“Loud, obnoxious, rowdy cars are inherently fun,” Tony Angelo tells me. “Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t matter what year it was made. It doesn’t matter if it’s fuel injected or carbureted.”
Tony says this standing next to his two most beloved cars, his numbers-matching 340 Dodge Demon he’s had since he was in high school, and the 700 horsepower Scion FR-S he used to compete in Formula Drift.
One is a classic muscle car. The other is a top-of-the-world drift car. He calls them both his hot rods, and he’s right to do so.
At first glance there is little in common between hot rodding and drifting. One looks old, the other looks young. One looks like it plays heavily on tradition, while the other doesn’t seem interested.
But spend time in the two cultures and you see that they’re both filled with homebuilt cars tuned to destruction, packing dive bars and barbecues with tattoo’d punks, acting as havens for the weird, nerd, outcast speed freaks living in this country.
Get to know hot rodding and drifting and it becomes hard to see any differences between them, impossible to miss their similarities.
“I like cars that feel out of control, and these cars feel outta control,” Tony says of his Demon and his FR-S. “For different reasons. The rudimentary suspension on this car with 400 horsepower is definitely exciting,” he says of his Dodge. “This car with far advanced suspension and twice the power is also super exciting,” he says of the Scion. “They’re both completely different and super fun to drive.”
If there’s anyone to explain how the ethos of hot rodding is very much present in modern drifting, it’s Tony.
He was one of the very first people to bring drifting to America. He used to ship over parts from Japan for his old Mazda RX-7, and his connect started sending along VHS tapes full of drifting clips along with his orders. Tony (or anyone else in the country for that matter) had never seen anything like it. It looked dangerous and exciting and Tony started to trying to do it himself. Then he got his friends involved, and things spread from there.
He’s had one of the longest careers in professional Formula Drift, both competing in and working for the series itself.
Now he works for none other than Hot Rod Magazine, his even older automotive passion. Before he had his rotary Mazda, Tony bought his numbers-matching Demon. It was more car than he knew what to do with, but he kept it running and working. He’s actually working on the car right this very moment on the YouTube show he hosts for Hot Rod on how to wrench on your own car.
It’s easy to see why Hot Rod hired him. I talked to him at his old shop in Philly (the Snake Pit, he called it), and his mechanic cred was pretty clear.
In this little shop in the middle of the block on a neighborhood side street was an early ‘70s Dodge Challenger he and his buddy bought out of a field while driving crosscountry, his friend’s A-body Dodge Dart engine donor, a spare Nissan 240SX convertible waiting on some work, Tony’s FR-S and Demon, and his older Formula Drift car. That one is a Scion tC converted to rear-wheel drive using parts from a Supra.
In one corner of the shop is a drill press from the ‘20s, in a drawer is his father’s father’s tool kit filled with the tools his mother’s father used as a tool and die maker in the UAW. Up against a far wall is a South Bend lathe taken from a 1942 submarine. “All I think of when I see this,” I tell Tony looking at the almost completely exposed machinery, “is 9,000 ways to lose a finger.”
“Or your face,” Tony is quick to reply. “You can definitely kill yourself with that thing.”
This mix of new parts and old machines fits in perfectly with Tony’s understanding of the cars he builds.
More than that, his FR-S is more like a hot rod, physically as much as spiritually, than you might expect. While most of the professional Formula Drift field uses an American V8, Tony’s car has a Toyota four-cylinder, but just about everything else added to the car comes from America.
His transmission is made in Pennsylvania. His quick-change rear is made in Pennsylvania. His axles and driveshafts are from North Carolina. His suspension arms are handmade in Texas.
These are speed shop parts, developed for NASCAR road racers and dirt track sprint cars. They’re the only components strong enough to handle the stresses of running a pro drift car.
“I think people need to understand that this is a car that’s built in America by an American dude for a certain purpose,” Tony explains, “but we use what makes the most sense. A lot of times these American parts are awesome, so we use ‘em.”
This kind of attitude is right at the heart of the hot rod spirit.
“The coolest thing about hot rodding,” Tony says, “is the ability to take whatever is at your disposal and make the raddest car you can build with your skills and your budget. It’s just about doing what you want to do.”
“I think originally, hot rodding was really about creativity, and modifying cars and making them do whatever you want.”
“In drifting,” Tony continues, “it’s creativity driven.”
He brings up how drift cars don’t only use highly strung Japanese four- and six-cylinder engines but often come with V8 swaps these days. People have been arguing about it for years. Watch this video from 2012 and you’ll hear Tony even complaining about the ubiquity of lazy lump LS-swaps in professional Formula Drift.
“People have said ok, that’s what they used to do but I don’t have access to that or here’s a cheaper, more efficient solution. Here I can pull this Camaro motor and put it in a 240 chassis,” Tony tells me now. “It’s very much in line with what hot rodders used to do, which was take a giant big block and jam it in an A-body or something and go fast.”
And that’s exactly what I heard when I talked to a dedicated, old school hot rodder a few weeks later.
“Put the biggest motor in the smallest chassis. It’s the same formula,” Jim tells me. You can see him pictured above, all the way on the left with the black hat. We’re standing next to the midengine lakester he built at his shop, Ray’s Hot Rods. “Look us up on Facebook,” he says to me.
“You’ll see videos of us drifting this thing.”
We’re at Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, at a Club Loose drift weekend. Some of the guys out on track are friends of friends of his, and they encouraged him to swing by with his chromed-out Freightliner, his dropped 1960s Cadillacs, and his lakester.
The sound of V8 drift cars ripping past drowns out most of our conversation.
It looked more like the drifters had come to him to see what his builds were about. His lakester, pinstriped by hand, was swarmed with people, asking him how it’s made and how it runs.
They are far from what you think of as a hot rod kind of crowd. They do not listen to Rockabilly music. They do not grease back their hair and talk about necking on lover’s lane. They are the opposite of ‘America’s fading car culture’ as old farts love to claim.
It was funny — the drifters and the hot rodders didn’t only have the same attitude about cars. They even had the same tattoos.
“We built this exactly as it would have been made in about ‘49 to ‘52, but I drive it like it’s 2015,” Jim explains. The 221 cubic inch (3.6 liter), 24-stud Ford Flathead V8 sits behind the driver with Edelbrock heads and an intake. The body was formed by hand, the chassis made from scratch. Jim put in a column shift transmission to make everything fit, but it meant that he needed to put the shifter on the left.
There are only two foot pedals, one for the clutch and one for the gas. “No room for the brakes,” Jim tells me.
There is no radiator. All the car has is two eight gallon water tanks that feed water directly into the engine’s cooling passages. Some Bonneville guys still use the system, as it helps work as ballast, and it means that the engine can only run for about half an hour before it heat soaks.
Most of all, Jim was proud of the engine’s classic 433 Isky cam, just like was used back in hot rodding’s golden era. “You can get a brand new cam from Isky. The old man’s still alive,” Jim beams. “Call and ask for Iskenderian.”
What’s interesting about Jim is how he talks about his scene. He grew up in shops and garages, but he doesn’t have any great love for the static, elderly, traditional side of the hot rod world, the same one that had turned me away from hot rods. “I don’t want to build something to sit,” Jim says. “I want to beat the hell out of it.”
That’s the thing about today’s drifting scene matching up so well with today’s hot rod scene. It’s not only that the style of drifting mirrors the style of hot rodding from half a century ago, it’s also that now, in 2015, the hot rodding community is starting to mirror the mindset of drifting. It’s not just about the cars; it’s about driving them.
“For all intents and purposes this car is pointless,” Jim says about his lakester, “except to beat the shit out of it.”
Don’t think I’m just talking about commonalities between hot rodding and drifting in New Jersey alone. Yes, these New Jersians share the same tats and beards and paint jobs. But the point is true in any drift scene in the country. Even the drift cars built to look as traditional or Japanese as possible also have a hot rod spirit to them.
Crews like Animal Style out in California slam their cars to the ground, paint them cherry red, and cover them in glitter graphics. They are as close to real life Fast and the Furious as you can get.
But there’s nothing in their spirit that you wouldn’t have found in someone building a T-Bucket or a lead sled Mercury half a century ago. The cars might look different, but the ideals are the same. Animal Style’s cars might share the same look with each other, but they run different chassis and when they competed at this year’s top American drift meet, Final Bout, they came with an RB straight six and an SR20 straight four from Nissan, a 1JZ straight six from Toyota, and an LS V8 from GM. Like hot rodders, they do not discriminate.
It took me a while to see this picture clearly. The older generation in this country is only beginning to realize that kids raised on video games and YouTube immediately grasp what’s awesome about the spirit of hot rods. The video below (currently at 40 million views, if you’re wondering) from Roadkill is a perfect example.
Watch how kids react to a 1930 Ford Model A rat rod in comparison to the car that one might think they would prefer, a 2012 Lamborghini Aventador.
The kids go apeshit for that rat rod. It’s different and it’s personal, and it’s louder and wilder than any store-bought Lambo.
That video came out in 2012. I never saw anything like it when I was younger.
Growing up in the ‘90s, there was nothing I could find less interesting that hot rods. All I ever saw of them were candy coat show queens, parked out on some grass lawn in Sacramento, polished and adored by some fat old man with a grey beard and a long winded story to tell. They were not of my generation. They did not appeal to me. They were not fast, they were not loud, they were not interesting or new. Everything I saw of hot rods was stuffy and old and stale.
It wasn’t until years later that I started reading websites like JalopyJournal and HooptyRides and, yes, Jalopnik before I worked there, to learn about what hot rodding was like during its heyday of America’s postwar boom years. I had grown up in California, but I didn’t know about veterans turning belly-mounted fuel tanks from their WWII airplanes into land speed record cars running out on salt flats.
I didn’t know about the guy who moved the engine in his ‘55 Chevy gasser so far back that it ended up where his front seats used to be and he had to sit in the rear. I didn’t know about pinstripe guys showing up to work in a dress. I didn’t know about George Barris wandering around custom car shows in fluffy slippers and picking up the trophy girls. I didn’t know about the weirdness of hot rodding or its outcast rebel nerd spirit. I didn’t know how Wild West it all had been.
And the first place I ever saw that kind of spirit in person was at a drift meet, fortuitously located at one of the hot rod centers of the East Coast. I don’t really know how I ended up going out to see a Club Loose event at Englishtown, but I was hooked the moment I arrived. I remember thinking it was like being inside a YouTube video.
The cars looked like they’d been hauled out of a junkyard. Some of them didn’t have hoods, others didn’t have any front end at all. Some cars ran stock engines with new and huge turbochargers, others swapped in straight sixes, V6s, and others crammed American V8s into small Japanese frames. There were Nissans and Pontiacs and BMWs.
If there was a strict dogma, it didn’t have anything to do with what car you bought, or how you made it look, or anything else that seemed to define other exclusionary car cultures. The only thing that mattered was how your car drove, and if it could spin tires whenever you wanted it to.
I kept going to these Club Loose events and I started to get to know the people there. Biker gang looking guys, getting drunk and breathing fire in a barn they converted into a dive bar.
They were like the guys I had read about in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s. Outcast types who just wanted to go fast. They didn’t care what they built so long as it held together and seared itself into your ears and your eyeballs.
Is this Nissan 350Z with a monster of a Chevy V8 not a hot rod?
The guy giving me the finger in the picture below swapped a Toyota 1UZ V8 into his 240SX in his driveway with the help of a friend. He didn’t care how it looked. He just wanted to make smoke. Actually, he wants to twin-supercharge it now.
A Toyota Corolla AE86, about as classic a drift car can be, is equally at home on a track as a Corvette or a 240SX with an LS swap. All three are pictured below. The car on the left is driven by a Korean American, the one on the right by a Russian visiting the US.
Does your car shoot flames? Awesome. Just have an extinguisher handy for when your bumper catches fire.
Drift cars are meant to be driven. Doors are meant to be banged.
There’s a scene in one of the first episodes of Roadkill where the former editor-in-chief of Hot Rod is watching a bunch of Australian hoons shred tires on a track instead of parking their rides at a car show like many American hot rodders and sitting in a lawnchair all day. “Seriously,” he asks the viewer, “Why don’t we do this?”
We do. The spirit of bone-crushing, teeth-gnashing hot rodding of the past is alive and well in the United States. Go to any drift event and you’ll find it.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove, except for that Instagram picture. That was shot by theenemyphotos and shows Drift Team Animal Style at Final Bout II this year.
Contact the author at email@example.com.