In rural Arizona, a young, 17-year-old, redneck outcast named Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) starts his first day of school. As he is leaving school after classes, a fellow female student, named Cindy (Nikki Griffin) compliments him on his car. The girl's football player boyfriend, Clay (Zachery Ty Bryan), is jealous that she's talking with another person, and confronts Sean, insulting his car. Clay proceeds to brag about his Viper, while Sean insults him for using basic information you can read in a brochure. Sean gets in his car, and starts to drive off, when Clay throws a baseball through his back window. Sean stops his car, and gets out to confront Clay. Little does he know, Sean is wielding a wrench and smiles smugly. Clay's girlfriend intervenes, stating that the boys should race and the winner gets to date her. Sean agrees, as does Clay. The two race in a neighborhood under construction. In the midst of the race, Clay and his girlfriend crash into a piece of concrete tubing, while Sean plows through a house and ends up flipping his car.
Later, Sean is seen at a police station, where Clay and Cindy get off of any charges because of their wealthy parents who have powerful connections. Sean, however, is not so lucky, and stands a chance of serving jail time. His frustrated divorced mother (Lynda Boyd) sends him to Japan, where his divorced father (Brian Goodman), a former US Army officer, lives in a low-rent part of town. Sean arrives "one day late" (or so says his father) due to the time variation between the U.S. and Japan. A woman, who is implied to be a prostitute or perhaps a date, is seen leaving the apartment, obviously disgruntled by Sean showing up.
The next morning, Sean wakes up early to discover a school uniform, and heads off to the nearest Tokyo metro station. He has issues finding the school, and is late. He is greeted by a teacher who doesn't speak English, to which he is confused as to why she is yelling over his shoes. He walks in, where Neela (Nathalie Kelley) is first introduced. She is a bi-racial teenage girl originally from Australia. Sean shows obvious signs of attraction from the start, and because she speaks fluent Japanese. During lunch, a fellow student named Twinkie (Bow Wow), an African American "army brat", tries to sell Sean a laptop, phone, etc. Sean notices a Sparco steering wheel on his bag, and asks him if it's for sale. Twinkie denies, and shows Sean his car.
That evening, Sean and Twinkie drive to a multi-level carpark, where the local race scene is at. While there, he meets Neela formally for the first time, and starts talking with her. Takashi who is known as D.K. (Drift King) (Brian Tee), Neela's boyfriend, is angered by this, and confronts Sean. Being ill-tempered and confrontational himself, Sean then calls him the "Justin Timberlake of Japan", which further angers DK. DK gets in Sean's face once more, and tells him he's lucky he's about to race. Sean mouths off once more to him, to which DK challenges him to a race. Without a car, Sean has no way of racing and proving himself. A laid back racer, named Han (Sung Kang), appears throws Brian his keys, and says he can use his car. Surprised by this, they head to the elevator to begin the race. Twinkie informs Sean that Han built the car from scratch, and it's one of the best cars known in the scene. Then Twinkie explains that DK really means "Drift King." Sean says, "Drift?" and Twinkie just tells him not to mess up the car.
Sean and DK meet at the starting line, and proceed to start the race. Sean is clearly in front of DK down the straight-away, until the first turn comes up, sending him crashing into other cars/pillars in the carpark. By the end of the race, Sean is clearly beaten, and drives the wrecked car to the finish line at the top. Han is clearly not upset by what has happened, and simply tells him, "Don't leave town." Sean heads home, where is he is confronted by his clearly drunk father. His father tells him he has nowhere else to go, and he better follow his rules. Sean agrees, and heads to bed. The next day at school he is looked down upon by all the students for the previous night's actions.
After school, Han is waiting outside for Sean, and instructs him to drive to a local bathhouse. He goes inside to get money that a very large man owes Han. Brian is tossed out the door, and the large man tosses the money to Han. They then proceed to drive down to DK's Yakuza underground casino/storage room. While driving, Han tells Sean that he now works for him.
At the casino, Sean demands that DK teach him to drift, to which Han agrees. Once at the compound, Sean and Han head back to where DK, and his second in command, Morimoto, (Leonardo Nam) are playing a game. DK instructs Sean to leave the room while him and Han discuss "business", where DK asks where Han's "shipment" is. Han tells him not to worry, and him and Sean leave to go to Han's garage. On the way, Han explains that DK is not Yakuza, only his Uncle Kamata is, and that DK and Han are simply working on their turf. Han further explains that he let Sean race because he's DK's "Kryptonite". Sean and Han arrive at the garage, to reveal an extravagant array of cars. Han gives Sean a red Mitsubishi Evo to drift / do running in.
Sean heads outside where he comes across Neela, to which he wrongly assumes she is an army brat who runs around, "pissed off" all the time, hence why she hangs out with drifters. Neela is obviously offended and says, "Zero for one, cowboy."
The next day after school, Sean starts his practice drifting at the docks, to which he does terrible. At school later, two of Sean's friends come to get Sean, who is taken up to the roof of the school. Twinkie is being beaten up by Morimoto, for apparently selling him a stolen iPod that he actually broke himself. Sean intervenes, and gives him his own iPod. Neela is up there to witnesses this. Twinkie gets angry at Sean, and states that everyone will want exchanges for any damaged merchandise. Sean, confused, waits until everyone leaves then starts to head downstairs, to which Neela talks to him and Sean apologizes for his blatant ignorance a few days prior.
Sean is seen drifting with Han teaching him along a rural mountain road. He gets better and better. Days later in school, Sean messages Neela in class on his laptop, asking her why he's never seen her drifting. She and Sean go out on a "date" to get something to eat. She reveals that her mother died when she was age 10, and was an "entertainer." Her father apparently left them, and DK's grandmother raised her. Sean then explains how he's moved from town to town over the trouble he's been in for ages, and that he got his first speeding ticket the day he got his license. Neela and him go drifting with a bunch of other people down a mountain on a calm night. She explains how things were a lot simpler when she was younger, and how drifting has always been a way to alleviate stress and allows them to be "free." Sean later leaves his father's house, in order to go live at Han's garage.
The next day, Sean is drifting, and pulls up to get a change of tires. Twinkie interrupts him saying the tires aren't cheap, and that he needs to take it easy. DK and Morimoto drive up, and DK punches Sean repeatedly in the face, and tells him to stay away from Neela.
The next day at school, Neela sees what DK has done, and breaks up with him. He confronts her, insulting her mother and insisting that she would be just like her had it not been for his family. She runs off to Han's garage and asks for a place to stay.
That evening, DK's Uncle Kamata (Sonny Chiba) pays him a visit to check up on the business. Uncle Kamata reveals that Han has been secretly stealing from the Yakuza by not informing DK of all the side deals. DK is frustrated and upset by this, and after Kamata leaves, he and Morimoto drive to Han's garage. He confronts Han, telling him he put his reputation on the line and that he knows he's been stealing from them. Han tells him it's "what they do." DK sees Neela there, and pulls a gun on Han. Twinkie, in an effort to save Han and the others, releases the garage gates, slamming them on top of the cars belonging to DK's crew, and preventing DK from following Han. However, DK is parked outside. Sean and Neela get in his car, and run down Morimoto who attempts to stop them from leaving. Everyone flees the scene, while DK persues Han. In the middle of the pursuit, Morimoto is killed in a multi-car crash. DK witnesses his car getting smashed, and this only upsets him further. While in an intersection, Han's car is hit by a car, sending it flipping over. Han attempts to climb out of the car, but the leaking fluids from the car catch fire and explode, right as Sean gets out of his car to go help Han. Han is killed in the explosion. DK proceeds to turn around and flee the scene. Neela insists Sean go with her and flee the area before the cops show up.
Sean and Neela head to Sean's father's home, only to ring the bell and nobody is home. DK pulls into the street, and gets out of his car. He instructs Neela to get in. Sean confronts DK and starts to punch him in the face repeatedly. DK shoves him back and pulls out his gun. Right before he attempts to shoot Sean, Sean's father shows up behind DK with a gun of his own. DK slowly gets back into his car and drives off, implying that he'll see him soon.
Sean's father insists that he be put on a plane that very night, and be sent back to the U.S. Sean tells his father he must fix the mistakes he's made, and that he cannot keep running. Proud of his son finally admitting fault, Sean's father walks off. He later meets Twinkie, who's made plans to leave the city. Sean tells Twinkie he will go to Kamata himself. Twinkie insists he's crazy, but gives him a bag of cash to get out alive. Sean goes to Kamata's place, to where he sees Neela and DK. He offers to race DK, and the loser is to leave town to prevent getting into Kamata's way any further. Kamata agrees.
Sean and his crew go back to Han's garage, to which they find the police took every car, except for the totaled car that Sean ruined during his first race. Over the next few days, Sean and his friends take the engine, and Sean's father gives him the base frame of his dismantled Mustang. The crew reassembles the entire car, and is ready for race day. Twinkie expresses concerns that DK is the only one to ever make it down the mountain they are racing down.
Everyone gathers for the final race, and it commences. DK ends up flipping his car off the side of the hill, and Sean narrowly avoids getting crushed by the wreckage. DK loses the race, and Sean is clear to go. Kamata starts walking back towards DK, who is being pulled out of the wreckage and taken away.
Later in the final scene, Sean is known as the new "Drift King" of Tokyo. Twinkie comes to get Sean, saying someone who has been winning races all over Asia wanted to race him. Sean is hesitant at first, until Twinkie said that Han was "family" to the racer. Sean meets his competition and Han's late friend, and it is revealed to be Dom Torretto (Vin Diesel). Sean informs him that it's not a 10 second race, to which Dom says he's got "Nothing but time." The film ends as the race begins.