Yokota man rises in world of 'drifting'
By VINCE LITTLE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2008
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — More than half a dozen times a year, Robbie Nishida faces his own version of The Amazing Race.
Each time, he goes to Narita International Airport on Thursday for a flight to somewhere in the United States, steps off the plane and immediately heads for practice. Friday brings qualifying for Saturday’s big event.
The grueling haul back to Japan starts the next day, with arrival coming the night before he returns to his job Tuesday at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service Car Care Center on Yokota.
"Jet lag is my friend," the 30-year-old Nishida says. "I’ve been to all these places in the States, but all I see is the airport, track and hotel room."
Such is the life of a rising star in the Formula DRIFT Championship series, where there’s more sacrifice and toil than prize money or bounty in a budding motor sport that traces its roots to the winding, treacherous roads of Japan’s mountains in the early 1990s.
That’s where Nishida first took an interest about a decade ago.
In drifting, drivers intentionally maneuver their cars into controlled sideways slides at high speeds through a marked course.
Rather than who finishes the fastest, it’s judged on execution and style.
Competitors even earn high marks for the amount of smoke they kick up from their tires.
"It’s the total impact," Nishida said. "If you do a run that gets everybody on their feet, you’ve basically done a good job."
Piloting the Hankook Tire/Dynamic Autosports Nissan 350Z, Nishida appeared in six of seven events this year in Formula DRIFT, the sport’s premier sanctioning body in North America.
He garnered two top-16 finishes, a pair of top eights and was a career-best third at Evergreen Speedway in Seattle.
In his third full season on the circuit — which itself has been around only since 2004 — he wound up 10th in the points standings to qualify for the inaugural Red Bull Drifting World Championship.
It’s set for Nov. 15-16 on the docks of Long Beach, Calif., and will feature 32 of the world’s best drifters.
Born on Okinawa to a Japanese mother and U.S. Air Force father, Nishida came to Yokota at age 5 and has been in the area ever since.
James Kiester, his dad, retired a senior master sergeant in 1993.
Nishida has held different jobs around the base and joined the AAFES Car Care Center staff six years ago. His wife, Christine, is the secretary for Marine Corps Brig. Gen. John Toolan, the new U.S. Forces Japan deputy commander at Yokota.
When Nishida was about 20, he got his first glimpse of drifting at an "illegal" race in the Japanese mountains. Although the underground events still exist, he said, the sport is now common at local tracks.
"I was a normal guy with a normal car who wanted to drive fast," he recalls.
"I thought it was pretty cool and wanted to do it myself. The impact you get is so different than normal road racing. Everybody started gradually going to tracks, because it was dangerous in the mountains. You don’t have to worry about getting in trouble or hurting anyone."
Nishida also quickly learned that technique trumps speed in drifting — although drivers can still enter corners going about 100 mph sideways, he said.
A friend who owned a demo car later paid Nishida’s way to the States, where he drove it in various events.
His talent on the track ultimately caught the eye of sponsors.
"I got lucky," Nishida said. "You can start small, but you gotta be a little lucky — be in the right place at the right time and have other people see you. It’s not easy in the beginning. You have to keep working at it."
Nishida’s third-place finish in August netted a check for $1,500. But with a sponsor that pays for those long trips over from Japan, he told the team to keep his share.
The tiny crew operates on a tight budget. They share hotel rooms and cut corners to reduce expenses.
"My team spends a lot of money on me," he said. "It would be nice someday if it becomes a real career; the main thing is I enjoy the sport. I like to do it, and it’s fun.
"As long as I can drive until I know it’s time to quit, I’ll be happy. … Even if the sponsorship dries up, I’ll still do it personally. I’ve maintained my own car before. If the sport grows or doesn’t grow, I’ll still be racing in some sort of way."