Get the Drift: The Ins and Outs of Sport 'Drifting'

Get the Drift: The Ins and Outs of Sport ‘Drifting’

Drifting is not a sport for SUVs. If it were, it would probably be called “rollovering.” Nor does it lend itself very well to cars with front-wheel drive. Drifting is all about sliding around curves with the rear wheels smoking all the way.

Drifting sounds like an activity dreamed up by the tire manufacturers to stimulate sales. But the truth is drifting started in Japan as a test of driving skill on mountain roads. The island nation has a lot of winding, twisting mountain roads with dangerous passes, which the Japanese call “touge.” Racing enthusiasts love a challenge, so a handful of “touge racers” decided to see how fast they could race up and down the curves and switchbacks carved into the face of the mountains. Think Pike’s Peak hill climb with a kamakazee attitude.

Initially, the idea was to race along one of these mountain highways without flying off the road or hitting another vehicle. Many of these races were not sanctioned events on a closed course, but were done while other motorists were using the road. This made the sport extremely dangerous, which probably added to its allure. It also resulted in a lot of accidents!

As time went on, touge racing evolved into more of a showmanship sport. Racing up and down twisting mountain roads and switchbacks requires a lot of concentration as well as a vehicle that handles very precisely. As drivers became more adept at negotiating turns, they started power sliding or “drifting” their cars mostly to show off. Being able to slide around a sharp curve with the rear wheels spinning all the way while counter steering to maintain control became the hallmark of driving prowess. The more you could slide your car without losing control, the higher your status among fellow drifters.

Of course, this was nothing totally new. Dirt track racers have been using this technique since day one. The only difference is that drifters are doing it on dry pavement, not a slippery dirt track — and that takes much more finesse to keep a car from oversteering and spinning out.

Drifting typically appeals to younger drivers who own modified sport compact cars, sports cars or performance cars. It continues as a very dangerous and illegal form of street racing, but it has also become a legitimate motorsport with various events being held at road courses and even parking lots all over the world (including the SEMA show in Las Vegas last year).

One of the first drifting events outside Japan was at Willow Springs International Raceway in Palmdale, CA, in 1996. In 2004, Formula DRIFT (Formula-D) was created in partnership with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), and today there are events all over the country. For more information about drifting, see

Sanctioned drifting events can now be a fun and reasonably safe activity for almost any driver regardless of their skill level. It’s also fun to watch. Better yet, it represents a great business opportunity for import shops to offer drifting modifications to those who want to drift their cars, as well as performance handling, braking and tire upgrades to those who don’t want to drift (unintentionally).

A drifting competition is not like any other racing event you’ve ever seen. The object isn’t to get around the course as quickly as possible, but to slide the car with as much control as possible through the turns. It’s all about execution and style.

Drifting events may involve solo runs, but usually one driver is pitted against another in a “Tsuiso” twin-drift competition where two cars switch lead positions as they go around the course. Competitors are judged on how far sideways they can throw their cars, how fast they can slide around the turns, how they enter and exit the turns, and how much “wow factor” they create for the crowd. Tire smoke is big factor here, and the more the better.

Spinning tires normally produce white smoke as the rubber heats up and burns off the tread. Harder rubber compounds have less grip and typically break traction and spin easier than softer rubber compounds. So drifters usually opt for tires that don’t have the best traction characteristics, which is just the opposite of what you’d normally want on a street performance car or a race car.

A couple of years ago, something new appeared in drifting: colored tire smoke. Talk about a new wow factor. The spectators loved it. Now the cars could generate billowing clouds of blue, yellow or red smoke as they spun around the course. Some cars even used different colored tires on the left and right rear wheels to create contrasting smoke trails that would change color as the cars changed direction. Initially, only a handful of professional drifting team cars were equipped with the special Kuhmo tires (which reportedly cost more than $1,000 each!). But now these tires are available to drifters for $200 to $300 each. Special colored pigments mixed into the tread rubber create the various colors of smoke when the tires are spun and get hot.

What does it take to transform a car into a drifter? Like any form of racing, there are rules, and the rules vary depending on the level at which you want to compete. For amateurs, there’s D1 Grand Prix (go to for more information) which is open to all two-wheel drive production cars (RWD or AWD cars that have been modified to RWD).

Formula DRIFT is for professionals, and is also limited to any RWD production vehicle. Both classes require an original frame or unibody (no custom-built chassis allowed). Any engine, exhaust, transmission and driveline modifications are permitted, though lots of horsepower really isn’t necessary for this kind of racing — just enough to spin the rear wheels. A full roll cage is also mandatory, and a five- or six-point seat belt harness (depending on the seating position).

For weekend amateur events, the requirements are usually minimal: a car, a crash helmet and a signed release form that waives the responsibility of the promoters should somebody crash and get hurt.

The key to controlled drifting is having a chassis that minimizes body roll when cornering, a limited slip or locked differential so both rear wheels will spin simultaneously, and tires that don’t have too much grip.

Keeping the body flat requires stiffer springs, shocks with a higher dampening rate and stiffer sway bars. The front and rear sway bars are really important here because they tie the right and left sides of the suspension together. When the car starts to lean into a turn, the twisting motion on the sway bars resists the motion and helps keep the chassis flat. This gives the driver better control over handling so he doesn’t oversteer and spin out.

Lowering the body lowers the center of gravity, so replacing the stock springs with shorter springs to reduce the ride height a couple of inches or installing adjustable coil-overs are both methods that are commonly used to improve handling.

Stock shocks are too soft for this kind of motorsport, so they need to be upgraded to high-pressure gas-charged units that won’t fade under hard use. Adjustable dampers are even better because it allows the chassis to be fine-tuned to the course.

Replacing the stock suspension bushings with stiffer aftermarket urethane bushings (or even metal bushings) is another modification that’s often done to eliminate slop in the suspension. Ditto for the mounts that hold the steering rack. Stiffer means less compliance for more precise handling and steering control.

Cars set up for professional drifting events may also have modified steering geometry to increase how far the wheels can be steered in either direction. More steering angle gives the driver more latitude in a drift, and allows him to maintain control when the car gets sideways. The steering may be modified with spacers, or a custom rack with longer tie rods. This, in turn, may require modifying the fender openings, inner fender wells or suspension for added tire clearance when the wheels are steered.

On cars with subframes, additional modifications may be needed to stiffen the chassis to reduce flex. Most rear-wheel drive Nissans have a floating rear subframe that can move around unless it’s stiffened with billet aluminum or urethane “drift pineapples.”

Stock trailing arms and control arms may not be strong enough to withstand the rigors of drifting, and may be replaced with stronger, stiffer aftermarket components. A crossbrace inside the engine compartment between the strut towers or inner fenders can also help stiffen a unibody for better handling.

As for wheel alignment, more negative camber is often added up front to keep the front tires in better contact with the road so the front wheels don’t slide or understeer. This makes it easier to swing out the rear wheels as the car rounds a turn. Some cars with independent rear suspensions may also set up with a little extra toe-out on the rear wheels to make it easier to drift the rear wheels.

Drifting puts a lot of strain on wheel bearings, especially the rear axle bearings, so these parts must be in perfect condition with minimal play.

Tires are obviously one of the most important components on a car that’s being set up for drifting. For the rear wheels, the preferred choice is usually a tire with a hard rubber compound that can be spun easily. These are typically tires with a high numeric value for the mileage rating (over 350). Older used tires are even better because the rubber has aged and has lost some of its flexibility. Up front, tires that stick to the road are usually better. Front tires that have a softer compound or are designed for road racing or maximum dry traction may be used. Most drifters use low-profile tires because the stiffer sidewalls are more predictable and improve handling response.

The clutch and brakes get a real workout at a drifting event, so you want to use friction materials that can really take the heat. Ceramic button-style clutch facings can usually handle this kind of abuse, while semi-metallic brake pads may be needed to keep the brakes from fading. A high-temperature brake fluid is also recommended.

As far as the engine and transmission are concerned, a little extra power is always nice for added throttle response, but it doesn’t take a lot to break the rear wheels loose in a turn. So modifications are usually minimal and include things like installing a cold air intake, opening up the exhaust and tweaking the PCM to optimize performance. A close-ratio gearbox is nice because it reduces the change in engine rpm between shifts, making it easier for the driver to control what’s happening at the rear wheels. The cooling system may also have to be upgraded because the engine is revving hard, but the vehicle is not moving very fast. This reduces airflow through the radiator, and may cause the engine to overheat if too much heat builds up in the system. Installing a larger or more efficient radiator will improve cooling capacity, and adding one or more electric fans to increase airflow through the radiator is also a good idea. An oil cooler for the engine can help manage heat buildup in the crankcase, too.

Serious racers typically run a dry sump oil system to pull oil out of the crankcase. This reduces windage and drag on the crankshaft, and also reduces the risk of engine failure from oil starvation due to the oil sloshing away from the oil pump pickup inside the oil pan. A dry sump system keeps the oil in an external tank, which increases the oil capacity of the engine and also improves cooling.

For amateur events, few, if any, modifications to the body or interior of the car are needed. But for serious drifting, the car may be stripped down and gutted like any other race car. All unnecessary weight is eliminated by removing such non-essentials as the passenger and rear seats, door panels, carpeting, door panel and interior trim, etc. Glass windows may be replaced with lightweight Plexiglas, and door hardware removed so the doors can be welded shut. A racing seat that provides plenty of side support is an absolute must to hold the driver in place, and a smaller steering wheel improves steering feel, response and quickness.

Because the speeds at most drifting events are relatively slow, aerodynamic add-ons such as front air dams and rear spoilers are more for show than go. However, wheel wells may be enlarged or flared to increase tire clearance, and various scoops may be installed to improve brake cooling, and engine cooling and breathing.

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