The Secret to Formula Drift Is Smoothness and Finesse, Not Violence

From the outside, the cars of Formula Drift are violent, loud, and fast. From the inside, the experience is a different story.

byApr 7, 2022 11:00 AM
The Secret to Formula Drift Is Smoothness and Finesse, Not Violence
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Formula Drift descended on Long Beach, California, last weekend for the first event of the 2022 season. And it’s a special kind of racing series. It’s loud, it’s smoky, it’s wildly entertaining to watch, and it’s not even remotely about the fastest time. It’s about technique, style, and fun. And from the passenger seat of one of the drift cars, I cannot stress that last one enough.

The Formula Drift series isn’t like other events, where all the cars are tightly homologated versions made to look loosely like the road car they’re based on. In most cases, Formula Drift cars start as a shell. Then they are built out or fabricated to handle the power and—of course—to go as sideways as possible. 

Of the eight races that will comprise this season, Long Beach is the only one held on a city circuit and not on a dedicated race track. The rest of the events will happen at places like Road Atlanta, Englishtown Raceway Park, and Evergreen Speedway. Bt FDLB happens right in the heart of downtown Long Beach. 

Don’t Blink

Because the Long Beach course is so tight, running the cars there is a very “blink-and-you-missed-it” type of thing. I’m living proof: I was so distracted photographing them on track that I missed my scheduled slot to ride along. Thanks to the gods of gasoline, though, the event organizers found me another seat not much later. 

Each run lasted less than a minute. Tires only have enough rubber for two runs. Standing behind the safety fence on the outside of the second corner was a visceral experience. The Formula Drift car was barreling toward me, sideways, at what seemed like an incorrectly fast speed; it swept past in a thick cloud of acrid tire smoke, pelting the sideline viewers, many of them already cowering, with little bits of rubber. We reveled in the sheer power and sound. And the taste of rubber. 

The pit in Long Beach was filled with an eclectic mix of franken-cars. A handful of Mustangs and Nissans were to be expected, but the BMW E36 chassis and Dodge Viper campaigned by an NFT company both stood out. The Viper had to be modified somewhat hilariously to allow the front wheels an insane amount of steering angle, giving it a sort of “Carolina Squat” look with the lifted front. The NFT Viper also reliably spit flames through every corner. 

Sliding Is the Point

When it was my turn to go for a spin, I was assigned to the V8-powered Nissan S15 piloted by Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis. It’s a rare thing to get to ride shotgun in a race car like this. NASCAR cars don’t have passenger seats, for example, but Formula Drift was built on the idea that the fan experience was just as important as the racing, so every FD car has a passenger seat exactly for ride-along purposes. Bakchis’ car was, for the most part, stripped out on the inside. All function, no form. The biggest priorities in a drift car are easy accessibility to the hydro-pneumatic handbrake and shift lever. 

Buckled in and ready to rip, all I could think about were the people whose apartments looked directly down on the back straight—the same straight where Bakchis worked his way through a series of figure-eights to get his tires up to temp, pinning the throttle and giving the hydraulic handbrake a yank on each swing. Those people must just leave town for a few weeks, right? What if you just moved in and didn’t know anything about the Grand Prix? But then, tire warming complete, Bakchis shifted into second mid-drift and my mind snapped back to the present and the track sliding by—sideways.

Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis, Jonathan Harper

We continued down the straight in a cloud of smoke, pausing at the flagger. Stationary for a few seconds, tentacles of smoke from behind us crept into the cabin like an octopus seeking prey. A second later, Bakchis dumped the clutch and we launched. Three corners and 28 seconds later, it was over. Luckily, I didn’t blink, and I didn’t miss anything. 

In fact, I keep reliving those 28 seconds. The most impressive thing was the finesse. Being a car idiot, I’ve done my fair share of slides but they never felt as buttery smooth as Bakchis’ FD Nissan. There were no jarring directional changes, even through the transition points. I was not hurled around the tiny interior. When we first broke traction, it was a quick bump, and then just smoothness—and testament to Bakchis’ years of experience behind the wheel of a drift car. 

Admittedly, I am not the best passenger. But playing the whole thing back in my mind, Bakchis’ control of the car was like a choreographed dance routine. At no point in the midst of the tire smoke and cacophony of sound did it feel out of control. Watching—and feeling—a driver with true mastery of their machine was a treat. Bakchis made the car move like a ballet dancer, whereas a NASCAR driver may be more compared to an endurance runner. 

My words can only do so much, so I made you guys a video of the experience, too. 

After my ride, walking over the footbridge back to the parking lot, I heard a massive WHOMP directly below. Safely on the other side, I saw a Nissan 350Z limp by, missing some body panels, with a passenger looking like he was in mild shock. Crashing is always a part of racing, especially when the style of racing dictates you keep the car on the ragged edge between “in control” and “out of control.” 

If you missed this past weekend’s race, don’t worry. We’ve got a whole season left to enjoy and the next event takes place on May 6 and 7 at Road Atlanta in Georgia. If you’re there, think about getting yourself a ticket. For everyone else, the FD live stream is free and easily accessible on the FD YouTube channel.

Jonathan Harper is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, California.

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