Not long after the car was invented, men instinctively began hurling themselves around corners at speeds well beyond the limits of grip. Back then, it was just called burning rubber, but today, you know it by its more common name, drifting.
As cars became more powerful and automotive subcultures developed, Japan’s mountain racers perfected the art of keeping a car locked in a continuous slide while navigating a technical stretch of tarmac. Today, what was once an underground phenomenon has taken the world stage in the form of professional drift racing. If you’re interested, you can even learn the art of drifting yourself — without the risk of driving off a mountain.
What You’ll Need to Get Started
The world’s elite drift racers can slice a track to ribbons in some unconventional cars, but for learning the discipline, there are a few must-haves. Most importantly, you need to have rear-wheel drive. That stuff your buddies do with fast-food trays might be good for laughs, but it’s not drifting.
Popular first drift cars include the Nissan 240SX and Toyota Corolla AE86. More recent models that fit the bill include the Toyota GT86 and Mazda Miata. As an alternative to thrashing your road car, go-karts make an excellent jumping-off point and are where many professional racers cut their teeth. Where I live near Harrisburg, there are even kart tracks dedicated to practicing your drift technique.
The Basics of a Drift
My first drift lesson took place in a snowy parking lot, behind the wheel of a beat-up pickup truck. It wasn’t the ideal race car, but in this case, the setting was more important than the car. There was no one around to bump into, and since the truck lacked four-wheel drive, starting a slide took little more than a prod of the throttle.
I learned to set the car (truck) up sideways and hold the tail out through a slide, how to use the throttle to provoke a higher slip angle and tighten my line, and how much I needed to counter-steer to straighten things out again. I also learned how it feels to mess up and spin out — a valuable lesson for newbies who think they’re invincible behind the wheel.
Improving Your Technique
While a snowy parking lot is acceptable for low-speed maneuvers when there’s nobody else around, it’s really no place to learn how to actually drift a car. To perfect your technique at speed, there’s no better place than the track. Again, the emphasis is on making sure you don’t hurt yourself or anyone else.
There are several ways to make it onto a local track. Search for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events in your area. Even if there’s no track around, you can probably find an autocross or gymkhana nearby where you can fling your ride around without risking innocent bystanders.
Sliding With the Pros
These days, many car clubs and automakers offer promotional events where you can learn to drift and drive at the limit with instruction from professionals. It’s amazing how much you’ll learn in a single day of drills designed to teach you to drift.
More than a few automotive journalists have taken the plunge with pro drifting school and come back raving about it. On a recent episode of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, host Richard Hammond featured a school with BMW, and Neil from the Car Throttle website put his skill to the test at Goodwood’s very own drift experience.
You don’t need a media pass to access these events. Contact the local car clubs and tracks to see where you can get some lap time in with professional instruction. Practice will drastically improve your performance.
Hooning with Care
Now that you’re a fully qualified driftmeister, it’s important to remember the responsibility that comes with your title. Yes, I know that 90-degree right through the neighborhood by your local high school just calls out to you on rainy mornings, but you never know when a school bus is going to come rollicking up the blacktop.
When you want to drift, do it in a controlled environment. Even the tamest car by today’s standards is capable of speeds and slip angles that can lead to serious accidents, and it’s no fun driving around nervously on city streets, poaching corners, afraid to flatten someone’s cat. Save your drifting for the track.