There’s a name that’s familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with the drift scene: Drift King. By now, there are so many videos circulating on the internet, namely the Touge Showdown segments in the Best Motoring franchise, that show the ebullient, little man sliding a car with a superhuman level of car control, often within inches of trees on a narrow mountain road. His enthusiasm behind the wheel helped him establish drifting as a well-known form of motorsport, but seldom are his racing achievements acknowledged. Keiichi Tsuchiya, the Drift King, is much more than a stuntman. A LeMans great, a man who came from little to become a professional, and a hilarious throwback to the days of the politically incorrect racing driver, he’s a character that the world of motorsport is fortunate to have.
Crucially, Tsuchiya still stands as a motivational force for those who forsee a career in a cockpit but don’t come from affluence. As a young man and burgeoning racer of his own, Tsuchiya found himself bewitched by one particular Japanese racer: Kunimitsu Takahashi. This man was well-known for his ability to slide his cars, and in the 1970s, one could still win races and be a showman, since cars and tires of the time rewarded a little movement at the rear axle. This display inspired the young Tsuchiya to scrounge together whatever money he could to start driving.
Tsuchiya’s reputation is bolstered by the fact that, not having sufficient money to enter a proper racing school, he taught himself how to manage a car at the limit cutting the springs on his KPGC10 Skyline and sliding around on damp and snowy surfaces; pulling the handbrake and developing his car control that way. Without adequate funding to enter a racing series, he began racing on the backroads in his fairly rudimentary road car and soon began to develop a reputation as a hotshoe on the Usui touge.
With money from working the door at night clubs – despite being only 5 foot 6 inches tall – and selling car parts, the ambitious young man from Nagano began formally racing at the ripe age of 21 in the 1977 Fuji Freshman series, where his tail-out style came with plenty of speed, and most importantly, versatility. In the rain, Tsuchiya was masterly, and quick, the young racer was getting noticed. As he famously stated, “I drift not because it is the quicker way around the corner, but is the most exciting way,” spoke volumes about the man’s approach to motorsport.
Tsuchiya then began a seven year campaign, on-and-off, in the All Japan Touring Car Championship, while at the same time still competing on the mountain roads. His involvement in illegal street racing and the reputation he garnered eventually made it back to the governing bodies, who were not enthralled such a hooligan was among them. Tsuchiya found himself fined repeatedly and eventually had his racing license suspended for his extracurricular activities.
In 1984, Toyota’s new Corolla came in a variety of shapes, but the sportier, rear-wheel drive GT-S variant was a natural competitor that caught Tsuchiya’s eye. Short, light, and very nimble, the underpowered-but-dynamic sports car was put into the Fuji Freshman series, which Tsuchiya participated in with this new machine. His affinity for an oversteering AE86 Corolla is well-known now, but back then, this demonstrative style shocked and awed the public. Sure, cars slid more then, but the man clearly intended to point his car at the apex well before the entry to the corner on many occasions, more like a rally car than a road course car.
It was in the late 1980s, after the release of his cult street racing film Pluspy (1987), that he began to find himself moving up the ranks quickly. With more attention paid to him, for better or worse, he landed a seat in the All Japan Formula 3 series, with middling results, to finally plopping down comfortable in the Japanese Touring Car Championship, piloting the Group A Taisan R32 GT-R, a flame-spitting monster that made 650 whp at 25 pounds of boost, and despite being a four-wheel drive machine, was far from friendly. Tsuchiya’s quick hands helped keep the Skyline in control, though it was questionable how well he kept the tires underneath him.
With his prowess now known to the racing world, Tsuchiya received a call from Honda, who looked to put the NSX on the map as a world-beater by entering it at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Of course, Tsuchiya jumped at the opportunity, managed 15th in 1994, and returned to win his class the following year. His relationship with Honda would see him to race in JGTC, where he would end his career. Before that, however, his links with Toyota were to bring him an even greater chance for glory.
In 1998, Tsuchiya was invited to join the prestigious GT-One project – a prototype made to win at LeMans. Without family backing, a dream like this would’ve been impossible for most, but, paired with former-F1 driver Ukyo Katayama, he stood a chance to win. Their first year was not a particularly strong showing as they finished 9th overall, but the next year was miraculous.
Against the BMW LMRs and the Mercedes CLK GTRs, the Japanese team led briefly before a tire puncture forced them into the pits and relinquished their lead. Ultimately, they finished second outright, which for any aspiring racing driver, let alone a man of modest beginnings, is a life-affirming achievement.
Tsuchiya continued to race in the Japanese Grand Touring Championship in his Arta NSX, winning against drivers half his age. For a wily old man, he still had pace, but eventually hung up his helmet in 2003. Since then, Tsuchiya has balanced a hectic life of judging any and every drifting event under the sun, creating hours of content for the Best Motoring franchise, and sampling every new machine with a drop of performance.
Perhaps it’s this last endeavor of his that has endeared him to the racing world. His extroverted, self-confident persona and devilish sense of humor make him a standout, even if he couldn’t turn a steering wheel. Thankfully, his soulful driving comes through and makes for wonderful television. With aggressive inputs and big handfuls of opposite lock, the driving Tsuchiya does is never academic. Instead, it’s wild and eye-opening, which is great for bringing new drivers into the sport. Trust me – I was one of them.