You’ve watched the live stream, checked out the blogs and maybe even saved enough money to fly yourself out to Long Beach to check out Round 1 of Formula Drift in person. But even with all that, I can tell you that it’s impossible to really experience the sheer power and glory of drifting on this iconic street course, because the drivers have the best seats in the house.
Apart from actually getting a ride inside of one of these pro-level drift machines, there is really no way to actually feel it. But being trackside – just inches away from these things going full tilt – is definitely the next best thing. I wanted to show you guys what I see as I watch these drivers pushing it to the limit for just a single run. It’s something that starts with a long line of cars, all of them idling with a low rumble, inching forward little-by-little just yearning to be unleashed sideways.
The Formula Drift section at Long Beach takes in just three of the 11 turns that make up the Grand Prix course. Even though it is a relatively short course and a single run only lasts a few fleeting seconds, it’s very exciting nonetheless – immovable k-barriers at close proximity ensures that.
Patiently, drivers sit and wait their turn; focusing all of their thoughts on the task ahead of them.
Dressed in multi-layer race suits, I don’t know how they can handle the heat in the summer time on the grid, but this is their job.
When they get to the front of the line the tires light up like a brush fire and smoke begins to billow out from under the wheel wells. If you don’t have plugs in at this point, your ears will be ringing for days.
Some drivers prefer to scrub their tires with donuts, causing the front tires to understeer. It’s an effective way to get all the marbles off and expose a fresh layer of sticky rubber.
Others just creep forward with a slow-rolling burnout. It really is an art form.
Either way, the hot grid gets smoked out completely, often to the point of blocking out the sun. It’s beautiful.
As they slowly roll forward to the start line, smoke escapes from every join in the body work around the rear wheels and cabin.
Most drivers open their doors if the tire smoke gets too intense. I’ve never gotten dizzy from getting engulfed in the fumes, but I have been sick to my stomach. The smoke mixes with the other distinctive smells on the hot grid, including combusted E85 and C16 fuel. If you are unlucky enough to suck in a gasp of methanol, you’ll tear up immediately.
The front of the line eventually arrives. Momentarily, this is the calm before the storm.
All the driver sees is an open stretch of closed road in front of them, the first turn – a high-speed right-hander – far off in the distance. Out of the corner of their eye the start light illuminates green. It’s go time…
The clutch is released and first, second and third gears are dispatched almost as quickly as you can count them off.
The tires at the limit of adhesion propel the massive hunk of metal, fiberglass and carbon fiber down the desolate straightaway.Turn Nine
A puff of smoke appears in the distance, and just like that the drift is initialized.
It depends on how the drivers approach the first turn and the line they take through it, but some get closer to the outside k-barriers than others.
T9 is also where drivers are on their e-brakes for the longest time throughout the length of the course. It’s impossible to predict where the car will be when they initiate the slide, because every driver is different and there are a number ways to approach the first corner.
Once in drift, a balancing act is required. It’s on this corner where most rookies crash. Go in too hot and you are in the tires. Not committed enough? Then you’ll be out of rhythm for the rest of the course.
It’s fun watching from this angle and seeing the precise second each driver plants the pedal on the right and turns their rear tires into a thick plume of white smoke.
The further they manage to stretch the drift out, the closer they get to the end of T9.
At this point you can really tell when all 1000 (give or take a few) ponies in the most powerful cars are pushing the wheels to their maximum rotational speed. The smoke is so thick you can literally taste it.
About halfway down the straight the cars start to rotate, and for a split second mid-transition the front wheels are pointed completely straight on.Turn Ten
For Formula Drift’s Long Beach faithful, T10 is their favorite part of the course – and I am sure you can see why. It’s also one of the most dangerous clipping points in the whole of the championship series.
If the driver links the corner perfectly, they might graze the wall with amazing precision every single time. You can see Kyle Mohan’s wing bending ever so slightly as it lightly kisses the fencing and the top of the k-rail.
As they get further away from the wall going into T10 they put down the power once again. Hold Stumt!
For anyone that goes in too hot, there is a good chance they’ll end up putting their rear tires in the marbles. As we saw what happened to Joon Maeng in qualifying, when that happens the outcome is probably not going to be very good.
Although, if the car is positioned perfectly, there is potential for another wall graze at the next outer clipping point.
I’ve seen some drivers get sucked in going in too hot, but as Kenny Moen demonstrates here, he was able tap it with perfection.
Once again it’s back on the power, and it’s at this point where most of the drivers catch up to each other in tandem.
It’s got to the point where tires will generally only last for two runs – but by now I’m sure you can see why….
There’s one final transition before the T11 hairpin at the end of the judged section, but I’ve noticed that this is where most drivers spin out, perhaps because of the drastic reduction in speed needed to make the super-tight turn.
In years past the inside retaining wall was used as the clipping point, but in an effort to make it more difficult, there are now clipping point cones placed on the inside of the track. For the drivers it must feel like an eternity waiting to punch back on the throttle.
Little by little they roll back on the gas, exiting Turn 11 and running onto the the front straight.
This may be the slowest part of the course, but it is also where some of the most exciting tandem action happens. If it’s been a close run, cars will be absolutely door-to-door here.
It’s great because the sound of the engines bouncing off the their rev limiters echos all across downtown Long Beach.
As if going #MaximumAttack for this long was not enough, many drivers finish off the course pedal to the metal.
Here is a perfect example of Vaughn Gittin Jr. doing his best to scrape off what’s left of the sponsors banners on the outside k-rail.
The drivers roll out of the drift while smoke still escapes from the scorching hot tires. Then they get back in line to do it all over again.
What a wonderful motorsport. How could you not fall in love with it after watching just one run?