Talent is all smoke and no mirrors, if you get my drift

I'm going at roughly 80kmh straight at a barrier while being driven by a man who talks to his car. This is one way to spend a Friday evening.

What do you say to your car?

"OK, do good today."

Er, what does the car say?

"You're not pushing hard enough."

Right now, of course, no one's talking. Not with a barrier approaching. I am sitting next to the charming Kenshiro Gushi in a stripped-down Toyota 86, helmets on, engine growling like a bad-mood bear, adrenaline arriving like a flood, which is when he does his thing.

One hand flies between gear stick and handbrake. One hand on steering wheel. Two feet flitting between three pedals. It's four-limbed coordination that only a rock drummer can rival. Harmony at high speed.

Formula Drift driver Kenshiro Gushi shows during a demonstration yesterday how easy it is to do what Formula One drivers, as he points out, are trained not to do.  ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Gushi can do this at speeds over 200kmh, so this is kindergarten stuff. Still, it feels like I'm in a car chase - he does stunts for car commercials - where cars appear to go too fast and then slide and skate into a corner and accelerate before they can hit a wall.

At one point the car is going one way and then suddenly it's facing another way. There's no time for fear. Only wonder.

"Controlled chaos," Gushi calls it as the car skids, surges and dances past three cones like a slalom skier past poles. He's going to hit the cone I think and then the car drifts by with a squeal and a snarl, for he's a man steering 1,000 horses with perfect precision. At one point the car is going one way and then suddenly it's facing another way. There's no time for fear. Only wonder.

Gushi looks Japanese and talks Californian - he was born in the first place and raised in the second - and uses his tyres to send smoke signals (during competition he may change burnt tyres every two laps). He's part of Formula Drift, who are best explained as a tribe who do "what F1 drivers are trained not do. They go in straight lines, we go sideways".

  • Pulsating events at the F1 Pit Building

  • Look out for these activities at the Formula One Pit Building in today's Racing Hearts charity event from 5-9pm:

    • Six lucky members of the public can enjoy front-row seats to car drifting action, with Formula Drift star Kenshiro Gushi on the wheel. To bid for this experience, Singapore residents can submit a minimum bid of $200.

    •A convoy featuring over 60 cars of various marques like the Ferrari 458 Speciale will be at the Pit Straight and viewable under the F1 track lights.

    • The public can also try their hand at go-karting.

    •Sign up for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Marina Bay Street Circuit.

    •Handicrafts handmade by Community Chest beneficiaries will be on sale.

    •Visitors can race against the clock to perform the fastest pit stop on a F1 replica car.

    •Design your own F1 car and see it come to life in real-time•.

    For more details, go to

They're not conventional racers who do laps and time themselves but pursue an automobile "art form" whose beauty lies in expression. Think of them as overgrown skateboarders who are rated by three judges on how close they get to a wall, their commitment to a move, their lines, their style, their consistency. It's why he's part of today's entertainment as race promoters Singapore GP and the title sponsor Singapore Airlines raise funds for Community Chest beneficiaries.

To prepare for this 30-second ride I've said a prayer, swallowed a motion sickness pill and read Martin Luther King's Antidotes for Fear sermon but something more compelling than fear presents itself.

Trust. In talent.

David Feherty, the golf commentator, once lay down on the ground, put a tee in his mouth and let the golfer John Daly drive a ball off it. One of the TV technicians thought it was a bad idea, till Daly snapped: "Keep your eyes closed."

Daly trusted himself as did Rick Wallenda, the tightrope walker, who told a newspaper this year: "I trust my skill and I trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ". I simply trust Gushi because who doesn't love a maverick.

At 13, his dad, who owns an auto-repair shop, took him onto a dry lake and taught him how to handle a machine. At 14, he borrowed a driver's licence from a customer of his dad's to enter a race. By 28 he was the second-best driver overall in the Formula Drift Pro Championships. This is a guy to trust.

To sit even briefly alongside Gushi is to see sport from its best seat. Inside the action. Even if it's not going quite as far as the writer George Plimpton, who trained as an ice hockey goalkeeper with the Boston Bruins and stepped into the ring to spar with Archie Moore, the world light-heavyweight boxing champion. The latter was not a good fit, for as Plimpton wrote: "I am not properly constituted to fight. Since boyhood my arms have remained stick-like... I have a thin, somewhat fragile nose which bleeds easily."

I am similarly unsuited to this drifting activity because I don't drive and I fear speed. So why do it? Because of curiosity. Because if you get the chance to sit in close proximity to a person who can exhibit a skill better than most anybody in the world, then you seize it.

Pianist, painter, tailor, driver, you want to feel their world, even if it's just a version of it, even if just for 30 seconds, because it will change your understanding of a skill forever. It is genius close up, passion first hand.

Before our drive, Gushi grins and says, "We're pretty much doing what cars are not designed to do. But people love it because it's not normal". Now, in the car, his short demonstration is over and someone opens the door to let me out but he shakes his head.

"We go again," he smiles.

Then he steps on the gas and heads for the barricades and I'm grinning inside. Because I think after 17 years of this, Ken Gushi is having more fun than even me.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2017, with the headline 'Talent is all smoke and no mirrors, if you get my drift'. Print Edition | Subscribe