In Oro Valley, Arizona, troubled high school student Sean Boswell and athlete Clay race their cars to win the affections of Clay’s girlfriend Cindy, driving their respective vehicles, a Chevrolet Monte Carlo and a Dodge Viper. When Sean cuts through a structure and catches up to Clay, Clay hits Sean’s car repeatedly until they reach a high-speed turn, which causes both cars to crash; Sean’s car is totaled. Clay and Cindy’s wealthy families help them escape punishment, but because Sean is a repetitive offender for street racing, he is sent to live in Tokyo, Japan with his father, a U.S. Navy officer stationed in Tokyo, in order to avoid juvenile detention or jail.
While in Tokyo, Sean befriends Twinkie, a military brat who introduces him to the world of drift racing in Japan. Sean has a confrontation with Takashi—the Drift King (DK)—over Sean talking to Takashi’s girlfriend, Neela. Though barred from driving, Sean decides to race against Takashi, who has ties to the Yakuza. He borrows a Nissan Silvia S15 Spec-S from Han Lue, a business partner to Takashi, but loses his first race with Takashi due to his unfamiliarity with drifting.
To repay his debt for the car he destroyed, Sean agrees to work for Han. This leads to the duo becoming friends, with Han agreeing to teach Sean how to drift. Han also loans him a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution for future races, explaining that he is helping him as Sean is the only person willing to stand up to Takashi. Sean moves in with Han and soon masters drifting, gaining some clout after defeating DK’s right-hand man, Morimoto. Sean soon asks Neela out on a date, and learns that after her mother died, she moved in with Takashi’s grandmother, which resulted in their relationship. An enraged Takashi beats Sean up the next day, telling him to stay away from Neela; Neela subsequently leaves Takashi and moves in with Sean and Han.
Takashi’s uncle Kamata, the head of the Yakuza, reprimands Takashi for allowing Han to steal from him. Takashi and Morimoto confront Han, Sean, and Neela about the thefts. Twinkie causes a distraction, allowing Han (in his Mazda RX-7), Sean, and Neela (both in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution) to flee, who are then pursued by Takashi and Morimoto (driving their respective Nissan 350Zs). During the chase, Morimoto is killed in a crash, leaving Takashi to pursue the trio on his own. Han allows Sean to overtake him in order to hold Takashi off, but the chase ends when Sean and Neela crash. Meanwhile, moments after escaping from Takashi, Han’s car is t-boned,[N 1] and the car explodes before Sean has a chance to save Han.
Takashi, Sean, and his father become involved in an armed standoff which is resolved by Neela agreeing to leave with Takashi. Sean’s father prepares to send him back but Sean pleads him to let him fix his own mess. His father then agrees and makes amends with him. Twinkie gives his money to Sean to replace the money Han stole from Takashi, which Sean then returns to Kamata. Sean proposes a race against Takashi, with the loser having to leave Tokyo. Kamata agrees to the challenge, but on the condition that the race take place on a mountain, revealed to be the mountain where Takashi himself is the only person to make it down successfully. With all of Han’s cars impounded, Sean and Han’s friends then rebuild a 1967 Ford Mustang that Sean’s father was working on, with a Nissan Skyline engine salvaged from Han’s Silvia, and other spare parts.
That night, on the mountain, crowds gather to see the race; Takashi takes the lead initially, but Sean’s training allows him to catch up. Determined to win, Takashi resorts to ramming Sean’s car, eventually missing and driving off the mountain while Sean crosses the finish line. Kamata keeps his word, and lets Sean remain in Tokyo and is now christened the new Drift King.
Some time later, Neela, Twinkie and Sean, the new Drift King, are enjoying themselves in their newfound homeplace and freedom. An American driver shows up to challenge Sean, and he accepts after the American proclaims himself as Han’s family. Before the race, Sean pulls up in his Nissan Silvia S15 Spec-R next to a silver Plymouth Road Runner, driven by the challenger, who is revealed to be Dominic Toretto.