CATCHING HER DRIFT

Local girl turned national drift racing all-star Verena Mei got behind the wheel only four years ago, but has the guys eating her dust. You may recall seeing her on Miller Lite or Delta Airlines national commercials. On the big screen,she starred in the boxoffice hits Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift >and Rush Hour 2. She was even on The Drew Carey Show as Kukui, a Hawaiian waitress who spanks Craig Ferguson’s

Sarah Pacheco
Friday - April 18, 2008
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Verena Mei has progressed from drifting to drags to road racing
Verena Mei has progressed from drifting to drags to road racing

You may recall seeing her on Miller Lite or Delta Airlines national commercials. On the big screen,she starred in the boxoffice hits Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift and Rush Hour 2. She was even on The Drew Carey Show as Kukui, a Hawaiian waitress who spanks Craig Ferguson’s character, Mr. Wick! And if you’ve ever seen a Nissan or Infiniti car commercial with outlandish stunts - the ones that say on the bottom “Professional Stunt Driver, Do Not Attempt”- then you’ve gotten just a taste of what Verena Mei can do.

The United States’ top-ranked female drift driver and owner of Team Star Girl Racing took a quick trip home recently to compete in NOPI’s inaugural drift competition at Aloha Stadium. A slew of racers and their followers came out in droves Jan. 26 and 27 to see which local competitors would win the preliminary competition for the chance to meet up against the Mainland pros the following day. Mei was one of those top-ranked individuals as the official driver for Niztech, a top Nissan drift and 4-wheel drive shop in Haleiwa owned by “Steevo” Oliberos, one of Hawaii’s best Nissan tuners.


“I’m very excited to have the top female drifter in the country drive for my team ,” Oliberos says,“and she’s a local girl! I’ve seen her progress through the years and she’s become a well-respected and recognized driver throughout the U.S. It’s time to show Hawaii what she’s got!”

Indeed, it seemed everyone on the hot pavement was excited to see what Nissan Motosports/M-Workz’s driver No. 35 had to offer. Outfitted head to toe in red, the tiny racer ambles over, stopping every now and again to sign autographs or pose for a fan’s photo.When she speaks, she reveals a personality so bubbly and infectious, it is hard to imagine her tearing up the pavement at more than 6,000 rpms.

With Mei, V is definitely for victory
With Mei, V is definitely for victory

“It’s all about having fun,” the Pearl City High School grad exclaims. “When I’m out here drifting, it’s a completely different world once I put my helmet on. It’s kind of like a switch. If you think too much, it’s just kind of gonna get to you - it’s almost counterproductive. So you just gotta feel good and have fun, and it normally works out pretty good.”

Last year, Mei was the only American female competing in a professional drift series. A pioneer in drifting, she was one of the first women to compete in the inaugural season of the Formula-D Professional U.S.Drift Series in 2004 and placed first in points at the 2006 D1 License Qualifier at Irwindale Speedway. In 2005, Mei became the first drift driver to attain a non-automotive sponsor in the history of drifting, setting a precedent for the future of the sport. Other amazing firsts for this pint-sized powerhouse include being the first female to compete in a team tandem competition,being the first drifter to take part in a NASCAR autograph session, and driving in the inaugural drift exhibition at the Indy Car Series. In addition, she has been the only drifter recognized as a top female driver at the Lyn St. James Women in the Winner’s Circle event for the past three years.

Amazingly, Mei turned pro just four years ago. She believes the amount of work and focus a person puts into anything will determine how much she gets out of the experience.

“I was brought up with the mentality that hard work will get you anywhere,“she relates.“I come from a family of very strong women.We believe in ourselves; we’re very determined to get where we want to be.”

She actually jokes that she is the only kid in her family who isn’t an engineer. One of her older sisters was a project manager on the H-3, while the other works on F-18 fighter jet engines. Her brother is an electric engineer on the Mainland.

Mei puts her car through its paces
Mei puts her car through its paces

Born and raised in Pearl City,Mei says she didn’t grow up with a wrench in one hand and a spark plug in the other.She earned a marketing degree from Iowa State and worked as a model. Her curiosity about racing first arose in 2000 when she was a Toyo Tires poster model.

“I like to take risks ... or I’ve learned to take risks,“Mei confides. “I like to inspire people because I think a lot of people have a dream, and they really want to pursue that dream,but they’re afraid to take that first step because it’s scary. In my situation, how I thought about it was that if it doesn’t work out, I’m just back to where I started. I just go back to doing whatever I did before, which is not so bad.”

She definitely knew she wanted to see if racing was her calling, but didn’t know where to start. It didn’t help either that during her transition from model to race car driver, most everyone laughed in her face.Mei says she got the brush-off regularly and comments like, “Oh cute, yeah, right, Verena. You’re too nice,” from her male counterparts.

“You know, there’s not too many females, as far as drifting,“Mei says candidly. “Even for a hobby, there are just a handful that I know of. I think it’s mainly because it’s an extreme sport.When you’re getting two feet away from a wall when you’re going 80 mph sideways, I mean, it’s kinda scary.”


Instead of throwing in the towel, she bought her own car and built it herself from the ground up. Mei then called a friend of hers, Bobby Unser Jr. (as in the famous racing Unser clan), with whom she had worked on a commercial. He advised her on race schools and provided encouragement.

Mei attended and graduated from the Motion Picture Stunt Driving School in Palmdale, Calif., in January 2002. She learned how to control a car in extreme situations and perform cool stunts such as drifting, driving in reverse at 55 mph, and pulling 180s and 90s into a parking space.

She impressed her driving instructors so much they invited Mei to join them in the Xtreme Racing League, where stunt drag racing is done on a track. But she had a goal in mind: Instead, she attended the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School in Pomona, Calif., where she could concentrate on the fundamentals of drag racing before hitting the big leagues. She earned her NHRA Professional Competition Super-Gas Drag Racing License in April 2002, becoming the first Asian American

 

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