Here’s How You Start Drifting
Oversteer is a lot of fun in the right scenario.
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There are a handful of experiences that most motorists would agree are pivotal moments in behind-the-wheel excitement. One is taking to the streets for the first time after the DMV hands you a hot-off-the-press driver's license. Another is the first time you matte the throttle and spiritedly accelerate from a stop. The best, though, has a more lasting effect and absolutely never gets old: learning how to successfully drift a car.
Drifting a car is, simply put, putting the vehicle into oversteer and holding it there. Sliding a car around, swingin', doing skids, doing donuts—drifting is called many things, but they all essentially mean holding and controlling oversteer. Well, doing donuts could also mean matting the throttle and spinning around in a tight circle without any steering input. But you get the idea.
Recently, Toyota invited me out to Irwindale Speedway to get some fun instruction from professional drifters Fredric Aasbo, Jhonnattan Castro, and Ryan Tuerck to learn and brush up on my drifting skills. Let's discuss what oversteer is, what its far-less-fun sibling understeer is, and how to initiate, catch, and hold/control a basic drift.
First and foremost, safety first: reserve drifting for a closed course in a controlled environment. Taking over public road intersections is no bueno for a variety of reasons. Racetracks of all shapes and sizes routinely host drift events, especially if they have a massive open paved area ripe for slidin', often aptly referred to as a skid pad. Even karting tracks are known to host inexpensive drift events. Or, heck, get a group of friends together to rent one, take care of any legal requirements, and go nuts on a weekday afternoon.
Basic drifting, especially in a simple circle around some cones, is usually a low-speed activity, but it's never a bad idea to wear a helmet just in absolute case.
With that out of the way, let's discuss the physics of controlled oversteer.
What Are Understeer and Oversteer?
Understeer is when you turn the steering wheel and the car continues moving forward in its original direction, also referred to as plowing—the front wheels lose traction before the rears.
Oversteer is when you turn the steering wheel and the rear end of the car rotates around, which if not corrected results in spinning out in a circle—the rear wheels lose traction before the fronts.
Smooth throttle, brake, and steering wheel inputs are required to remedy both understeer and oversteer. The idea is to shift the balance of weight around so that the tires can regain traction, but not in an aggressive fashion that would shift it too fast, causing more harm than good.
Because the front tires' contact patches are overwhelmed when they plow, carefully letting off the gas or brake, while simultaneously unwinding the wheel, will shift the vehicle's weight back aft and more center, and relieve them of some burden. Though, it will result in a larger turning circle, which isn't always possible or ideal on the street. It's a lot safer to fix at a track day—in fact, you can occasionally use understeer to your advantage—though it might result in going off-course.
Remedying oversteer requires counter-steering and very slowly letting off the throttle or brake. Counter-steering means steering in the direction that the rear-end is headed; if the rear-end kicks out to the right, start steering right to counter it. Aggressively lifting off the throttle or stabbing the brake pedal will upset the car's weight balance too much, almost always resulting in a complete loss of control.
But how do you instead exploit oversteer, control it in a drift, and have more fun behind the wheel? Let's get to the fun part and discuss drifting around in a circle, going in a single direction. We'll cover the most basic form of, and approach to, drifting; linking turns, using techniques like right-foot braking and clutch-kicking, pulling the e-brake, and so on in, will be in a future blog.
Here's What You Need to Drift
When it comes to the ideal drivetrain configuration for drifting, there are many roads that lead to controllable oversteer, but the shortest and most direct is rear-wheel drive.
This is because the engine is able to spin the rear tires exclusively, keeping them out of traction. Then, spinning each rear wheel more equally is even more ideal, so any form of limited-slip differential will help maintain this controlled loss of control. An open-type differential works, too, but it'll be harder to maintain the drift and feel awkward—almost as if the rear tires are fighting each other. Any form of electronic traction or stability control should also be turned off, but make sure to turn them back on before you head home.
Being able to hold gears is important, too. A manual transmission is best, but if you have an automatic that allows you to manually select gears and hold them, that's great, too.
The more slippery the surface, the better, which will also help cut down on tire wear. Oversteer drastically reduces tires' lives, so drifting around on a damp surface, or even a facility with a polished concrete skidpad, helps a lot (though those are rare as they're expensive to maintain).
By that same token, the less-grippier the tires, the better. In fact, if you've got a spare set of wheels or are keen on buying two extras, throwing low-grip tires on them explicitly for drifting would never be considered a waste of money. At least in the eyes of anyone who grasps the concept of fun.
As far as power output goes, there really isn't a minimum here. People have all the fun in the world sliding around the NA6 Mazda Miata with its basic, 1.6-liter, 110-ish horsepower four-cylinder. This is enough to overwhelm its smaller 14-15 wheel and tire package, and when equipped with a good limited-slip diff, is widely considered one of the most fun cars to slide around, ever.
Other rear-wheel drive, slide-able platforms are the Toyota GR86 and 86, Scion FR-S, Subaru BRZ, various generations of the Mazda Miata (including the latest ND), BMW 1 Series, 2 Series, 3 Series, and 4 Series, Chevy Corvette and Camaro, Ford Mustang, Nissan Silvia (er, 240sx), Porsche 911 and Cayman, Honda S2000, Pontiac GTO and Firebird, and many, many more.
Here's How You Drift
Follow these steps to achieve a simple, one-direction circular drift around some cones.
Ensure your car is completely up to temperature and in good running shape
You'll be revving the engine pretty high while traveling at a relatively low speed, so you want to make sure your engine's coolant and oil are up to operating temperature so they can do their respective jobs. It's also essential to make sure your car's in good overall running condition with no leaks, signs of internal engine damage, worn bushings and wheel bearings, and so on.
Drifting will put more stress on many components. If anything's on its way out, it might fail while drifting, thus abruptly ending your fun.
Start by driving around in a circle
Turn off all forms of traction and stability control, shift to first gear and keep it there, and start driving around the circle of cones. The tighter the circle, the better, as this will help the rear tires lose traction easier. As does having your speed up to a point where it feels like the rear end will break away.
Probe for oversteer
While moving, start stabbing and quickly letting off the gas to see how the car reacts to these inputs. The car might quickly resort to understeering, in which case you'll have to adjust accordingly.
Flick the wheel
Next, upset the car even further by sharply turning into the direction of travel, or flicking it, while letting off and then stabbing the throttle. This is the first step in what's called initiating the drift. Sometimes, you can get away with just stabbing the gas and not letting off, so it's worth it to try both methods.
Initiate the drift
Up next, use a bit more vigor with these inputs. Initiate the drift by giving it even more of a stab at the throttle and aggressively, quick steering input. Then, follow up with more gas.
Catch the drift
Once the back end of the car starts to oversteer, catching the drift is hard for beginners. This involves letting the steering wheel spin back a certain amount while the back end slides out. Catching means grabbing ahold of the wheel and therefore beginning to maintain the slide. The front wheels are pointed in the general direction that the car's traveling and the rear wheels are between 180 and 90 degrees to them.
In the above video, you can see me let the wheel unwind and then catch it at the right moment—it's all about feel.
Hold and control the drift
Next is a delicate balance of throttle and steering, as well as focus. A good way to steady your senses is to look as far ahead as you can and not look in different places—breaking your focus often results in a spin. Concentrate on just looking far ahead in the direction of travel.
People usually find counter-clockwise to be the easiest direct to drift in, but it depends.
Once you catch the drift, you hold and control it by smoothly altering your steering and throttle inputs. Eventually, this becomes as natural as riding a bike, but if it's your first time out there, figuring out the best balance takes a lot of practice. It's a delicate balance between wheel and pedal that you just have to figure out on your own. But a key factor is keeping your foot in it.
More on holding and controlling the drift
To make it even harder, conditions have a big impact on how hard it is to hold and control a drift. A grippy surface with grippy tires will be hard to keep upset, meaning skidding, whereas tires that are already overheated will kick out much quicker. As does a surface that's not perfectly flat, one with bumps in it, and so on. A few years ago I slid a BMW M5 Competition around BMW Performance Center's skidpad—it was very hard at first due to a slight dip in the surface meant to challenge participants.
A drift that looks smooth on the outside looks slightly more frantic on the inside. Meaning, constant subtle changes in steering angle and throttle. But still, smooth changes create a solid balance between the two. To make matters more interesting, the kind of powertrain you're working with affects throttle input: a spirited naturally aspirated engine with a linear power curve is easier to work with than a more powerful turbocharged one where there's a noticeable spike in torque. Case-in-point: the 228-horsepower Toyota GR86 versus the 382-horsepower GR Supra 3.0.
What's the deal with using the e-brake and clutch-kicking?
Those are all methods to upset the car, also known as breaking traction to help initiate the slide. We'll discuss those in a different instructional post.
Where can I go for in-person drift instruction?
There are many places to find this kind of instruction. In fact, BMW and Lexus have their own programs that highlight skidpad work. Various tracks all over the US have drift schools, and there are some great programs out there that really highlight using oversteer to your advantage. The Drive's own Jonathon Klein also did Drift 101 up at Willow Spring International Raceway, which he highly recommends. I bet you could get some private instruction from someone with more experience at any local event, too.