From NASCAR to the World Rally Championship, races have been a part of the car culture since its dawn. And while not every car enthusiast drools over racing sports, everyone should have respect for rally drivers.

There is no doubt about it – races are dangerous. If you cannot control your car perfectly, bad things happen. This is why racecar drivers go through extensive training, both physically and mentally. They have to remain calm under harsh circumstances with an unwavering focus on controlling their car.

Then there is another kind of race. One, which seemingly glorifies operating your car on the very edge of your control. Meet Formula DRIFT – a dream come true for the fans of Fast and Furious. Or alternatively, a semi-popular spectacle which causes many people to wonder why it even exists. Let us check out what makes it so interesting, and what car control really means!

A course in drifting

If you are not familiar, drifting is a special driving technique. The main idea is to take a turn by sliding the car. That maneuver would generally lead to loss of control, but in the context of drifting that is not the case. Drivers learn how to operate the car in such conditions, allowing them to make turns at incredible speeds.

Drifting originated in Japan in the 1970s as a technique to help race drivers maintain speed while turning. Kunimitsu Takahashi, the guy who invented most drifting techniques, won several championships thanks to them. That drew the attention of other competitors, who quickly adopted a similar style of driving.

However, once drifting gained racing popularity, enthusiasts started exploring it on the streets as well. Cars like Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra 4th Gen and Nissan 350Z became the go-to vehicles for such experiments. Their specific drivetrain and handling made them fairly easy to drift.

Drifting hit the streets not only because it was another way to brag, but because it was also fun to watch. Even people who were not into races enjoyed the spectacle itself. Thus it did not take long for it to become a sport, at least in Japan. As it turns out, the States had some catching up to do in that regard!

Drifting in the US

More than 20 years had to pass for a drifting race to officially find its way on US soil. One of the earliest recorded races here was held in 1996. Funny enough, it was a Japanese drifting magazine that organized it. They even brought Japanese drifters to give lessons to US drivers.

That decision was a blast though! Quickly afterward, the driving technique exploded in popularity. It spread not only through the States but also Australia, Europe, and the rest of Asia. Again the major contributing factor was the fun of watching it taking place.

Still, for a while drifting races were not that structured. They were one-off events mainly focused on being entertaining. Eventually, some people joined forces and turned it into a US competitive sport with rules and regulations. They factored in style as the very thing drivers could go after, instead of crossing the finish line first. Thus Formula DRIFT was born!

The rise of Formula DRIFT

The drifting series was founded in 2003 with the help of the people who had already brought drifting from Japan to the States. This makes Formula D (its other name) the first official drifting series in the US.

Initially, the series did not gain a huge amount of traction, although it had plenty of fans. The reason for that being that it was a niche competition in an already saturated racing market. That meant it had to stand out even more and draw additional attention. Luckily, time was on its side.

Over the years Formula DRIFT grew larger and larger. As people started seeing its development, drivers from all over the world set their sights on it. Today the all-time Formula D winners come from several nationalities, the leader being a Norwegian. But what precisely made Formula D so appealing even for foreigners?

What makes Formula DRIFT special

As a whole drifting has always been a rather underground interest outside of Japan. Most countries do not look favorably at wannabe drifters who race on open streets (usually at night). Of course, that is not without reason, but it makes the scene difficult to get into for serious drivers.

Formula DRIFT, on the other hand, embraced the spectacle. They decided to regulate the type of cars and actually judge on a few concrete criteria. That way you could display your driving prowess without worries.

The sheer size of the US market also plays another huge role. Here even niche interests have a comparatively sizeable market. All these factors pushed drivers from other countries to consider a career in the States.

Continued improvements to competition-level judging also brought people in. The folks behind the series strive to make judging as objective as possible. Considering it has to do with style, that is surely a difficult task. Nevertheless, everyone can understand how drift judging is done as it is laid out on Formula D’s own site. Below is the gist of it.

Competition Judging Standards for Formula DRIFT

  • Line – Each track has an ideal drift line. It is designed to make drivers use the entire track, not just the parts they feel comfortable with. So the more the drivers stick to the ideal drift line the more points they get.
  • Angle – This has to do with actual technical ability. Drivers that make smooth transitions between turns with as little steering as possible receive better scores.
  • Style – Style is perhaps the most difficult to judge and the most subjective. Nevertheless, it still involves guidelines for as much objectivity as possible. They are quite technical though, so we will not go into much detail here. Suffice to say that a lot goes into achieving the perfect drift.

These three aspects determine the judging criteria for the qualifications. What is that? Well, instead of being a full-blown race, competitors first have to qualify for the top 32 places in the bracket. Then they face each other in tandem (1 vs 1) races with a process of elimination. It is pretty much like duels, but with cars. Exciting!

Without a doubt, drifting makes for quite the display. In order to achieve it though, there are many details that have to be done right. From knowing your vehicle to choosing the right moment to initiate the drift, small changes can make a huge difference. What else plays such a pivotal role?

The science behind the vehicle

If you take a look at most drift enthusiasts you may come out with the wrong impression. Many of them think that all you need is a BMW M Series and you are pretty much set. But while BMWs are famous in drifting circles, that does not mean they have some special capabilities.

To be honest, Formula DRIFT has vehicle standards, so it is kind of futile to discuss the merits of different marques. Instead, we should focus our attention on the true game-changers – car mods.

In order to achieve an impressive drift, many modifications have to be done to the vehicle. Engineers do their best to alter the cars as much as possible while still falling within the standards. The weight is adjusted, seats are specially designed, the steering wheel is completely different. The cars use a special kind of tires too.

All in all, the end result is a vehicle, which operates in a vastly different manner to your regular car. Engine, suspension, breaks, and body continue to be altered in hopes of building the perfect drifting machine. You can easily say the entire thing has become a science of its own by now. And driving such a beast is no small feat either!

The importance of skill

If you have ever driven a car on a long road or even in congested traffic, you know how exhausting it is. Even when cruise control can let you relax a bit on the highway, you still do not arrive refreshed.

Now imagine what it feels like drifting. The driver must have their attention on several things at once. Breaking, clutching, steering, adjusting – all these things need to be tracked. While it becomes second nature after a while, it certainly takes a toll. Even if the driver is experienced, they cannot let their concentration slip or bad things will happen.

That brings us to the second set of skills that are required – mental presence. On top of concentration, peace of mind and mental clarity are also necessary. Snap decisions have to be taken regularly, especially in tandem drifts, which leave virtually no room for error.

It goes without saying that the driver needs knowledge of their car too. Now when you add to that technical ability and mental presence, you get the pinnacle of vehicle control. Without any of these three pillars, no one can even get a place on the track. This is what makes Formula DRIFT such an interesting thing – it is visually entertaining and subconsciously thrilling.

What do you think about drifting and Formula D?

I understand that many car enthusiasts are not specifically fans of racing. I would count myself among them. Yet I do enjoy a good display of skill every now and then. To me, Formula DRIFT seems like the perfect thing to watch, if other series seem boring.

What do you think though? Have you heard about Formula DRIFT before today? Do you find it exciting or boring? Maybe you think it is unacceptable for drivers to deliberately seek loss of control. Let me know!


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