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Burning up the rubber...drifting
Toyota Supra in drifting exhibition in Atlanta in 2005.
Toyota Supra in drifting exhibition in Atlanta in 2005.
July 21st 2008 - Call me “old school”, my kids just call me old, but I thought the idea in racing was to SAVE YOUR TIRES?! This whole drifting thing just has passed me by. I understand it takes some skill to maintain control of a racecar, but burning up the rubber on purpose? I just don’t get it, although, a lot of people seem to enjoy the sport. Maybe if I would see it in person, I’d develop more of an appreciation for other peoples’ passion.

Any PitStop readers out there into drifting, I’d like to hear from you. - BRONCO

How Drifting Works
by Julia Layton

With the release of the third installment in the movie series "The Fast and Furious," this one is called "Tokyo Drift," drifting has finally made it to the big screen. Sure, Hollywood has known about donuts for decades, but this one's all about the sport of losing traction. In drifting, drivers force their car to slide sideways through a turn, and professional drifters can accomplish a true driving contradiction: They can control what happens when their tires no longer grip the road.

Drifting is really nothing new. If your car's rear end has ever swung around on a wet road, and you've struggled for 50 feet to get control, you've drifted. Even in car racing, drifting is pretty old hat. When race car drivers go around a turn at high speed, especially in the early days of racing when tires didn't have the grip they do now, the back end would sometimes swing out. The car would either spin out or the driver would recover from the drift and keep moving. Today, even with tires that could probably grip a vertical wall, the ability to drift without spinning out is an enviable skill in racing. The best drivers can control a drift so they can use it to their advantage -- a driver who can take a "non-ideal" path through a turn and brake late, causing the car to lose traction through the turn, has far more opportunities to pass than a driver who can't manage a drift.
What's relatively new is the advent of drifting as a sport in its own right. "Drift racing" was born on the winding mountain roads of Japan in the 1990s, and it has been spreading to the United States and the United Kingdom for the last five years or so. A simple drift has a car moving sideways through a single turn, but it can get much more complex than that. At the pro level, drivers can drift through several opposing turns without their wheels ever gripping the road. That's where the winding mountain roads come in -- aside from the death factor, mountain roads are ideal drifting courses. The multiple, tight, S-type turn configurations allow drivers to display the most advanced drifting skills.

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For years drivers have intentionally used oversteer in motorsports such as dirt track racing, motorcycle speedway, and rallying. Early Grand Prix drivers such as Tazio Nuvolari also used an at-the-limit form of driving called the four-wheel drift. It has also featured prominently in stunt driving and other forms of exhibition.

Modern drifting started out as a racing technique popular in the All Japan Touring Car Championship races over 30 years ago. Motorcycling legend turned driver, Kunimitsu Takahashi, was the foremost creator of drifting techniques in the 1970s. He was famous for hitting the apex (the point where the car is closest to the inside of a turn) at high speed and then drifting through the corner, preserving a high exit speed. This earned him several championships and a legion of fans who enjoyed the spectacle of burning tires. The bias ply racing tires of the 1960s-1980s lent themselves to driving styles with a high slip angle. As professional racers in Japan drove this way, so did the street racers.

A street racer named Keiichi Tsuchiya became particularly interested by Takahashi's drift techniques. Tsuchiya began practicing his drifting skills on the mountain roads of Japan, and quickly gained a reputation amongst the racing crowd. In 1977, several popular car magazines and tuning garages agreed to produce a video of Tsuchiya's drifting skills. The video, known as Pluspy, became a hit and inspired many of the professional drifting drivers on the circuits today.

In 1988, alongside Option magazine founder and chief editor Daijiro Inada, he would help to organize one of the first events specifically for drifting. He also drifted every turn in Tsukuba Circuit in Japan.

One of the earliest recorded drift events outside Japan was in 1996, held at Willow Springs Raceway in Willow Springs, California hosted by the Japanese drifting magazine and organisation Option. Inada, the NHRA Funny Car drag racer Kenji Okazaki and Dorikin, who also gave demonstrations in a Nissan 180SX that the magazine brought over from Japan, judged the event with Rhys Millen and Bryan Norris being two of the entrants.

Drifting has since exploded into a massively popular form of motorsport in North America, Australasia, and Europe. One of the first drifting competitions in Europe was hosted in 2002 by the OPT drift club at Turweston, run by a tuning business called Option Motorsport. The club held a championship called D1UK, then later became the Autoglym Drift Championship. For legal reasons, the business was forced to drop the Option and D1 name. The club has since been absorbed into the D1 franchise as a national series.

Present day

Drifting has evolved into a competitive sport where drivers compete in rear-wheel drive cars to earn points from judges based on various factors. At the top levels of competition, especially the D1 Grand Prix from Japan and others in Malaysia, Australia, Canada,the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Formula-D in the United States, and New Zealand, these drivers are able to keep their cars sliding for extended periods of time, often through several turns. Drifting is not recognized by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) motorsport's governing body, as a professional form of motorsport.

Drift competition

Drifting competitions are judged based on line, angle, speed, and show factor. Line involves taking the correct line, which is usually announced beforehand by judges. The show factor is based on multiple things, such as the amount of smoke, how close the car is to the wall, and the crowd's reaction. Angle is the angle of a car in a drift, Speed is the speed entering a turn, the speed through a turn, and the speed exiting the turn; faster is better.

The judging takes place on just a small part of the circuit, a few linking corners that provide good viewing, and opportunities for drifting. The rest of the circuit is irrelevant, except as it pertains to controlling the temperature of the tires and setting the car up for the first judged corner. In the tandem passes, the lead driver often feints his or her entry to the first corner to upset the chase driver.
There are typically two sessions, a qualifying/practice session, and a final session. In the qualifying sessions, referred as Tansou (speed run), drifters get individual passes in front of judges (who may or may not be the final judges) to try and make the final 16. This is often on the day preceding the final.
The finals are tandem passes, referred as Tsuiso (chase attack). Drivers are paired off, and each heat comprises two passes, with each driver taking a turn to lead. The best of the 8 heats go to the next 4, to the next 2, to the final. The passes are judged as explained above, however there are some provisos such as:

· Overtaking the lead car under drift conditions almost always wins that pass.
· Overtaking the lead car under grip conditions automatically forfeits that pass.
· Spinning forfeits that pass, unless the other driver also spins.
· Increasing the lead under drift conditions helps to win that pass.
· Maintaining a close gap while chasing under drift conditions helps to win that pass.

Points are awarded for each pass, and usually one driver prevails. Sometimes the judges cannot agree, or cannot decide, or a crowd vocally disagrees with the judge's decision. In such cases more passes may be run until a winner is produced. Sometimes mechanical failure determines the battle's outcome, either during or preceding a heat. If a car cannot enter a tandem battle, the remaining entrant (who automatically advances) will give a solo demonstration pass. In the event of apparently close or tied runs, crowds often demonstrate their desire for another run with chants of 'one more time'.

There is some regional variation, for example in Australia, the chase car is judged on how accurately it mimics the drift of the lead car, as opposed to being judged on its own merit. Other variations of the tansou/tsuiso and the tansou only method is the multi car group judging, seen in the Drift Tengoku videos where the four car team is judged in groups.


Usually, drift cars are light to moderate weight, rear-wheel-drive coupes and sedans. In Japan and worldwide, the most common drift machines are the Nissan Silvia/180SX/200SX, Toyota AE86, Mazda RX-7, Nissan A31 Cefiro, Nissan C33 Laurel, Nissan Skyline (RWD versions), Nissan Z-car, Toyota Altezza, Toyota Chaser, Toyota Mark II, Toyota MZ20 Soarer, Honda S2000, Toyota Supra (MKIV), Ford Mustang and Mazda Miata. US drift competitions feature local versions of those cars (such as the Nissan 240SX and Toyota Corolla GT-S). Drifters in other countries often use local favorites, such as the early Ford Escort (UK and Ireland), BMW 3 Series (other parts of Europe), Porsche, early Opel cars, the later Russian market Lada (Hungary) or Volvo 700 series (Scandinavia), modified Proton cars (Malaysia) and the Holden Commodore in Australia.