What the heck is “drifting?”

If you’ve followed racing for any length of time, you have probably heard the description of a “loose” race car being one that causes the driver to oversteer and hit the retaining wall with the back end of the car. Of course, a “loose” car is the opposite of a “tight” car, where the driver tends to understeer and hit the wall with the front end. It’s all in how the car is set up to get the best path through the turns while managing tire grip, but without hitting the wall with either the front or the back. Oversteering, in effect, causes the backend of the car to swing out and go into “drifting” mode..

In a sense, drifting is a normal part of race car driving, and there’s a fair amount of relativity between tire grip and the amount of motorsports-drifting4drifting a car does during a race. As the tires fade during a pit stop cycle, the amount of oversteer a driver is likely to encounter in controlling the car tends to increase, and the really skilled drivers can make maximum use of this drift to get through and off of a corner faster and with more velocity. Controlling the drift is a way for drivers to gain an advantage late in a cycle, allowing them to stretch their tires further between stops.

The oversteer/understeer aspects of racing apply mostly to hard surface (asphalt or concrete) competition, although the same fundamentals are evident in dirt track racing. Here, though, it’s usually called sliding, and it’s typical to see dirt cars positioned almost perpendicular to the inside guard rail through the turns. But whether it’s on dirt or asphalt, know that if you’ve seen a race, you’ve seen drifting.

Drifting as a Class of Racing

motorsports-drifting1So, why an article about it? Well, sometime around the early 1990s, motorsports aficionados recognized that the use of intentional oversteering to produce a controlled lateral skid might just be exciting to watch in an organized, orchestrated fashion. And since drifting had become quite popular in the mountains of Japan, and since Japanese national heroes like Kunimitsu Takahashi and Keiichi Tsuchiya had built a loyal following of fans who thrived on watching them “smoke the tires,” it was logical that the very first “official” drifting event would be hosted in Japan, the “D1 Grand Prix.” This event was sub-titled  “Professional Drift” and led to a Japanese production car drifting series that, from 2001 on, has produced a Japanese National Drifting Champion each year.

In the United States, drifting was first introduced in 1996 at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, a seven-track complex near Los Angeles, California, under the sanctioning of Japanese founders of the D1 Grand Prix. Willow Springs is a 2.5 mile, nine-turn paved course (it is famous for its appearance in the Disney film “The Love Bug,” where it was dubbed “Jackrabbit Springs), and is credited with launching Drifting as an official Motorsports competition class in the U.S.

Since its formal recognition as a serious class of competition, drifting has become hugely popular with motorsports fans across the country and around the world. In the U.S., the primary sanctioning organization is Formula Drift, operators of the Pro and Pro2 classes and participants in the World Championship Series. In Japan, it’s the D1 Grand Prix, in Great Britain it’s the British Drift Championship series, and in Ireland it’s the Irish Drift Championship series. On an international level, there’s the Drift Allstars, an organization self-described as the “fast growing, live action, high octane brand that is leading the way as the world discovers the phenomenal motorsport of drifting.” Finally, there is a multi-national series in operation titled the “Drift King of Nations Pro Series,” an organization that operates seven separate competitive series around the globe.

How does one “drift?”

At a very basic level, drifiting involves matching the “ideal line” going in to a turn, selecting a “slip angle” through the turn that pushes the limits as much as possible, and driving with a “style” that exhibits fluidity in the transitioning from point-to-point on the course. But of course it’s not that simple. For a detailed analysis of the basic terms involved in drifting, check out Formula Drift’s “101” page and you’ll get a feel for the sport’s complexity.

And, if you want to see some drifting in action, check out this YouTube video showing action at selected 2015 Formula Drift events. You’ll see it’s not exactly a leisurely country drive!




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