MOTORSPORT: How Ikaten bridged illegal and professional drifting, with silver cephalopods

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.

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4 Responses to MOTORSPORT: How Ikaten bridged illegal and professional drifting, with silver cephalopods

  1. Mark Newton-John says:

    Unfortunately, because of the carnage, classic cars like that are hard to find, and what is even out there, even parts are becoming ridiculous. Like $300 just for a TE27 Corolla grille emblems.

    • Yuri says:

      I still think drifting has done more good for JNC’s than being a detriment. A few of mine are former drift cars that the previous owners saved from the junkyard to drift with, and I’ve restored them to their former glory. The cars popularized by drifting have such a following that it’s much easier to get parts for them. I mean seriously, I can get almost anything I need for an AE86 or S13, whether new oem, aftermarket, or used from someone also into the scene and saved parts that would have been trashed otherwise. And even the cars that get damaged to the point of no return are still cannibalized down to the last nut and bolt to bring others back. Many of the same people who thrashed these cars 15-20 years ago are the ones preserving them today. The romance, nostalgia, and excitement surrounding things like drifting, wangan, and touge are oftentimes the reason people get into JNC’s and really start to care about them.

  2. jayrdee says:

    I think the coolest thing about this “era” of JDM Motoring is the fact that it was all about having fun. I’m sure at the time this was going on no one thought/felt they were doing anything super spectacular or special. They were just ripping it up with their buddies.

    This reminds me of an experience I had at work. This past year I’ve been working as an Engineer at Hitachi Automotive Systems (first big boy job out of college) and I had some brand new machines arrive from Japan. The machine builder sent over two of their engineers to help us with setting everything up. Typical older Japanese guys who were quiet, work-a-holics, and spoke zero English. I try and chat them up whenever they come to hopefully help enjoy their stay. We got to talking (mainly typing on google translate) and I pulled up a picture of my AE86. One guy immediately lit up and said he had an AE92! I then pulled up a picture of an FC RX7 I used to have and the other guy got excited like a little kid and said he had one in college.

    The first guy typed on his phone “It was the craze to race mountain road”.
    The other then asked “What is special about old Japanese car?”

    I just find it so ironic how like, this era has a cult following and we obsess over it, yet to dudes who experienced it first hand, its no big deal. Thats the coolest thing ever.

  3. F31Roger says:

    In 1999, my friend Mege-san sent me pictures of him drifting his car at a track.

    We exchanged magazines and he told me about drifting and what not. It was Honda Era in the US, but after seeing these pictures, he was telling me the different cars they used to drift.

    The damage cars was something I had to understand. I was conditioned to take care of cars.

    But learning and getting magazines back then really inspired me. While drifting was cool, I really fell in love with VIP and Kaido Racers.

    Right before drifting hit in the US, rwd Japanese cars were plentiful and why I had 6 cars at the time. CL would have these cars for cheap with blown head gaskets or transmission issues….

    The feeling of seeing people drift is always great and fun. I do feel the evolution of it though. There was a grassroots movement and people that couldn’t afford the power mods, really used skill.

    Now a lot of cars are swapped and have massive horsepower! Waiting to see what happens when S13s and S14s start drying up….

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