THE STEERING SAID NOTHING. NOT A WHISPER, a suggestion as to what might be happening at the front tires. The wheel was mostly a knob for making your chair point a different direction—and it was most definitely not a seat but a chair, bolt-upright and miles from the floor. It lived at the front of a huge metal box, the space hollow and empty. Every few seconds, the steering column would burp up little shudders of cowl shake, almost apologetically, as if it were connected to something far away and unimportant and really just sorry to have bothered you, go back to what you were doing, everything down here is cool.
But that wasn’t the focus. More the bellowing side pipe under the right front door and the way you had to elbow the whole thing into a corner in a sort of broad-shoulders jostle. After which this four-wheeled office building would just kind of slither-whomp onto the next straight and hump off toward the next corner and continue to casually punch large, van-shaped holes in the airspace. Because it was, in fact, a van. On a racetrack. In Japan.
For some reason.
My chest hurt from laughter. Vans with 160-mph speedometers, jinking over curbs in nose-to-tail trains. They slung through corners in little yaw-slipped arcs, like Trans-Am cars that had grown fat in old age. A gray one with passenger windows, drifting. A faded yellow one with anodized Nitron shocks—British dampers that cost as much as a good used Honda—and a rear wing clamped to the rain gutters with Vise-Grips. They were all 1971–2003 Dodge Rams, originally sold in America but imported to Asia after the end of a much different life, mostly short-wheelbase, most with a 318 V-8. The Japanese call such things “Dajiban”—Dodg-e-van, dah-jee-bahn. A phonetic mash-up, like how the Japanese name for a hot dog is simply hottodoggu, or the French version of “the rugby player” is le rugbyman. A guy in the tower was handing out colorful stickers. Each held a drawing of a Ram 150 on 16-inch Watanabes and a plug for . That site had prompted me to visit Ebisu Circuit, an afternoon’s drive north of Tokyo, and the annual track day of an informal club for owners of track-prepped Dodge vans. I found 37 of the things there, parked in a tiny paddock, marshaled like Hannibal’s elephants.
Our photographer was a man named Dino Dalle Carbonare. A 42-year-old Italian expat, fluent in both English and Japanese. Dino has lived in Japan since childhood and is now employed by internet giant , where he is the resident expert on Japanese car culture. He helped us parse Dajiban culture, because I speak just enough Japanese to get myself in trouble, or maybe order a hot dog.
We drove from Tokyo to Ebisu in his car, four hours on the freeway. Somewhere outside Kita, he broached the subject of vans and this publication.
“Road & Track? A lot of people I told about this job were like, ‘What? How does that work? Since when does R&T care about Dodge vans?’ ”
Reasonable questions. This is ostensibly a sports-car magazine. But how often do you see a mutant übervan running balls-out at a track day? Or 37 of them piling into a corner at full honk? For that matter, every van at Ebisu paired a grunty V-8 with yards of sheetmetal and an inarguable hot-rod funk. Those words could also describe every likable American car built from 1932 to last week.
For one reason or another, car culture has long been factionized by taste—you like X; I like Y; you don’t follow my rules, so we side-eye each other from across the street. If you think about that for more than a few seconds, it seems like bunk. If you like Porsches or Corvettes or street rods or whatever, but aren’t curious about track-day Ram vans because the notion violates some established sense of propriety, hey, that’s your prerogative. After all, cars are mostly a reason to sit at home and avoid new forms of cackle.
ABE TAKURO’S SHOP IS LARGE BY TOKYO standards–roughly the size of an American two-car garage. It lives deep in one of the city’s quieter districts, in a residential neighborhood with sardine-can houses and a street layout like a crossword puzzle. A Nineties Ram van sat outside in a metered parking spot, 1200 yen per hour, dark green and lowered over chunky BFGs. Every few minutes, a bicyclist would roll down the narrow front road, swerving past pedestrians. Boxes of Watanabes were stacked on a high wooden shelf in the back of the shop. Several feet below, a metal cabinet held a handful of brightly colored Ferrari 360 brake calipers. They were arranged face-out, one per shelf, like fine china.
“They fit perfectly,” Abe said, waving a hand.
Seek Dajiban and you will eventually find Abe. He is 50, with dark, spiky hair and eyebrows that arch when he talks. He named his shop Abe Chuko Kamotsu—Abe Secondhand Cargo Van. When I walked in the door, he was sitting in the back wearing a blue Mopar racing shirt embroidered with the name Diane. He rose to say hello, shuffling between stacked parts before reaching the door. A cup of coffee was pressed into my hand. (“Sort of tradition in Japanese shops,” Dino said. “Often undrinkably strong. It is also sort of tradition to quietly leave it after one sip.”)
A dirty Dodge 318 sat on a stand nearby. The U-shaped downpipes of its stainless-steel headers arced up and forward after the primary collectors, because Ram vans carry their engines just aft of the dash, under a large humped cover. The stock manifolds flow like a clogged sink drain, Abe told me, but header routing is always a great compromise, bits of the van’s frame in the way.
I leaned down, admiring the pretty, delicate welds. Abe looked sheepish. A friend of his, Takahiro Okawa, visiting the shop for our photo shoot, chimed in, in English.
“There is nothing specific for Dodge vans, performance-oriented, so he has to build it.”
Takahiro runs Dodgevanracing.com. He’s owned and sold three Rams, most recently a lime-green example with a carbon hood, and he confirmed the Dajiban origin myth circulating on the internet: Years ago, Japanese motorcycle racers began hauling their bikes in American vans. Live-axle, V-8 Dodges found favor because the shortest versions were relatively wieldy—at 187.2 inches long, the 1994 van is just two inches longer than a 2019 Jetta. One thing led to another, and during a lunch break at some track, somebody railed a Ram through a lap. Laughs followed, so they went full rabbit hole: more brake, extra coolers, rear dampers adjustable through the floor, relocated suspension pickup points, fuel cells, built engines. Half for speed, half to keep the vans from going to powder under the abuse.
No one I met at Ebisu could remember when the track-van trend caught on, though Abe is generally agreed to be one of the first involved. He organized this year’s Ebisu Dajiban gathering, the eleventh, and the tenth before that. He’s also responsible for the Watanabes, a group hallmark: The company, one of the most storied wheelmakers in Japan, did not make a Dodge-van fitment until Abe commissioned one. He remains a primary source for the wheels and claims to have sold around 100 sets. Abe’s gray 1994 Ram 150 serves as development mule for customer modifications; he says that he has “the price of a new Ferrari” in it, and that it hasn’t been washed in 20 years. It came into his life more than two decades ago, when he worked at an American-car importer called I-5 Corporation, in Yokohama. The 150 sat on I-5’s lot, unsold, for months, so he cheerily drove it home. He likes Dodges partly because he once owned a Viper.
“People make fun of him,” Takahiro said. “They don’t really get it. But the cars he owned before were modified. Cages, harnesses, track use. He has to do this to feel comfortable. With carpets and airbags . . . it’s not his.” People laughed, Abe said, and then the vans found him, owners requesting work. Abe Chuko Kamotsu opened last year, servicing only track-prepped Rams. By summer 2018, the shop had around 100 customers and a steady stream of work.
“Chevy Astro vans,” Takahiro said, “are really popular here. But it’s a V-6. Ford Econolines and some other U.S. vans have a V-8, but the body and wheelbase are too big for Japan—the short Dodge is just small enough.”
In America, I offered, these things are known for being terrible to drive. Like, terrible.
Abe rattled off a few sentences, deadpan. Takahiro wrinkled his brow before translating.
“If he gets it where he wants it... more than 300hp, weight about a ton and a half . . . the performance will be almost the same as . . .” —he paused, glancing at Abe to confirm—“a cheap rental car.”
The two men collapsed into laughter, arms crossed, shaking their heads at the joke.
So much of this seems to hang on how Japanese car culture works. It is space-dependent, bubbling out of dense cities that seem only grudgingly adapted to cars. The tighter parts of Tokyo make Manhattan seem like Texas, and in some areas of the country, you cannot register a car unless you can prove that you have room to park it. So car buyers, Dino said, have long consultations with the police, who hold the reins on vehicle registration. Residents draw maps of their garage or street, making a case. Even the support structure differs; many repair shops are smaller than a Midwest hotel room. They pepper the city in alleys or at the base of apartment buildings, stuffed with parts.
For an American can feel quite foreign, but it can be difficult to tell how much of that feeling is reality and how much came with you on the plane, preloaded caricature from books and film. On the drive to Ebisu, Dino told stories of how Japanese culture can nurture protocol and conformity, its structure often inscrutable for foreigners. He married a Japanese national, he said, but even with her help, the country’s habits still leave him baffled on occasion.
None of this was laid out with malice—more like how an American might broad-stroke the difference between people in California and New York. I wondered aloud how much truth lay in the stereotypical Japanese approach to hobbies—remarkable commitment and knowledge, a dust of obsession.
Dino nodded. “A lot of people, it’s just doing whatever they can to stand out on the weekend. So car culture reflects that, and they have zero compulsion about modifying stuff, to the limit, no matter how valuable. Ferrari F40s with modern engine management, R34 GT-Rs with modern everything underneath, God knows what.”
“A lot of ideas that other cultures latch on to are rejected here,” he said, shrugging. “And a lot of strange pieces of outside life are embraced.”
EBISU CIRCUIT LIVES ON a mountain in a quiet corner of Fukushima Prefecture, 50 miles west of the region’s infamous nuclear reactor. The name is misleading; Ebisu isn’t so much a track as a collection of them, 10 in total, shotgunned under a lush canopy of trees. Around that corner, a few practice pads for drifting; atop that rise, two condensed, back-to-back road courses. The old-school optics have drawn TV crews from Best Motoring and Top Gear. Ebisu’s tracks have no significant runoff, just the occasional dirt hill. Rusty pit buildings could have been swiped from a Sixties Watkins Glen. Some of the perimeter roads are one lane and too steep to be comfortably walked. If all this weren’t enough, the top of the mountain holds an animal safari park, basically a small zoo. Next to the rows of drift-spec Nissan Silvias and GT-Rs are some confused-looking elephants and flamingos and a 20-foot-tall rooftop statue of a cranky-looking cartoon monkey.
The drivers’ meeting was held in one of the track’s tiny safety towers. More than 40 people in a room that would have felt crowded at half that. The presentation was led by a wiry, gray-haired man who talked with his hands: Arakaki Toshi of Tokyo, 53 years old, retired MotoGP rider, friend of Abe Takuro, owner of the yellow van with the Vise-Gripped wing.
His Dodge had more than 300,000 miles on the clock. And he found all of this extremely funny.
“Ebisu is quite lax with the rules,” he said, shaking his head. “Tsukuba or Fuji . . . would never accept these races.” Most everyone gets parts from Taiwan, he added, because many Dodge parts are made there, and it’s cheaper than importing from the United States. They order from America for “name” speed equipment, like Hurst shifters and Edelbrock heads. Then he spit out a string of rapid-fire Japanese that made Dino laugh.
“The special thing about this van,” Dino translated, “is that it’s quite easy to get Japanese road certification, the Shaken inspection, every two years. Because it’s an import, inspectors don’t have a lot of regulations to compare it to stock. They just assume that’s how it came. So you can modify it, and they’ll just pass it!”
The paddock was a diaspora. Exquisite restorations, purposeful beaters. Obviously curated English-language sticker collections. No two were alike, and many of the vans had brought families—the Rams served as both support vehicle and track car, disgorging first picnic tables and folding chairs, then the usual track-day paraphernalia like tools and spare wheels. The only common thread was a perfect stance, usually on jewel-like Watanabes. The most desirable body, Arakaki said, comes from after the Ram’s 1994 face-lift, but he noted backdates are common, late vans wearing early dashes and door-vent windows because it looks cool. And so there were a lot of those, but also early vans with perfectly fitted late grilles and bumpers, a happy mishmash of rampant parts-swapping and meticulous assembly.
They said I could drive one. A few laps. I met 43-year-old Ishii Naoki, from Osaka, in orange coveralls. His hair was dyed a color not far off the coveralls. His van, matte gray, had a diffuser and a rain light, and its exhaust was let into the passenger rocker panel under a riveted heat shield.
Ishii offered a ride, first. Acceptance seemed prudent. When I grabbed my helmet bag, his face scrunched up.
I looked around. The driver of the next van over was checking tire pressures in a black motorcycle half-helmet. Most of the grid was lidless. I shrugged and dropped my bag. Ishii cocked his head.
“Safe drive? Or . . . aggressive drive?”
I looked at Dino, unsure what he meant.
“He means, how fast do you want him to go?”
“Oh!” I said. “Aggressive drive! Much.”
Ishii nodded again. Then he spent a session flinging his van around like he hated it and one-handing the wheel through traffic. His Dodge had a separate starter button and a B&M ratcheting shifter—great whanging thumps through the frame with each downshift—but also countless aftermarket switches of indeterminate purpose, stickers peppering the ceiling, and a screen that played music videos—first teen-girl K-pop, then Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The exhaust spit out under the right door, guttural basso, five feet below my ears. It out-blatted everything but the video’s ticky-ticky beat.
A couple of laps, then back to the paddock. Ishii pointed at the van’s air dam and said something to Dino about legendary Japanese tuning house Rocket Bunny. He walked me through the cockpit and controls but didn’t want to ride, so Dino hopped in the passenger seat.
The hilarity was almost too much to handle. After the ride with Ishii, I climbed behind the wheel expecting to like the whole mess. I was instead gifted with a cross between irrational love affair and half the bad-good car traits in history. Midrange grunt, killer brakes, comically drawn-out motions, and the feeling of riding a bar stool off the edge of a cliff. Fast enough to make me wish I had worn a helmet, slow enough that leaving it behind seemed genius. The left front tire, inches under my feet, made the van seem to spin on my heel. The B&M made hooty-holler clacky noises on each shift, or maybe that was me. I passed another van on the exit of a corner and decided that my kids would probably understand if I never went home.
In the passenger seat, Dino was attempting to stabilize himself enough to take a picture and having only moderate success. Mild surprise crossed his face.
“Is it fun?”
“Blarggh!” I said. We launched over a curb, two wheels in the air.
“Oh,” he said. Then he braced against the dash and resumed shooting. Always good to work with a pro.
At lunch, Arakaki, beaming, found us in the paddock.
“Three-lap race,” he said, in English. His accent drew it out: reyssss. Six vans gridded, spectators on the fence. There were no corner workers or safety officials, just a white Ford Expedition with a light bar, serving as pace car. Arakaki removed his windows for weight but left a small pile of dirty clothes behind the passenger seat. The vans drafted, inches apart. Smoke wisped off the inside rear wheel of one on the exit of each corner. Arakaki notched a commanding lead, then won. The whole spectacle lasted maybe eight minutes and reminded me of a dream I once had about ayahuasca and the circus.
Late in the day, we buckled into Dino’s car and pointed toward Tokyo. As we drove out of the track’s main gate, under a giant carved lion head, past hand-painted signs full of zebra stripes and kanji, I could hear drifting just over the hill—howling tires and what sounded like a Nissan RB six flirting with its rev limiter. A few Dajiban followed us through the gate, blatting into the muggy air. They dwarfed the road in the rearview, stout little car-houses that filled the lane.
I smiled. The sight somehow managed to both make no sense at all and all the sense in the world—goofy and encouraging and ruleless and honest. For the first time in my life, I wanted a van. Also a 20-foot monkey statue. I wondered what a van would look like with a monkey statue on top. It was all joyous and funky and real. It felt like an antidote to a problem I didn’t know I had, a cure for everything stuffy and self-important in car culture. It was Japan. It couldn’t have been anywhere else.