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Fast Lane Gods: Inside Abuja's Breakneck Drifting Scene

Abuja's drifting scene is bubbling with a network of motorsport drivers and enthusiasts with a need for speed, aiming to build a motorsport culture in Nigeria. Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu takes a deep dive into this high-octane world.

While drifting might seem like a relatively new concept, a lot of people may be unaware that the art of finessing a corner with your car has been around since the 1970s. The sport was born in Japan when Kunimitsu Takahashi, a famous motorcyclist turned driver, invented the skill and Keiichi Tsuchiya perfected and popularised it in the mountains some years later. According to Wikipedia, when drifting, the driver intentionally oversteers with loss of traction while maintaining control of a car through the entirety of a corner; a skill that takes a lot of practice – not to mention burnt-out tyres – just to perfect. As with most of the cool shit the world has received from Japan (emojis, PlayStation and sushi amongst others), the drifting technique grew in popularity amongst professional and street racers in the country and many anime and manga (again, thank you, Japan) series also started depicting this interesting sport in their stories. Soon, drifting evolved into a worldwide phenomenon.

Abuja is renowned for many things: top-notch kilishi, a criminally underrated music scene and superb roads. The city’s bubbling drifting scene relies on the latter. For people who grew up in the purpose-built capital city shortly after its inception, watching the city grow could be likened to watching paint dry. The disjointed nature of the city early on meant communication was limited between districts and in a pre-digital world, that meant a lot. Commutes to the city centre presented opportunities for new residents to marvel at the expansive pre-constructed highways and imagine what life could be like in a few decades.

The earliest communities that settled in the city were not only representative of the social castes of the country itself, but also the core services and functions a new city would require. Civil servants and military officers filed in and settled according to their economics with high-ranking officials and officers populating the high-brow areas and their less illustrious colleagues developing satellite towns. Therefore, it stands to reason that the first batch of millennials who ever tried any remotely risky car stunts on Abuja roads was in one way or the other connected to the ruling class.

Growing up in the city decades later did not shake this notion for me – it, perhaps, informed it. Federal secondary schools are not given enough credit for the variety they present in childhoods. I attended a school where certain students drove in-year model Benzes and Bimmers while some of us arrived by city buses. The longer we spent together, the more our interests intersected and by our final years, influences had been shared. One such example was a mutual love of cars. Whether you drove or not, you quickly realised the value of not being a pedestrian in the sprawling metropolis.

Some of the youngest people involved in drifting in the city got their starts as teenagers. My earliest encounter with it came at the hands of a school friend with who I share a birthday. The day we turned 16, his mom finally let him take her 1996 Corolla out for a spin. While I was the more precise driver, neither of us had a license so it didn't make much of a difference. After an evening of unsupervised celebrations, we hopped back in to make our way home and that was when it happened. It is entirely commonplace to see two (or more) fresh-faced kids driving at 100MPH in a 60MPH neighbourhood, just because of how good the roads are. Ten minutes later, I experienced my first ever drift at the corner of J.S. Tarkar and Faskari Street. Coming in hot and only slowing down to pull the handbrake were the only memories I had of the event for a month. I had never felt that much adrenaline, and I wasn't even the one driving. Dry-mouthed, I asked him why he had done it and he said simply, “because.”

While there is a significant risk to bear when one drifts in the middle of a busy street, there is also the issue of significant cost. Burnouts might look amazing but the tires are the real victims here. Case in point: drag tires cost upwards of $150 a pop while regular use radials cost about a hundred dollars less. Some of the semi-organised exhibitions take anywhere from two to six hours. At an average of 10 participating cars (and drivers) per session, that makes 40 tires available to be burnt out. And they do get burnt out in several ways, from doughnuts to tailspins.

Pinpointing the direct source of inspiration for the movement taking hold in Nigeria has proven difficult; everything from car racing video games like FORZA to the 2006 installation of the Fast and Furious franchise have been cited as possibilities. Regardless of the source, it is clear that car culture and its offshoot, motorsport, found the perfect home in the North. As previously mentioned, the affluent members of the society populated a lot of the central districts and raised their families in these communities. Anyone blessed with sight who has visited the Capital city is aware of the range of vehicles housed there. Everything from supercars to luxury automobiles have been reported as far back as the early noughts. With a healthy obsession, access to a network of multiple car owners and the best roads in the country, the question of why it began has proven redundant. Perhaps the inane human need for control in difficult situations has something to do with why people drift cars around corners, but all that is speculation.

There are reports about some of the earliest informal drifting exercises organised at the Central Mosque in Abuja. People just drove in, drifted for an hour, and drove out. Unhindered. Fast forward a few years and the exhibition spaces had increased exponentially. Drift spots were popping up all over the city, even in exclusively suburban areas like Apo and Life Camp. While these displays were generally frowned upon by authorities, there were no overt attempts made to shut down the budding activity. The stance of the police and FRSC remained that these displays were illegal and would be shut down if they received actionable intel. Ironically, most of these exhibitions repeated venues for ease, meaning that there was always actionable intel. The biggest constraint was policing multiple event venues simultaneously. And so the events grew in scale and ferocity.

Like many things in Nigeria, motorsport has operated in the proverbial dark regarding the lawfulness of the activity. While street races and displays are still deemed illegal, there were no legally acceptable versions of these events in existence, to begin with. If your preferred outlet involves spinning on four wheels until you feel sick and ruin your suspension, then you would be out of luck for an approach that is considered both legal and satisfactory. For this reason, the credit goes to the pioneers who risked life, limb and their vehicles to create experiences so compelling they have been legitimised by the same authorities who sought to stop them a couple of years ago.

Just a year after the first AUTOFEST, interests in Motorsport peaked and the drifting scene in Nigeria took off with the launch of Drift League Abuja. DARKKNIGHTS MOTORSPORT, an Abuja-based motorsport organisation officially launched the Drift League in 2018. Starting from basic drag races to mapping out street races in Karmo, their goal was to pioneer, instigate, motivate and inspire motorsport culture in Nigeria and, in turn, accelerate the engineering growth of our automotive industry.

If you ever had a need for speed, running up smoke and wearing down tyres, then Drift League would definitely feel like home. Drift League was the next step in Nigeria’s race towards a faster future, fully packed with drifting events and participating celebrity drifters from around the globe all coming to the Federal Capital Territory to put the pedal to the metal. It became the first fully-fledged event dedicated to drifting in Nigeria bringing Nigerian competitors to the international Motorsport arena.

Motorsport in Nigeria and more specifically in Abuja is marred by the outlook that it is a club exclusively meant for the ‘elite’ in the city – the elite being the kids of the rich/earliest settlers. This is both untrue and exclusionary. The culture also trickled down to the less well-off: kids in Corollas and 406s were trying to do donuts too and they tried everywhere. From parking lots to streets with no traffic. According to Sadiq Abubakar, a photographer and life-long motorsport aficionado, the point is not to own/have access to the fastest or most audacious vehicles, but to be willing to level up in terms of specs. Abuja (and Northern Nigeria) is home to some of the legacy Nigerian automobile enhancement facilities in the country. Auto-shops exist for the more mundane daily tasks that come with being a car owner: an oil change here and a new gasket there, but their true passion lies in taking a car with less than 240HP output and making it a 300-400HP monster.

Another reason why motorsport has not quite taken off is the disparity between participating vehicles. Think about it as a form of bloodsport, you would not expect a welterweight and a light heavyweight fighter to employ the same tactics in battle simply because they are both fighters. Sadiq helped detail many of the challenges spectators and fans alike face when attending these events. His fascination with the sport happened early; his older brother was friends with an infamous enthusiast, Kaka, in the late noughts and this got him interested in it. Unimpressed by the quality of the media they showed him early on, he decided to make a name for himself documenting the scene with top-tier footage and visuals. Up until 2017 he had never attended an event on his own with his brother (and his group of friends) constantly keeping him abreast of the latest developments in the scene. He finally got his golden ticket after joining a WhatsApp group of like-minded individuals and mutual friends. Shedding their fascination for something concrete, they made plans to attend their first exhibition together. “The minute I arrived, I realized I could drift too if I tried hard enough. I felt like my background gave me some sort of edge; all those years playing FORZA had to be good for something,” he recalls.

One of his first (and most important) observations was the fact that after watching cars do disjointed donuts for two hours, the event began to drag a little. Sure, ever so often, a different vehicle would line up and attempt something more audacious than the last (often failing) and then pass the proverbial baton to the next vehicle. There was no sync. “I just don’t feel like we apply enough creativity to the events. I’m constantly watching YouTube for tricks and I saw something a while back that I'm yet to see in real life. Two vehicles drifting in tandem. I think it was some South African drivers. They drift in opposing directions and then line their vehicles up inversely and then they switch cars while the drift is still happening. I’m not sure there is anything quite like it, hands-down the most mesmeric car trick I ever saw. We need that kind of range,” he laments. Perhaps the most indicative factor of the lack of creativity is the lack of collaboration and the fact that drifting is a solo event; there is a valid point of view from all parties involved.

Further detailing his experiences with other motorsport enthusiasts, Sadiq believes the scene could be helped by just communicating better. “I’ve pitched a few things to organisers in the past but it’s hard to get people to listen. There are so many reasons the media documenting the sport is all over. There are never any press pits, there is rarely ever any coordination and aside from weak pictures, people can get hurt physically if there aren't proper space arrangements,” he shares. “I DM’d this driver for the last event DarkKnight had in Life Camp and offered to shoot him for the day, he said yes and I took some pretty great pictures at the end of the day. For some reason, the energy felt different than it did online and he ended up not taking the photos. Eventually, DARKKNIGHTS MOTORSPORT reached out for them but I ended up not selling them, I just built my portfolio. I just feel like there is a big disconnect between content creators and the participants in this space.”

Most calculated risks yield reward, yet this isn't the case for this high octane activity. “200k is the biggest pot I’ve seen and that was at the Drift League event. The sport doesn’t exactly pay right now. I know a few people who try to do public drag race events but most of the time it's just private parties,” Sadiq explains. For the average car enthusiast, that’s barely enough for a full tire change, so it begs the question, what sort of structure is necessary to create a sustainable circuit for actual athletes? Sadly, Nigeria itself is the biggest stumbling block to the progress of the activity. The same lack of development prevalent in most facets of sport (and life) is present here. Being granted actual recognition as a sport would be a good start, signalling a conducive environment for professionals and investors to sow their seeds.

Featured Images Credit: Sadiq Abubakar

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