Ashleigh sat down with young Joe Kukutai to find out what gives him that infamous aggression   

"Today I received the phone call of my life,” revealed Joe Kukutai, as he announced his latest naming-rights sponsorship with Rockstar Energy Drink to his family, sponsors, and the wider community. “It feels so surreal to have all of our hard work pay off, it makes all the roadblocks worth it.” 

Step off the gas and wind back a few months to round three of the 2015 Demon Energy D1NZ National Drifting Championship season at ASB Baypark earlier this year, at which Kukutai pulled off a jaw-dropping qualifying run that banked him P2 with a score of 87/100, leaving even the judges on the edge of their seats — how did a rookie teenager beat the likes of drifters who’d been competing in the series for over a decade? We sat down with Rockstar Energy’s ‘Smokin’’ Joe Kukutai to find out more about what this kid from West Auckland is really capable of.

Joe stepped onto the scene in mid 2011 after purchasing a fairly standard Nissan Skyline R32 GTS sedan, first attending local Hori Dori events at Meremere Dragway before quickly leaping behind the wheel for his first full track experience at Manfeild. His improvement was consistent thanks to frequent weekend trips to Hampton Downs, with his father Denny and crew in tow, and practice at secret locations — he would pack the truck with a couple of cones and go in search of small skidpan-like sections on which to perfect his linking technique.

By late 2012, Joe had disintegrated five gearboxes and two engines, taken a podium win at the V 4&Rotary North Island Jamboree, attended a V8 SuperTourers drift demo, and received the Hori Dori Best Up and Comer award for that year. 

Heading into his first D1NZ Pro-Am season, Joe was running an RB20DE+T in the heart of the Skyline and had only a handful of new sponsors, including AK Customs, Luxury Sports, Drift Direct, and, of course, faithful father Denny at Kukutai Transport. The first half of the season was testing for Joe, with mechanical troubles and inexperience the major factors preventing him from reaching the podium. However, in a dramatic change towards the end of season, we saw him finish the championship on a high by banking the single best qualifying run of the year and a second place at round five in Christchurch. With enough points behind him, D1NZ nodded him through to enter in the Pro Championship for the 2013/2014 season at the eye-popping age of just 18.

Progressing into the Pro field meant development came with several changes for Joe — the main upgrade, of course, being the brief shift from an RB25DE+T to an RB29, before again stepping up the game. Recently finishing his second season in Pro, Joe now runs a 440kW RB30DET complete with forged internals, Garrett 35/82 turbocharger, Sinco manifold, and a Turbosmart wastegate, all kept cool by a new radiator and intercooler set-up thanks to Fenix Radiators. The Skyline has also been equipped with a customized Keto Steering System, allowing for maximum steering angle. Townsend Brotherz Racing (TBR) has jumped on board heavily over the last year to ensure that Joe can always leap into the car with confidence, changing it drastically every race day to ensure the R32 is dialled in specifically for each individual track at any given time. The Kukutais have been consistently blown away by the support from TBR, with Joe stating, “We now have one of the fastest cars in D1NZ, and nine times out of 10 we have to dial grip out of the car to avoid hitting the competition. TBR has accelerated our competitiveness drastically; I owe a lot to Kaz — he is without a doubt the best in the business.”

He’s kept true to type with his RB platform among the stiff V8 competition in the series, and we had to question his engine loyalty for the foreseeable future. His reply? “Running a V8 in drifting is like eating a big-ass cheeseburger with a knife and fork — f***in’ boring.”

At 19 years old, Kukutai still remains the youngest D1NZ Pro Driver in the field, and he brings with him an energetic and personable attitude that easily wins support from fans of all ages. 
When asked where his inspiration comes from, Joe was quick to respond, simply saying Naoki Nakamura. Given Nakamura’s Japanese aggression and stylish flair, it is not hard to see why Joe aspires to drive like the D1 Street Legal legend, and he’s even included elements of Nakamura’s style in previous liveries on the Skyline. 

Keeping Joe grounded and focused throughout his time on track is his crew chief and father, Denny. “I’m always thankful to have my dad beside me at the track,” Joe told us. “He’s been such a big part of my life for 19 years. It is absolutely awesome to have someone that I can truly trust with me in the pits. He is the best motivator for me, and I could never ask for anything more.”

Sitting comfortably in 13th position at the end of the D1NZ 2014/2015 Pro season, Joe was unfortunately unable to attend the final round due to brake-failure issues — not what you want happening with the infamous 200kph entries at Pukekohe Park Raceway. 

The progress Kukutai has made over the time between picking up his Nissan Skyline in 2011 and his recent D1NZ Pro career is undeniably intimidating, and will remain a hot topic among competitors leading into the next championship. It will be interesting to see how Joe decides to grasp the next season of D1NZ and what changes will be made to his R32. We’re not sure about you, but we think that his thirst for the crown, aggressive style, and ‘smash the gas’ attitude will have us all guessing …

Smokin' Joe Kukutai
Age: 19
Location: Auckland
Occupation: Man of few talents
Build time: Four years
Length of ownership: Four years
Thanks: Dad, Mitch Cowley, my family and friends for all the continued support, Rockstar Energy Drink, Blastacars, TBR, Gull New Zealand, Luxury Sports, Keto Steering Systems, Rota Wheels, Kukutai Transport, Garmin, Zeroclass, Fenix, NZ Wiring, ST Hi-Tec, Amplified Customs, Richard Andersen — Graphics, Joe’s Mechanical Services, Driftdirect, and everyone who’s supported me in the past!

ENGINE: Nissan RB30DET, 3000cc, six-cylinder
BLOCK: RB30E block ACL race bearings, Nitto forged rods, CP forged pistons and rings, ARP main bolts, N1 steel gear oil pump
HEAD: Nissan RB25DE, rear oil drain
INTAKE: 80mm Nissan VQ45 throttle body, K&N pod filter, Luxury Sports front-facing plenum, Redline silicone joiners, 80mm intercooler piping, Fenix bar and plate, 600x300mm intercooler
EXHAUST: Three-inch straight pipe with V-band connectors, 60mm wastegate ‘screamer’ pipe
TURBO: Garrett 35/82, Sinco manifold
WASTEGATE: Turbosmart 60mm
BOV: GReddy Type R
FUEL: Jazz fuel cell with TBR fast-fill riser, dual MagnaFuel in-line fuel filters, Carter lift pump, NZKW surge tank,  twin Bosch 044 main pumps, AEM fuel-pressure regulator, Drift Direct custom fuel rail, ID1000 injectors
IGNITION: Six AEM high-output 1GBT ‘smart’ inductive coil packs, TBR in-cabin coil mount, Eagle Race leads, NGK 8 V-Power plugs, NZ Wiring crank trigger set-up
ECU: Link G4+
COOLING: Fenix custom-built internal baffle radiator, Fenix Track Series oil cooler
EXTRA: NZ Wiring full custom harness and switch panel

GEARBOX: Nissan RB25 ‘big box’, PPG four-speed dog-engagement gear set
CLUTCH: Auto Clutch 4200-pound–clamping-force pressure plate, solid six-puck clutch plate
FLYWHEEL: Standard RB30
DIFF: Nissan R200 limited-slip, shimmed

STRUTS: Superior Tuning Design coilovers, King springs
BRAKES: In-line NZKW hydraulic hand brake; (F) factory,(R) factory
EXTRA: Keto steering system, extended lower control arms, Keto modified knuckles, relocated S14 steering rack, lengthened J-arms, Cusco strut braces, Luxury Sport adjustable arms

WHEELS: 18x9.5-inch (+7) Rota MXR
TYRES: Achilles 123 265/40R18

PAINT: 2K black
ENHANCEMENTS: Rockstar Energy Drink livery applied by Amplified Customs

SEATS: Bride Lowmax replicas

POWER:  440kW and 710Nm torque at the rear wheels


This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car issue No. 227. Grab yourself a print copy at the link below: