An Obsessive’s Guide to Drifting a Car Like a Pro

Down the rabbit hole, far beyond the ragged edge of grip.

byMatt Farah| PUBLISHED Jul 8, 2016 9:32 PM
An Obsessive’s Guide to Drifting a Car Like a Pro

I don’t have what it takes to be a racing driver. Maybe it’s because I haven’t actually tasted a podium finish in a proper race car, so I don’t know how to weigh the joys of victory over the consequences of a crash, or maybe it’s because I have to write a check if I break something, or maybe it’s because I can’t ever seem to find the last tenth of a percent that means the difference between first and fifth place. I will never be talented enough to be a professional racing driver, and I will never be rich enough to be a gentleman driver.

I can live with that.

I’m not a pro driver, but I play one on TV. Driving fast on TV and driving fast in a race are not the same thing. As you’ve doubtlessly heard Jeremy Clarkson mention in the now defunct “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car” segment on Top Gear, “if it looks slow, it’s probably fast.”

Unless you’re on the very ragged edge of grip, riding that limit like Senna at Monaco, your fast lap will not appear dramatic on camera. Even in instances where I’ve flown by a sketchily-placed camera at what feels like an absolutely incredible speed—three, four times the speed limit—on screen it looks slow as dog shit sliding down a glass window. Dull. Unimpressive. Bleh.

Then I started working with Chris Harris. I mention Chris a lot because he’s someone I look up to, the consummate professional. He’s always ready to work no matter how hard we’ve partied the night before, has a quick wit, and, in general, is more diplomatic than I am when it comes to dealing with manufacturers. Plus, mentioning that Chris Harris is also on Top Gear is great for the SEO.

That intro to Chris was just fluff, really. I can talk about professionalism all day long and fill words for my weekly column, but what I’m really getting at is this: the man can slide a car, any car, rear drive, front drive, fucking any car, like practically no one I’ve ever seen. And sliding, my friends, is how you make a car look fast on camera.

I once saw Harris huck a Mercedes CLA45 into a nearly reverse entry slide, spinning all four wheels (but the fronts more than the the rears). I didn’t even think that was possible, and the procedure he gave me to do it was so complicated, to this day I couldn’t tell you how to slide that car. And he does it so calmly, the first time, every time, that it’s impossible not to be equal parts angry and envious.

So began the “first one’s free” hit down the drifting rabbit hole. Like Golf, race driving, or extreme motorsports like Freestyle MotoX , the pro’s make drifting look incredibly easy. Watch Tanner Foust or Vaughn Gittin Jr slide a car, and it appears to be a thoughtless process, an automated drift macro that can be programmed in realtime to work with any car. But the real skill is being able to do it in not just your prepped race car, but any car, any time.

How the hell do they do that

Tucker Maxam

The answer is, the same way I can heel-toe any manual transmission in the first 30 seconds of driving it. By feel. When I first started learning to drive a manual gearbox, every shifter and every clutch was different—bouncing from car-to-car had a learning curve. I remember 20-year-old Matt Farah commenting to a friend that my C5 Corvette had a “difficult transmission because the gears were so close together.”

This will seem immediately ridiculous to the 50% of the population who’s ever driven a car with a T56. Over time, and with lots of practice, that learning curve got shorter, from days, to hours, to minutes, and now, to seconds. The pros look at a 90 mph slide the same way I look at a gear change—just do it and adjust in real time. But the difference between learning a gearbox quickly and hucking a car into a triple digit slide is this: balls. Huge ones. Huge balls which I do not (yet) possess.

However, with 1 or 2 practice runs to feel out the car, I can do a basic slide for the camera. Here’s how:

A drift is broken into three parts, which makes it sound super easy when you tell someone how to do it. In reality, this is really hard.

  1. The Entry – The driver breaks the back end of the car loose by turning in harder than normal and applying throttle, using the handbrake, or “flicking” the car away from, then into the corner and using weight transfer to unsettle the rear, then taking a breath as the car ‘s own sideways momentum slows it down.
  2. The Balance – The entry is the most violent part of the drift, the balance recovers control of the car by keeping the front wheels where you want the car to actually go and rolling into medium throttle to keep the revs near, but not at the top of the powerband. You need a little bit left to work with. For the Exit. You balance the throttle with countersteer: more throttle means more angle; less throttle and the car begins to straighten itself out.
  3. The Exit – Conventional wisdom says that you should lift off the throttle to straighten the car out in an oversteer situation, but to exit a drift you actually hold and even increase the amount of throttle while slowly unwinding the wheel and straightening the car. Staying in the throttle on the exit will keep the weight shifted over the rear wheels and provide more stability. If you lift on the exit, the car’s weight will transfer forward, the front wheels will stick and the rears will suddenly grip and snap in the other direction, leading to a spin. Stay on steady power, and straighten the car out.
  4. Boom. Hero.

Ok, so that’s the basics of a single corner drift right there. Seems like a lot of words, but it would take just as many to teach you how to take the same corner clean. The idea is to find a harmony, a balance, when the car is sliding. Smooth inputs, smaller inputs than you think, and driving by touch more than by data.

That last bit is important, and overlooked. For everyone I’ve met who wants to chase lap times on the track, there has been an equal and opposite contingent who want to master the art of car control, which is a different mentality.

Most drivers focus on one discipline or the other, some drivers can go back and forth between disciplines, and the best drivers can blend the two thought processes into one banzai run. Truly great automotive television presenters—of which there are maybe four in the world—can combine grip driving, drift driving, car control, and interesting narration into one. And those of us who know the difference can always tell when stunt drivers come in to take over. And when we see a host doing it right, we are impressed.

If my driving sucks on camera, so be it, but at least I’m not fucking outsourcing the good part. The audience deserves better, and I’m too proud to hand over the keys. So I had to learn how to drift.

That’s sort of how this black hole began, really: my desire to never have to step out of the car and go for a cigarette while a thin, good looking but unknown stunt driver with great hair steps in to make my hero shots look good. I’ve seen people host car shows that have no problem using stunt drivers (hell, theVinsetta Garage on Velocity reviewed cars on a fucking film dolly) but it absolutely drives me insane and I won’t allow it. If my driving sucks on camera, so be it, but at least I’m not fucking outsourcing the good part. The audience deserves better, and I’m too proud to hand over the keys. So it was either get good at this or concede to a life of taking breaks while stunt drivers have all the fun, and then feeling like Superformance Cobra owners must feel when people ask them if their car is a real Cobra.

The first day was rough. I went through 6 sets of rear tires on a C6 Corvette at the Bondurant Racing School, learning first gear doughnuts and failing at transitions, despite the eternal patience of Formula Drift driver Corey Hosford. The day was a sloppy mess, but before sundown, I actually did a tandem drift with Corey.

Then something clicks. Like many sports, and especially motorsports, your brain all of a sudden realizes that you can check certain processes off the list of “things to think about every time.” Maybe it’s steering angle, or how much throttle to use during the balance, or how to roll hard into it on the exit. But once your brain can drop a few items off the checklist, there’s room for more advanced processes to take their place.

It’s like here in Calfornia. Now that weed growers don’t have to spend 80% of their time and money hiding from the cops, those resources are diverted into doing weed science and coming up with new products like ganja espresso beans or dabs, which sit at the intersection of weed and drugs.

So my brain frees up the steering angle and throttle position modules, allowing me to focus on placing the car rather than just getting the thing into a slide and holding the angle without spinning out.

Then another click: “If I can place this car within 2 feet of that cone every time, certainly I can do the same thing on the apex of a race track.” This gets me off the skidpad and on to the circuit, which is probably the scariest part of learning to drift.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like going off. I’m well aware that if you don’t spin out or go off once in a while, you aren’t really learning and you aren’t really pushing, but still, I spend a lot of time in borrowed cars. People give me their cars under the assumption that I’m going to give them back in the exact same condition. And my business model doesn’t account for cars I could potentially write off into a wall while trying to be a hero. Nevertheless, the whole point of this entire thing is to make better videos, to make the drive-by shots look faster, and to achieve greatness in my field. But that’s a hell of a barrier to push through, getting comfortable drifting a street car on a circuit and getting it right the first time, and every time after.

I learn after about 27 spins that it’s a very rare case in which a car, attempting a drift, simply sails off the circuit uncontrollably. Unless you’ve chosen the wrong corner and the walls are very close, in general the worst thing that happens is you loop on the track, or maybe slide a few feet off into the grass. You don’t need to be at 120 mph wheelspin in fourth gear to make a slide look good on camera; most of those shots are achieved at under 50 mph. Getting comfortable with the fact that looping it on tarmac will happen and is OK is another click through the brain.

I’m not there yet. I can now do a slide comfortably on camera without freaking out about trashing the car, hitting the wall, running over a cameraman, or being hurt. I can put the nose where it needs to be and hang the back out at 120 FPS, destroying several hundred dollars worth of Pirelli or Michelin rubber.

This shit is super addictive. I’ve been doing track days for the better part of 15 years, and I’ve never had as much fun in a car as I have while drifting. The moment when the back end moves out of line with the front, the moment when you catch and hold that slide, and the moment when you slowly unwind the wheel for a smooth straightening out of the car, that’s some next level driving right there. It feels lighter, the whole car goes light and you drive with your fingertips beyond the limits of the car, and you have made that car your bitch.

The last mental click to greatness is actually putting it all together. I can slide, but not at the same time as narrating, and not interchangeably with running a grip line. You ask me to stick the back out 20 degrees through the uphill esses for a simple exterior pass? No problem.

But if I’m excpecting to run the grip line, and the back steps out unexpectedly, my clumsy body still responds with sheer panic, even though I’m perfectly capable of dealing with what’s next, were I in the “drift mentality.”

I tense up, lift, and let the car straighten itself within a half a second, rather than seizing my hero moment to save it with an epic slide. Rather than embracing that unexpected gift of oversteer.

If I tell a car to drift and it drifts, I feel good. But if a car decides to drift and I’m unaware of its ass-out intentions, I’m a little bitch who immediately panics and goes into recovery mode.

Maybe one day, with enough practice, I can get there. Because I’m obsessed with sliding cars, almost as much as I’m obsessed with being good at this job.

And even if I’ll never be a racing driver for real, at least I’ll look really good playing one on TV.