These drifters race to more contemporary beat

The phenomenon that is "car drifting" was introduced to Southern Nevada a year ago, and enthusiasts have awaited this weekend's return of the sport's best competitors.

I thought the event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was in peril about 10 days ago when word spread that Bill Pinkney, one of the original Drifters, had died. Would that force the speedway to cancel tonight's opening rounds of the D1 Grand Prix?

To my chagrin and lust for living in the past, I was informed Pinkney, 81, was the last surviving member of the Drifters musical group, and he probably didn't have a clue about the 21st-century racers who specialize in the high-speed art of tire-smoking controlled slides.

The singing Drifters from the 1950s and '60s gave us the summer classic "Under the Boardwalk," among others. Pinkney had left the group by the time that hit was recorded. But he sang lead on the group's version of "White Christmas."

The wintery visions captured in the lyrics set a scene for the slippin' and slidin' that, in a way, is what drifting is all about.

The world's best drifters are 12 Japanese drivers, and they'll compete at the speedway along with as many as six Americans. Though drivers from Japan might not speak English, horsepower and tire smoke create an international language.

The drifting competition will combine with the NHRA Sport Compact Series for two nights of motor sports -- hip-hop style.

I doubt if any of the hip-hop, rap or techno music to be played at the speedway will include a remake of "Under the Boardwalk." For those of us who listened to that song on transistor radios, we can only hope there isn't.

When that classic was recorded in 1964 -- reaching No. 4 on the Billboard charts -- about the only things imported to America were cheese and the Beatles.

That also was the year the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assembly line, which ushered in the halcyon days of the American muscle car:

Mustang, GTO, Chevelle.

Big cubic-inch engines -- 289, 389, 427-- with gas-guzzling horsepower.

Dual-quad and tri-power carburetion. Hemi engines.

Classic iron and classic exhaust emissions.

But the world has changed. We've become an import country. The stars of the drifting circuit are Subaru, Nissan and Toyota. On the dragstrip, the sport compact cars will be Honda, Mazda and Chevrolet's Cobalt. (Hey, how did a Chevrolet slip in?)

Six-cylinder engines are considered big blocks. The only carbs will be in the hot dogs, as turbochargers and computerized tuning will be the norm.

The high-revving mini-engines blow up more on the dragstrip than Tony Stewart after a stock-car race. There seemingly are more oil leaks on the track from broken power plants than gushed from the Exxon Valdez tanker 18 years ago.

The volatility of engines pushed to produce 1,500 horsepower out of four cylinders causes too much detonation. The drag racing series appropriately is sponsored by Xplod -- a brand of Sony mobile electronics, not a combustive additive used by series competitors.

Meanwhile, the Sport Compact series is foundering. The top pro-level categories combined -- Pro Front-Wheel Drive and Pro Rear-Wheel Drive -- list only 11 cars with points after five events this season.

The NHRA made a noble effort in 2001 to elevate sport compact racing to the mainstream, but it's been swimming upstream. The prevailing current is winning.

With global warming such a serious threat, you'd think racing with turbos on smaller engines would be more popular. But Americans who buy tickets to races prefer big horsepower from traditional V-8 engines.

Before drifting was added to the speedway event, crowds were sparse for sport compact racing. It wasn't even a crowd, more like a group waiting to board the Las Vegas Monorail.

Drive a mid-1960s American-made car to the speedway tonight and you'll be looked at by the hip-hop crowd as though you were riding bareback on a tyrannosaurus rex. Be prepared for a young crowd.

Regardless of feeling like your dad would have at a 1970s rock concert, it will be two nights of fun, racing and, most certainly, culture shock.

If you're a single guy and chat with a cute girl, get proof that she's 18 before asking for her phone number.

Or in my case, before asking for her mom's number.

Maybe she'll remember the original Drifters. If not, I'll hit on Grandma.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or