New way to catch their drift

Drifting, a unusual form of motorsports, is slowly growing.

Published April 2, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Dude, get excited.

Drifting is here. At the Grand Prix.

Never heard of it? Don't worry, you'll fit in fine.

It's a relatively new, Generation X-style motorsport, focused on pushing cars to their limits. But there is no finish line, and drivers don't seek to be fastest around a track.

Instead, souped-up rear-wheel drive cars put on a show for judges. Their drivers purposely ensure the back tires lose traction, allowing the car to skirt on the track as it makes turns.

And when the tires spin faster than the car is moving, the driver can impress judges by continuing to maneuver.

A crowd-pleaser: sliding sideways at a 90 degree angle as the car spews smoke.

"It really looks like a ballet," said Terence Jenkins, founder of the World Drift Championships. If you take away the smoke and the noise, the car is floating on the track."

Jenkins worked out a deal with IndyCar allowing six drifters to stage three exhibitions at the Grand Prix, including one between 9:15 and 9:45 a.m. today. The competition won't be an official event, but that's not its goal.

Jenkins began drifting two decades ago in Liverpool, England, when he would take his car out at 2 a.m. to avoiding bothering anyone. Now he wants to introduce a generation of Americans to drifting.

He has had no trouble persuading 24-year-old Verena Mei, one of the circuit's top drifters. Once a Toyo Tires model - the good-looking Hawaiian would stand beside race cars and their drivers to promote the tiremaker - Mei began drifting in 2002.

After a stint in stunt school, she bought a car for $2,100, tweaked its suspension and brakes and started her new career.

Since, she has advanced to a fancier red Nissan 350 Z, complete with a special seat for her slight frame.

"It raises me up so that I can see over the dash and so I can reach the pedals," Mei said with a laugh. "Basically no one over 5 feet 2 inches can drive my car. It makes it quite convenient."

But her parents, like a lot of older folks, are skeptical.

"They can only imagine what I'm doing," Mei said. "They're constantly concerned about the dangers and the risks."

She has crashed before, but never been seriously injured. Still, she promises she never drifts near her Long Beach, Calif., home.

Any rear-wheel drive car is capable of drifting - a scary thought to some.

"I never drift on the street," Mei said. "It's way too dangerous."