I was watching Daigo Saito take on Daijiro Yoshihara in the semi-finals of the Formula Drift USA 2012 opening round at Long Beach.
Getting to see the respective 2011 Formula Drift ASEAN and USA champions battle against each other made the 20-hour journey from Singapore to Los Angeles well worth the trip.
Daigo lost to Daijiro and that means a slightly less exciting angle for my story but still, it is a highly commendable achievement from Daigo.
Daijiro has been competing in this Formula Drift USA series since 2004, finally winning the championship last year, while Daigo is only making his debut in this series.
Although one can say that Daijiro has an advantage because he is familiar with the track and his car is set up to suit the track, Daigo sees no excuse for being new to his Achilles Tires Bridges Racing team, his newly-built Lexus SC430 drift car or the tricky Long Beach track.
He eventually came in third, moving on to beat American Matt Powers after losing to Daijiro and was feeling a tad disappointed with his performance.
“My aim is to finish first in everything I compete in and I’m a little disappointed that I only came in third, but I will keep trying my best and the top is always my goal. Was it tough against Dai? Well if it was easy I would have won, haha! Still, I won’t be letting him off so easy the next time!” says Daigo modestly when I spoke to him after the podium ceremony.
To those unaware, Daigo cannot speak a word of English and has to rely on his team-mate Robbie Nishida to interpret conversations or even order food for him at the restaurant.
He may have felt a little uncomfortable in a foreign land with the communication barrier, but once on the track he just focuses on adapting quickly to it and getting the drift right.
I was probably one of the few Singaporeans at the event that weekend – I know of a Singaporean mechanic working for the Falken team – and I felt immense pride when two Asians made it to the podium.
Once again, I found myself thinking and wondering when we will ever have a Singaporean grace a step on the coveted podium of a Formula Drift USA event.
Limited by physical, legal and financial resources, it is a huge challenge to groom a local drifter to the international stage but it is not entirely impossible and it will take a lot of time and effort.
Like the rest of the motorsports in Singapore – be it GT car racing, formula car racing or go-karting – there are hopes for local drifters to make it overseas.
Thus far, only one Singaporean has ever participated in the Formula Drift USA series – Ivan Lim made his inaugural American drifting appearance at Round 7 of the 2009 Formula Drift USA series at Irwindale Speedway and then competed once more at Round 1 of the 2010 series at Long Beach.
“It is expensive to run in Formula Drift USA. The competition is intense, just like in the ASEAN series, and the level of competition is varied from top to bottom. The USA series has a longer history – this is their ninth year – and they have seven rounds a season, so naturally the teams and drivers there are more well-funded. We do have talent in Singapore, like Ivan Lim and Jansen Tan who have lots of potential, but one cannot develop that talent without any grounds,” says Marcus Lim, co-founder of the Formula Drift Asia series.
Returning to compete in the Formula Drift Asia series this year are stars like Daigo Saito, Manabu Orido, Ken Gushi and Robbie Nishida. The season starts in Malaysia next month before coming to Singapore in June.
Daigo has proven that Asians can be on par with the professional American drifters, but then again, he is of an exceptional breed.