I’ll never forget the first time I tried to drift a car. January 2003. 1:30PM. High school. A light dusting of snow covered the big, empty parking lot at the country club in Pennsylvania where I worked as a busboy. I was the third-to-last person there, only to the dishwashers and line cook tasked with locking the place up for the night. A serene, white parking lot between the 18th hole and clubhouse illuminated by LED dusk-to-dawn security lights.
I climbed in my first car — a super-economy, 120-HP coupe that might as well have been the Princess Peach go-kart of automobiles. I felt an execrating little slip upon backing out, then moved into the center of the parking lot. In the wide open night, I pushed on the accelerator and pulled over the top of the steering wheel, causing the rear wheels to slip and ever-so-slightly donut in the snowing parking lot.
It was terrifying, but oh, oh, oh so thrilling. It wasn’t really drifting, but the sensation from loss of control yet still being in control was there.
Later that summer, 2 Fast 2 Furious came out. Drifting became a cemented mainstream cultural phenomena.
Sans that joy ride donut in a snowy parking lot, I’m not going to pretend to know the first thing about professional drifting. But I do know that “professional drifter” is a real job title and, in fact, quite a respectable talent. That’s why I jumped at an opportunity to join Toyota Racing’s Formula DRIFT Team on an open track day at Irwindale Speedway.
Irwindale is legendary: What Eldora Speedway is to dirt track racing, Irwindale is to drifting. It’s Southern California’s spiritual home to burnt rubber and brightly-painted drift cars. There’s a reason this place is called “The House Of Drift” — It’s the last race on the Formula DRIFT circuit season and a crowd favorite.
Sadly, soon it will be demolished and turned into a shopping mall. This track day was literally my last chance to experience such sacred pavement before it becomes home to a Smoothie King and Finish Line.
It might not be apparent to your old high school driver’s ed teacher, but there’s big difference between reckless driving and squealing around a racetrack at 160 mph with smoldering tires while G-forces scream against your body. The drivers on the Formula DRIFT circuit regularly tightrope walk with the law of physics, flinging themselves through hairpin turns.
Despite all that sensory overload, professional Formula DRIFT drivers remain completely in control — competitive, even.
What equestrianism is to horse racing, Formula DRIFT racing is to race car driving. It’s maddening thrill for the driver while also demonstrating pageantry and the full engineering finesse of a vehicle.
On a bluebird morning in October, I headed to Irwindale to learn how to drift in a street-ready Toyota GT86s – a fun car for dusting the cobwebs off my neglected manual transmission driving skills. My instructor was Ryan Tuerck, a world-renown Formula Drift Driver for 14 years from Derry, New Hampshire.
He famously went viral at the beginning of this year when he took a Ferrari-powered Toyota GT4586 out to Willow Springs and floored it:
His patience with me in the driver’s seat far outweighs the patience of my high school driver’s ed teacher. On a slalom (a.k.a. gymkhana) drift between cones, it took three laps to finally start burning rubbing, learning to trust myself at high RPMs in first gear without a foot on the clutch. Once I felt comfortable with how the wheel on the GT86 became a fulcrum for my center of gravity, I finally started squeaking and feeling the rush of a high-thrust fling through a slalom course.
Next up: Understeer vs. oversteer, a concept you never really have to master on day-to-day Starbucks runs. A solid understeer with your back wheels sliding in circles is the key to doing donuts. I struggled with this in the GT86– As a 10-and-2-on-the-wheel-kind-of-guy, my natural inclination is to oversteer out of every driving situation, causing me to skid instead of gently loop the car around.
Lastly, the feature attraction: A breakneck lap around the course at Irwindale in the passenger seat of “the grocery getter.” That’s what Toyota’s Formula DRIFT team affectionally calls their Rockstar Energy-wrapped Toyota Corolla iM hatchback, driven by Frederic Aasbø.
It’s not your typical stock Corolla: The “grocery getter” produces 1,000 nitrous-boosted horsepower in it’s four-cylinder turbocharged Toyota 2AR engine. Under the hood, it produces a four-speed, dog-engagement transmission, a Borg Warner EFR turbo, AEM Infinity-8 fuel injection, and RS-R suspension.
A spin around the track makes the hair stand-up on the back of the neck, especially when staring down the wall of a race track over your passenger-side shoulder in the middle of a high-speed slide.
My takeaway: Mastering drifting is far from a one-morning thing. You don’t just watch the Fast And Furious canon beginning-to-end while chugging Mt Dew Code Red and suddenly have sensi-like prowess of a proper drift. It’s years of practice and trial-and-error, safely learned in empty warehouse parking lots and all the other places where squealing rubber isn’t frowned upon. Like all racing, it’s a skill based on engineering prowess, heightened muscle memory, and all-out reaction to how you’re being hurled around a track. Bonus points for being the loudest car on the track and kicking up the most smoke.
Learning to do it with the pros is the most fun Driver’s Ed class you’ll ever take.
Best of all: No test at the end. Happy drifting.