushi is Toyota’s factory driver, piloting the #21 Greddy Performance Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Supra that’s emblazoned with red stripes and wears an awesome Rocket Bunny body kit.
[May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at The Drive, we’re celebrating it by lifting up and highlighting AAPI voices in the automotive space. Our hope is that in driving visibility, we can help make the car community an even more welcoming space—to convince those who perhaps have not always felt like they belonged that they absolutely do belong here. Diversity in perspectives and backgrounds only strengthens the group as a whole. It is why representation matters.]
Outside of that, however, he’s also a stunt driver in car commercials. Think cars driving through canyon roads, sliding through corners, or simply cruising through a parking lot with Gushi at the wheel. And he's one of the few Asian drivers doing so at his level.
“It's hard to find an Asian driver in this industry,” he says in a recent interview. “There's significantly less Asian representation in stunt driving and the film industry. Every time you see Asian talent in movies, almost all the stunt doubles are performed by white drivers. They put makeup on them to make it seem like they're Asian.” (One wonders why Gushi wasn’t asked to be Sung Kang’s stunt driver in the Fast and Furious movies.)
I ask Gushi, who is Japanese-American, if he’s ever had to dress up as a white person. “Once, yeah,” he responds. “It was for a Jaguar commercial. I had a blonde wig on.”
This is not to say there are no Asian stunt drivers, however. There are just very few, but things are certainly improving. “I've noticed those positions are more available,” Gushi observes. “Obviously, you see a lot more Asian talent in movies nowadays, and people are making a big scene out of it. The changes are happening. People are more open to having Asian talent on screen. I think we'll see more positivity for the Asian community in the film industry for years to come.”
But perhaps one of the things keeping Asian stunt drivers out of the stunt industry is the harmful stereotype of Asians not being able to drive. Gushi references that one very racist Family Guy clip of an Asian woman driving and merging across eight lanes of traffic without using her turn signal.
“I think the whole stigma behind that is how people think of Asians and driving,” Gushi guesses. “They say Asians can't drive. There are license plate frames that say, ‘Asian driver, zero survivors,’ or something. That stigma is what maybe pushes certain industries to avoid having professional Asian drivers on standby for film.”
But he’s able to find amusement in the stereotype. Being a professional driver, after all, Gushi probably drives better than most anyone on the road.
But in drifting and Formula Drift, things couldn’t be more different.
“In the professional scene, there is a huge representation of Asians,” Gushi says. Drifting started in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the time it made its way stateside in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “everyone knew the whole JDM craze, drifting, and they all wanted to be a part of that scene or that community.
“To me personally, the Asian representation has always been dominant, especially in the import culture, because the word ‘JDM’ means so much to a lot of people in the car industry,” Gushi continues. It’s certainly where he got his start.
As a teenager in Japan, Gushi’s father was always into motorcycles, cars, and racing. (With a love of Subarus and rally racing, his dream was to compete at a Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado.) Gushi was two years old when his family moved to the United States and remembers following his dad around the house garage in a little one-piece jumpsuit, surrounded by cars and motorsport.
Gushi senior eventually opened up a shop and his son was there, hanging out and helping, moving customer cars around and giving his dad rides to work. (No, he didn’t have a license at the time.) Car stuff with his dad, that was the norm.
And then the Initial D anime series came out.
“That story was so familiar to ours,” Gushi says. “That anime series got me hooked on Corollas and drifting. Not that I wanted to deliver tofu, but I loved the fact that [Takumi] was still a teenager, helping his dad [Bunta] with his work, driving through the canyons in the middle of night. It reminded me of our story where I would help my dad with his work, driving him to work, and helping him move cars around.”
By way of a beautiful coincidence, the Gushis happened to own a 1985 Toyota Corolla at the time. “We took that to the El Mirage dry lake bed, about an hour and a half north of LA, and started practicing how to do donuts,” Gushi recalls. “We would go there almost every weekend when I was 11, 12, and 13 years old. This was before drifting was even a thing in the States.”
Drifting in the U.S. began, as Gushi tells it, with “just a bunch of Asians that came together and started doing parking lot events.” But then those people teamed up with the D1 Grand Prix in Japan and helped introduce drifting to a new audience around 2002.
Naturally, the scene attracted the Gushis’ attention.
“My dad and I went to go check it out,” Gushi says. “But it wasn't just that. He was like, ‘Let's not just check it out, let's try and compete in it.’ So we participated in an event called the D1 Driver Search USA.”
All those donuts at El Mirage in the Corolla paid off. Gushi closed the day by winning one of the top three spots. And at age 16, he became the youngest competitor Formula Drift and D1 Grand Prix had ever seen.
“Everyone is always like, ‘You guys are like the real-life Bunta and Takumi’ because he still has a GCA Impreza,” Gushi says. “I obviously don't have a Corolla, but for the longest time I was driving an AE86 Corolla.”
And now, 20 years later, Gushi drives for Toyota. The story has come full circle.
From Gushi’s experience, “there's never been a moment where I was at an event—any event—where I felt like I was unwelcome.” But he knows this isn’t always the case for everyone.
“If you hear the stories of how it was when Toyota first got into NASCAR, it was brutal,” Gushi goes on. “It was told to ‘go home.’ People were like, ‘You guys will never make it in NASCAR.’” Today, Toyota is one of only three manufacturers in NASCAR’s highest divisions alongside Ford and Chevrolet.
“It's unfortunate to see all these events happening nowadays, all the Asian hate, the crimes, the violence,” Gushi says. “But that's not going to stop us from being who we are and doing what we love. Asians have been here for a long time and we aren’t going anywhere. We’re here to stay.”
For kids trying to get into drifting, as Gushi once was, he wants them to know the community is here for them. “We love everyone. We welcome everyone,” Gushi says. “We're here to help. We're here to entertain. There's no hate. There's no room for hate anywhere.”
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