Kentucky-Fried Driftin’: Sliding through the mountains of Appalachia

Chris Stark

Josh Estey flings his blue Nissan 240SX down a piece of tarmac that resembles the scribbles of a frustrated artist more than an actual road. His friend Vance Kearns gives chase in a matching blue BMW M3. The wails of the dueling straight-sixes—the Nissan’s is a transplant from a Toyota—reverberate through the forest as the two sideways cars come dangerously close to the guardrail—and me, standing behind it. “It’s as sketchy as it looks,” Estey tells me later in the paddock. “There’s no room for error.”

Indeed, this stretch of U.S. Route 421, just outside the small town of McKee, Kentucky, is something even a seasoned hillclimber would treat with trepidation. Replete with tricky off-camber and decreasing-radius corners, it’d be easy to get it wrong. The aforementioned guardrail is the only thing in the way of a 100-foot drop-off. The other side of the road isn’t much better, with a deep drainage ditch backed by a hard cliff face. Yet despite the danger, Estey and about 30 other adrenaline-seeking drifters spend most of the day sliding up and down this Appalachian mountain pass.

So, what’s going on here? Did Hollywood finally green-light my screenplay for Tokyo Drift 2: Drift Harder? Not quite. On a hot mid-August Sunday, Drift Appalachia—a collaboration between Drift Indy, US Drift, and Back Roads of Appalachia—held the first legally sanctioned touge event in the United States.

Touge, or Tōge, is the Japanese word for pass. In the drifting world, the word conjures images of rear-drive Mazdas, Nissans, and Toyotas snaking their way down remote mountain roads, often in the dead of night to avoid law enforcement. In the early 2000s, when drifting made its way stateside, bootleg street drifting videos from outlets like Option and Drift Tengoku, as well as the Initial D anime, circulated through tuner shops, car shows, and online forums. Unsurprisingly, the fledgling American drift scene became obsessed with the touge. It looked fun, challenging, and maybe a little scary.

“Looking back at old videos of dudes in Japan drifting down mountains, the concept of touge has been there since the very beginning,” said Edgar Sarmiento, one of Drift Appalachia’s organizers. “And it was right under our nose this whole time, Eastern Kentucky is only a four-hour drive from my home in Indianapolis.”

A nervous excitement hangs in the muggy morning air as drivers gather in the makeshift paddock—a series of small business parking lots at the bottom of the mountain pass. Everyone has been looking forward to this event all year. Even though the hand-selected drivers are some of the best from Appalachia and the Midwest, most of the guys and gals have only drifted circle tracks and road courses. The technical mountain roads will test their car-control skills.

Lucky for them, professional drifter Chelsea Denofa is in attendance. He has experience on mountain roads with his competition car and so well qualified to give advice. “Be exiting a turn and staring at the next one where you want to be,” he explains during the drivers meeting. “Wherever you look, your car is going to go.” But he is also not one to downplay the challenging nature of the road. “If you can link the course by the end of the day, I’ll give you an Formula Drift license. Ninety percent of the FD field couldn’t link this course.”

If Denofa is good for his word, he should be handing out more than a few professional licenses. Even though drivers are cautious at first, only sliding a corner or two, they quickly develop a rhythm, and many are able to drift the whole road, both uphill and down. As the day progresses, the downhill portion is proving to be the biggest challenge. “Downhill is scarier than uphill because it is a lot easier to gain way too much speed coming into the corners and not be able to scrub it,” says teal S2000 pilot Justin Medina. Indeed, there are quite a few close calls and off-road excursions as cars overcook the downhill corner entries in excess of 70 miles per hour. No one is harmed; only bruised egos and body panels today.

Getting the state of Kentucky to agree to closing down U.S. Route 421 for drifting was a labyrinth of red tape. Fortunately, Drift Appalachia has Erik Hubbard as its secret bureaucracy buster. Hubbard’s nonprofit, Back Roads of Appalachia, is no stranger to organizing motorsports and motorcycle rallies in the Bluegrass State. The organization’s goal is to drive small-town economic development in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia through motorsport tourism.

And we certainly drove economic development. As an act of goodwill, and as a sort prerequisite for the touge, Drift Indy held a round of Street League, its grassroots competition series, just south of McKee in the town of Corbin. The Friday and Saturday before the mountain drifting, slammed Nissans, BMWs, Mazdas, and more lined downtown Corbin as their drivers patronized the local businesses and restaurants.

“I’m always looking for opportunities and demographics,” Hubbard told me over the phone. “Drifting and touge will bring a younger demographic into our region. Younger people spend more money, because they don’t care about the retirement plan yet.”

As the day’s action winds down and the cars take their last laps, everyone in attendance is excited for what the event means for the future of American drifting. “I would love to do something like this again,” says Medina. “I feel like it would be really hard to match something like this to scare me and push myself to progress as a driver.”

Fortunately for Medina and any fan of the motorsport, Drift Appalachia is already hard at work planning its next events. I’ll be there, experiencing drifting as it was meant to be, in the mountains.



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    Gee, I wonder if the National Park Service would reserve one of those almost-single-lane back roads snaking down one of the Great Smokies for an event like this? Or maybe the Blue Ridge Parkway?

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