We had the opportunity to catch up with Mathew “Mitto” Steele recently and got chatting about Japanese drifting, the emphasis they have on technique and then really went off the deep end into some of the fundamentals and origins of the sport we all know and love.
The following blog is taken from excerpts of a one hour plus conversation but we feel it gives you a really great starting place for those of you that want to learn more about drifting “In Japan”.
Mac: OK so why don’t you set the stage for why you are the one to talk about Japanese Drifting. (other than the fact that I have asked you too haha!)
Mitto: I think there are very few people who have had anything like my experience, I’m sure there are a lot of people who have done parts of it, but I couldn’t honestly name another person in the UK who has moved to the other side of the world to drift up mountain roads and on scrappy little racetracks. It’s a great thing to fantasise about but living it is a very different thing, and there’s no other real way to understand the level of commitment to a thing unless you have lived it.
Mac: So you’ve been there and you’ve really learned it, you can talk from actual experience.
Mitto: Yeah you know, when you’ve been there and drifted on mountain roads where you make one mistake and come off the side, you’re dead. That’s a big part of it, the Japanese have this concept of Bushido, which is essentially accepting your own fate, so it’s deciding you’re OK with the consequences before you even begin, and knowing if you can’t complete the task at hand you have no business being there.
Mac: Culturally overall, Japan is just on another level to England, that’s not really something you’d come across here.
Mitto: Yeah it’s about the commitment to what you’re doing. I’m not in any way publicising street drifting, I think anyone that promotes it or glorifies it is stupid, over there when people are drifting the mountains if someone pulls out a camera then everyone will literally stop drifting. The only reason I even mention it is so that people can know that it exists and it’s a part of it.
Mac: So what is the thing to you, that makes Japanese drifting and the techniques stand out so much from everything else?
Mitto: They are 30 years ahead of us and people forget that all of the time! It’s been developed from absolutely nothing, and it’s an environment where you have to study. You’ll see some talented people can get so far but then seem to plateau, whereas someone with less talent can develop a system of learning, and then continue to grow. So when you come from zero, and it’s just planting a seed, and waiting for the fruit to grow, it gives you a much deeper understanding of what you are doing.
Mac: And if you had to pinpoint that down to one specific difference to here?
Mitto: For the vehicle, I’d say it comes down to the welded diff. That’s what we use here, but there they use a two-way. Then the other big thing is in the technique, they have something called the “Sanpatsu” or the 3-motion drift. That’s based on how the drift is timed, and the snapping point for direction change on entry, and loading the car up to move into the drift. In western culture, it’s more common to see a handbrake pull at the corner and stick it sideways and then start drifting. So this means we commonly slow down into the drift and then accelerate whereas the Japanese accelerate into it and then use the drift to slow down. Again this really boils down to the diff, the way it makes the vehicles move is completely different.
Mac: Definitely the majority of people starting out here will be using a welded diff, can you split apart the differences in how they change the driving style?
Mitto: So the welded diff will really make the car slide, it’s very consistent, which is great when you are learning but will also be a hindrance long term, as when you use a two way, you simply have more control over what each wheel is doing, because the locking potential “ramps” up, rather than going straight to 100%, so you’ll learn more of a fundamental technique with a two way.
Mac: I think now we are starting to see a lot more people on the Pro level in BDC move into using two-way, would you say that is good for the overall level of progression of UK competitive drifting?
Mitto: Yes, I know that Martyn (Cowley) has moved onto one recently after I berated him about it! (laughs) So I think the question really is about how we want the drifting to look? Aggressive, vicious and dramatic like the Japanese style snap to angle, back end in first or smooth, controlled and fluid? For me, the idea of it being smooth is just boring, you should be making it look violent and like you can barely hang onto the car because it’s bonkers! It needs to be controlled lunacy. You want to see that the person driving has a big pair of balls on them and the passion to drive, rather than just sliding around.
Mac: So what in the one thing you want to see brought more into the UK scene?
Mitto: I think just the attention to detail, it’s the little things the Japanese are looking out for, like after the initiation the small amount of acceleration, for instance after the double clutch-kick entry where you get the BRAP BRAP MAHHAM, so you’ve made your entry, accelerated and then continued with the drift. That’s the sort of thing that is critical for judging over there.
Mac: In your opinion then, when you look at two long-standing organisations like FD and D1, how would you break down the major differences for someone new to the sport?
Mitto: More recently as D1 is no longer under the leadership of Tsuchiya it’s changed a lot, but I think really they are two different shows, and above all else two different ways of presenting the sport. They’re both simplified in a way to entice people into drifting and help them understand it quickly.
Mac: So a side question then, which organisation do you think presents drifting in the best way that captures what you think it’s about.
Mitto: I’d say maybe Drift Muscle or D1 Street legal, the original one. It comes down so much to technique, and technique based driving for me. I don’t know if I should say this for BDC but I don’t think it’s down to competition, really drifting is mostly about having fun with your mates and perfecting your skills! Any competition you do should be for fun and be fun to be involved with. It can all get too serious when sponsors get involved and you lose sight of why you went in the first place. A great sponsor wants to understand the sport and not dilute it, that’s important.
Mac: I fully agree with you that it’s at its best when you’re having fun with your mates, and I think everyone on the BDC team would agree with that!
Mitto: Yeah people should just be allowed to go out and rip, and the more you drive with people the better the competition will be!
Mac: Funnily enough I think this is something we saw happen last year, there was so much change from the 2018 driver grid and we ultimately ended up with a much smaller pool of drivers, who then drove together more and some battled multiple times across the course of the year, and you could see as the year went on they learned how each other moved and the progression was insane. Just to pull this back into Japanese drifting again, where would you say was the best place for people who want to learn more?
Mitto: I think people just need to find a credible source for information! My whole channel is about that, and I’ll have a video up next week about Japanese technique so I’ve got to plug that. I really want people to be able to understand the differences. People need to be aware of who they are talking with, and if it’s your mate telling you about the Japanese style of driving, and he’s never been to Japan, he’s probably not the guy to listen too! (Laughs).
Mac: Yeah I think that philosophy is something in life people should extend to a lot more than just Japanese drifting!
Mitto: It’s about more than just having a piece of paper, It’s about having stood on the corner of Meihan and being there, and if you haven’t, you shouldn’t be trying to talk about those sorts of things. I think you have to go and really live that experience and absorb it. Say I got to talk to Kumakubo and he told me about driving techniques, I wouldn’t question any of it because he’s got 30 years of experience on me, so you need to have humility, but on the flipside of that say I wanted to know about driving in FD, I’d take the word of Fredrick Asbo over Kumakubo because he’s got that relevant experience. It’s the difference between lived experience and opinion.
Mac: I think you’ve put that really well, and I think people should head over to your channel to find out more!
Mitto: That is the thing about my channel, it’s about me taking the information I have learned and gathered and putting it out there. I’m not making things up for it, I’m going out of my way to make calls and emails to fact check everything that I am saying, yesterday I spent two hours on the phone with a friend in Japan talking about technique, just to make sure the things I am saying are correct and so is the Japanese!
Mac: One thing that I think drifting needs, and that your channel will help do, is to compile some of the histories in one place, say with F1 you can very easily go to Google, type in F1 and find a nice record of all the history, but with drifting that doesn’t really exist, there is no central knowledge base.
Mitto: My mum keeps telling me I should write a book (laughs). I do love that people are interested in it and that there seems to be this undercurrent of people who want drifting to rediscover its roots, and then we can build a hybridized version of what it was then and what it is now!
Mac: I think that hits the nail on the head! When I look back at events from WAY before my time, like Silverstone in 2006 and you have 5000 people there and that’s incredible, but you also look at what makes it interesting and exciting and I don’t think it’s where it was that does that, and don’t get me wrong I’d love us to get 5000 people to events! I think it’s gone from being on a more corporate level to boiling down to more of a scene level, and I think there is this perfect balance somewhere in the middle that gives you this easily accessible, really exciting, adrenaline pumped form of pure entertainment.
Mitto: Yeah I think whenever drifting has been the truest to itself is when it became the most popular.
Mac: Which era do you think that was?
Mitto: For the UK, I think the pinnacle probably was, for me at least, 2006, that was the most hype it ever got. So I worked for D1 at the time, and the second exhibition match was crazy, and that was a massive deal. For me, that was the pinnacle of the popularity, but the driving, setup, and technique have all kept evolving since then. Even now in drifting the scene and the community is still so small, if you’re in it, you probably know everyone, I think just on my Facebook I have people all over the globe who are involved in it. In the UK I think most people here know my name and how long I have been involved in it, they might not all like me, but they know me!
Mac: Funnily enough I was chatting with a good mate yesterday and I mentioned you, and we got chatting about Outsiders, which he introduced me to probably 7 years ago.
Mitto: You know I never thought Outsiders would become what it did, to me it was just me shouting to anyone who would listen, like “this is cool, come and look at this!”.
Mac: I think culturally it has an iconic position, and I think the impact of it probably inspired a whole bunch of people, myself included, to get more into all of this. It shaped some of the trajectories of this “internet drifting” thing.
Mitto: I’m just glad we did it. Maybe I’ll dig the DVD out and watch the extras from it, I don’t think I’ve ever watched them (laughs). I think the thing about drifting in any form, is that someone can just see 5 seconds of driving with real passion and then fall in love with it.
Mac: OK so just a couple of quick-fire questions to end it out, who in your opinion are the three most legendary D1 drivers?
Mitto: Oh man, that’s hard! There are so many and for different reasons. I’m going to need to pick more than 3, I think I need 6!
But first of all I would say Nobushige Kumakubo, he came up with the Top 16 format and the battle format, it’s his family that owns Ebisu. Himself and all of Team Orange have done so much internationally to promote drifting and elevate it to a new level. I’d also put a side note for his teammate Kazuhiro Tanaka, who goes unmentioned so many times.
The second one is Ken Nomura, he’s the driver that has shown the world that you don’t have to win every event or be a deadly serious racing driver to be loved, and to let people enjoy drifting. He won a couple of D1 rounds but above all else, he was the life and soul of drifting, always funny and entertaining. I’ve based so much of myself on that, I’ve not won a lot, but I always drive my heart out, and that’s from watching Nomura.
The third one, to bring it up to date a bit is Naoki Nakamura. Only last year he has shown you can come from the depths of nothing, that you can go from being a hero to losing everything, but then still come back and achieve your goals again! For those of you that don’t know he went from winning D1 Street Legal championships to being banned from driving completely, and now coming back 10 years later and winning a D1 round, the grit and determination that shows is incredible!
Fourth would be Yoshinori Koguchi, now the reason I like him so much is the story of how he became known as the emperor. When he first started drifting he wasn’t very good and got laughed at, so he went off into the mountains and instead of quitting he drove on the touge every night for two years. Then he came back and people still knew who he was, but he beat everyone! He showed how committed you could be and really just embodied that so they called him the emperor.
The fifth is Kazama Yasuyuki, he brought a level of technique and skill to driving Silvia’s that was far beyond anyone else at the time. To watch him, his timing, the way he uses grip, the way he drives is incredible. Once I read a quote from Taniguchi, the HKS driver, that said he would never be as good as Kazama at drifting, because being a racing driver got in the way. What he meant by that is that if they were both racing drivers Kazama would be faster, he’s calling him “tensai” which means to be very gifted or blessed.
Final one would be Katsuhiro Ueo, the reason he is on the list is that he developed an AE86 setup for pushing understeer, he’s the one responsible for that setup and technique in the early 2000s. If you watch Drift Tengoku volume 5, which I reference on my channel, the way he changes direction in that video he was the only person doing that! Even nowadays people don’t setup 86’s like that because it’s so hard to drive them that way, but if you look at modern drifting and you look at my car or Naoki’s car, they’re setup like that. He was the foundation of modern drifting technique by doing something that was completely out of the ordinary at the time.
Mac: So you might already have answered this but do you have a favourite current driver?
Mitto: Naoki, no question. His technique is the best in the world right now. There are a lot of very good drivers, but his technique is unexplainable! If you want to see something incredible then watch the Round of D1 he just won, I think it was Fuji. He can generate so much snapping force from nothing.
Mac: Anything you want to add to the end of this, like a closing statement?
Mitto: I think the one thing I want to say is that it’s very easy to think what I am saying is very one dimensional because I’m focusing on Japanese technique and driving. But I’ve been around drifting for so long I’m not just into that one area, I’ve been to Formula D, Drift King, Drift All-stars, I’ve competed in Belgium, Germany, and France, it’s having a personal experience of all these things. I think the one thing that would summarise it all is I was at Wall Speedway in New Jersey at FD, it was a great event and very entertaining, and I was watching Chris Forsberg, he was pretty average but then the next day I saw him drive at something called the Pro bro-down, and he was unbelievable, I was genuinely shocked. You could have had him drive like that in Japan and not look out of place. I think when you let the drivers be themselves and go out and drive how they want, that is where you get the results. I think that is something worldwide event organisers need to keep in mind.
If you’d like to hear more about not only Japanese drifting but an entire breakdown of drifting history, technique and much more then make sure you tune into the Drift Crash channel every Monday at 7PM, you’ll also find more of Mitto on Instagram as well.
Look out for him competing in the BDC this year, and let us know what you think of this in-depth dive into what happens IN JAPAN!