Cindy McCain doesn't remember all the details. It might have been six years ago. Maybe seven. But this much, at least, McCain recalls with perfect clarity: She was watching television with her oldest son, Jack, when footage flashed across the screen of race cars skidding sideways as though they were on ice.
Looks kind of cool, McCain thought to herself, but how'd they do that?
For most people, the curiosity probably would have ended there. But McCain, the wife of the Republican nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, is anything but ordinary. Although a wide swath of the public views her as reserved and distant, she is actually quite the opposite in private. When Cindy McCain, 54, encounters something that intrigues her, she embraces it with the zeal of a toddler on Christmas Eve.
And so McCain began to learn as much as possible about this mysterious driving technique. It turned out it was called drifting and had origins tracing back to the mountains of central Japan in the early 1990s. Months after first seeing drifting on television, McCain traveled to Japan with Jack, now a senior at the Naval Academy and an avid fan of motorsports, to take drifting lessons with a top instructor.
"I love it," McCain said, though she described herself as a below-average drifter. "I'm probably a little too cautious with it because it is abnormal from what you're taught when you're taught to drive. You're taught to keep control of your car. Everything you were taught in driver's ed, forget. That's what drifting is about."
For people who have never seen it, drifting occurs when a driver intentionally skids a car sideways through a turn on a road or a marked course, usually at speeds that exceed the legal limit. It's known among pockets of auto-racing enthusiasts in about 15 countries, and to anyone who has seen the movie "The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift."
The difference between driving and drifting through a turn is dramatic. When a car on a highway approaches a sharp left turn at, say, 75 mph, the driver slows down and turns the wheel to the left.
"But that's not what happens in drifting," said Justin Gardiner, a British journalist who covers the auto industry from Japan and has drifted numerous times. "First, a drifter must have a powerful rear-wheel-drive car, something like a Corvette. When they head into a left turn, they pull the wheel sharply to the left and mash the accelerator, which would get the back end of the car to slide out. Then they quickly turn the steering wheel [all the way] to the right." With the wheels pointing to the right, the car then slides sideways through the left turn before proceeding normally again.
Some drifters employ the emergency brake; others rely more on the clutch. But every method requires lots of practice, not to mention a modicum of chutzpah.
When told that McCain was into drifting, Gardiner was speechless for a few moments. "It's absolutely incredulous," he said. "If you look at Sen. McCain, he looks like the archetypal grandfather. And to find out that his missus is into drifting is, frankly, astounding."
Here's another fact many might find surprising: Cindy McCain, an heiress to a multimillion-dollar fortune, has had a passion for racing nearly her entire life. Her father, the late James Hensley, was known for founding one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the United States. But he also loved cars and first took McCain, raised as an only child, to the Indy 500 when she was about 12 years old. That inspired her in high school, when she took a class in auto mechanics and regularly attended drag races with friends.
"I'm a gearhead," McCain said with a smile in an interview last month in Phoenix.
McCain's love of sports carried into adulthood. In 1986, six years after marrying John McCain, she got a pilot's license and bought a small plane so she could fly him around Arizona in his first U.S. Senate race, which ended in victory. She owns a small percentage of the Arizona Diamondbacks, finished a half-marathon in 2005, regularly attends NASCAR races, and participates in water sports with her husband, who is 72, and the four children they have together.
"She has a spirit that's very difficult to keep down, and she's always looking for something new to do, something new to get into," said Jack, who generally doesn't speak to the media but recently granted "E:60" an exclusive interview. "And whatever it is, she always excels at it."
And what does John McCain think of his wife's passion for racing? "Oh, he loves it," Cindy McCain said. The McCain campaign, however, did not make the senator available for an interview.
In April 2004, just one day after returning home to Arizona after one of her many trips to Japan to drift with Jack, Cindy McCain's spirit was put to the test. She collapsed while having lunch with friends and couldn't talk or walk. At the age of 49, McCain had suffered a mild stroke and was hospitalized for four days.
Six weeks later, McCain was still limited physically and, she said, mired in depression. Jack knew exactly what type of therapy was needed. As a 50th-birthday gift, he bought her a four-day course to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Ariz.
Driving? Six weeks after a stroke? McCain thought the idea was crazy.
"I don't think I can do this," she recalls telling Jack. "And he said, 'Mom, yes you can.'"
The course was called Executive Protection. Students learned to ram parked cars, perform 180-degree spins and handle perilous situations such as drive-by shootings and hijackings.
For McCain, the course offered all that and more. It helped restore her confidence and improve certain skills, such as coordination and concentration.
"I remember her wanting to build up that driving skill set again," said Danny Bullock, her instructor at Bondurant. "I think she was a little nervous that she wouldn't be able to react in time with the car if she needed to make a turn." He added: "She did exceptionally well."
In fact, McCain did so well that, a year later, in May 2005, she returned to Bondurant to hone her drifting skills. She and Jack then rebuilt a Nissan 240SX, installing a tricked-out engine and other parts conducive to drifting (the car is not street-legal). They even competed in amateur drift competitions in the U.S. as a mother-son tandem, finishing as high as second place.
Yes, drifting is more than just a driving technique. It has become a sport, albeit one on the fringe and not sanctioned by the FIA, the governing body for motorsports worldwide. A professional drifting circuit in Japan has existed since 2000. The governing body for drifting in the United States, Formula Drift, was formed in 2004. It hosts about 10 competitions a year, with winners receiving $5,000.
The competitions are held nationwide, but the sport is most popular in Southern California. Although drifting fans in this region relish the sport's cult status, Formula Drift now has a handful of recognizable sponsors, from Mazda to Circuit City to BF Goodrich. There are even technological signs of growth. Tens of millions of people have gone to YouTube to watch drifting. And gamers can drift from the comfort of their sofa using Nintendo's Wii steering wheel.
About 50 professional drifters are listed on Formula Drift's Web site, including Tanner Foust, who won a gold medal in rally car racing at the 2007 X Games. They compete, sometimes two at a time, on small, often curvy portions of standard racetracks. Winners are determined not by who finishes first but by who gets higher marks in a variety of categories, including form, speed and style. Judges seem to have a soft spot for screeching sounds and smoke from burning tires.
"We are kind of a hybrid between action sports and motorsports because drifting is the only motor sport in the world that's actually subjective," said Ryan Sage, a co-founder of Formula Drift. "It's not how you get from Point A to Point B, which most motorsport fans find difficult to swallow at first."
There are other obstacles that have prevented drifting from going mainstream. Amateur drifting has taken place on public roads, which is dangerous and harmful to the sport's image. According to Gardiner, the auto journalist, police in Japan have cracked down on reckless drifting, putting video cameras on notorious roads. Authorities in Saudi Arabia reportedly have installed speed bumps to discourage street drifters.
By all accounts, the best way for racing fans to explore drifting is to take lessons, then enter amateur competitions. McCain has done both. But what would happen if a drifter suddenly found herself living in the White House as first lady? Would she be able to maintain her penchant for drifting? It's a scenario most aficionados of the sport never imagined possible.
"Camp David's got a lot of space," McCain said, laughing. "The only thing I can say is that if we are lucky enough to be able to represent the United States of America, I'll do it the best I can. And I also want to have some fun, too."
David Picker is a producer for E:60.