Talking With Hankook Racing's Jeff Jones on the Eve of Formula Drift's Last Ride at Irwindale

The iconic track is set to close next year, and SoCal native Jeff Jones is ready for the smoke-filled finale.

Larry Chen

No longer the provenance of bored teenagers and parking lot yahoos everywhere, drifting has morphed into a serious, legitimate sport over the last decade. Don't believe us? Just ask the folks at Goodwood, who introduced a class for drift cars at this summer's Festival of Speed. Or the people behind Formula Drift, which wraps up another successful season tomorrow the same way it has for the past thirteen years—a Saturday night showdown at Irwindale Speedway in southern California, also known as "The House of Drift."

But sadly, next year will be different. Built in 1999, the track is set to be demolished in January after years of ownership battles and financial struggles. It's not clear what will happen to the site, but—wait for it—a mall seems likely. Irwindale has a special significance to Formula D, as it hosted the country's first organized, large-scale drifting competition back in 2003, which is seen as something of a landmark moment for the sport.

And in the stands that day, soaking it all in? A young Jeff Jones, who was so captivated by the spectacle that he threw himself into drifting and became a professional himself. He finished second Formula D's Pro 2 class last year and is racing for the Hankook Tires Team in the top-level Pro class this season. Like every driver, Jones has a beautiful Frankenstein of a car—a Nissan S14 Silvia body, an 800-horsepower V-8 engine, a NASCAR transmission, and a 350z rear end—which is one of the things that makes the sport so unique.

Ahead of last night's practice session, The Drive sat down with Jones to talk about Irwindale, the car, and why he says drifting is the most fun you can have as a spectator.

Larry Chen

The Drive: I guess there’s no way to start without asking you about the atmosphere at the track this week. It’s the end of the season, and the last hurrah for you guys at Irwindale. What’s it like there?

Jeff Jones: It’s definitely a little bit nostalgic. It’s different from years past, because they’re allowing spectators on Thursday to watch our practice, which they never do. And on Saturday, they’re actually going to allow the crowd to walk out onto the track and experience it at the very end of the event. Everyone’s talking about [the end], you know. It’s the talk of the neighborhood. What are we gonna do afterward?

It kind of sucks that we’re losing Irwindale, but especially so for the oval track guys. Drifting isn’t as cool in a parking lot, but we can still find one and turn it into a track and have fun. It’s one of the last oval tracks in southern California, and we're losing a drag strip too. So it really sucks for a lot of the other racers.

TD: And you grew up in the area, so you’ve had the whole experience as a spectator and a competitor. It’s been a part of your life for a while.

JJ: Exactly. In 2003, when D1 [the predecessor to Formula Drift] first came about, my friend showed it to me at Irwindale. So when I watched it there from the grandstands, I decided, I want to do this. This looks cool. At the time, I was messing around with import cars. I was a pretty capable driver, and this looked like it was a full car control element. It’s different than road racing—it’s like skateboarding with a car, you know? You’re in control of everything about it. It just really piqued my interest, and it’s just really fun to do. I teach drifting now, and I always tell people it’s the most fun you can have in a car in first gear. You can’t get in a Lamborghini and have fun in first gear in a parking lot.

TD: That reminds me of the saying, It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast that a fast car slow. But your car isn’t exactly slow.

JJ: Not by any means. It’s one of those funny things, people always ask me, how fast does it go? And I honestly hate that question—like, how do I answer that? I can tell you how much power it has, but we’re not set up to go fast. We gear our cars for the track. So the car makes about 740 horsepower and 850 foot pounds of torque on the ground. But we’re running a supercharger, so with drivetrain loss, we’re probably making about 800-plus horses at the engine. Most of these Formula D cars can run a 10 second quarter mile or less. And I mean in their current state, without slicks, without tuning. These cars are rad.

Larry Chen

TD: So if you were to estimate a top speed for your car…

JJ: I guess the best way to answer that is how fast can you make 800 horsepower go in a lightweight car. If I were to gear it the right way, I could definitely hit 200 mph. I think at that point, my body kit and other things would start to, well, you know... the whole thing just isn’t set up for that. I could achieve it, but aerodynamically, we’d start having some issues.

TD: Give me the origin story on the car.

JJ: In 2013, we decided it was time to build a new chassis. My first year in Formula D, we ran what was our Pro-Am car and brought it into the sport. But that was more of a street car turned race car. This was a ground-up job. I bought the S14 shell for like five hundred bucks, stripped it to the bare bones, wirebrushed every single piece of it, and put it all back together. It basically took three guys three months of working on it 14 hours a day straight to hit the deadline. My wife was pissed because I was barely home.

Larry Chen

TD: What has changed on it since then?

JJ: The first orientation of the race car was naturally aspirated, making about 500 horsepower, and we were getting about 10 laps per set of tires. At some point we switched to the Garrett turbocharger, and at that point we went from 500 to 700 horsepower, and then we were only getting two laps per set of tires. And then from that we switched to the Edelbrock supercharger this year. So from NA, to turbocharged, to supercharged, all on the LS engine platform. 

I think one of the craziest things is how much these engines have to endure. You can imagine putting down that amount of power and torque, but we do almost 300 laps a year, easy. When you look at drag racing, their runs are short, and the engines can only take so much. When you have to do 300-plus 40-second laps over the season, consistency is key. There’s not much downtime between the runs either, so it’s incredibly hard to swap motors in the middle of things if something goes wrong. Bigger teams can get away with it, but for a small team like us, we just try to avoid engine failures.

Larry Chen

TD: So when you encounter a situation where something critical breaks in the middle of a competition, it’s basically all hands on deck, right?

JJ: We’re all in it, doing whatever we can. I’m in it, sometimes still in my race suit. My buddy who’s a spotter will come running down from the tower. We do whatever we can. The mindset is, we got this. Especially when we’re traveling across the entire country, if you have a problem in the middle of somewhere far from home, you know, you can’t call Mom. It’s, how are we going to fix this? How are we going to do this? Things happen, though. We’ve blown the transmission three times this year. Differentials go, that seems to be the weak point in these cars. And you never know when you’ll have an engine failure, especially with some of these teams revving to 9,000 RPM all the time.

TD: How many tires do you go through in a season, and what makes a good drifting tire?

JJ: In a single weekend, we can go through between 20 and 40 tires easily. Last year I competed in Pro 2 and Pro 1, so we were really jamming through tires. The Hankook R-S4s that we have this year are really good, but you know, with 800 horsepower, you’re gonna jam through anything. We’re around the 300 mark this year so far. It seems like the material has been changed, and they keep up a lot better with the power. The main thing that makes a good drifting tire is one that does not chunk. A lot of these companies use inconsistent materials, and they just disintegrate into chunks when you go out there and do a lap or two, so you don’t even get to use the full tread. When you’re going from cold to over 300 degrees within seconds, things have to be well-engineered to stand up to that.

Larry Chen

TD: One of the unique things about Formula Drift is how different all the cars are. It’s not quite as standardized as other racing series. It’s almost like the cars themselves are personalities in addition the drivers.

JJ: Yeah, the cool thing about Formula D, and what I think a lot of fans relate to, is that it’s very similar to NASCAR in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s. What we’re driving is what the fans are driving to the track, or to work every day. NASCAR used to have real cars, and in Formula D, we have to have an actual unibody chassis from a production car, and we’re only allowed to modify it within certain parameters. We can’t cut it up completely, or re-position the engine, or mess with the suspension too much. Design-wise, what’s on the car mostly has to stay there. This creates choices for drivers, which then leads to that uniqueness.

TD: How would you describe Formula Drift to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

JJ: That is one of the hardest things to describe, a motorsport that hasn’t blown up yet. Formula D is the most fun thing you can go watch in terms of professional racing. It’s an action sport that happens entirely in front of you, whereas in things like NASCAR or Formula 1, you’re only seeing a small piece of what’s happening in person. It’s also a judged sport, very similar to skateboarding. I think there’s something for everyone, because causal watchers can just show up and enjoy the spectacle, while hardcore fans can get really into it and understand the judging format and appreciate that aspect.

Larry Chen

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.