Being an automotive journalist comes with the nasty side effect of getting burned out and tired of all things cars from time to time. When I start to feel my passion fade and work starts to become, well work, I go out and shoot drifting.
For me, drifting is the only segment I have never once gotten a little tired of. Over the weekend I covered the first round of the 2019 Formula Drift season, the Streets of Long Beach. All the tire smoke, loud engines, and incredible driving reminded me why I can’t get enough of it.
Drifting is unlike any other Motorsport – it’s not for everyone, and that’s ok. To truly appreciate it, you need to know how it works, how to drive a drift car, setups, steering angle grip specs, tire compounds and what it means to be just inches away from another vehicle at close to 100 mph.
It looks wild and chaotic with no method to its madness, but every variable involved is calculated.
Here are three things we loved seeing at Long Beach:
It’s Controlled Chaos
Drifting is a constant challenge that inspires drivers to consider what they can do better, what the car can do better, and how far they can push it. With too much power the car will just spin out of control, too little and it will most likely smash into a wall. It’s a skill sport that requires finding a manageable power to weight to grip ratio.
This year in Long Beach, 37 drivers competed for one of the 32 places that make up the first round of eliminations. Their weapon of choice? Everything.
A trademark of Formula Drift competition cars is the very open engine rulebook. Formula Drift allows engines from other manufacturers to be swapped into competition cars. The rulebook states the “engine, transmission, ECU and/or final drive modifications are free, but only the rear wheels may propel the vehicle.” This results in a huge variety of engine and chassis combinations as well as substantial power outputs commonly above 850+ wheel horsepower.
Last year we saw Federico Sceriffo pilot his Ferrari 599 GTB with twin superchargers that have since been removed in favor of giving the Ferrari V12 engine nitrous injection to get the power needed to be competitive.
Engine swaps remain very common with older models but can be seen with new builds as well. Naturally aspirated Chevrolet V8 engines are often used because of their availability and lower operating costs. However, vehicles wishing to compete for the Manufacturers Championship must use an engine from the same manufacturer as the chassis.
Three-time Champion Chris Forsberg spent the off-season installing a Nissan GT-R VR engine and direct-port nitrous injection into his NOS Energy Drink / Nissan 370Z on Nexen Tires, confident it would give him an extra advantage.
Competition, by definition, is to “win or gain something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.” In most motorsports, this equates to who crossed the finish line first, had the quickest time, or the highest speed.
Bracket Racing, a form of drag racing, is often considered an exception to this as the driver who comes closest to their anticipated “dial-in,” or elapsed time, without exceeding it is regarded as the winner. In the event each driver meets their anticipated E.T., the win goes to the driver with the best reaction time.
When it comes to competitive drifting, like Formula Drift, drivers have the opportunity to prove they have more skill than their opponent and are judged on their execution of line, angle, style, and tandem battles. It’s not about who has the largest engine, the most power, or who is the fastest. It’s a skill sport.
The ideal drift line is stipulated by the judges at each track before the start of the competition. Formula Drift judges often push the drivers to use the entire course from wall-to-wall with the line marked by inner and outer clipping points.
Angle is judged by monitoring the drivers overall steering and slip angle used to navigate the proper line through the course. Steering adjustments should be minimal, and transitions should be smooth.
Three factors are used to judge style: initiation, fluidity, and commitment. Ideally, drivers will initiate the drift as early as possible with a quick rate of angle and no significant corrections. Fluidity is earned by keeping the car smooth and settled throughout the course without any steering corrections while commitment is determined by the driver’s throttle application, maintained pace, and rapid approaches in proximity to barriers and track edge with confidence.
A tandem battle consists of two cars side by side, each given the opportunity to have a lead run and a chase run but the emphasis is put on the interaction between the two drivers.
The lead driver sets the pace and driving line, often trying to produce a gap between themselves and the following driver. The chase driver will try to stay as close to the lead driver as possible without making contact with their vehicle. The goal is to mimic or “shadow” the lead drivers run while staying on their door throughout the run.
If a winner can not be determined a “One More Time” will be called and the drivers will face off again until a winner can be determined.
In the Sweet 16, Odi Bakchis and his familiar Falken Tire Nissan S14 faced former Champion Essa, who was in fighting form, sacrificing his BMW’s rear bumper on his lead run in an attempt to drift as deep as possible in every turn. However, Bakchis was up to the challenge and put in a better chase run than Essa to get the nod from the judges.
Forrest Wang in the Achilles Tires Nissan S15 took on 2010 FD Champion, Vaughn Gittin Jr in the Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D in the Sweet 16. On the first run, Gittin Jr. initiated hard but was forced to correct after Wang hit the wall. He struggled to regain his proximity to the lead car. On the second run, the judges gave the win to Wang as they determined he did a better job mimicking the lead driver’s moves.
Moving onto the Great 8, Bakchis went head-to-head with Justin “JTP” Pawlak in the Roush Performance Ford Mustang. Wrapped in identical Falken team colors, both drivers explored the track limits as they brushed from wall-to-wall in a perfect demonstration of drifting art. After two runs the judges were unable to separate them so called for “One More Time.”
On their second battle, Pawlak ran hard through the first “touch and go,” and made firm contact with the wall. It pushed him offline and was enough to allow Bakchis to advance to the Final 4.
In the Great 8, Wang faced Piotr Wiecek, regarded as one of the best drifters in the world for his speed and precision. Both drivers went wall-to-wall at a furious pace, carving broad lines through the course. With both runs completed, the crowd held its collective breath until Wang was named the winner thanks again to a better chase run. He was tenaciously sticking close to the lead car, making him hard to beat.
Wang was confronted by a formidable foe, and another fan favorite, Fredric Aasbo in the Final 4. Wang struggled to string the turns together as Aasbo chased characteristically hard and fast, hitting the clipping points precisely. As Wang returned to the start line, Aasbo disappeared into the pits with his 2.7-liter Toyota four-cylinder turbo motor not sounding very happy. After requesting a competition time-out, Papadakis Racing quickly diagnosed a terminal problem and gracefully withdrew from the competition.
Bakchis faced Chris Forsberg in the semi-final where both drivers showcased their drift skills. The judge’s decision went to Bakchis by virtue of a superior chase run.
With many of the event favorites watching from the sidelines, Wang and Bakchis quickly warmed their tires and lined up for the Final. The crowd was in full voice, supporting the drivers at the top of their lungs as both committed to the course. As the smoke cleared, the judges ruled in favor of Bakchis, with Wang making small errors that were enough to separate the two.