Drifting returns to Las Vegas

Samuel Hubinette was "drifting" cars long before it became popular.

Actually, he was sliding more than drifting — no tire smoke, just blowing snow and flying ice chips.

The 36-year-old native of Sweden got his first taste of racing when he was 8 and his father would let him take the wheel of the family sedan as it slipped and slid on frozen lakes near his hometown of Jokkmokk, not far from the Arctic Circle.

"Where I grew up, the lakes were frozen about seven months a year," Hubinette said. "People would plow off the snow and create road courses."

He won’t have to worry about icy pavement tonight and Saturday night when the Formula Drift series competes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time.

Drifting involves specially built cars that are pitched at up to 100 mph into controlled slides through curves and corners on a marked course. Winners are determined by execution and style instead of speed.

After exhibitions each of the past two years in the pit area of the LVMS dragstrip by the Japan-based D1 Grand Prix, the speedway opted for a points-paying race in the U.S.-based Formula Drift series. The switch has nearly tripled the field to 46 teams.

Unlike D1 drivers, nearly all in Formula Drift speak English. And instead of D1’s exclusive use of Japanese cars — some of which never were offered for sale here — Formula Drift has the high-powered Ford Mustang, Pontiac GTO and Solstice, Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette in the mix with Nissan 350Zs and Skylines.

"What you see with our series is more of a connection with the cars, and our drivers can talk to the fans and are more approachable," said Jim Liaw, co-founder of Formula Drift, which is in its fifth season.

Practice begins at 6 tonight with qualifying at 9:30. Championship eliminations for the top 16 start at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Tanner Foust, a California native, participated in the inaugural Las Vegas drifting event in 2006 and will start today’s qualifying rounds in his Nissan 350Z as the series points leader, 31 ahead of Hubinette’s SRT-10 Viper.

"Two years ago the drifting event was a one-off deal. It wasn’t for points," Foust said. "This race is very different. We’re leading the points."

Georgian Vaughn Gittin Jr. also raced in the first Las Vegas drift.

"Those exhibitions were races to me," said Gittin, eighth in points. "Every time I race I race hard."

Although the forecast is for the low 100s this weekend, it will be nearly 20 degrees cooler on the asphalt than the past two years.

One drifter accustomed to the local heat is Tommy Suell, who moved to Las Vegas six years and began drifting two years later.

A companion event to Formula Drift is the Battle of the Imports sport compact drag racing series. It includes three professional categories, but most of the expected 250 entries will be "grass-roots" racers, according to Frank Choi, BOTI national event director.

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