Contemporary automotive advertising is filled with so much footage of breathtaking, smoke-filled power slides that you might assume today’s factory hot rods can perform these maneuvers on their own. But while vehicles like the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R and the new Audi RS3 have unique powertrain modes that are tailored to these stunts, and BMW’s latest M3 has a Drift Analyzer that will actually score your latest sideways exploits, the successful execution of a drift involves more than simply yanking the steering wheel, mashing the throttle, and hoping for the best.
The exact definition of what drifting is tends to vary depending on who you ask, but the general concept is pretty straightforward: Drifting is a performance driving technique in which the driver intentionally causes the rear end of the vehicle to rotate outward through a corner, and then the car’s direction of travel is controlled by counter-steering (turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the turn) and adjusting throttle and brake inputs in order to maintain the intended line. This clip provides a great summation of the physics behind it, while this charmingly old-school Engineering Explained video dives deeper into the methodology.
Originally popularized in Japan during the 1970s, drifting has since gone on to become one of the fastest-growing motorsport disciplines in the United States, and the Formula Drift series is leading the charge. A few days before this season’s opener in Long Beach, California, Toyota invited a group of journalists out to Irwindale Speedway—about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles—to get some drift training from factory team drivers Fredric Aasbø and Jhonnattan Castro in the automaker’s latest performance cars. Although a few hours of instruction probably wasn’t enough for me to master the practice, I did gain a much better understanding of the fundamentals. And perhaps more importantly, it made me feel like an absolute hero behind the wheel.
Editor’s note: Drifting on public streets or other public places is dangerous and illegal. Toyota’s program was conducted on a closed course under the watchful eye of professionals. If you’re interested in learning how to drift, we’d suggest signing up for a course with a school like Drift 101 or Drift University.
What cars need to drift
The day kicked off with an in-depth look at the team’s competition cars. Aasbø’s GR Supra and teammate Ryan Tuerck’s GR Corolla may share a lot with their road-going counterparts from a visual standpoint, but underneath the skin, these are brutal, purpose-built machines.
Both cars’ turbocharged and nitrous-injected power plants send upwards of 1,000 horsepower exclusively to the real wheels. They also feature highly customized suspension systems that provide these cars with far more steering angle than the stock version would have, a design that allows the driver to rotate the rear end of the car further out while still keeping the front wheels pointed where they need to be in order to maintain control. And as you’d expect, the gutted interiors of these race cars also feature a hydraulic hand brake system that provides the ability to lock up the rear wheels on demand, a feature that drivers often use to help initiate drifts at speed.
The showroom-stock GR Corolla, GR Supra, and GR86 that I piloted that day had none of those things, but it turned out that I didn’t need much more than a rear-wheel drive car (or one with an all-wheel drive system that has an adjustable torque bias), a manual transmission (or an automatic with ability to hold a specific gear), and a couple of traffic cones in order to learn the basics of drifting.
The first round of training placed us on a slalom course with the GR Corolla. While the GR Corolla is capable of drifting thanks to its sophisticated all-wheel drive system, this exercise was really intended as a way to establish a baseline understanding of car control. It was a necessary step not only due to the varied levels of experience of the students, but also because the course’s layout—which included a sharp hairpin turn after we’d built up some speed through the cones—was designed to help drivers identify where the limits of grip are when you’re driving a vehicle in a performance setting. And as I soon discovered, that’s a crucial component in successfully initiating a controllable drift.
The second activity put me at the helm of a GR Supra with Aasbø riding shotgun to provide instruction. “I want you to start circling that set of cones over there in first gear,” he explained. “Build up some speed, get the car to understeer, and then show me that you can recover it.”
Understeer is a situation in which the front tires run out of grip before the rear tires do, and the result is that the car continues traveling straight ahead rather than going in the direction that the steering wheel is pointed. Virtually every road car on sale today is tuned to understeer when you exceed the limits of grip because it’s fairly easy to regain control when it happens. After I purposely ran wide of the tight circle that I had created around the cones by feeding in too much throttle and allowing the front end to push, then bringing the car back into line by easing off of the throttle, Aasbø was satisfied that we were ready to step it up. “OK, now I want you to put the car into oversteer and correct it.”
The process was similar to our understeering exercise in that we circled that set of cones and brought the car up speed. But at the point at which the front tires were starting to lose grip and causing the car to understeer, instead of easing off of the throttle, I actually fed more throttle in. Doing so caused the Supra’s rear tires to lose traction, and that in turn allowed the back end of the car to rotate toward the outside of the turn. To correct this, I quickly turned the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the rear end’s rotation (so, in this case, I turned the steering wheel clockwise as the rear end of the car rotated counter-clockwise) and eased off of the throttle to bring everything back into shape.
‘Hold the slide’
I was feeling pretty confident in myself at this point, but that soon changed. “OK—now hold the slide,” said Aasbø.
I figured it would be another cakewalk—after all, the rear-wheel drive Supra’s short wheelbase and 382hp turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine make it easy to create oversteer. Yet each time I tried to keep the car held at an angle, I would invariably get too much rotation from the rear end and just spin the car. “You’re getting greedy with the throttle,” Aasbø noted. “You have to be a little more delicate.”
I was a bit frustrated by the time I arrived at the third activity, but I was also determined to figure out where I had lost the plot. The exercises here were essentially identical to the ones that Aasbø and I were working on in the Supra, but this time around I was driving a GR86 with Castro sitting in the passenger seat to provide the training.
I theorized that this smaller and lighter sportscar would be less of a handful, and that its 228hp naturally aspirated engine would probably make it easier for me to pinpoint the sweet spot in the throttle than it had been with the GR Supra, as turbocharged cars tend to ramp up power more dramatically as the revs go up. But much like my time in the Supra, things immediately went a little too sideways once Castro asked me to attempt to hold a slide. After my third spin, Castro offered a suggestion. “Widen the circle a bit and bring the car up to speed. Once you feel the front end start to lose grip, feed in just a little bit of throttle and adjust things from there.”
Getting the drift
Out of nowhere, it just suddenly clicked, and I realized that the spins had more to do with my lead-up to the slide rather than anything I was doing during the slide itself. In the Supra I had been subconsciously trying to skip a crucial step: Getting the car up to the speed at which it wants to understeer. Hubris had gotten the best of me—I’d been approaching at a lower speed, hammering the throttle in order to compensate for that, and attempting to “catch” the back end as it came around in order to hold the slide.
Perhaps with more seat time that approach would be feasible, but as a drifting newbie, the ramp-up method proved to be a much easier path to success. Within a few moments I’d reached a point where the car was so stabilized, it seemed like I could drift the GR86 around those cones until the tires gave out. But in the interest of leaving some tread for the other students, I relented after about a half-dozen full revolutions.
Armed with a renewed sense of confidence, I headed back to the Supra to prove to myself that my breakthrough with the GR86 hadn’t been a fluke. Sure enough, Castro’s suggestion worked wonders here as well, and within seconds I was putting the car into graceful slides instead of frantically trying to prevent it from swapping ends.
“Hey, look at the drift king over here!” Aasbø exclaimed from the retaining wall after I finally brought the car to rest. And to be honest, after doing two or three consecutive revolutions around those cones with engine wailing and tire smoke billowing out from behind the Supra’s wheel wells, I kinda felt like one.
Before heading home, I got a chance to ride along with Aasbø in his competition car—a thoroughly visceral experience that reminded me of just how deep the drifting rabbit hole goes. The car was sideways for almost the entire time we were on track, yet he was still able to place the car exactly where he wanted it to be at any given moment. The fundamentals might come together in an instant, but it’s clear that mastery takes many, many years of practice.
More advanced drifting maneuvers like transitions (changing directions while maintaining the slide), and clutch-kick initiation (causing the rear end of the car to step out by quickly engaging and disengaging the clutch) will have to wait for another day, but I feel like the groundwork has been laid.