Welcome to Drift School, Where the Teachers Are the Professional Drivers of Formula D
A rank amateur heads to the House of Drift for a lesson in sideways style.
The Roush Mustang swings around into a pirouette for what must be the 20th time, and now I'm getting frustrated. My hands, feet, and brain are this close to forming the neural connection required for a successful, sustained, smoke-frosted donut. "You're almost there," Formula Drift driver Justin Pawlak calms me from the passenger seat, like a Little League hitting coach. "Little too much throttle that time. Let it breathe."
I reset next to the sad, f*cked-up little cone in the asphalt infield of Irwindale Speedway in Southern California, otherwise known as the House of Drift. It was here that America saw its first organized, large-scale drifting competition back in 2003, which led directly to the creation of the explosively popular Formula Drift series. These are truly hallowed halls in the drifting world, and now I'm defiling the joint with a sad facsimile of skill.
But on the next go, everything clicks. It's as if a new synapse snaps into existence in my brain at the moment the car starts to slide, and suddenly, everything Pawlak had told me—modulating the throttle, letting the steering wheel do the work, keeping your eyes set on the cone—makes perfect sense. We're spinning, spinning, spinning; when the trance is broken 30 seconds later, tire smoke streams into the cabin as Pawlak gives me an elated fist bump and points at the other journalists struggling to get it down.
Hell yeah. This must be what it feels like to land on the moon—or at least, drift around it.
Drifting is something of a Rorschach test in the automotive world. Some people think it's an amazing blend of artistry and skill, others think it's a huge waste of talent and engineering know-how. Still others think it looks kind of cool, but having never done so much as a donut in their lives, find themselves unable to connect with it on a deeper, more intrinsic level. And really, that's the core of the issue here. Drifting in America may have risen from illicit parking lot meets to the ranks of proper, sanctioned motorsport with Formula Drift, but it's not like the country is littered with skid pads and touge courses where amateurs can safely strut their stuff. To practice drifting is to often break the law—which helps explain why it remains an obscure, unvisited corner for most drivers.
The solution? Bring screaming engines and tire smoke to the people. Formula D has teamed up with Vore Adrenaline Compound, a Las Vegas company that runs things like desert UTV excursions and trophy truck ride-alongs, to help create a semi-official drift school. It aims to convert the masses one at a time by sending them sideways in a Roush-tuned Ford Mustang on a closed course under the tutelage of a professional driver. Whatever your opinions on the validity of drifting as a sport, I challenge anyone to hop in a rear-wheel-drive sports car, crank the steering wheel, rev the engine, and not have a good time. It may be physically impossible.
The day's session began, fittingly, with donuts. Donuts sound and look easy, but the mental re-wiring required if you're not used to abusing a car is one of the biggest obstacles for the uninitiated. I haven't dumped a clutch since high school, and it took me two tries before I could stop myself from instinctively easing off at the last second. But without that pop, it's hard to get the wheels to break traction.
There's more to a donut than just turning and flooring it, though, as Pawlak explained. Another key is to actively use both your hands and feet to steer—more throttle = more spin—and finding the balance between the two is a major part of the process. (When watching the video below, pay attention how calm Pawlak looks behind the wheel—even taking his hands off it for a stretch—and how little he moves his arms, compared to my spastic flailing.)
At first, it feels like trying to write with my left hand, or hit a football with a golf club. My instinct is to give it way too much gas, and the steering method is hard to wrap my mind around. It doesn't feel right—until suddenly, it does. Two fat, smokey, Texas-sized donuts later, and I'm feeling like a champ-in-training. The accolades that pour onto me in the pits ("We thought that was Justin putting on a show!") only swell my head further to airship proportions.
But like the Hindenberg, my dreams of sideways glory come crashing down soon enough. Heading out for a figure-eight lesson with driver Alex Hohnadell, I feel like I've got this. As he demonstrates, he explains that the key is to connect the opposite drifts by transferring the weight of the car from side to side as you cross the middle of the "8," something that is far, far easier said than done. He mentions a "catch and release" philosophy with the steering wheel—maybe he saw my calisthenics from the first round.
Hohnadell recommends we use second gear for this exercise because the torque won't be as intense, which for some reason immediately throws me off. I can't wrap my mind around shifting from first to second while in the middle of a donut, and even when I start in second, the difference in the torque curve tricks me into giving it too much throttle. I spend 10 long minutes spinning out or understeering off the line, and to make things worse, the engine keeps stalling because I'm too flustered to remember to step on the clutch after each failure. Hohnadell wants me to keep it at around 3,500 rpm, but I'm getting mad and stabbing at the gas pedal with the attitude of a colicky baby.
"You need to relax, loosen up," he says. You think? At the end of the session, I have maybe two-thirds of a single successful figure-eight under my belt. This time, no one pays attention as I slink back into the pits and consider hiding in a stack of tires nearby. One of the public relations guys asks how it went. "Well, I struggled on this one," I admit. "Yeah, we saw," he says with a pained look.
After a short break, it's time to head back out with Pawlak for one more go. I think he can sense that I'm a little less level-headed than when the day began, so he decides to reset things by taking me around Irwindale for a quick demo lap that features a full-speed 360-degree spin—that is, he spins the car and resumes his direction of travel without losing momentum. It's my first intentional 360; again, it's a real perspective shift when you tell your brain, "It's OK, we want to be spinning right now."
Pawlak takes a slightly different approach with the figure-eight telling me to stay in first gear, start with a donut, and unwind it from there. He also explains that I need to breathe the throttle and let the rear tires slow down as we come out of the first circle, so the car can grip again and dive across the middle. It doesn't click right away—but just like in my first lesson, I randomly go from mucking it up to a solid, connected figure-eight in seconds, with no real explanation other than my brain exercising a newfound ability.
"There you go! There you go!" Pawlak says. It's my only real figure-eight of the day, but considering the struggle it took to get there, I'm inordinately proud of it. Having watched my transition from frustration to glee, Pawlak muses on the nature of fun on the short ride back to the pits.
"Nothing like burning some tires and doing some donuts," he says. "The main thing is, did you have fun? That’s the main thing here, is having a smile on your face, enjoying tearing someone else’s car up."
With class concluded, it's time for the grand finale. It's worth noting that these are off-the-lot Roush Mustangs being used—nothing fancy, nothing bespoke specifically for drifting. You can buy it off the showroom floor and go do what the pros do (or at least, approximate it), which is one of the details that sets Formula Drift apart from other racing series. It's not standardized and removed from reality like NASCAR, for example, or weighed down with an incredibly complex rulebook like Formula 1. It's pure, fast, and fun.
I hop into another Mustang for a ride-along, where another driver is waiting to show me what a professional can really do. I buckle my seatbelt as we putter out of the pits. "You will need that," he says.
And how. He hucks the car sideways around the inner bank of the massive asphalt infield. Then all of a sudden, like a cheesy fighting video game from the '90s, a challenger appears. Another driver rolls out onto the track, and the next thing I know I'm riding along for a tandem drift battle that encapsulates the blend of artistry and skill that defines the sport. I don't think I've had more fun as a passenger in my life—and I've sat shotgun with some truly nutty people. How do you top the Mustang Ballet at Irwindale?
And if that didn't put my piddly little donut session into perspective, Pawlak is happy to oblige with an angry run in his competition car. He runs a Roush Mustang with a Ford Performance Aluminator crate engine that puts out nearly 1,000 horsepower and more than 830 pound-feet of torque and sounds like urban warfare. These are serious cars, among the fastest and most powerful race cars on the planet (yes, really), and they're awe-inspiring to watch and hear.
We only bear witness to a single lap—with a full season ahead, keeping the car in one piece is more important than showing off for a bunch of jokers—but that brief run is full of smoke, fury, and another high-speed 360. I'm not convinced Justin doesn't have a touch of Jekyll and Hyde about him, because the gulf between his easygoing attitude and firebreathing driving style is massive.
Drifting can certainly seem opaque to outsiders, and not just because of all the vaporized rubber in the air. But it's hard to imagine a better deep-end dive to introduce—or convert—people to the sport than throwing them into a Ford Mustang with a professional driver and saying "Here, this is what we do." Take out the mystery and fan away the tire smoke, and it's clear there's just as much skill involved here as in any big-name racing series.
As driver Jeff Jones told me when I interviewed him last year—ironically, it about the then-impending closure of Irwindale Speedway, which has since been spared from being turned into a mall and is now under new management—drifting is the most fun you can have in first gear. After a day below 20 miles per hour, I wholeheartedly agree.