The car is gunning at 140 kilometres per hour when the panic takes hold.

STORY

The Drifters

‘He’s in my racing line,’ yells ‘Aggers’, pointing to a light blue Toyota Corolla that sluggishly exits from a bend in the track further ahead. Aggers is driver and guide on my first drifting bender executed at warp speed around the skid-marked lanes and hairpin corners of Winton Motor Raceway in northern Victoria. Normally, fast cars make me nervous. I’m a bike rider. I spend most mornings dodging the heavy metal of trucks and utes that hurtle through the back streets of Tottenham in Melbourne’s west. Today I’ve come to watch Billie-Anne Baird, a young woman with a mean set of wheels and an all-consuming passion for this emerging motorsport, practise her drifting skills. Despite my anxiety, I’m not content to watch from the sidelines. Now I’m a wide-eyed passenger on a $20 joy ride in a modded-up and gutted-out red Nissan Sylvia 180 SX to find out what it’s like pulling burnouts and sliding sideways at ridiculously high speeds in the pursuit of the perfect drift.

BEN O'MARA

"Today Billie, nineteen, is one of three women in a sea of blokes preparing for some eagerly awaited drift time on a cool, crisp day in Winton."

So far, it’s rocked my world. The sensation of zooming into a corner at gut-busting speed, slamming on the brakes, and then sliding noisily across the tarmac, tyres screeching, engine roaring, smoke burning the nostrils is adrenaline-charged exhilaration. At first, it reminds me of surfing. On the track, riding the force of gravity as a car drifts is not unlike carving up a massive swell of water on a slippery and fast-moving board. In both situations you’re managing the speed and angle of movement across a mass of brute power. Drift cars are not surfboards, however. They cost more and go much faster. There’s also something freakish and spectacular about flooring the accelerator at the sight of a tight corner when your first instinct is to brake.

But when Aggers, a young man who talks and acts fast, slips the car down a few gears, taps cautiously at the brakes, and then tells me in a matter-of-fact voice, ‘We’re gunna hit the wall,’ the fear kicks in. The Toyota Corolla has taken our spot on the track, and because we’ve come out from the previous corner at high speed, there isn’t enough room to correct for the other car’s error. ‘Will we be okay?’ I yell, gripping the cold bar of the car’s roll cage tight, the nausea in my stomach rising. ‘We’ll be cool,’ Aggers shouts with confidence above the crackle of exhaust, but I’m not so sure.


Through a combination of braking and steering, executed with supreme skill and what looks like years of practice, the car drops to about 30 kilometres per hour and slides quietly off the road. It hits the grass, and for a few seconds, as the car seems to glide across the turf, it feels like that moment described by people from car accidents, when everything moves in slow motion. The car goes deathly quiet, except for the flurry of clicks and dull thuds as Aggers jerks on the handbrake and works the pedals, carefully manoeuvring the angle and speed of the vehicle. Then, due to Aggers’ precise handling and control, the car slows to walking pace, bumps gently into the track barrier and finally stops. ‘You all right?’ Aggers asks. I check my helmet, pat down my bright yellow media jacket and give him the thumbs up. I can barely speak, but I am safe, and elated. The wild ride has not ended in the spectacular catastrophe I imagined, but with a carefully managed exit.

Above: Billie in action.

Billie knows the importance of keeping a clear head on the race track. She’s a drifter.


Today Billie, nineteen, is one of three women in a sea of blokes preparing for some eagerly awaited drift time on a cool, crisp day in Winton. There are about eighty drivers, mostly young guys, and many of them have spent months getting their car ready. A small crowd has gathered on the hill to watch. Every so often they cheer when someone pulls off a particularly fancy ‘fish tail’ move that pumps out plenty of smoke, or nails a long and screeching handbrake drift.


Away from the action, in one of the stalls overlooking the track, Billie and her team are hard at work. Billie, her clever, easygoing boyfriend James, and their friend Andrew, a tall and lanky mechanic, are performing last-minute tweaks to her pride and joy: a Nissan ‘Sileighty’. ‘Drifting is what happens when the tyres lose their grip on the track, and you control the car by steering and with the throttle,’ Billie explains to me as she lifts the bonnet of her car and leans forward to inspect the engine. ‘You don’t need lots of power, but that helps. With higher powered cars you can lose traction more quickly.’


Billie knows her stuff. She is quiet, small and a contrast to rip-roaring hurly-burly on the track, but looks determined and is keen to get behind the wheel. Her car is sleek, black and low to the ground. It resembles ‘Kit’, the talking car from the popular American science fiction television show Knight Rider. When I bring this up I get a few odd looks. For Billie and her friends it is an archaic pop-culture reference with little meaning. Her car, a popular choice among drifters and car importers, is from Japan, the home of drifting. It is where the sport began in the 1970s during Japanese touring car championships when drivers such as Kunimitsu Takahashi started to experiment with taking corners at high speed. The new style, with its spectacular smoking tyres, appealed to many drivers, and was soon practised on the sharp bends of mountain roads throughout the country. Car drifting has since grown in popularity, with competitions, clubs and organisations dedicated to the sport springing up across Australia and the world. It is still an emerging motorsport, however, and is driven by passionate young people committed to learning better ways of building and modifying their cars and honing their driving skills on the track.

BEN O'MARA

"The sensation of zooming into a corner at gut-busting speed, slamming on the brakes, and then sliding noisily across the tarmac, tyres screeching, engine roaring, smoke burning the nostrils is adrenaline-charged exhilaration."

As I watch Billie, her team and the guys in the stalls next to us work, the sense of camaraderie born of a grassroots, DIY spirit is clear. They exchange advice, swap parts and share stories to help get their cars ready for the drift day and to create a better experience. Soon they will be presenting their vehicles for ‘scrutineering’, a safety procedure during which event officials approve cars for drifting on the track. This is important not only for supporting the safety of the drivers and their vehicles, but also because drifting cars is a complex motorsport. There are many factors that influence performance—it’s not just about speed or the size of an engine. ‘It’s also about good weight balance,’ says Andrew. ‘And you want the car to be strong and inflexible. Suspension is also important.’

In drifting, cars are modified for improved performance on the track. They need to be able to slide around corners through a combination of skilled driving and car modifications such as locked differentials, special clutches, roll bars, new engine mounts and high spring rates for suspension. This process of building and ‘modding’ turns mere ‘stock’ or ‘street’ cars into track-ready drift beasts. On my joy ride, the inside of Aggers’ car was bare: the back seats had been ripped out, the dashboard was virtually empty, and the upholstery had been removed. The bare metal of the roof was exposed, as were the thick black bars of the roll cage—a tough skeleton that protects the driver and gives the car’s structure strength. It doesn’t need to look pretty inside a car to drift. Being lightweight and low to the ground can count just as much as pure engine power.


As Billie explains, the beauty of the sport is that any type of car can drift, making it more affordable, as well as welcome to a diverse range of vehicles and styles of modifications. ‘The car becomes a reflection of yourself,’ Billie says, pointing out the utes, old station wagons and other non-import cars ripping past on the track. ‘You can drift with a car at 30 or 300 kilometres per hour.’ Billie’s drift car is a special combination. It has the front panels of a Nissan Silvia and the back end of a Nissan Silvia 180 SX. Billie prefers the look of the Silvia headlights, and it’s cheaper to repair if damaged.


When the team are ready for scrutineering, James helps Billie put on her helmet, then dons his own, and the couple jump into the car. Inside they are grinning and excited: Billie adjusts her seat, grips the wheel firmly and revs the car’s engine. Drifting time is golden. She has been working hard on the car in the lead-up to track day, and has spent most of her money on new parts and modifications.

Above: Billie at Winton Raceway.

I take out my chunky digital SLR camera to take shots of the car, but Billie waves me over. She cautions me to not go overboard taking pictures, despite my media jacket, explaining that many drifters believe undercover police often record the details of cars in order to track them later. She points to her own registration sticker, which is covered in black tape. When I’ve finished, I pack my camera away gingerly, and then watch Billie deftly steer the car out of the stall, down the road and into the queue of cars lined up for scrutineering.


In the beginner area, the feats of the drivers are much less spectacular. The sky has cleared and the sun is white and hot, its rays glinting sharply off a line of cars on a long straight. Each driver waits for their turn at drifting around the bend further up the track. Some manage to get the perfect combination of speed and angle, and their cars slide quickly into and out of the corner; others struggle and steer their cars in slower grooves around the bend, still mastering their handbrake and manoeuvring techniques.


Billie drives with confidence. She is still learning, and doesn’t pull massive burnouts or high-speed bursts of sideways action, but drives steadily and firmly, testing her car’s performance. On her final lap she guns it, the car speeding down the track, and takes the corner well, but suddenly, near the end of her lap, she slides off the road and into the barriers. Everyone stops. From a distance it looks to be a minor scrap, but like a well-ordered drill, the race day organisers send out a St John Ambulance crew, and help Billie and James out of the vehicle. Once the situation is safe, the car is towed off the track, and the other drivers resume their practice.


When Billie and James make it back to the stall they are disappointed, but smiling. ‘I hit the mud and the car slid,’ Billie says, mildly chuffed, showing me the front end of the driver’s side, which is crinkled and slightly bent. The once-clean black doors are now splattered with brown goop. The car will need to be towed back to Melbourne, which Billie knows will be pricey, but its just another day in the life of a committed drifter. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ Billie says, pulling at the wheel panel on the driver’s side. ‘It’s what drifting is all about.’


Drifting cars, like many passions in life, is expensive. A few months after the crash, I speak with Billie again, and she and James are in the middle of repairs. The accident on the track caused $3000 worth of damage and they are saving money where they can by fixing the car themselves. The garage of Billie’s home has been turned into a DIY car workshop. It is dark and cold and they have been working at their jobs all day—Billie is a trainee for a transport logistics company—but this doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm to get back on the track. ‘After I crashed it I put it up for sale for like an hour,’ says Billie, sighing. ‘But then I couldn’t sell it. You just can’t really let go of it because you’ve built it for so long, you bond with it.’ She tells me there is a common saying among drifters that appears on bumper stickers: drift it, break it, fix it, repeat.


I tiptoe my way through the tyres, wheel rims, metal boxes and speaker cases littered across the driveway for a closer look. The pair are surrounded by other cars they have acquired since the accident. Some of them are used for parts or to resell, while another will be James’ new drift car. They expect to spend around $50,000 on his beast and are looking to save on costs wherever possible.


Billie sits above the engine of her car, shining a light down through the complex tangle of pipes and hoses so that James, who is lying underneath the car, can toil on the engine. His hands are black with grease. As they work, often rising from the car to rummage through boxes of tools and spray-paint cans, Billie, wearing a baggy jumper and a deer hunter cap, and James, in a stained hoodie, look like Banksy-style street artists refashioning the vehicle for their own extreme sport purposes.


Kim Tairi, Billie’s mum, knows all too well her daughter’s obsession with cars. ‘Billie’s always gone to the beat of her own drum,’ Kim says, smiling with pride. ‘That’s one of the things I love about her.’ Her daughter was named after Billie Holiday, the American jazz singer and songwriter, because of her parents’ love for Holiday’s stunning voice. Billie also shares her grandfather’s name, Wiremu, the Maori version of William. Her second name, Anne, was important to Billie because she was often seen as a tomboy while growing up. ‘When she went to primary school, because she was quite often mistaken for a boy, right up until she was about nine or ten, she wanted people to call her Billie-Anne, so they could tell she was a girl. She was very clear about that.’


It is Billie’s strong sense of who she is and what she wants, a young woman who clearly defines her femininity as an important part of her gender identity, and pursuit of a lifestyle not traditionally associated with young women, that Kim finds inspiring. ‘For Billie it’s really empowering. Her boyfriend’s actually a drifter. It means that instead of hanging on the sidelines and just watching the boys fix the cars and do all the racing, she’s an active participant in the whole scene.’ Kim describes Billie as someone who chooses to live life on her terms, and that her passion and hard work on the track have even created a ripple effect among her friends and fellow drifters. ‘Billie’s got this cohort of girls who she’s mentoring and encouraging to get into the sport, even though she’s a beginner herself.’


Not everyone supports young drifters like Billie. When I approached the Media Unit of Victoria Police about their views on the best ways for young people to become involved in legal drifting events, I received an abrupt and terse email response. They would not comment. Later, I realised I was naive to expect a positive reply, and I understood their position. It is easy to associate car drifting with ‘hooning’ and other illegal activities involving cars. The Victorian Department of Justice defines a hoon driver as ‘. . . anyone who drives at very high speed or in a manner that is considered highly dangerous or anti-social’. On the Victoria Police website there is a section dedicated to hoon laws, which were introduced by the state government in 2006. They identify burnouts, doughnuts, drag racing, repeated driving while disqualified and high-level speeding as hoon-related offences. Victoria Police reports having impounded an average of ten cars a day since hoon laws were introduced.


Billie has regularly been pulled over and fined by the police while driving her drift car on normal roads. ‘My car’s been off the road since April because it’s deemed unsafe,’ she tells me. In these situations, Billie feels it is often because the car is an import, and when police see her driving, they immediately assume the car is not roadworthy and she is a ‘hoon’, rather than because she is speeding or committing any other offence. She has received numerous fines for her car being too low to the ground. Billie finds this frustrating because while technically correct, the infringement seems minor, and she considers her car to be more than safe for driving on normal roads. ‘If my car is safe to go around the track at 160 kph, then it’s safe to go down the street travelling at 60 kph.’


The logical solution is to use drift cars only on the race track, which is how most drifters operate, particularly since the introduction of anti-hoon legislation. Yet from speaking with Billie, James and other drifters, being fans of car culture means they are often unfairly perceived as ‘hoons’. They believe their cars are safe to drive and they participate in legal events such as those at Winton Raceway.


Yoshi Abey, President of VicDrift, a car club that organises drifting events with the aim of providing safe, controlled and supportive environments for drivers to practise and compete, feels that car drifting as a motorsport is generally misunderstood, and this is why drifters are easily associated with hoon activities. ‘There needs to be a better explanation of the sport and awareness across media,’ he says, emphasising the role of VicDrift in improving community understanding of drifters and their lifestyle. ‘We’re pioneers pushing a sport until it’s well known.’


In Victoria, drifting events are held roughly six times a year at Winton Raceway, depending on the availability of the track. They fall into two categories: practice and competition. ‘Drifting on a practice or regular day, it’s really people just going out and having fun and trying to improve on their skills and things like that,’ Abey explains. ‘On a competition day, things like qualifying become involved, then you have a top sixteen or top thirty battle tree, and that’s where the points system comes into play.’

BEN O'MARA

"Drifting is the source of creativity and community that drives her life, one that is being built on her terms and with her own hands."

During competition, drivers are awarded points based on speed, line and angle. Competitors ‘battle’ each other. The cars begin at the same time, and while a lead car may be faster, and have good line and angle in relationship to the track, it may not score as highly for its ‘showmanship’ or ‘wow’ factor. Drifting is not just about racing to the finish line. This year’s Drift Attack, featuring drivers from across Australia, awarded $10,000 in prize money, and was the highlight of a year during which VicDrift saw an increase in the number of drivers and spectators at their Winton Raceway events.

There is an underbelly of car culture beyond the race track that is far more dangerous than drifting. While I have been writing this piece, major newspapers and television stations have reported the sentencing of a 26-year-old man who drove while drunk, was ‘hooning’ by doing a burnout and fishtailing down the street, and fatally struck Bangoang Tut, a young boy whose family had recently arrived as refugees from Sudan. In 2010 there was high-profile coverage of a 19-year-old man who drove a high-powered 2007 Ford Falcon XR6 at 140 kilometres per hour into a tree in Mill Park, killing five people. In July, the Age reported on the first ‘hoon car’ being crushed after the young driver was caught driving recklessly on three occasions and was considered a public danger, illustrating the police minister’s tough stance on hooning. These stories demonstrate the ugly and sad side of some young people who drive cars with little regard for the safety of themselves and others.


Billie has found the media are quick to judge, however, and more interested in sensationalising the negative aspects of young people and cars than understanding drifting or car culture in any real depth. Late one night in an empty industrial zone on the fringes of Melbourne, James was practising drift circles with Billie as a passenger. The couple were sprung by the television program Highway Patrol, which is produced by Greenstone Pictures in cooperation with Victoria Police. It follows the experiences of police officers as they deal with the likes of drunk drivers, high-speed chases and car crashes.


From Billie and James’ perspective, the distinction between being pulled over for illegal driving activities and the filming of a segment for a television show was not clear. ‘There was no TV presenter, just the camera and the cops. So the cop was one of the characters in the show, and he was firing the questions.’ While Billie realises their drifting was not on the track and therefore subject to the anti-hoon legislation, and one of the police officers initially made sure that she was okay and not in any danger, she feels that the manner in which she and James were interviewed was confusing, confrontational and opportunistic. ‘They came and they knew what they were going to find there. They have their questions ready, they have lights in your faces, you’re just caught off guard. It’s really hard to come up with logical answers to their questions about why you’re there. Like when they asked me what I was doing there I just sort of looked blankly and shrugged.’ She also remembers that the officers failed to ask permission for them to be interviewed for the show. ‘It wasn’t permission to be on it, it was permission to show our faces—or whether to be blurred out or not. They just filmed us saying “you have our permission”.’ By contrast, when the cameras were switched off, Billie recalls the officers being friendly and nice, and less prone to throw the book at them.



Cat May, Abey’s partner and a fellow VicDrift board member, has been drifting for more than four years, but has been a car fan all her life. While there are large numbers of young men at events, this has never prevented her from following her passion for cars, or learning how to drift. ‘I’ve never had any issues being a girl. I guess the first-time girls are probably wondering, what are they going to think, what if I’m not good, are they going to laugh at me . . . once you take that step and go out there you find that everyone treats you really well. It’s just that first step—especially if you’re going alone.’


May believes finding ways to better communicate about drifting and having more targeted support for beginners are the best methods to introduce more young women to the motorsport. ‘A few years ago we were having some drift classes and had a big group of girls. Girlfriends of the drivers who until then had just been spectators, and they [decided], yeah, I’ll give it a go. It was marketed as a “girls drift day”. But we’ve definitely got to get more girls into the sport.’


Young women who drift are active online. In general, the internet has been a real boon to drifters, offering the chance to learn quickly about building and modifying cars, as well as becoming aware of new events, safety information and ways to handle cars on the track. Drifters often upload photos of their cars onto ‘build threads’ so that others can see the vehicles at various stages of development, and more easily understand the process of getting a car trackworthy. For young women, the internet has provided the opportunity to create forums and other spaces in which to share their knowledge and build a sense of community with other female drifters. May regularly posts on the girls section of Hardtuned.net, where people share their stories about drifting. ‘We started a thread a while ago about girls that drift. People post up the cars they drive and the events they’ve been to, they get that support . . . I sometimes put my videos up so others can see what I’m doing. Sometimes there are videos of other girls driving as well.’



When I visit Billie once more, she has just returned from another day spent at Winton Raceway, where she drove in the advanced area. She is quite proud: ‘I drifted properly for the first time.’ Billie has also learned to ‘clutch kick’, which is an important skill in the art of car drifting. ‘You enter a corner, and as you turn into it, you basically just kick the clutch. Put the clutch in, rev the car, let the clutch out. It begins the slide.’ Initially, she was worried clutch kicks would be beyond her. ‘You’re meant to begin learning to drift by lifting the handbrake. That’s generally how you begin to learn. I just had to completely skip that step because I’m not strong enough. I tried carrying a weight around in my left arm for a day, but it was sort of a joke.’


Billie has also been busy online. She and a friend have started an internet forum called Shojo Sokudo. Roughly translated, it means ‘girl speed’ in Japanese. ‘We just were talking about how we need to know more girls who are into cars, who actually know what a turbo is,’ Billie says, relishing the chance to spread the word about the website. ‘We knew they were there but they had to come out of hiding.’ Billie, like May, feels it is important to make young women feel welcome in the drifting community.


It’s easy to see what the future holds for Billie. Cars are in her blood. Those fleeting moments of drift time on the race track are worth the long hours in the workshop and the money spent on mods and repairs. Drifting is the source of creativity and community that drives her life, one that is being built on her terms and with her own hands. Yet for Billie and her friends there’s not much point reading too much into drifting cars or worrying about being incorrectly labelled a hoon. ‘Before cars, surfing was what I was doing. And then I got my licence and moved on to something else. Drifting, it’s all about fun. It’s not just about pride and stuff. You do it because you enjoy it.’


I can only afford upgrades to my bike. But watching Billie plan a ‘drift holiday’ with James to the steep hills and winding streetscapes of Japan, it’s hard not to be jealous.

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This story was published in the literary journal Meanjin, February 2011. I like that the piece explores drifting and car culture from Billie’s perspective. She is passionate, lives life on her terms and is keen to involve more young women in the motorsport. 

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Copyright 2016 Ben O'Mara