This story begins on an empty, rain-sodden little island in Wales.
Six months ago, I was at Anglesey Race Circuit for Drift Matsuri. I was getting rained on whilst standing in the middle of the track (a wetlands bog) taking photos of drift cars doing their thing. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face; it was brilliant.
One of the cars lapping around the track was really going for it, hitting the top of 3rd gear, sideways, into the biggest hairpin. The black JZX100 Toyota Mark II was piloted by Alex Graff.
I could tell by the confidence and commitment in his entries that Alex has been driving his Mark II for years. I needed to chat to Alex, and luckily managed to find him in the paddock after the event, partway through loading all his spare wheels and tools into the car before setting off.
That’s right, while everyone else was loading their cars onto trailers, Alex was preparing to strap himself back into his Bride bucket seat for the 250-mile stretch home after the long weekend of limiter bashing. He never trailers this Toyota to events, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg…
Alex is no stranger to travelling long distances in his JZX, and this story begins 6,500 miles away in Okinawa, Japan.
As a member of the US military, Alex’s role sends him to different postings around the world for extended periods of time. His first posting came when he was still a teenager back in 2011, and it was there in Japan that Alex’s interest in cars began. It didn’t take him long to live out every teenager’s JDM fantasy by purchasing a Skyline.
At the time – this is 11 years ago remember – R33 GTS25Ts were easy (and relatively cheap) to come by in Japan, so this is where Alex started. However, a second purchase was quickly made, and naturally that was an R34. His new Skyline was NA, but Alex had a plan and soon the R33’s turbo RB25DET was powering the R34. This is where the Tokyo Drift lifestyle started to pick up. Scroll down deep enough on Alex’s Instagram and you’ll find early iPhone videos of late-night drifting shenanigans in the mountains.
When 2013 arrived the R34’s shaken was up for renewal, but as the engine swap wasn’t declared on any paperwork, it was far too much of a headache for Alex. The car had to go, but as Alex quickly found out, no one else was keen on the headache either. Ultimately, the Skyline was split for parts and the leftovers were scrapped.
It was at this time, on a trip to Ebisu circuit with a friend, that Alex got his first taste of JZX100. The pair had rented a Mark II there, and from his first moment behind the wheel of it, Alex was blown away. The car was super easy to drift, mainly due to the torquier nature of the 1JZ-GTE VVTi engine over the RB25DET Alex had become used to.
That drive sealed the deal, and without delay Alex picked up the very car we are featuring today. However, back then it was only lightly tuned with a boost controller, 2-way LSD and coilover suspension.
After four years in Japan, Alex’s posting was up and he was relocated to Northern Italy, near Milan. Alex explained that when the US military sends you to your new posting, there is no guarantee that you can bring your car with you. But Alex got lucky, and as is always the case the military took care of the Toyota’s shipping and registration process. It was in Italy where the serious mods began, including a rather large turbo.
A little older and wiser, by this point Alex had transitioned from street to track drifting. His local tracks in Italy were longer and faster than those he frequented in Japan, so eventually Alex replaced the ECU with an aftermarket system with the hope of making more power, and added a steering angle lock kit. Unfortunately though, he didn’t get much further than that.
Alex had wanted to teach himself how to map an engine, so plugged in a laptop, loaded up the software and took the JZX out onto an Italian motorway for a road tune. It was there that things quickly went south when Alex “obliterated” the engine after melting a piston. You have to be prepared for these sorts of things though, right? Alex was, having brought a spare 1JZ from Japan with him, but yet again luck wasn’t on his side. Two weeks after swapping the supposedly healthy engine into the Mark II, it developed rod knock during a drift event.
1JZ engine #3 was purchased online from JDM specialist in Europe, and it got the Toyota up and running again with no issues. For peace of mind, Alex left this one running on a factory ECU.
Alex’s adventures continued in Italy with as many drift track days as he could attend at Verona, Castelletto di Branduzzo and Modena. Castelletto was one of his favourites; due to the snappy on and off nature of the circuit it reminded him of his time touge drifting in Japan. He also met with Formula Drift driver Federico Sceriffo and connected over their love for the motorsport. If Alex’s Japan experience was the cake, Italy was the cherry on top.
In 2017, Alex embarked on a new US military adventure in the United Kingdom at RAF Crowton. His arrival to the UK came with another new engine, racking up the 1JZ count to four. On his last dyno outing, the 2.5L turbo six threw down a solid 480hp.
But now a fifth engine has found its way into the car. This time Alex has gone for long-term reliability and increased performance, which means an upgrade to forged internals and all the supporting modifications required. He also has plans to make the car more usable, something that will include raising the ride height a little.
Living through Covid introduced Alex to the world of sim racing, and traditional grip racing has grown on him too. While he’d like to explore these facets of motorsport alongside drifting, his short-term goal is to ready the JZX for its next chapter – a new life in the USA.
With his last posting coming to an end, Alex’s adventures with the Mark II will continue when he returns home. Yes, this story still has a lot more turns ahead, but hopefully not too many more engines.