Asian American Leaders in Car Culture: Lessons From Daniel Wu, Kenji Sumino, and Jim Liaw

This year’s stories will be about leaders who’ve turned niche spaces into full-blown ecosystems.

byKristen Lee|
Daniel Wu, Kenji Sumino, and Jim Liaw.
Larry Chen, YouTube, and Formula Drift

A year after I launched The Drive's inaugural Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration, I'm back at it again. And I'm very excited to share the stories I have lined up for you this year. They're about cars (duh), but they're also about the incredible Asian Americans who have not only made cars their home, but also turned them into their own niche communities, open to all.

If you missed them, I encourage you to take a gander through last year's stories. These pieces are among the ones that I am most proud of having had the privilege to write and edit over the course of my entire career thus far.

I spoke with photographer Larry Chen—one of my personal heroes and sources of inspiration—about how incredible work and a great attitude can make you one of the most popular and beloved figures in the automotive industry. AutoTrader Canada Editor Jodi Lai's story hit close to home when she spoke passionately about not trying to fit into the very white and very male automotive media industry anymore. Pro drifter Ken Gushi's journey from doing lakebed donuts led to a slide-filled career that's spanned 20 years. Sean Lee experienced literal homelessness but has since turned things around and today gives nearly everything he has to charity. Toshi Hayama immortalized his passion for drifting and JDM cars in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Model Kaila Yu was front and center on the early 2000s import scene and detailed exactly what it was like being before the camera those days. The Ford F-150 Lightning—America's electric truck—was brought to us by chief engineer Linda Zhang, a Chinese immigrant. Actor Sung Kang sat down with me to talk about how playing Han Lue in the Fast & Furious films has opened the doors for him to uplift underrepresented voices in his social circle. (Later, he introduced me to his rally-inspired Datsun 240Z and his mentor, Erick Aguilar.)

Sung Kang, his nephew, Erick Aguilar, and yours truly checking out some sick Datsuns. Kristen Lee

Reading back on my kickoff post from last year, I remember how angry I was when I wrote it. On March 16, 2021, a white domestic terrorist shot and killed eight people—six of whom were Asian women—at a handful of spas and massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. It was the same day The Drive Editor-in-Chief Kyle Cheromcha called to offer me the position of deputy editor here. It should have been, for all the right reasons, a day of celebration. Instead, I spent the night on my couch, crying into my dinner. I watched news anchors, police spokespeople, and fuckheads on Twitter argue back and forth about whether or not the attack was a racially motivated hate crime when I and every other Asian person I knew all knew that it was. Asian women have long been seen as sexual objects, not people, and the result had, yet again, turned deadly. Combined with the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, enough was enough. I wanted to do something about it with the platforms I had. I am beyond grateful that my friends and editors at The Drive have given me the space to do so.

Overall, the message between last year and this year remains the same: To tell the stories of Asian American role models in the hope that other Asian Americans and BIPOC folks reading see that they have a place here in the automotive community.

Last year's stories came from a reactionary place. It colored the questions I asked in my interviews because I was personally looking for some camaraderie. I wanted solace in the fact that I wasn't the only one hurt and furious and saddened by the state of everything. (I was not and I'm still not.) The people I talked to made me realize that—famous or not—Asian Americans are still, to this day, questioned about whether we belong here. Perpetual foreigners.

But the wonderful thing I also learned from those stories was the continual resilience of Asian Americans. Whether loudly or quietly, we are all brothers and sisters and we don't let the dumb bullshit we're faced with stop us from rising up as leaders in our communities.

So, this year, I'm changing up the tone.

Instead of touching on the bad stuff that's happened to us, I'm learning from Asian American leaders: People who have employed their empathy, thoughtfulness, and savviness to turn niche spaces of their own into full-blown ecosystems within the automotive landscape. For this year's series of stories, you'll hear from actors Daniel Wu and Sung Kang, GReddy Performance Products President Kenji Sumino, and Formula Drift co-founder Jim Liaw.

It's gonna kick ass. Stay tuned.

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