Despite being only in his early 30s, Ken Gushi is already a seasoned Formula DRIFT veteran. The young Japanese-American driver has been drifting since he was 13, and has competed professionally since he was 15. When Formula D began in the early 2000s, he was still in high school&*mdash;crazy, right?! Before 2019's Round 1 in Long Beach, I had the chance to sit down with Ken and talk to him about how he got to where he is now, some of the hardships of running a team with limited resources, how drifting aligns with his personal life, and where he sees himself in the future. Some of his responses may surprise you.
ANDREW BECKFORD: You're young but you've been in this sport for a while now. You literally grew up in it. I remember way back when your team was just you and your dad. How did the two of you get involved in drifting together?
KEN GUSHI: First of all, thanks for calling me "young," because I'm not so young anymore. I'm 32! But taking me back to when I was young, about the age of 13 fresh out of junior high, my dad and I were watching an anime series called "Initial D." That series helped the AE86 become an iconic car in drifting. It also just so happened that around that time my dad bought an AE86.
One day he says, "Hey, let's go try out the car in the middle of the desert where you won't get in trouble and see if we can do this 'drifting' thing". So at the age of 13, he took me out to El Mirage dry lake bed. He basically put me behind the wheel and said, "Alright, go drive. Learn the car and see if you can get sideways." We did that for about a year almost every weekend. That's how I picked up my love for drifting.
At the same time an organization called Drift Association brought some locals together and held a drift event at Irwindale Speedway. Irwindale Speedway is called "The House of Drift" now, but actually where it began was not in the oval but in the parking lot. We took the Corolla there, did some drifting, and that was really our start.
AB: You have definitely come a long way from those early days. You have a lot more support now, but your team doesn't quite have the same financial resources as, say, Vaughn Gittin's team, or the Falken Tire team. What are some of the major hardships of competing against such high-dollar programs while having a limited budget?
KG: Up until last year I was just a driver. So, all I had to worry about was making sure the car was set up right, flying to the events, driving, and then flying home. But starting this year, I actually took over our motorsports program. So, now we're operating under "Ken Gushi Motorsports." Part of being a team owner is taking on the challenges and stresses of the financial aspect of running a program. In that sense, it's been more stressful. It's additional work on top of just worrying about driving. Thankfully, I have a really strong team backing me up.
[Team members] like Kevin, Takashi, and Ben have been extremely supportive in making sure everything comes together. It's not just a one-man sport. Obviously being a team owner is challenging, but if you have good people behind you, being competitive is possible even with limited resources.
Of course, compared to teams like Vaughn Gittin. Jr with Monster Energy money or Fredric Aasbo with Rockstar [Energy] money, we don't have nearly as much money. But we're still here smiling and having a great time. Our resources are limited but the partners we do have are extremely helpful and we're very grateful for what they've provided. Tire support from Achilles Radial, KW Suspension has been with us for a long time, and we're getting oil from Motul now as well. With all of our sponsors and their help, we're able to make this happen.
AB: It obviously takes a lot of work to run a competitive drifting program, especially considering all of the traveling. At some point something's gotta give. How does being a professional drifter affect your personal life?
KG: Obviously if you really want something you've gotta make time for it. Of course I make time for myself outside of competitive drifting, and away from work. Funny enough, my circle of friends are all car fanatics. So, even if I'm away from cars and competitive drifting, we're still talking about cars when we hang out. That's kind of what you build your life around, right? You build your life around what you love and what you're into. I love cars and drifting. So do my friends. Even when I'm away from drifting I am still surrounded by friends who have the same passion that I do.
Thankfully my friends are also very helpful. I have a friend helping me out here in Long Beach this weekend and will be traveling with us throughout the year. So, my personal life and professional life both revolve around drifting.
AB: Since we're talking about your life outside of drifting, what's something about you that your fans may be surprised to know?
KG: I play a lot of Pokemon. I like Pokemon Go, video games, snowboarding, playing Pokemon Go with women. I love playing with women... I love Selena Gomez...
AB: I hear Selena is single now...
KG: Good! What's up, Selena?
AB: I know I've mentioned this a few times but again, despite your years of experience, you're still a young dude. Where do you see yourself in the future? Where do you want to be professionally and personally 5 years from now? Do you still see yourself in Formula DRIFT or do you want to expand into other forms of Motorsport?
KG: Obviously I want to win the Formula DRIFT Championship. That's why we keep doing this. Drifting is fun, but we have an end goal, and that goal is to win a championship. I've been doing this (drifting) for 15 years now and the closest I've ever got to a championship was second place. I want to go to that next step and win a championship.
Of course, as with any other motorsport, you kind of want to make space for the next generation. Like you said, I'm still "young" compared to some of the other competitors here; but there are much younger drivers out there with a lot of skill. I feel like it's our duty as veterans to start paving the way for the younger generation.
In five years, I still want to be driving competitively but beyond that my goal would be to build a race track. Some place where I can go drifting any time. It would also be to help take drifting and illegal racing off the streets. Basically, I want to create a spot where enthusiasts can come and enjoy driving without breaking the law while having a better experience trying to learn drifting.
As far as other forms of motorsport, wheel to wheel racing would be great but I want to do more Pikes Peak [hill climb] racing. I've done it four times with a lot of success actually. If I can get into a spot where I have a better opportunity to fight for a record time that would be great. Hill climb racing has always been a passion of mine. I think that comes from my father's influence. He's done Pikes Peak a few times, too. So, Pikes Peak will always have a special place in my heart.