Most of the buzz we hear surrounding Formula Drift and professional drifting in general is about power, and how much more of it drift cars nowadays have compared to tug boats, or the Space Shuttle. But what we have neglected to discuss is how steering angle has evolved in drifting over the years.
While drifting in general is a relatively new motorsport, in the past few years the engineering and crazy machines that teams are building these days have evolved in leaps and bounds – some say for the worse. At Round 4 of the Formula Drift Pro Championship at Wall Speedway in New Jersey, I chatted with a few drivers, as well as Stephan Papadakis, on the subject of steering angle, then paired the comments with some of my favorite photos from the event and my archives.
Fredric Aasbø: “Steering angle in drifting – that’s the number one thing that tipped the scale for me to risk everything to compete in Formula Drift in the first place. Because when I started drifting in Europe back in 2006, I thought to myself, the number one thing you need in drifting is steering angle.”
“You can’t really defy the physics of a steering wheel pointed in a direction. Granted, you can go in backwards with 40 degrees of angle if you have a lot of grip and it’ll pull you back, but to go around a turn with high angle, you have to have ‘x’ amount of steering angle.”
“I followed Formula Drift closely through my rookie years of drifting back in Europe, and one thing I noticed was that with all the professionalism, all the crazy builds, and all the power and money involved, a lot of guys still didn’t have a lot of steering angle.”
“It was like speed was always the number one priority and for some reason it hadn’t clicked yet. While in Europe, the first thing we spent time on with the Toyota Supra that I was sponsored with in 2007, was to develop a lot of steering angle. That car just so happened to be an excellent platform for generating tons of steering angle with very mild modifications.”
“So I saw that and I thought, ‘Well, we can’t match these guys on power because we don’t have any money, but maybe we can come in with a ton of steering angle and be able to drive the course with more angle and get noticed from doing that.’ And that’s what we did.”
“That’s how I got my big break at Long Beach in 2010. We didn’t win the event, but I would say in all modesty, we were the moral winners of the event.”
LC: So the truth comes out after all these years.
FA: “Haha, well, I can say it now because everyone has crazy angle.”
Chris Forsberg: “The funny part of the evolution of steering angle is that there is an end point, whereas with power you can kind of keep going infinitely. I’m pretty sure we’ve hit maximum steering angle already. There are too many cars that have too much angle and it might look good for like one or two seconds of a specific part of the track, but as soon as it alters the momentum of the car, then it’s too much.”
“That’s what a lot of people are doing now – they have so much that they just crank it on and the car just comes to a stop. Just because it didn’t spin doesn’t mean that you don’t have a mistake.”
LC: There was a while in competition where it wasn’t to that limit and sweet spot. What do you think did it? What was the thing that pushed you guys to change to have more angle? When did you realize?
CF: “People were making 50 or 60 degrees back in 2005 and 2006, but they were still drifting with 300 to 400 horsepower until almost 2010. So I think the angle did kind of take off first as people realized they needed more angle to be better at drifting, before they realized they needed more power to be better at drifting.”
“So angle is kind of the first chaser in the early years of FD – people cranking up the angle. Everyone slowed down at around 60 degrees for years, then all of a sudden came this point to push the wheels out and do whatever you had to do to make more angle.”
“Like I said, I think that’s where it gets to the point where it takes away from the fluidity of the run and it doesn’t look good. I’m not saying every time, but most of the time.”
LC: But it’s better to have more angle than less?
CF: “It’s better to have the angle and not spin, but not when people abuse that and the judges don’t call them out on it. They’re starting to now though.”
“Before they’d just go ‘Whoooaaaah’ – like a big wow factor, but now it’s like ‘Oh no, he stalled, so he gets points deducted.’ Because as a chase car, you can’t chase just because of a spin. If he slides to a stop and powers back out of it and the chase driver is left hanging, it causes a traffic jam, so it’s a mistake by the lead driver.”
Ken Gushi: “I was never a firm believer in steering angle at first. I thought it was there to make the sure the car had a good setup and balance, and less steering angle meant more speed. Or so at least I thought until Daigo came into the scene and just blew everyone away with his insane steering angle, coming in backwards like Kawabata. I’m sure everyone has seen that video. That’s when I realized, ‘Holy crap, maybe steering angle is important’. I also realized that all the guys with steering angle were doing so good and going into the corner so much faster and taking off on me. I really wanted that.”
“So we tried to duplicate that with our own R&D, but I just was never able to find the right feel until we installed the Wisefab kit. It just blew my mind away.”
“It was the exact feeling I was looking for. It’s not just about steering angle either, it’s the culmination of steering angle and driveability. I believe there are only three things you need in drifting: big power, good grip, and steering angle.”
LC: So what are some of the things you are doing differently this year in terms of car setup?
KG: “In terms of car setup we’re seeing the limits of everything, so right now we’re focusing on reliability and power. You can increase horsepower all you want, but then you start to take away from reliability. And if you have too much horsepower, you lose tire life.”
“We saw in Orlando that all these guys with lots of power were only completing one lap and the tires were done. We had to make some sacrifices in Orlando by focusing on the important parts of the track, while sacrificing smoke.”
“It’s going to be hard to see an increase in horsepower while maintaining tire life and reliability. As far as the short term future of the driving styles, I want to say we’re going to see closer tandems. Not close as in just one part of the course, but like a magnet from start to finish.”
LC: I really like that, tandem like magnets. So do you attribute your recent success to development with the Wisefab kit?
KG: “For sure, I tell everyone that steering angle was a god send and I’m not afraid to say it. And big thanks to my team for committing to the Wisefab change. It’s crazy – it’s turned our life upside down.”
Tyler McQuarrie: “I think the evolution of steering angle has changed so much from back in the day because there’s a huge emphasis put on it nowadays. You’re seeing guys running 70 degrees of steering angle and I think, just like horsepower, having something in your back pocket that you can use is a huge benefit.”
“Having the steering angle, you’re not always using it. You don’t always want to use it because it’s slower, but having the ability to have that there to catch and make up for a mistake, I think is worth having.”
“It’s the same thing with power. You don’t need 1200 horsepower, but when you go to tracks like Irwindale and Seattle, your car gets a little tight and you’re chasing somebody, the fact that you can just jump on it and use that extra little horsepower to prevent the car from tightening up is great.”
LC: So was there ever a point while you were driving where you said to yourself that you needed more steering angle?
TMQ: “Absolutely. When I was driving the Falken Z the car had very little steering angle, and I’d be in a situation when I would be sitting there in a lock stop, with not a lot of angle, thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be spinning right now – I should have another 10 degrees of steering angle to get me out of this moment I’m having.”
“So I’ve definitely had times where I wanted more. Even with the Camaro, we have a lot of steering angle which makes it a lot easier to drive, but there are still times when I want a little bit more. As a driver, I think you’re always going to be in a situation where you want something that’s going to help you get out of a mistake.”
LC: So what about the fact that there is a limit to that? There’s not much more you can have, physically. What happens when you hit that?
TMQ: “I think that’s where it’s at now – 70 degrees of steering angle. You don’t need any more. Even with these backwards entries, to get out of that, you don’t need more. 70 degrees is a lot – that’s like a forklift’s steering angle.”
Charles Ng: “I’m more used to driving with close to stock angle because it actually keeps the momentum of the car. I don’t have a lot of experience with crazy angle, so it’s more natural for me to drive traditionally with spacers and a modified rack, increasing the angle just a little bit.”
“Driving a car with 60 or 70 degrees of angle requires a different type of driving technique, so personally, I’m more used to the old style. I do get why there is an evolution because of how the judges want us to ride the walls and with a consistent angle high on the bank.”
LC: Does that mean you’re actually running less angle on your car, versus a lot of these other guys.
CN: “Compared to the Wisefab guys, yeah, for sure. I wouldn’t say much less.”
Kyle Mohan: “It’s pretty impressive. Only a couple years ago, having a modified knuckle and rack – things that teams were doing in-house – was really the standard for Formula Drift. Having high 50 or low 60 degrees of angle was perfectly acceptable, and it put you at the top of the field. I remember it was only two years ago Wisefab came out and all of a sudden there were a couple guys out here getting 70 degrees. It changed drifting overnight.”
“It was the combination of Daigo Saito bringing the horsepower and Wisefab bringing the angle. In 2015, if you come out and aren’t capable of matching the steering angles and horsepower for tire smoke, you probably won’t even qualify.”
“For us at KMR and Mazdatrix, nobody made aggressive steering components for the RX-8, and it’s a double A-arm suspension, which is kind of unique. We did what we could and studied what other companies had done and then basically got on the bench and broke out the welders and the grinders and started making our own knuckles, uprights, and upper and lower control arms. At this point we have what we consider to be a very competitive – over 70 degrees of steering angle – and very driveable setup.”
“That seems to be the direction drifting has gone over the past year. What we always say is, ‘If you think you’ve got the next greatest thing, someone else is already working on the next, next thing’. So there is no stopping evolution for us, although we’ve been able to generate angle like the other competitors in a car that when we started nothing was available for it. We’re really happy, but we look at it as we’re only on par with other competitors, generating upwards of 70-plus degrees. So we need to be back at the shop as soon as this round is over and we’re going to focus on rear suspension geometry and steering angle and try to increase both.”
Stephan Pakadakis: “From what I’ve seen on the judging over the years, things have changed. Back when Samuel Hubinette, Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust were drifting, you didn’t have to have a whole bunch of angle.”
“You just had to be close to the lead car and if you were quick enough to the point where the chase car couldn’t catch you, then you’d probably end up with the win. So those three guys had tons of wins using that type of technique and driving like that.”
“Over the last couple of years there’s been a change and the judges have gone more towards excitement and style. Having a big angle is key and that’s where Fredric really shines with his style and angle.”
“But when he was going up against Tanner and these guys back in 2010, he would keep getting beat at rounds because he couldn’t keep up with them. He was driving with too much angle.”
“So I think Fredric is one of the few guys that came into drifting with a lot of steering angle and a really aggressive style. It didn’t necessarily translate into results, but now it is. I think we’re getting a little bit more savvy now to the point where we have the angle and the speed. The drivers who don’t have angle but speed are looked down on by the judges.”
LC: One of the things Fredric mentioned was that back in 2010 when he first started running with the FD guys he had more angle, and to his eyes it was more of an advantage, and that’s why he won the battles that he did.
SP: “Some of the guys had it. I think Vaughn Gittin Jr. and some of the Toyota Corolla guys had a huge amount of angle.”
“They wouldn’t always drive with that, but it would always help with a margin of error for safety. If they had too much angle they could always turn the wheel more and save the car from spinning.”
“I think if you look at the cars that have won championships over the years, those are not the heavy-angle cars, I mean, Daijiro Yoshihara with his S13 never had a huge amount of angle and neither did any of Tanner’s cars. The Dodge Viper certainly didn’t and neither did Chris Forsberg up until recently.”
LC: Quite a few of the drivers I talked to mentioned Daigo Saito coming in with a ton of angle and changing the game. Not only did he change the horsepower game like we’ve been talking about for a long time, but he came in and changed the angle game too.
SP: “He would come out and have big angle and go fast, for sure. I think that was the difference – he’s the one that threw the curve ball first out here. Everyone was like ‘woah, woah, woah – what’s going on?’ It took a season to basically figure it out while he smoked everybody, and we started to play catch up.”
“The way I look at it – what leads to the best results as far as tandem eliminations and round wins?”
“Some of the drifters look at what is the coolest thing where they want drifting to be. I can appreciate that, but I don’t know – I like winning. We want to be as competitive as possible and I think being ahead of the curve can sometimes be as bad as being behind the curve. So we want to be right there with the right amount of angle and speed to continue to win rounds.”
LC: So obviously you can’t by any of the of-the-shelf stuff, whereas a lot of the other teams can because they’re running chassis that let them run those parts. Do you think that gives you an advantage that you build your own parts from scratch for a car that’s basically an unproven chassis?
SP: “I think it’s a double-edged sword. On one end it’s bad because we’re the only ones doing it and it takes us a while to figure out what works well for this car and how to design the components for the car.”
“The good part is we really had to get under there and understand the geometry, understand the steering and understand how that works with the driver’s feel – and then really understand how to design a good steering setup for the car. That’s taken years, but I think we’ve got a good handle on it now. So we can’t buy anything and we’ve gone through many versions and we’ve built a lot of custom parts, but that’s just what we do here anyway. Our engine, our steering, the chassis – all that stuff is unique.”
LC: That’s really interesting to see from the outside looking in, because, for example, you have guys like Kyle Mohan who is driving a very untraditional chassis for drifting, but there are other people in the world using it and they use his custom-built parts. Then you’ve got guys like Danny George, making his own knuckles and other people are using it to drift Miatas. But you’re still running the only drift Scion tC in the world.
SP: “Right – we’re the only tC. There are other cars that are similar in terms of front suspension, so it’s not that far off from other cars. But we’re not the business of selling parts, so we just build stuff for our own race cars and use them.”
LC: When Tanner was driving, how different is the new car versus the old car in terms of steering angle?
SP: “So each season we were coming up with a new steering geometry on each of the cars. The Nissan 350Z that Tanner drove had three types of steering geometry on it. The tC1 that Tanner drove had two different types of steering on it. This tC2 that Fredric is driving has had three different types of steering on it. We’re like on version seven now and each time it’s been more steering angle. Now, we’re up to like 65 degrees of angle, but with good feedback for the driver and continuing to have good front traction.”
“There’s this balance because there’s give and take. We’ve learned to not have to compromise so much and can have steering in a car with great feedback for Fredric, along with big angle and also good front end grip. So we’re pretty confident in our current setup, but we’re not the only ones doing it.”
“It seems like there are a few cars that have a great setup like that and I think the Wisefab guys have done a good job of really understanding how to do suspension and geometry and then going ahead and making the parts so people can buy it. So it’s really good for the sport. Not everyone has the luxury of a full fabrication shop and computer programs that we utilize to build Fredric’s car, nor should they need to. Let me make a point though – if someone made a good steering and suspension setup that we could buy and put on the tC, I would love to do that. The fact of the matter is, nobody does, so we have to build our own. But that’s our teams forte – it’s taking these obscure cars and making them competitive. You don’t need a team like us to build a Nissan 240SX because you can buy most of the parts off the shelf, including probably a 2JZ transplant kit or a some LS transplant kit – which is good, because we need a bunch of cars out here that are competitive. But I think it’s also nice to have these obscure cars like the Scion. That’s where we come in.”
Odi Bakchis: “I think it’s an interesting subject and something most people are starting to pay attention to. I think right around 2013 was when it started to hit the US. It’s not just the massive angle, because there was massive angle before – it’s the way the geometry works with that massive angle, so you can drive the car at massive angle.”
“Wisefab is definitely the leader in that whole theory of how to make geometry work. I remember running it for the very first time at Irwindale in 2013 and it changed the way I could drive my car. I’m sure it’s doing the same thing for team after team because we all see it.”
LC: It’s interesting that you mention that because lots of other people have said they remember when you first showed up with it too. So what’s next?
OB: “There’s only so much you can get in terms of steering angle but, as I mentioned earlier, cars were getting that much angle before, but they weren’t driven in a way that showed off that angle. Now there is a slight tweak in the way the steering actually pivots, changing the front geometry, and all of a sudden, people are able to drive with that angle all the time.”
“What I’m trying to get at is, we’re probably not at the end of the road with what’s going on with front steering geometry. This sport is so new, so you don’t know what’s going to happen after a couple years.”
Vaughn Gittin Jr: “I probably have the least steering angle in the entire field. I want more. When I get behind Kenny Moen and he’s spinning – and I remember this vividly in Long Beach and Atlanta – I’m like, ‘Oh no, he’s got 90 degrees of lock and he’s totally fine!’ I get on the radio with my crew chief and I’m like, ‘Hey Ian, you see that? I need that!’
“So yeah, we only have like 55 degrees. I think the reason why it appears that we have a lot of angle is because I drive at a lot of angle, and it’s mainly because I’m able to carry the momentum and keep the angle.”
LC: One of the guys mentioned the battle you had with Conrad in Palm Beach and you poured on the angle to not hit him. Everyone thought you were going to spin or crash into him but you pulled it off. It was so revolutionary that people still remember that exact battle.
VGJ: “That wasn’t steering angle – it was grip. Coming in behind him, I tossed the car and actually over-rotated, but picked up the throttle just at the right time. I’m not saying that was planned, but it worked out. I picked up the throttle just at the right time where the forward bite of the car got it moving and the momentum back. That’s why that specific backwards entry style pass I did on Conrad when he blew off track worked out.”
LC: So you’re saying that you definitely have the least amount of steering angle?
VGJ: “I would, 100 per cent, say that out of any 240SX or S15 – anything out here – there is no question. I don’t know what everyone else has, but I know that we have 55 degrees and I’m looking forward to having more than that in the near future.”
LC: It’s kind of funny because everyone else is saying that it’s at the maximum and it won’t go above 75 degrees.
VGJ: “75 is a lot. I only have 55, so that’s 20 more degrees.”
LC: I am also hearing that it’s too much, and that guys don’t even need to use that much. It doesn’t have to get to that point, but it’s good that it’s there.
VGJ: “For sure. You definitely don’t need that much angle, but in that situation it’s the difference between spinning and not spinning.”
“There are those times when you do get choked up and it’s nice to be able to crank a little more angle in it because you can’t maintain that momentum to keep the car from over-rotating.”
Forrest Wang: “There were guys that were running a lot of angle before, but I really liked using it in every run. I don’t use it when I mess up – I want to use it every run because it’s a more exciting style. I think, visually, it looks really good to pull off huge angle to where it looks dangerous and you’re about to spin out. It’s harder to follow and it’s harder to read because you’re at the edge, compared to when you’re running a more shallow line and being more conservative. You throw it to lock, you’re at the verge of spinning out and one little mess up and you’re looping out.”
LC: So what is lock for you then?
FW: “It’s about 70 degrees. When done right it looks like you’re about to spin out. When you pull it off just right, it looks really exciting. Basically, you’re using all of it, whereas a lot of people – even though they have that kind of angle in their rack – may not use it.”
“They use it more as a fail-safe where if they mess up a little bit, it saves them from spinning out. Because you never want to spin out. Even when I didn’t have as much angle, I would push my car to lock all the time and use as much of that steering angle as possible. Now that I have a ton of angle it’s actually challenging to make it to lock that much because you really have to whip the car and throw it really hard to get that angle. And like I said, when you do get to that angle, you’re at a fine line of going too hard and spinning out. It’s fun. I like it.”
LC: Let me know what you guys think about the evolution of steering angle in the comments section below.