[This is the first in a series of 3 articles on the growing sport of professional Drifting.]
Think drifting is just 2 maniacs sliding around a track in out of control, high-powered tuner cars? Think again.
In just a few short years, drifting has gone from underground competitions between drivers fueled by adrenaline and skills honed by hours of sliding through back roads and doing donuts in abandoned lots, to an organized motorsport with professional drivers, teams backed by major sponsors, a national championship, and a growing legion of rabid fans.
I got my first taste of the sport a couple of weeks ago when Formula Drift, the “major leagues” of drifting competition in North America, invited me up to Road Atlanta for this season’s second stop.
And after watching only a few heats, I joined the ranks of those rabid fans. Because, like Chris Forsberg, the 2009 Formula Drift Champion, told me, “Drifting’s been quoted as being like the last lap of the most exciting race you’ve ever seen… every heat.”
Forget watching 40 cars drive in a circle for three hours… this is the motorsport you should be watching. So I sat down with Jim Liaw, co-founder of Formula Drift along with partner Ryan Sage, for Drifting 101, your field guide to understanding and enjoying the adrenalin-fueled sport of drifting.
In drifting, style and skill trump raw power. A judged competition, heats are run on a short, twisting track designed to test the skill of the driver.
Every track is different, and track configurations are sometimes changed year to year to challenge the drivers.
It’s not about who crosses the finish line fastest. Drivers are judged on their ability to keep the car in complete control the entire run. (For more detail, see How It’s Judged.)
On qualifying day, drivers run the course individually and judges rate their runs and award points. The top 32 drivers qualify for race day.
On race day the drivers compete against each other in a head-to-head dogfight. Two drivers take the track at a time. They’ll run two heats, alternating between being the Lead car and being the Chase or Follow car.
The lead driver is being judged on how well he (and i say “he” because in Formula Drift there are no female drivers), attacks the course, his skill and style, and how well he controls the car. The chase driver’s job is to apply pressure to the lead driver, and stay as door-to-door close to him as he can through the entire course. (Watching two cars sliding inches apart at high speed is where the excitement comes in.)
Judges decide who ruled the runs and the winning driver moves on to the next heat. Heats are run bracket-style until there’s an overall winner.
Like most racing events, there are event winners, points earned at each event, and they’re all competing to be the overall points champion at the end of the season.
There are 3 judges and they are looking at 4 main things: Speed, Line, Angle and Overall Impression.
Speed is not about how fast the driver completes the run, but it’s about how fast the driver enters the first drift corner, and how much speed he carries through the entire course. He’ll get maximum points for keeping a consistent speed through the whole run, rather than entering the course fast, slowing down in transition, speeding up again, etc.
Line is similar to the driving line in other racing: How well the driver is negotiating the track, and if he is using the entire track and hitting the “clipping points” set up by judges. (There are also markers that light up when a driver drifts close to the points, giving judges a visual verification.)
Angle is exactly what you would think it would be in a drift competition: How sideways does the driver get the car.
Overall Impression is the most subjective of the judging criteria, so I asked longtime judge, and former drift competitor, Andy Yen, what he looks for. “The main thing is the ‘wow factor’ and how exciting they make the run look,” he says. He also wants to see that the driver is in complete control of the car and has smooth transitions from drift to drift during the run.
All of these are weighted together to decide a winner, with speed being the least important.
Popular in Japan for years, a US series, Formula Drift, was announced at SEMA in 2003 and held an exhibition event later that year. 2004 was the first full year of competition.
NOS Energy Drink is a main sponsor of the series, and also sponsors a team. Several other large sponsors include the US Air Force, Mobil 1 Oil and of course, tire companies like Falken Tire, Hankook Tire and Discount Tire.
There are 7 races per season.
60 drivers are currently licensed to compete in Formula Drift.
Drivers can earn their license through a number of regional competitions and through Formula Drift Pro/Am, the minor league development series.
Drivers from all over the world are now flocking to the US to compete in Formula Drift, according to Liaw. This is partly because no other country offers such a wide variety of challenging tracks.
Teams are a mix of corporate-backed teams all the way down to just a single driver with a car and some buddies helping him.
Oh, and there’s a whole lotta smoke.
The series is carried by NBC Sports, but the races air long after they are run.
You can catch races via live stream at FormulaD.com/live
And you can (and really should) get to a race and see it live. Most seats are close to the track and once you see it live you’ll be hooked.
For more, follow me @thebachelorguy.