For decades, American drift enthusiasts have gazed longingly over the Pacific, dreaming of visiting their own motorsport Mecca. Japan is not only the birthplace of nearly every legendary drift car, but it’s home to the ultimate track for the slideways enthusiast: Ebisu Circuit. Seven (well, now six) drift-ready courses, on-site storage for practice cars, and three weekend-long drift festivals every year. Paradise for those who can’t get enough of rev limiters and tire smoke.
Americans, however, have never had an Ebisu of our own. We’ve made do with club days at local tracks, wet skidpans off to the side of major circuits, and the occasional snowy parking lot. The community-funded Villains Sportsland in Washington is the closest thing in the U.S., but even that’s just one small course — far from the acres of winding pavement in Japan. So when the leader of a local drift organization in Virginia decided to go all-out on his East Coast drift paradise, and started offering memberships to a sprawling, all-hours, custom-built, six-course drift complex, it’s not surprising that people jumped at the chance. This was their dream: finally, an American Ebisu.
Now, many of those members are claiming they’ve been scammed. Local Facebook groups, Instagram pages, and individuals speaking with Jalopnik claim that a member of their community made big promises, took big money, and didn’t deliver. They’re asking for thousands of dollars in refunds, and declaring their local organizer a modern Harold Hill. What went wrong?
Spirit.jp Drifting Series was founded to bring “The Spirit Of Japanese Drifting” to the U.S. — specifically, the Richmond, VA area. Its founder, Joe Ascoli, lived in Japan for over two years while learning to drift at circuits like Ebisu. For years, the organization has held grassroots drift events that have been beloved by the community.
Spirit’s tight, Jersey-barrier-lined courses never held a candle to the sprawling expanse of Ebisu, however, and in early 2020 it seemed Ascoli wanted to do something about that — to expand Spirit’s footprint, build something better. Members started receiving information about a new venture, and an opportunity to get in early with a membership. Spirit had finally found a location for its home-grown drift paradise, and admission would cost a mere $2,000 per year.
“I was contacted by Joe for the same scam he’s pulled on my friends and other locals,” a former Spirit attendee told me, before sending over screenshots of the offer. “At the events he was all mouth about how exciting the new track would be.” Ascoli reached out to that member, Wilson Stead, as well as many others about the thousand-plus-dollar memberships to the new facility.
The messages started going out in early 2020, and continued through March of this year. Stead never paid for a membership, but another member who did sent over the full offer email. It contained a full brochure for facility memberships, offering mostly the same pitch that Stead got.
This brochure was sent out in November of 2020, predating the messages to Wilson by almost exactly two months. In that time, the offer seems to have shifted a bit. The six-day-a-week access promised in the brochure became 365-day access in the Instagram messages, but both versions of the offer also specify access during business days.
The brochure makes prodigious use of Ebisu imagery, including some photos of the famed Minami course used for everything from matsuris to D1 Grand Prix events. The car storage, workspace availability, and “overnight matsuri events” are all straight out of the Ebisu handbook. The Spirit Circuit, it seemed, was to be a ground-up build of the perfect drift destination — right at home in Virginia.
The Spirit Circuit, however, would go beyond what’s offered at Ebisu. On-site lodging and café, instructional events, rally and go-karts and gun ranges. The Venn diagram between drifters and Camp Woodward attendees is almost a perfect circle, so why not make a one-stop shop for every shared hobby?
The circuit was to be located in Goochland, VA, on a 35-acre property that Ascoli told me over the phone he was in talks to purchase. 38 Spirit members signed up for memberships, by Ascoli’s count, and costs between $1,000 and $10,000 have been claimed on social media. Then the land deal came crashing down.
After Ascoli had started collecting membership fees, talks fell through on the 35-acre Virginia property. To hear Ascoli tell it, as I did on a phone call, Spirit was “scammed” out of over $100,000 on the property. Despite tiptoeing around implied ongoing legal proceedings, he seemed hopeful the sum could be recovered. This left Spirit without a home, and Ascoli without his American Ebisu. So, the search began for a replacement.
Around December of 2020, Ascoli entered talks with Bob Starer, CEO of Panthera Training, about bringing Spirit to the facility’s three automotive training courses. Panthera, a tactical training facility in West Virginia used by various military and paramilitary groups, primarily works in combat training. In order to cover topics like evasive driving and PIT maneuvers, Panthera has three areas dedicated to vehicle training; a skidpan, a dirt “rally” course, and a 1.6-mile road course.
Starer also spoke with Jalopnik over the phone, and described the talks with Ascoli as being “on and off” for “the better part of a year,” which Ascoli confirmed. Despite the months of discussion, Spirit and Panthera didn’t come to a formal agreement until November of 2021. Days later, on November 19, Spirit announced its move to Panthera on Instagram alongside its new name: Spirit Motorsports Academy. Reactions were positive to the new track, but moods began to sour as details came out.
Looking at the Panthera offerings, they align with many of the points promised in the brochure. The road course and skid pan allow for drifting, and the dirt course allows for rally. Both circuits, from photos and Google Maps overviews, look like extremely interesting courses to drive. The café is still there, and Panthera owns hotels that can be used for lodging. Even the gun range stuck around through the location change.
Not everything, though, appears to be as advertised. Panthera has shops and storage for its own vehicles, and Spirit’s two rental cars are currently stored on the property. When asked about storing Spirit members’ cars, Starer said “If Spirit needs vehicular storage space we believe we can accommodate them.” Panthera’s primary concern is storing government vehicles, meaning Spirit would be allowed the extra space in a given storage facility — if there is any.
The Spirit Circuit brochure talked about plans to build six total courses, replicating Ebisu’s intricate layout of circuits. Panthera has three, including its skid pan, but Starer didn’t seem sure if expansions could be guaranteed. “Who knows if we can make it happen;” he told me in an email, “but it’s sure possible.”
The biggest change that came with Spirit’s new location, however, was a change in how events are run. Panthera is still a training facility, and the change from Spirit.jp Drifting Series to Spirit Motorsports Academy wasn’t just an aesthetic one: The matsuris and open drift events, withdrivers free to enter and exit the track at will, are off the table. Spirit now does driving instruction, and driving instruction only. For experienced drivers, Ascoli told me that teaching may come in the form of tandem drifting rather than in-car explanations, but the educational focus has another drawback: No spectators, cutting out a major part of the drift community.
Less than a month after the Panthera announcement, a Facebook post detailing one member’s disappointment in the new location and attempts to cancel his membership for a refund surfaced. Then another. The next day, one more. They all tell the same story: Ascoli offers memberships to the new custom facility, then announces the Panthera agreement. When those members try to get their money back, they’re told they’ll get it by the end of 2022.
Other groups in the community immediately severed ties with Ascoli and Spirit, and the Spirit Facebook page was review-bombed. Some have even discussed lawsuits, but the actual legal status of Spirit is unclear: Its Virginia LLC is listed as “Pending Inactive” as its annual registration fee hasn’t been paid, and the West Virginia LLC was incorporated just one day before the Panthera deal was announced — long after Ascoli had stopped collecting payments. If those members did decide to sue, it’s unclear who the suit should target — the Virginia company, the West Virginia company, or Ascoli himself.
Ascoli, by contrast, claims he did everything he could to deliver on what was promised in the membership brochure. He told me he’s been too busy preparing for on-site events to pay attention to the accusations online, and that each of the 38 people who paid for a membership already has their card in the mail.
When asked about keeping in contact with members during the Panthera negotiations, Ascoli claims he told them everything he could. “I did right by everybody,” he told me, in reference to the emails he sent members over the past year. Those who received the emails, however, called them “very vague stuff.” Ascoli offered to forward me those touch-base emails, along with the most recent brochure for the Spirit offerings at Panthera, but instead sent a “complimentary trial membership hard-card” in my name valid through next year.
When asked about Panthera’s location, hours away from both Spirit’s former Richmond home and the advertised Goochland location, Ascoli claims it didn’t factor into the decision. Picking were slim, and he took what he could get. Despite the specific claims on social media regarding refunds offered at the end of 2022, Ascoli claimed he didn’t know how many people had asked for one.
For members of the Richmond drift community, who feel betrayed by what they see as a bait-and-switch, all the social media callouts and lost business for Spirit and Ascoli are a warning to others. They don’t want their fellow drifters to pay for something they may not get, and to struggle to get their money back. They see themselves as protectors of the community — as Stead put it, “I want people to know how he operates.”
For Ascoli, the facility at Panthera is “able to fulfill all the memberships, plus more.” With future plans to expand, however tenuous, he seems to still be chasing that facility he offered in those brochures. Until those plans bear fruit, though, it seems members will still be chasing their refunds.
The pursuit of a perfect American Ebisu, that always-on drift paradise, may continue forever.