Cindy McCain takes the wheel in her own race
By David Picker
Special to ESPN.com
Updated: September 9, 2008, 5:05 PM ET
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.
In an exclusive interview with E:60's Lisa Salters, Cindy McCain credits her son, Jack, with helping her to recover from a stroke in 2004 by pushing her to drive race cars.
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.