Formula Drift Has Always Been an Asian Space. Co-Founder Jim Liaw Made Sure of That

Initial D souvenirs and Japanese snacks are just some of the hints that give away Formula Drift’s very Asian roots.

byKristen Lee| PUBLISHED May 26, 2022 5:33 PM
Formula Drift Has Always Been an Asian Space. Co-Founder Jim Liaw Made Sure of That
Larry Chen
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The differences between a Formula Drift event and any other form of motorsports are both subtle and not. Not, because the cars aren't judged based on time or speed, but rather on style, and because a modest general admission ticket will grant you complete access to the pits and the teams. The only places you can't go are where the media-accredited photographers shoot. Subtle, because those teams, the crew, the livery, the food, the vendors, and the people in attendance aren't your usual blend of Euro-Americana. Instead, there are Itasha-bedecked cars in the parking lot, Initial D stickers to buy, and yakisoba to eat.

Since its official inception in 2004, Formula Drift has always had Asian ties. Today's spectacle doesn't shout about those origins, but they're there. It's part of what makes the series so special to Formula Drift co-founder, Jim Liaw, who served as its president from 2003 to 2021.

Photo: Larry Chen

And I get it: To outsiders and fans of more "traditional" motorsport, Formula Drift might not make a lot of sense. But if you like cars with big power that make big noises at events where the air just feels that much more welcoming to Asian Americans, this is your scene.

Explosive Beginnings

Liaw first met his longtime business partner Ryan Sage when the two worked together to produce Hot Import Nights in Southern California in the late 1990s. As car enthusiasts, the two wanted to put on events that people would enjoy—and that they'd find personally fulfilling. Eventually, their paths crossed with the people who ran the D1 Grand Prix, Japan's then-fledgling drifting series. Liaw was already into brands like GReddy, Trust, and HKS, and it was those same faces that he worked with when the D1 team wanted to put on an exhibition race in the United States as a PR stunt for the series.

The August 2003 D1 event, held at Irwindale Speedway in Irwindale, California, was the first time D1 had ventured outside of Japan. It featured now-veteran drivers such as Chris Forsberg, Ken Gushi, Dai Yoshihara, and Vaughn Gittin Jr.,—the latter two of whom announced their retirements from Formula Drift just last season.

Liaw is the son of an immigrant and entrepreneur. The family had a donut shop for two years. Photo courtesy of Jim Liaw

The event was so successful that Liaw went back to the D1GP team to ask how the two could work together more. Could they license the brand? Become a franchise? A partner? D1GP said no.

That was fine. "We [didn't] want to lose momentum in the work that we did for this event," Liaw told me in a recent interview. Instead, he and Sage planned to start a U.S. series by a different name. They gave D1GP a courtesy heads up, got sponsors, approached tracks that they'd worked with in the past, and assembled a four-stop first season that they announced at the 2003 SEMA show. It'd be a fun side project, they thought.

In May 2004, the very first round of the very first season of Formula Drift was born. By the second season, the team added two more rounds. Season three saw the addition of yet another round to make for a seven-round championship. By season four, Liaw and Sage were full series operators, not taking on or doing anything else. The series is currently midway through its 2022 season, which, if you count the D1 event in 2003, marks Formula Drift's 19th overall season.

"Even amongst the core audience, the thought was that it was a fad, that drifting wasn't going to catch on, that a judged motorsport didn't make sense, that these cars were not really race cars," Liaw said. "But with the growth in audience, social media footprint, reach, the increased live event attendance, participation from OEMs like Ford and Toyota and now Nissan, I like to say that we've proven that wrong."

Liaw at Formula Drift Sonoma in 2004, season one. Photo courtesy of Jim Liaw
Liaw with Sam Hubinette, the first Formula Drift champion at the Formula Drift banquet in 2004. Photo courtesy of Jim Liaw
Liaw with Nob Taniguchi at the first Formula Drift demo at the LBGP in 2005. Photo courtesy of Jim Liaw

Part of that explosive growth, I suspect, is how much Formula Drift puts the fans first. There's an immediate sense of this as soon as you enter the paddock. Drift cars all have passenger seats, for example, so there's potential for ridealongs. The pits are wide open for fans to walk through, the drivers and crew are open to engaging with you. "We didn't want it to be superficial," Liaw explained. If a fan liked a particular build and then the next season, that build went away, would that mean that person would then lose out on a deeper emotional buy-in?

"So, from day one, it was always all-access because it gets fans up close and personal with the drivers, with their helmets off," Liaw said. "The drivers and the team members have all embraced and learned it and have been very, very engaging and fan-friendly. One thing I think we did really well is that we've built a deep, emotional connection with the fanbase."

Globalizing FD

As with any new series, especially one that hailed from the other side of the world, there was some resistance at first.

"There was your typical, 'These are low horsepower, four-cylinder, rice-rocket types of cars,'" Liaw said. "Or, 'Look at the outlandish styling of the cars, the way the Japanese drivers personified themselves.' Things like that. And because drifting was originally from Japan, the stars thought to be tier-one—the best of the best drivers, types of cars, types of builds, et cetera—were mainly Japanese. If it wasn't a D1 driver driving an S13 or S14 240, then they weren't good and they weren't respected. Even when some people brought Ford products to drifting, it was looked upon as like, 'You're bastardizing the sport. This is not drifting.' It went both ways."

Ryan Davis

But because the series was taking place in the U.S., it could also benefit from the diverse opportunities that our globalized automotive market offers us. "We were able to not just Americanize, but also globalize the sport," Liaw said. "What I think brought more global appeal is that, yeah, there were a lot of core Japanese elements to it—and there still are—but the introduction of people bringing Ford Mustangs to the series and Corvettes, BMWs, the creativity of engine swaps (a lot of it at first were Nissan, Toyota base engine swaps, but then a Nissan chassis with a Chevy-V8 power) ... that meshing of different worlds made it much more diverse."

A lot of motorsport in the past has drawn hard lines in the sand; you're either a Ford fan or a Chevy fan, or you're an import fan or a domestic fan. Formula Drift removed those barriers and instead asked us all, are you an enthusiast or not? Do you love 1,000-horsepower rear-wheel-drive cars burning rubber?

Subtle Asian Space

But globalized or not, Americanized or not, attending a Formula Drift event feels like a uniquely Asian American experience. There are small clues that give it away that you'd miss if you weren't looking for them. But if you grew up Asian in the U.S., chances are that you're very aware of when a space is especially welcoming to you or not.

"The Asian roots—the foundations of Formula Drift—are still very strong. The Japanese culture of it is still very strong," Liaw said. At first pass, a Formula Drift event can present as very Caucasian. "But when you have a vendor that is selling squash air fresheners or Japanese snacks, it's accepted and understood what that is. And that audience, whether you're in Atlanta, Georgia, or Seattle, Washington, will come to it, understand it, engage [with it], and buy that product. Or, [there's] a car builder that's displaying a car that has a replica livery of an Initial D car, and a majority of the people that walk through know what that is and can reference that."

Liaw went on, "Be it edible goods or styling or whatever it is, it's so nice to see the acceptance and the understanding that it's not an oddity. I feel really refreshed and really happy to see it at every [Formula Drift] event. Wherever it's held, [there are] those types of cross-cultural ties, experiences, and presence. [Everyone's] really accepting of that."

It wasn't until Liaw's observation that I realized how correct he is. Walking into a Formula Drift event almost feels like a sigh of relief. Seeing those vendors and their wares tacitly signals to me that I'm among people like me.

"[You] just feel at ease," Liaw said. "These vendors are not shouting it out. There aren't Japanese signs everywhere. It's not overdone. It's so subtle—just the comfort of being natural. Like, if I see track food, I can get a burger here or I can get yakisoba over there. It's no big deal, no difference, and it's just a part of being here. I think that's unnoticed, but I think it's also really important."

Liaw didn't hide his pride in this fact, either. "I personally [am] very proud that this [is] a car culture trend at a motorsport [event] that's Asian-based, and that a lot of Asian and Asian American companies, participants, drivers, mechanics, et cetera are part of it."

FD Slides Onward

With the changing automotive landscape, I asked Liaw if EVs or hybrid cars have a future in Formula Drift.

"I think it will. I think it's needed," Liaw said. "How it's done is a harder question. There was a team that brought out an EV and they learned a lot. And I think we learned a lot in terms of how you deal with an EV on track. Everything from driver retrieval to when it crashes and how you respond to that particular car. That team learned a lot about the wear and tear of drifting. Certain parts were breaking a lot because of the immediate torque response—a lot of axles were breaking, things like that."

Larry Chen

Then there's how the cars will be judged. Will they drift in tandem with an ICE-powered car? Or will Formula Drift develop an EV class of its own? Liaw said watching the Mint 400 and Baja develop their EV classes and how they're navigating regulations has been a great learning experience.

Though Liaw stepped down from his position as president last year (he's now a general manager at Performance Racing Industry), he's still involved in the series he helped found as a shareholder and on the advisor and board level. Long-term stuff and strategic planning and the like. But things are in good hands; he's confident that the existing team can run the series "with their eyes almost shut." It means he helped build something that will last.

"The open access, the connection, and the emotional tie all serve to make longevity," Liaw said. "We know some of the drivers are going to phase out and go on to do other things, not drive anymore, or whatever career changes happen—but a lot of these fans will follow them. Tanner Foust is a great example. And Dai [Yoshihara], having not been in competition for almost a year, hasn't lost his fanbase, hasn't lost the engagement of people following what he's been doing and what he's building. Hopefully, that's something—like an indirect benefit of participating in Formula Drift—that these drivers that do a good job of building a fanbase can walk away carrying with them."

I've loved drifting and Formula Drift since 2008. I've been covering the series professionally since 2018. Speaking to one of its co-founders validated a lot of things for me, but especially that sense of implicit comfort I've always felt around its events. I don't know if it has to do with being Asian American and attending events put on by other Asian Americans, but the vibe is there.

"There just aren't a lot of Asian Americans in like leadership positions on race teams, in race series, or with a lot of these key automotive businesses in motorsports," Liaw said. "I don't think we see enough of them. Though there are a lot that participate on different levels, there are just not enough of us to lead the dialogue."

That's why it's so important to create and preserve spaces like Formula Drift. Who knows? Maybe one of the 10,000 attendees at this past sold-out Formula Drift Long Beach race will go on to start their own event and continue down the path that people like Liaw helped forge nearly 20 years ago.

Got a tip? Hit me up at kristen@thedrive.com.