Hype around Japan’s Meihan Sportsland circuit has been circulating for a while now but, only in the last couple of years has it really reached fever pitch. Having been lucky enough to visit the track myself last year, I managed to get an understanding of how this small go kart track a short drive from the centre of Osaka had earned its fierce reputation for producing some of the best drifters in the world.
Event organisers around the world have sat up and taken note of this. Not so long ago, Meihan legend Naoki Nakamura was invited to California to have a go on a makeshift replica layout laid out at Sonoma Raceway for their Making Meihan event. Since then, Rockingham circuit in the UK have also got in on the act. While their first event featuring a perfectly sized Meihan circuit was met with mixed reviews due to a steep drop in the middle of the hairpin corner, the organisers changed things up for their second attempt at bringing Meihan to the UK. As a result, it was a roaring success and saw some of the coolest drifting I’ve seen in the UK in recent years.
Having moved the layout to a different part of the circuit, there were no more problems presented by Rockingham’s banking. In fact, the elevation change only featured in the last corner of the circuit which actually made for a pretty cool addition. Crucially though, the main ingredients were there: a fast left hander into the circuit, a hairpin with a kink that required speed and commitment and, of course, a very large and immovable wall with a pack of eager spectators along it ready to have their faces sprayed with tyre dust and debris ejected from the rear left corners of the passing cars.
Meihan was in fact one of three circuits that the drivers could choose from on the day. The Outer Paddock was also running, with a large and flowing track having been marked out by tyre walls and cones to keep the constant flow of drifters entertained in a relatively low risk environment.
While it was awesome that this layout was also open for the use at the event, it did result in quite a number of competent drivers playing it safe and sticking to the Outer Paddock rather than pushing their skills on the more demanding Meihan style course. While queues for the Outer Paddock stretched around the car park for most of the day, the Meihan section remained fairly quiet all day long and, from 3PM onwards, had no more than ten cars lined up raring to go at any one time.
I completely understand why some might have been put off. It was fast, risky and one small mistake could see you limping away with a car that resembled a mere shadow of its former self but, really, that was the whole point. The organisers had gone through a great amount of effort to provide the drivers with a new challenge to really test their skills and, unfortunately, it didn’t seem like too many wanted to make the most of this.
On the other hand though, the small queue meant that the drivers who were feeling brave got much more seat time than they would have done otherwise and most quickly found their rhythm, pushing as hard as possible to try and get the magic 90 degrees of drifting angle while running the wall. There were no short cuts to achieving the goal; no amount of extra power or steering lock would have made it any easier. The key ingredients were nothing but speed and aggression and, by combining these two lap after lap, some drivers really came into their own and put on a great show.
If you wanted to try your hand at big entries but didn’t quite feel ready for the Meihan layout, a backwards entry course had also been set up. While this was essentially nothing more than a hairpin corner around a cone, it did provide a large and relatively open space in which to practice flicking your car around.
While plenty of drivers would pop by this makeshift layout for a couple of laps before heading off to another part of the venue, from 3PM onwards I remember seeing only two or three drivers at most having a crack at it. This was a real shame because, although it might not have been the same spectacle as the Meihan course, half an hour on this empty space to practice pushing your car and yourself in a relatively risk free environment would have taught some drivers more than they will have ever learnt at any previous drift practice days.
I really hope that Rockingham can run a similar event in the near future and that we will see more drivers tackle the Meihan layout to push their skills further. Although, in hindsight, the last thing people want to see is larger queues that would make it harder for the drivers to find their rhythm and push themselves as a result. We can only wait and see what happens next.