Drifting went pro in 2000 when the D1 Grand Prix series was founded. But long before D1GP, there was the Ikasu Hashiriya Team Tengoku (roughly translated to Ikasu Racer Team Heaven), an amateur drift series that bridged the era between completely illegal night-time touge drifting of the 1980s and the professionally sanctioned D1GP of the early 2000s.
Sometimes abbreviated as Ikaten, it started in 1989 as a section called Drift Corner on Option Video, gathering mostly young men with their beater cars and setting them loose on the track. There were no special requirements to enter, no consistent panel of judges (whose faces would become familiar worldwide drifting boom that would follow) from event to event, and no point system.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. There was a scoring system, but it was based entirely on sea creatures. You see, the name, Ikasu Hashiriya Team Tengoku, was a spoof of Yuji Miyake’s Ikasu Band Tengoku (Cool Band Heaven), a popular weekly music competition show that predated American Idol (and its British predecessor Pop Idol) by more than a decade. In Japanese, though, ika is also the word for squid, and so the show was often misspelled as Squid Band Heaven.
Playing on this joke, the scoring for Ikaten drift competitions went something like this:
- Jellyfish: A driver gets this simply for completing the course.
- Sea Urchin: A driver gets this if the attempted drift only breaks traction for a brief moment, or spins.
- Squid: A driver get this if they drift from entry to the clipping point, or from the clipping point to exit.
- Octopus: A driver get a peach-colored octopus if they can sustain a drift through the entire judged section.
- Silver Octopus: The driver gets this for a smooth and clean drift through the entire judged course section.
These were the actual scoring methods, complete with cartoon images of the marine life on placards. It got even sillier and more inside jokey as time went on. When Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system — and its tacked-on suffix naming convention — exploded in popularity, the judges would call an outstanding performance something like “Silver Octopus 95.” In fact, when Keiichi Tsuchiya launched his own line of tuning parts, the octopus became an early trademark of Kei Office goods.
It was all very loosey goosey, affordable, and done in the spirit of good fun. Teams had very un-serious names like B-Blue and Mouse. And when it was time for the competitors’ profile photos, which were immortalized on film and distributed across Japan, drivers went out of their way to mug as goofy a face as possible.
However, the thing that really set apart Ikaten from the sanctioned D1GP was the Group Drift contests. Here, teams of five drivers would take the course in line, and the closer they were able to drift together in one synchronized movement, the better the score. A few years ago, to commemorate 25 years of Ikaten, Option Video put out a compilation of the top group drifts of each year.
In the beginning, Ikaten was very much a run-what-you-brung situation and teams often piloted mismatched cars. As time went on and drifting’s popularity skyrocketed, many teams painted their cars in matching colors, usually in some wild hue like metal flake purple. Sometimes the entire team would drive the same type of car, so you’d get the visual harmony of fleet of AE86s, Silvias, rotary Mazdas, or boxy Toyota sedans sliding around in tire shredding glory.
With five cars sliding in close quarters, crash rates went up exponentially. If regular amateur drifting decimated the supply of cars, team drifts positively annihilated it. It was an inevitable step, though in the evolution of drifting from outlaw hijinks to amateur leagues to a professional series to an FIA-sanctioned motorsport, and put some of these Ikaten drivers into the big leagues.
By extension, it popularized Japan’s cars as well, especially older rear-wheel-drive models, and made people in the West see them as classics worthy of preservation and restoration. Love it or hate it, it’s an indelible part of Japan’s motoring legacy, and part of the reason why we’re all here with our JNCs.