On a blind spur of industrial road near Vancouver, B.C., Canada, with a foot of snow on either side of the wet pavement, the kaido racers emerge from the fog. Jinking from side to side like F1 drivers scrubbing tires, they fill the damp air with a cacophony of straight-piped revving.
There are perhaps 25 mostly compact cars with a few JDM vans and trucks scattered in, each low enough to shave the antennae off an ant. As a diesel locomotive thunders out of the mist, the revelers tumble out of their rides, lighting up cigarettes and snapping photos. It is barely above freezing, and everybody here is having the time of their lives.
The "kaido racer" originated in Japan in the 1970s and is a relatively loose term that refers to a wide variety of modifed cars. Although it tends to inspire visions of foot-long flat splitters, extended exhaust, and product-sponsor paint jobs, it's also a scene that allows for a great deal of personal expression. Kaido is just an older Japanese word for road, and these builds were originally inspired by the racing cars of the day, but with a focus on the cosmetic more than the high-speed jousting of true street racers.
Everyone who has ever painted rally stripes on a Mustang or bolted a wing onto the back of their mom's Civic understands the appeal of making your car look faster and giving it some personality, even if you can't give it the beans. Kaido racers crank the personalization dial all the way up to the point that the cars border on rolling art. There are some rules—using genuine wheels, usually deeply dished, and basing your build on a period-correct car from the 1970s or 1980s—but overall there's more a feel to what constitutes a kaido racer than any solid set of blueprints.
"It's all about your own creativity and what you want to build," said Cynthia Lee, who rolled up in a Civic that looked like an explosion at the Hello Kitty factory. "I'm a fashion designer by day, so I've had my fair share of being told what to do or what not to do when it comes to design and I'm not very good at doing what people tell me to do. Letting my creativity run free on my own car, doing whatever I wanted to it like lining the whole interior with faux fur and painting everything pink, was very freeing."
Reid "Rudeboy" Olliffe had his JDM Toyota Soarer (a relative of the second-gen Supra) up on a jack, checking the clearance of his tires beneath the lowered body. Rudeboy and his friend Keith Measures are the hosts of this cruise, an event they call New Year's Touring. It's the second year they've run it, as well as hosting two previous summer events. Up in Canada, there wasn't a contingency plan for bad weather, even when several days of snow paralyzed the city and closed schools and businesses.
"Any chance this might get canceled?" someone posted on Instagram. Rudeboy responded: "Rain, shine, or snow. We tour."
New Year's group drives are a thirty-five-year kaido racer tradition. In the early days in Japan, these cruises were raucously illegal, a youthful backlash to sometimes stiflingly rigorous Japanese societal rules. The cruises blend the ancient Shinto tradition of hatsuhinode, greeting the first sunrise of the year, with the more modern activity of a highway run.
There are multiple styles within the scene. General terms include kyushu, meaning an old car, and shakotan, meaning a lowered car. "Watching people strive to top their previous spec on their cars and trying to do the same thing myself is what keeps me coming back," says Austin Bennett, who brought a Pepsi-liveried widebody Celica with a ground clearance you'd have to measure in sheets of paper.
With tires clearance and vinyl graphics tamped down, we hit the road. Four dudes squeezed into the sardine can of a Pontiac Firefly (Geo Metro in the U.S.) with a sawed-off roof, underglow, and the Apple Computer racing livery of the 1980 Le Mans Porsche 935. Purple rotating lights pulsed in the fog. Camera flashes popped as photographers in the vans leaned out precariously for rolling shots. Two back-seat riders in a Cressida stuck their arms out the window to do tako odori—a flailing octopus dance.
Bennett's Celica was so low it was grounding out its differential, throwing off sparks at every bump. Eventually the road chewed through the drain plug and the whole thing seized up just as Bennett pulled back into his own driveway. He said he had no regrets.
Before that though, there were several stops, chances to check out each other's cars and, in more public parking lots, let the rest of the world admire them as well. There was an electricity in the air, the excitement of the first proper event of the year. We're moving toward longer days and summer cruises, but nobody wants to wait till then to show off what they've been working on over the cold winter.
Measures fired up his most recent project only four days before the meet. It's a Stanza-era Datsun 510 with a Mad Max mien and a cluster of vertical crimson pipes exploding from the side like an aortic dissection."The front lip is a really close color match," someone offered. "No it isn't!" Measures admitted with a laugh.
"I love that people do this to build crazy new unique things and that they motivate each other to do the same. The support they show each other is really beautiful," says Lee, pointing to Measures and Rudeboy. "Touring itself is super fun, but the most fun is when people help each other get their builds together."
With brapping exhausts, and heads bobbing from zero-compliance suspensions, the kaido racers headed back into the night. Back they go into the garage to start wrenching for the coming summer touring events. Winter touring is more hardcore, but the summer events bring even wilder builds: Last year someone turned up in a rolling putting green on $5000 worth of high-offset imported wheels.
Come summer, they'll look back on this cold night with warm feelings of belonging.
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