It is a sad deal, friends. The world-famous (at least, to me) Ebisu Minami drift circuit as we know it is no more. It has just been converted into a gravel track at the decision of track owner and drifting legend Nobushige Kumakubo, according to his Facebook page. No more drifting at Minami. At least, for now.
Though it is one of the most notable tracks in the world and certainly the closest to popular culture thanks to its unshakeable connection to drifting, Minami is still a strange little track in the northern part of Japan. A lot of information about Ebisu is obscure or in Japanese, and I can’t find too many specific references to the history of the track on Ebisu’s official site. All I know is that the Ebisu track complex opened sometime in the ‘90s and Minami originally opened as a dirt circuit.
Ebisu is actually seven tracks on one big property in the Fukushima prefecture. They all have different purposes and cater to everyone. Grip racers, motorcycle racers, drifters, and even rally enthusiasts all have places there. There is a dedicated touge course that mimics the cadence of a Japanese mountain road, the larger west (Nishi) and east (Higashi) courses that work well for all disciplines, a skidpad and drift learning course, and of course, the south circuit called Minami.
For such a small and humble place, it almost certainly has the most eyeballs on it this side of a Formula One track. Thousands of people from across the world have made the pilgrimage to the place to drive it for themselves. Whether it was Daigo Saito jump-drifting his Toyota Mark II over the crest at Minami, the many battles of Hot Version at Higashi, or watching people smash the touge course, a lot of enthusiasts have seen one or many of the tracks at Ebisu.
It’s approachable too. It isn’t cheap, no track is, but it isn’t exorbitant. There is a company called Power Vehicles that maintains a fleet of rental cars and prepares cars for sale that are ready to drift or race. It even has a program that includes buying the car back once you’re done with your drift vacation, with damages and use deducted, of course. The cars generally run from $10,000-20,000, and Power Vehicles claims it will buy them back at 55-60 percent of value generally, with less or more value depending on condition.
Ebisu is a drift wonderland where dreams are possible, and you can have a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. It’s a real place that hardly feels real.
Back to Minami. That circuit, in particular, is also called the Drift Stadium. It used to host the D1 Grand Prix (D1GP) professional drifting series and Formula Drift Japan. Both series also used the Nishi course, but Minami has one of the gnarliest runs in drifting. The typical run begins with initiating left to a slide before a crest, jumping, landing sideways, then holding your grit to aim the back bumper at a wall and dragging bumper, finally releasing to a wide left-hander where you use drift angle to slow yourself down. It’s fearsome. So fearsome that Kumakubo-san “was starting to feel unpleasant” about the “high risk” of the circuit, according to a Google translation of this Facebook post. He even feared a “fatal accident.”
This challenge is what attracts anyone who cares about drifting to this circuit. Being able to cleanly do a run at Minami is the mark of advanced driving skill, bravery, and raw commitment. I always wanted to try it, but now it’s been turned into a gravel course, with admittedly good reasoning. Kumakubo-san is concerned about parts availability for ’90s cars that drifters and racers love so much and adapting his business to the modern world. Nobody wants to risk crashing their cars on a dangerous old circuit, nor do D1 drivers want to risk their lives. According to the same post, “the progress of driving technology and significantly reduced the number of people who could drive safely on the south course.”
The past few days of my Instagram feed have been full of “Farewell Minami” posts and clips of the last D1GP runs at the storied drift stadium. It has really bummed me out that I won’t even be able to go there and touch the fabled tarmac. Call me a weirdo, but circuits are special and they are places I want to visit when I travel. There doesn’t even have to be racing, the tarmac tells the story in its own way.
Kumakubo-san, the circuit owner, has had the best intentions in heart for the circuit. Maybe it was really time for a change after two decades of drifting at the same circuit. After all, there are six other circuits to drive that are much less dangerous, much less costly, and more fun for the regular cast of visitors who drive at Ebisu. The track condition is confirmed with this video of Kumakubo-san driving his V8 Toyota 86 on the newly un-paved Minami circuit.
If I peel away the years of admiration for the place, this is excruciatingly cool. It might also be an original idea with some serious prescience behind it. Imagine more nice and smooth gravel tracks to drive in the United States. I’d be all over that. Light-duty all-terrain tires are cheap, and cars are easy to lift these days. I might be sad, but I am not going to turn my nose up at loose-surface fun. Kumakubo is treating this as an experiment, with a flat dirt oval for motorcycles at the center of Minami and the rest of the course as a rallycross stage that is relatively smooth. He has experimented in the past with rallycross and old drift cars as well in this Noriyaro video. “This course may not be accepted by either drift or dirt. But if you don’t do something, the category itself will disappear…”
Minami isn’t dying, it’s just changing. There is still good news because Kumakubo-san plans to repave School Course and expand the Nishi course to include a new drifting course for the next generation of drivers and cars. The translation isn’t entirely clear but there seems to be a possibility that Minami could always return as a tarmac circuit. “But, anytime, [an] asphalt South Course can be returned.”
After all, rallying is just drifting. With a bit of help, of course.
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