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What is Formula Drift? Heck, what is drifting?

What is Formula Drift? Heck, what is drifting?

Appearing to lose control of your car is now a sport

When you learn to drive, there’s at least one fear in the back of everyone’s mind: Losing control. It’s a terrifying scenario: Your car sliding across the tarmac while you, helpless, spin the steering wheel in an attempt to regain control. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Until recently, at least. The automotive sport of drifting has emerged into the limelight after being started years ago by underground clubs. These drivers are experts at intentionally putting a vehicle into a slide and, rather than panicking, are judged based on several factors that most people would label as being out of control.

The questions around the sport have evolved from the flat, “Why?” to “How?” “Where?” “Can any car do this?” “Can I try?”

A good variety of cars compete in Formula Drift. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

A good variety of cars compete in Formula Drift. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

Given the sport’s growing popularity — and ClassicCars.com’s decision to sponsor Pro2 driver Andrew Schulte — I’ll be writing stories during the upcoming Formula Drift season to explain everything from the overall sport to specific scoring factors and how cars are constructed. Hopefully, by the time the season’s over, you’ll be an expert.

For the first installment of “FD 101” we’re going looking at the basics: A bit of history followed by how it all actually works.

Drifting has roots in rally racing and has evolved into an international competition with dozens of sanctioning bodies across the globe.

From rally racing to the track, drifting took a while to fully come about. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

From rally racing to the track, drifting took a while to fully come about. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

The sport was organized first in Japan. There, drivers sliding down well-maintained mountain roads, fishing docks or around a corner or two weren’t racing. It was all about style. As the sport grew, so did the professional driving careers of Kunimitsu Takahashi and Keiichi Tsuchiya, considered the founders of developing a basic system for the key drifting techniques utilized today.

Through their examples of exceptional car control, drifting cars became a major attraction with a massive fan base. In 2000, Tsuchiya helped create the world’s first organized drifting competition, D1 Grand Prix. Popular aftermarket performance media such as Option Magazine began publicizing drifting events and it didn’t take long for drifting to cross oceans.

The United States, in particular, could not seem to get enough. Drift events sprung up in Southern California and spread eastward. In 2003, D1GP held its first event in the United States. The following year, Ryan Sage and Jim Liaw launched Formula Drift.

Called FD for short, Formula Drift is a judged sport. It’s not the first to use judges, but has made a name for itself by creating and adopting a stringent rule book that lists technical requirements for drivers, cars, safety, and communication, and the rules the drivers must follow to determine the winner of an event.

Packed-in crowds are regular sights at FD events. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Crane

Packed-in crowds are regular sights at FD events. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

I’ll go into this more in a later article, but judging Formula Drift can be incredibly difficult. Three judges determine a driver’s score based on the line, angle, style and speed. To keep it very simple, this is how each category is defined:

  • • Line: Designated course path linking all scoring areas between the start and finish.
  • • Angle: Degree to which the car is sliding while maintaining consistent speed.
  • • Style: Showmanship of proper drifting techniques. Livery impacts this score.
  • • Speed: Consistent speed maintained throughout the course.

Drivers compete two at a time and go through multiple rounds. The first round is all about scoring as many points as possible. After the first round, those with the 32 highest scores are placed into a single-elimination tournament.

Given the proximity of the competing cars, battles are tense events. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

Given the proximity of the competing cars, battles are tense events. | Formula Drift photo/Larry Chen

Individual battles work like this: For the first run, Car A will do its best to follow the perfect course line, while Car B attempts to mimic the other driver as precisely as possible while also being as close to Car A as possible -– it’s not uncommon to see tire marks on a lead car’s door. The drivers switch roles for a second run.

The judges can request repeat runs if a winner is not determined in a single-elimination battle.

The first round of the 2019 Formula Drift season takes place April 5-6 in Long Beach, California. Qualifying begins Friday and the tournament begins Saturday. If you’re curious, you can stream this weekend’s event on the Formula Drift website. Here’s a quick preview of the season:

Our plan is to publish additional articles to coincide with each event as the season unfolds. I’ll be discussing judging, wrenching, safety and more. Who knows? Maybe I’ll tell you a little about my own drifting adventures.

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3 Comments

  • Natalie Young
    April 5, 2019, 11:09 PM

    Awesome article! I’m looking forward to reading and learning more.

    REPLY
  • Joey Smith
    April 7, 2019, 2:21 AM

    So it’s like ballet, how cute. I guess drivers not good enough for drags or nascar need a sport also

    REPLY
    • Bryan Young@Joey Smith
      April 12, 2019, 9:53 AM

      Well we just want to do something more with these hands while driving haha!
      All kidding aside I see why you have that impression Joey, but I implore you to give it a watch.
      I have another article being posted today going into more detail how 2 drivers battle in tandem.
      The Motegi Super Drift Challenge is tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow evening at 6pm. Plus it will be livestreamed at fordmulad.com for free. These are serious machines with driver that have a very unique skill set. I feel once you see it for yourself, you might get why this is sport that hits the hearts of all gearheads for the pure automotive action.

      REPLY