Do you enjoy watching cars drift sideways with skill? Then Formula Drift could be your next favorite motorsport. Check it out!
The practice of skillfully drifting a car around tight turns in tandem with other cars gets its roots from the winding mountain roads of Japan. The drift scene in Japan started in the 1960s with street racing syndicates speeding down the mountains. These groups were later depicted in pop culture media like Initial D and The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift. The act of breaking traction and controlling a car going sideways through winding passes eventually made its way to Japanese circuits in the 1970s, where the drifters would twist the car around a set path for judges who score them based off their car’s angle, speed, and flare.
These Japanese drifting championships eventually gained some traction internationally, but it didn’t get its true foothold in America till August 31st, 2003. That’s when Ryan Sage and Jim Liaw introduced the competition drifting concept at Irwindale Speedway during the D1 Grand Prix. Over 20 JDM drift cars and their professional drivers made their way across the Pacific and went on to showcase what America was missing out on. After their drifting showcase, it was later announced at SEMA of the same year that the Formula Drift Championship series was getting its start.
Formula Drift is coming up on 20 years now and it’s only rising in popularity. More car enthusiasts are starting to become fans of these events, it’s now on TV, their cars are in video games, and you can even get your own RC car or Hot Wheels replicas of these Formula Drift cars. Let’s check key components that make up the Formula Drift Championship and, of course, the cars of Formula Drift.
The Formula Drift Championship, sometimes known as Formula D, is North America’s professional drift car championship series. Formula Drift is essentially the only major drifting championship found here in the states and has grown substantially over the years. For 2022, Formula Drift is made up of over 60 professional drifters between their Prospec and Pro classes and hosts events at eight different tracks around the United States. Formula Drift also supports the up-and-comers from the diverse Pro-Am championships around the country. The winners of those smaller series can make their way up through the ranks of Formula Drift and hopefully become the next James Deane, the only driver to win three consecutive championships in Formula Drift history.
There are currently eight rounds of the Formula Drift Pro series and four rounds of the Prospec series. Across these rounds, drivers encounter different tracks from around the USA. Each track features a unique course with specific bends and straights that the drivers must adhere to. These different courses make the drivers really think about how they should approach them to create the most eye-catching run in their group. Plus, these courses aren’t all just full of curves the whole way through either, there are some long straights out there that the drivers have to work through in interesting ways while getting sideways.
Each run is done as a tandem battle with another drift driver alongside them. One car is the lead car while the other is known as the chase car that follows behind through the course. The chase car can overtake the lead car and “win” the race to the finish line, but that isn’t going to do them any good unless it was done in a smooth and skillful manner to impress the judges (more on that in a bit). This tandem drifting can also lead to accidents on the course and leave one or both drivers in a heap on the track. So, while they may be battling the competition door-to-door through corners, the duo must keep their cars under control and be aware of the others mistakes in order
Round one of the Formula Drift Pro series already took place on the streets of downtown Long Beach, California where Ryan Tuerck took the gold. Following that event is round two at Road Atlanta in Georgia, round three at Orlando Speedworld in Florida, round four at the Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in New Jersey, round five at World Wide Technology Raceway in Illinois, round six at Evergreen Speedway in Washington, round seven at the Utah Motorsports Campus, and then it finally makes its way back to where it all began. Round eight takes place at Irwindale Speedway on the same course that the Japanese drift stars had used back in 2003.
Formula Drift isn’t like other motorsports where the winner is the first to the end. So, if getting to the finish line isn’t the goal, how do these drivers make their way through the bracket to the finals of each round? That is decided by the Formula Drift Judges. These judges score the drifters’ runs on three key criteria – Line, Angle, and Style.
The Line score takes into account how closely competitors followed the preferred line set by the judges through multiple sectors of the course. Each sector is specifically noted for a unique dynamic like how close to the inside clip can they get, how close to the outside wall can they get, and the area known as touch-and-go. The inside clip is a cone set at the apex of a turn or a set of cones along the inside of turn that drivers must try and get as close as possible without hitting. Getting close to the outside wall is just as it sounds. Rather than try to hit the innermost apex of a turn, drivers must get the tail of the car as close to the retaining wall without hitting it as possible. Then there are the touch-and-go areas that are essentially little painted boxes on a specific point in the track that drivers must try and touch with the wheels when drifting through the course. The better they do each sector to achieve one of these key areas, the higher their Line score can be for a total of 40 points.
Angle score is also taken into account at each sector of a course, but it looks more closely at how significantly the driver was able to get their car sideways. That doesn’t necessarily mean that hitting a ludicrous angle is the only thing that matters here. Drivers also have to keep complete control of their car through the set line while performing these high drift angles. So having to overcorrect, tapping the wall, missing a key zone or clip, or getting outside the line will deduct points from a run. Drivers also have to maintain a high speed throughout the course and try to keep the car sideways as much as possible. That means keeping a shallow angle while drifting or having to straighten out to gain some speed again will also hurt the Angle score. Competitors have the chance at 30 points from the Angle scoring.
Finally, there’s the Style score for another 30 possible points. Style scoring is taken into account from the start gate all the way to the finish line and is itself separated into three criteria – Initiation, Transition, and X-Factors. Initiation looks at how well the beginning of the drift was started. Things like how fast were they going, how high of an initial angle, and at what point in the course did that initiate the drifting of the car are all taken into account. The Transition area looks at how well the driver transitioned from one drift angle to another. Being as fluid as possible between drifts ensures a better score here. Then there’s the X-Factors. This is scored based on where drivers made a significant difference in their driving through the course to create a better drift performance than the rest of the field. Rotations through transitions, keeping the car at full throttle through the course while maintaining control, extra e-brake for flair, and having an explosive initiation that looks ridiculous.
Formula drift cars must maintain an OEM unibody construction, have to meet stringent safety guidelines, and adhere to specific suspension restrictions. Under the hood can be whatever kind of high-horsepower motor these teams want, unless they want to be considered for the manufacturer championship, then they need it sourced from the same manufacturer. But these regulations really allow for almost any vehicle to compete in Formula Drift and generate engine builds that would put anything from the Fast & Furious franchise to shame.
JDM stars like the Nissan Silvia, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-8, Toyota Corolla, and even the new 2023 Nissan Z are all in attendance at Formula Drift events. Since this championship began, 11 of the 18 seasons of Formula Drift have been won by JDM sourced vehicles. So far, the all-new Toyota GR Corolla took first for round one this season, while a Nissan S15 Silvia took third. But these Japanese brands aren’t the only ones in attendance, there are plenty of non-Japanese inspired models getting things sideways.
A popular German car has had notable success in Formula Drift. The BMW M3 has won plenty of events and Michael Essa even went on to take the E46 version of the German sports car to a championship win in 2013. There is also the Italian supercar side of things like Federico Sceriffo’s Formula Drift Ferrari 599 GTB. Recently, Formula Drift fans were introduced to another European brand that looks great kicking up smoke. Darren Kelly is the driver behind the twin-supercharged V12 Aston Martin drift car that debuted this year at Long Beach and it looks stunning.
One of the most notable American models out at Formula Drift is the Ford Mustang. There’s a good list of drivers that are drifting around the Ford Mustang, but Vaughn Gittin Jr. is the most notable one by far. He’s been winning events in the American muscle car for years now and has two championships under his belt. Other American made drift cars of note are the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, and even the Pontiac GTO.
Drifting cars is one of the coolest things you can watch a car do, with hitting a ramp and wheelie stands right up there with it. The speed, tire smoke, and technical skill that goes into Formula Drift makes for quite the motorsport spectacle. Plus, getting to view these highly engineered drift machines up close in the pits is pretty awesome too for the average car enthusiast. Formula Drift takes place throughout the summer all around the country, so get to an event near you when you get the chance!