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Sliding Sideways Towards Adventure

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— April 15, 2019

Sliding Sideways Towards Adventure

  • Tracing the exact roots of drifting can be difficult, primarily because race drivers have been sliding around corners pretty much since the dawn of the automobile. But the technical act of purposefully careening a performance car sideways, all while driving with pinpoint accuracy, undoubtedly flourished and found its earliest support in Japan. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, illegal street racing also helped hone the skills—and mystique—of many early drift drivers.
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Sliding Sideways Towards Adventure

As the corner draws closer at ridiculously high speed, my position in the passenger seat of the snarling race car means I’m seconds from experiencing an up-close view of the art of drift driving. It also means I’ll soon be picking molten shards of car tire— shredded by repeated wild turns—off my face at the end of this one incredible lap at Hutchinson Island Racetrack outside Savannah, Georgia.

From the outside looking in, drift driving looks like an insane way to get a car around a racetrack. The key is to fling the race car sideways into each corner, as the rear tires billow out smoke and the vehicle arcs its way around the racecourse at seemingly impossible angles. While a drift drive appears chaotic, in the heat of competition a drift car needs to orchestrate very calculated and controlled maneuvers.

During a drift race, judges determine a winner based on factors like total speed carried into corners, severity of drift angles, and how closely the driver follows a set line around the track. Unlike in other forms of racing, getting to the finish line fastest does not necessarily mean victory. Bravado counts for a lot.

I am cinched snugly by a five-point racing harness and wearing an open-face crash helmet. The engine sounds like it’s sitting in my lap, and every surface of the car is buzzing with a nervous and intoxicating energy. The view from inside a drift car is intense. As an automotive journalist, I’ve piloted hugely powerful machines on picturesque roads and sinuous racetracks all over the world. I even learned to drive a Zamboni ice resurfacer in downtown Manhattan. Yet nothing prepares me for this adventure, especially once the view from the windshield shift s dramatically sideways. The track is still streaking towards me, but not from the normal angle where the road disappears beneath the hood of the car. No, it’s coming up fast, but right here at the passenger-side window.

Ryan Tuerck, my driver and a professional racer in the US Formula Drift Series, has flicked the steering wheel with lightning speed. The tires start to scream in protest as the car turns sideways. Smoke from the howling tires begins pouring into the sparse cockpit, as tiny pieces of tire and track grit ping off my helmet and face. If it wasn’t outrageously fun, this would be a terrifying experience. The only lasting damage after one lap: My face hurts from laughing so hard.

“This car is pushing out around 650 horsepower,” says Tuerck over the blare of the turbocharged four-cylinder engine, as he brings the Toyota Corolla drift car back to pit lane. “But in race tune [or racing mode], it’ll give more than 1,000 hp.” As for the rear tires, they’ve been cooked in a matter of minutes—drift car tires win no awards for longevity.

This Toyota Corolla, while technically based on a front-wheel-drive economy car, has nothing in common with any production car. It sits low and squat to the ground, the giant wheels barely contained by the wide fenders, and inside there’s little more than bare metal, steel tubing and two heavily bolstered seats. This Corolla is now a rear-wheel-drive speed machine that’s built to go extremely fast, and mostly sideways.

Controlled Chaos

Tracing the exact roots of drifting can be difficult, primarily because race drivers have been sliding around corners pretty much since the dawn of the automobile. But the technical act of purposefully careening a performance car sideways, all while driving with pinpoint accuracy, undoubtedly flourished and found its earliest support in Japan. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, illegal street racing also helped hone the skills—and mystique—of many early drift drivers.

What does it take to drive a car? A lot depends on the type of car that’s being driven. This includes the amount of horsepower generated by the engine, along with whether the vehicle is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive. The underlying goal of drifting is to break traction between the rear wheels and road surface. As the rear wheels begin to slide, the driver turns the steering wheel in the opposite direction (a move called counter-steering) and balances the slide primarily by feeding in more, or less, power via the gas pedal.

Occasionally, a driver will also pull the handbrake lever to cause a more immediate loss of rear traction and turn the car into a very sharp and immediate slide. This has been a popular driving technique performed by many rally drivers, though it achieved enormous online fame courtesy of Ken Block, a world-famous racing driver who had turned sliding cars into a YouTube-powered art form.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, drifting was shaking off its underground image and the US was catching onto the racing phenomenon.

“As car enthusiasts and a marketing agency startup, we came across an opportunity to bring the sport to the US,” says Jim Liaw, one of the cofounders of the US Formula Drift Series. Now in its 16th year, Liaw credits the series’ first competition, held at the Road Atlanta racetrack in 2004, with sparking a flurry of interest in North America.

After so many years of being a misunderstood niche in the racing world, drifting rapidly moved into the mainstream. Hollywood quickly caught on, too. In 2006, the Fast and the Furious film franchise released Tokyo Drift, an action-packed movie filled with outlandish cars sporting fire-spitting exhausts. The film’s popularity shone an even brighter spotlight on the evolving world of drifting.

“The sport has changed quite a lot over the last 16 years we have been in business,” Liaw says. “We went from race tracks not allowing drifting, and the general public not knowing the term ‘drift,’ to having drifting activity in almost every state in the US, and on every continent.” In 2019, Formula Drift will include nine race weekends staged from coast to coast, with approximately 30 drivers competing for the championship.

Inside the Action

While viewing the racing action as a spectator is thrilling, is there a way for a drift enthusiast to get a deeper understanding of the sport? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes,’ says Rudy Ibanez, a track manager, and racing instructor at Exotics Racing in Las Vegas, Nevada (exoticsracing.com).

Yet, even for experienced drift enthusiasts like Ibanez, controlling a wide slide—and maintaining the slide around a corner—are challenging feats. “The hardest part of drifting, in my eyes, is trying to control the angle of the drift and the consistency of drifting,” says Ibanez. “The easiest part is having fun.”

Exotics Racing offers casual visitors and would-be racers alike its Drift RideAlong program, which allows up to three people to ride aboard a 707-horsepower Dodge Charger Hellcat muscle car that has a top speed of 204 mph. “This allows the student to see and experience how a professional driver goes around the track—from high speed, proper braking, shifting and drifting around the corners,” Ibanez explains.

Among other drift schools around the country is Drift 101 in Van Nuys, California, whose cars for hire include a souped-up Nissan 240sx Hatchback and a 1995 BMW 328i Coupe (drift101.com). Meanwhile, Team O’Neil, in Dalton, New Hampshire, offers, among other vehicles, BMW 3 Series cars for rear-wheel-drive lessons, Ford Fiestas for front-wheel drive and Subaru Imprezas for indoctrinations in all-wheel-drive drifting (teamoneil.com).

Both schools allow clients to use their own vehicles. Pricing ranges from about $400 for a one-day course with your own car to more than $2,000 for a two-day program using the tracks’ dedicated racecars. While the techniques used in drifting seem highly specialized, Ibanez says honing your driving skills in any controlled environment—such as a circular skidpad to test a car’s overall grip or adhesion provided by the tires, to on-track sessions with an instructor—are all viable ways to get comfortable with a vehicle’s performance limits, along with your own. (A skidpad is any closed road surface used to test vehicle performance.) Asked why Exotic Cars uses a Dodge Challenger Hellcat for its drift demos, Ibanez breezily volleys back his response. “Who doesn’t love a four-door car with over 700 hp?” In the world of drifting, too much power is never enough.

For Drift-Driving Superstar, Skill Comes from Deep Within

Ken Block, professional rally car driver-turned-drift driving YouTube superstar, says he partly relies on his subconscious to push cars to make seemingly impossible moves.

In an interview with the British automotive publication Autocar, Block describes his approach to rally driving and “gymkhana,” a type of motorsport featuring closed courses filled with a variety of obstacles (traffic cones, tight corners, safety barrels), which the driver negotiates with razor-quick braking, steering, and throttle inputs.

“Coming from stage rally and all the experience I’ve had, the miles and miles of experience, a lot of it is very second nature,” says Block of his thought process when hurling a car through impossibly complex courses. “It’s got to be something that comes at a very subconscious level of what you need to do.”

Block’s skill behind the wheel, on display in his Gymkhana video series, has garnered millions of views on social media and earned him legendary status for his deft car control and coolness under pressure. For his Gymkhana 10
video, Block and crew stepped out of their comfort zone by building something new—a drift truck. Harkening back to Block’s 1965 custom Mustang drift car, the “Hoonicorn,” the 1977 Ford F-150 truck with a 914hp twin-turbo 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 engine, is a custom tube-frame chassis with old body panels on top.

Because the “Hoonitruck” is far bigger and weightier than what Block is used to sliding around in, he may not be able to rely on his subconscious as much as when he is driving a car. “It drives exceptionally,” Block told Road & Track of the custom truck, “but the feeling of the size is very foreign.”

Apparently not that foreign, however. As reported by Mustang 360, Block’s father owned a 1977 F-150 pickup truck and is what Block himself learned to drive in as a teenager.

 

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