Sliding At Spirit Peaks: A Road Racer’s First Time Drifting

Photo credit: rodknockrudy

Though drift cars were always in the periphery throughout high school and college, the notion of participating in an official drift event never really occurred to me. However, tagging along with an old friend, Thomas, to a few casual drift events in the Pacific Northwest piqued my curiosity. The relaxed ambiance, the variety of cars, and the challenge of doing something completely new with a sports car appealed to me. When that same friend took his 240SX to drift at Spirit Peaks Raceway in Toutle, Washington, I didn’t hesitate to ask. I wanted to try.

While I was very excited to try my hand at drifting, I was also apprehensive. My driving style is admittedly textbook and economical, so I wasn’t certain it would transfer over to drifting well.

This was because drifting is, essentially, the act of what slightly repressed road racers might describe as overdriving. To first provoke the car into that state of oversteer, a driver must be very forceful with their inputs, then consistently upset the rear to keep the wheels churning — while exercising enough restraint to keep the car from spinning. Like trying to corner quickly and cleanly, drifting is a balancing act, but one that takes place well beyond the limit of the tire.

Prior to the event, I had a cursory understanding of the unconventional techniques used in drifting, but no experience with them. Of course, flinging a car into a corner was nothing new to me, but to constantly floor the throttle, use the pendulum effect to change direction, tug the handbrake, and generally manhandle the car was a little unfamiliar. Realizing I only had a very vague, theoretical understanding of big skids, I decided to consult some of my drifter buddies before trying to graze the walls.

Photo credit: flyingryan

Research on Rubber Roasting

I first asked Brian Knarfield, a longtime friend and an avid drifter, on what I should try to achieve on my first sideways outing. “Brake in the corner, don’t roll on the throttle; stab it. It’s a drunken racing line to try to exaggerate the car’s behavior for a few laps, while being overly assertive on steering and throttle inputs. This should help you feel the car’s limits. After those first autocross-style laps, you will probably begin knowing what you can do to slide.” This was one I didn’t fully acknowledge at first, but served me well as the day progressed.

The next authority I checked with was Terrell Broomer, a drifter who currently lives in Japan, and has enthusiasm for the sport unlike anyone I know. “I think transitioning from grip to drift comes down to mainly two things: using the throttle to steer the car as much as possible, and getting used to what weight transfer feels like from throwing the car’s weight back and forth, since typically you only experience this when things are about to go wrong in a grip car.” These were two pieces of advice that would become invaluable as the day went on, but due to my habits, I had a hard time integrating them at first.

Fortunately, I had a very skilled friend coaching me throughout those first frenetic laps. Having Thomas share his experience completely streamlined the learning process. With a zen temperament, and some 15 years of experience drifting, he recognizes minor mistakes and seems to keep his calm when things go awry — though he’s a bit on the stoic side and might sweat more than he lets on.

Thomas checking tire temperatures. Photo credit: flyingryan

Fortunately, the track is completely suited to someone unfamiliar with the sort of aggressive flinging and pedal mashing that drifting invites. Spirit Peaks Raceway is wide enough to suit the novice’s inability to balance a car consistently on the limit, so when the inevitable spins happened (I counted at least three at decent speeds), there was plenty of room to check there weren’t any cars coming, chuckle nervously, and get going in the right direction again.

Getting Acquainted With “Grimace”

Though Thomas and I rolled this car up his driveway 10 years ago when it was just a red shell, I never had the chance to drive it in anger. It’s a car that rewards a lot of aggression and has the right selection of parts to make it agile, responsive, and quick. After Thomas installed an S14 SR20DET, a set of Fortune Auto 510 coilovers, a Kaaz two-way differential, Skyline R33 GT-R brakes, and SPL Parts rear upper control arms, traction links, toe links and tension rods, he painted it a shade of purple inspired by a McDonald’s cartoon character.

Thomas delaminating a rear tire — one of ten that day. Photo credit: flyingryan

“Grimace” is a workhorse and a great introductory drift steed, with just enough power to make things exciting, but not so much as to take the skill out of generating wheelspin. The powerplant is mostly stock; the only upgrades being an Dart Izumi exhaust, an HKS front-mounted intercooler, and a Grimm Speed manual boost controller. The car makes somewhere around 230-260 horsepower depending on boost. This is just enough power to keep the rears spinning at higher speeds, though that sometimes takes a clutch kick. The power delivery is a little spiky, but once you learn how it needs to be handled, it’s a friendly motor — which complements an agreeable chassis.

Like any real drift machine should have, there’s a Bride bucket keeping the driver stable. Photo credit: flyingryan

For a first-timer on the drift track, managing the benign car was still a serious challenge. Overwhelming the Continental tires took some effort. With the custom-valved Fortune Auto coilovers providing lots of compliance over bumps, the car had a lot of grip. I would have to change my inputs considerably since my familiarity with this much sliding was limited to rallycross, where the low level of grip made it very easy to unstick the rear.

Shredding Old Habits

At first, my instincts overrode the suggestions from Thomas in the passenger seat; his hands miming a pinned throttle, a feathered throttle, or a certain steering angle depending on the circumstances. Witnessing his suggestions through my peripheral vision was helpful, but I couldn’t truly put all his advice to good use at first. Countersteering around this new course was taking up most of my attention. It would take a few laps and several close calls to familiarize myself with the machine and its tendencies.

Since I wasn’t assertive enough with my right foot, I ended up inducing a series of small slithers that never looked anything like a long, stylish drift. If anything, my cautious inputs made the car look like it had some sort of nervous tick — it twitched left and right, but never in a confident fashion, nor for very long.

Palms sweating, waiting eagerly at the gate. Photo credit: victoria_ayn

Those tentative twitches were also the result of my steering inputs, which were a little too soft to ever fully commit the car to any major slide. It seemed my 10-plus years of grip-oriented hardwiring was at odds with my newfound aim of keeping the car unsettled for as long as possible. If I was going to generate lots of angle and smoke, I’d have to throw all of my habits out the window.

The Search for More Angle

First, Thomas urged me to reduce my entry speeds by 10 mph — the first of my road-racing habits to go out the window — and start thinking about the maximum angle possible. Taking Brian’s advice to heart, I started to widen my lines to offer myself more real estate, and hasten my inputs to grab the car by the scruff of its neck.

Dialing up the steering rates was simple enough — my rallycross experience helped here. This showed me how much angle the car could maintain on entry, provided the rear was balanced with the right throttle application. This aided in exploring how willing the car was to being thrown around. It also demonstrated how little slip-angle I was used to experiencing. After all, I am a textbook driver who tries to keep the car pointed straight most of the time, so full-lock moments are something I rarely experience. These first formative runs were eye-opening to say the least, and they made obvious just how much I’d have to adjust if I were to match Thomas on any level.

Stabbing the Throttle and Steering with Vigor

After a quick debriefing, I picked up a few pointers from the master and started implementing them to great effect. With only 230(ish) horsepower to play with, keeping the car in a regular state of oversteer occasionally called for a few abrupt steering inputs to unsettle the car on the entry and in the middle of the corner. This is perhaps best seen at 0:11 in the footage below, where I start steering to the right to continue the slide just as it started to straighten up. As I grew more familiar with the car’s behavior, that sense of yaw underneath my backside became more noticeable, and I would start making subtle tweaks to keep the car in an agitated state.

What’s also apparent about this mid-day lap is the difference in throttle application. At this point, I’d found the gusto to keep the rightmost pedal buried and the motor howling a few thousand revs from redline. The braap-braap-braap stabs of the throttle, in conjunction with the forceful steering inputs, constantly shifted the weight from front to rear and from side to side, to keep the car rotating. These staccato jabs of the loud pedal were long enough to generate the level of wheelspin I was after, but just long enough to try to maintain the angles I was after until it came time to change direction.

Using the Pendulum to Transition Aggressively

Looking back on this mid-day run, my throttle application was the longest before swinging right, wildly (0:08 above). By holding the throttle open a smidgen longer and generating a little more angular momentum prior to the direction change, I found the tail would swing in the opposite direction much more quickly — violently, even. That made maintaining drift angle, while keeping the car pointed in the right direction, much simpler. That said, it required a lot in terms of timing and steering inputs.

Approaching Turn Two at (0:08 above), I peered out the passenger’s side window in anticipation of the upcoming righthand curve, and with the front wheels countersteering to the right, all I had to do was lift completely off the throttle to change direction. By lifting, which sent some of the vehicle’s weight to its nose, the front tires immediately gripped. With the rears temporarily unweighted, the whole package rotated accordingly. Then, reintroducing the throttle inputs weighted the rear, so with a little countersteering, the slide continued. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

Letting go of the wheel to let it spin on its own was completely unfamiliar and hard to grasp.

The trickiest part of changing direction was dialing in the right amount of steering lock. Running from such extreme steering angles in a short space of time required miraculously fast shuffle-steering or a technique I was unfamiliar with: letting the steering wheel go. After watching Thomas let the steering wheel spin in his hands during transitions, I decided to give it a try.

Ingrained in me, was the urge to correct every hint of oversteer without taking my hands off the wheel, which is how you catch a slide in a racing car, especially one with a very fast steering rack. This is where Thomas’ guidance was invaluable. Since this unconventional trick would have never occurred to me otherwise, seeing it executed with so much confidence was motivating.

“Trust the wheel and let it spin in your hands,” he began. Thanks to the castor settings, “the wheel will spin like a bus’ wheel and do most of the steering for you.” So, provided my footwork was timed correctly, this meant all I had to do was flick the wheel to get it spinning, then catch it once the car’s nose was pointed in the intended direction.

After a few corners of clumsy hand-crossing, I found the confidence to let the wheel spin in my hands during the transition points (0:08, 0:23, and 0:28). While my inputs were still a little ragged, the direction changes weren’t all that intimidating, and with more speed and familiarity came some respectable drift angle, if I may say so.

Piecing Everything Together

Towards the end of the day, it became clear that my stabs of the throttle were more like pokes and prods. To keep the car sideways through the faster mid-section, I had to commit to the entries with more speed, more angle, and much more throttle — or suffer the undesired straightening effect (0:14 above). More than a specific technique, however, improvement in this area required sheer aggression. Thanks to the comfort I enjoyed at that point in the day, I felt like I could trust the car and process everything in time. That said, I was pushing the car just a bit further than was comfortable, but treading into that realm of slight uncertainty is one of the most exhilarating parts of drifting — especially if everything goes to plan.

With five or six runs under my belt, I could anticipate the car’s movements much quicker, which showed through the comparatively relaxed hand movements. The quick flick in the middle of the first left-hander (0:08) happened almost subconsciously, which suggested that my sense of grip and stick was improving rapidly. Having a more intimate understanding of the car and its limits gave me the confidence to pin the throttle and keep the motor howling near redline — where it makes most of its power. Now, taking advantage of all the horsepower, sliding was made much simpler. The idea of using a big-bore V8 with gobs of low-end torque was very appealing at this point.

The difference between the throttle inputs, during the mid-day lap and the final lap, is audible. By keeping the right foot floored (or at least partially depressed) more of the time, the steering inputs grew smaller and calmer. Fewer mid-corner corrections were needed, and the car didn’t need as much of an abrupt weight transfer via the steering to initiate a slide. We often hear about “steering with the throttle” and don’t give it much thought, but it is exhilarating to experience.

Growing comfortable with greater angle. Photo credit: victoria_ayn

Since I’d grown more comfortable with the car’s behavior during the violent transitions between faster corners, I tried countersteering almost onto the lock stops. With more angular momentum making the switchback even more abrupt, it felt like an M-80 went off every time I let the steering wheel spin (though that might’ve just been the backfiring from a motor running a little rich).

Biting Off Too Much

Thrilled with the new angles and speeds, I could unlock with a full-throttle driving style, I got a little carried away and failed to adjust to the slower corners, which require a slightly different approach. “At higher speeds, you can use a little more throttle since the weight transfer is usually gentler,” Thomas later elaborated. While this made perfect sense in terms of gripping and searching for speed, the concept went right over my head when exploring this new environment of drift angle and destroying rubber.

When I rotated the car into the tighter corners at the end of the course, I failed to adjust my “tempo” to suit the lower speeds. Specifically, I prodded the throttle too aggressively, as if I was trying to maintain wheelspin at high speeds, which caused a spin (0:29). When Thomas reviewed the footage afterwards he immediately recognized that the stab of the throttle was too much for the speed and angle I was carrying. It was a slightly disappointing end to an otherwise decent lap and a great day, but it didn’t put any damper on my elation.

Though we hadn’t delved into handbrake tugging, manjis, drifting in tandem, or any of the other Drift Bible techniques, I still had more on my plate than I could truly handle. Getting to experience drifting first-hand was shocking, stimulating, challenging, and fun. It forced me to shed some of my habits and reflect on how a driver’s temperament affects their driving.

Whereas the overly aggressive driver is often punished for their antics when searching for grip and speed, they’re rewarded for their chutzpah in drifting. While finesse is needed to maintain a consistent drift angle, it’s far less important than it is when trying to balance the car right on the limit, as one does in racing. The skill sets are slightly different, but, after having experienced both disciplines, I believe the ambitious driver can improve one by learning the other.

At the end of the day, we basked in the dwindling sunlight and that crisp Washingtonian air, and all was well with the world. Upon reviewing the footage later that night, Thomas remarked on my steering looking somewhat like Nobuteru Taniguchi’s. Being compared to a great drifter, by one of the best drifters I know, is perhaps the best compliment anyone’s paid me in a long time — and not one I’m likely to forget.

Photo credit: flyingryan

 

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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