From ambitious roots, racing relatively pedestrian cars, to competing on the world stage in some of the highest performing race cars, at some of the most iconic tracks motorsports has to offer, drift racing legend Ken Gushi’s story mirrors Toyota’s development of its own performance-focused GR division.

As one of Toyota Gazoo Racing North America’s professional drivers, Gushi is a hotshoe who has probably driven more miles in reverse than this author has forward. Certainly, he’s driven more of them sideways while putting development time into hot GR machinery.

“I started driving when I was eight,” Gushi explains with a wry grin. “My father was always into cars. He had a repair shop at the time, and in the parking lot I would help him move customer cars around.”

Young Ken found his love for vehicles quickly, gravitating toward rally racing because that form of competition always appealed to his dad. “Because of his influence, I was very hooked on driving and racing. Specifically rally racing, because that's what he was all about.”

“My mom would take me to some of his races in Okinawa,” Gushi’s childhood city which is currently home to roughly 1.5 million. It was there, perched on his mom’s shoulders, where he’d watch his father tackle the various gymkhana courses and rally tracks.

With people like that working as pro drivers for the company, it’s little wonder Toyota and its GR division are cranking out some extremely fun vehicles.

And Ken’s love for Toyota sports cars goes back as early as his memories. “When we moved to the States, my dad and I would watch the Initial D anime series,” which (if you’re not already aware) was a show following a young tofu delivery driver who used his father's rear-wheel drive Toyota Corolla (frequently referred to as an AE86) to complete his route – usually sideways.

In a turn seemingly plucked right from the Hollywood silver screen, Gushi casually mentions “That’s the car we had”. Alright, then.

That car became the inspiration for the Scion FR-S (sold as the Toyota 86 in other markets) and more recently returning in a second generation officially as the GR86.

While living stateside, Ken Gushi’s dad learned of the numerous dry lake beds found in California’s interior, specifically El Mirage dry lake bed – the same one at which there were ample land speed driving attempts at the time. A local ranger told them to stick to the lake bed’s edges and have fun.

“We would use bushes as clipping points and I would try to do donuts around them,” Gushi said, talking about how he honed his skills. It was here they would mark out a rally-style course and try to beat each other around the dry lake. “At the same time, I would try and mimic what this Initial D kid was doing in the canyons. Drifting, transitions through corners, Scandinavian Flicks.” That's where Ken started his path into drifting.

About two years after Ken and his dad discovered El Mirage, the Japanese Pro Drifting Association brought its D1 series to America and held competitions to search for drivers on this side of the Pacific. Ken was only thirteen years old at the time yet he made it through all the qualification rounds to wind up in the top three out of that entire talent pool. He describes his car, a Nissan 240SX, as if it were prepared yesterday.

“We put a Japanese SR20 engine into it and bumped up the power a little bit.” It was that car – and Ken’s talent, which secured that podium performance. Sponsorship followed, and those bucks helped to turn the thing into a full-blown competitive car. “We dumped a ton of money into it. Made it competitive, added a roll cage, a full body kit. Basically made it a race car,” Ken smiles. “A lot of people don’t know this fact,” he grins, “But when I was fifteen I got picked up by Ford Performance,” making him the very first official Ford driver in pro drift – anywhere in the world.

Three years later, his contract with Ford was coming to an end. Just in time for Toyota's performance and youth-focused brand Scion (RIP) to be looking to enter the world of professional drifting.

“Scion approached me and said 'hey, we want to get into drift.'”

He was confused. Scion wanted to use a front-wheel drive Scion tC as its drift entry – at the time the FR-S didn’t exist yet. “I was very skeptical at first. But it was a part of Toyota, ultimately my favorite brand, so yeah, why not. Let's do it,” Gushi said.

It helped that Scion promised to convert his drift car to rear-wheel drive. Today Gushi remembers it fondly, because his eight years with Scion lead to his current ride and was a foot in the door to Toyota.

Flash-forward to today, and we find Gushi – now with 19 years of experience slinging cars sideways professionally. He’s again wheeling a GR Toyota and has done so under his own banner of Ken Gushi Motorsports where he’s found success, producing multiple podium finishes as an owner-driver. That’s no mean feat, as anyone who knows the intricacies of professional racing will attest that sitting on both sides of the boardroom table is a monumental task.

“I actually do the build myself, with the help of other people and companies,” he said referring to the car he wheels before describing the finer points of dealing with sponsors and the business end of racing. Those two talents are generally not found in the same human, but Gushi pulls it off successfully.

Next year will be his twentieth competing professionally in what’s currently known as Formula DRIFT, and Gushi says getting into the GR86 is like coming full circle given how he started honing his drifting skills all those years ago on a California dry lakebed.

“In 2012, when Scion launched the FRS, the FRS was the rebirth of the AE86.” The car of Gushi's childhood. “The passion that we all had when we owned and drove the AE86,” he recalls, “it was the same group of guys, the same mentality. Those people were the ones that recreated the AE86 in the FRS,” he said.

It makes Ken happy, finding himself piloting a custom GR86 drift car in Formula D. “It's kinda cool how I started in the AE86 and now I'm in the GR86 as a professional. Representing Toyota,” he grins, his passion for both the original and modern cars showing all over his face.

“It’s come full circle.”