Is it unrealistic to learn how to drift on a track in just one day? Quite probably, but let’s find out anyway.
Now, just to be clear, I’m talking big boy drifting, driving that requires both skill and a demonstrated level of control. We’re certainly not talking about power skids or wild uncontrolled slides; mastery of those ‘skills’ come free with just about every cereal box.
As smooth and fluid as the art of drift looks from spectator hill, there’s a hell of a lot going on behind the wheel. Even before you kick that rear end out, you’ll need to pick a line and and entry velocity. While your busy making those decisions you’ll also be initiating, kicking clutches, ripping handbrakes, powering over, holding a line, transitioning, and making micro-adjustments. All with control, too.
If all that doesn’t sound daunting enough, there’s also the very most important skill to pick up on quickly: the subtle art of not only reading what the tyres, steering and engine are all whispering back to you, but being able to respond accordingly with enough finesse to keep things moving along smoothly.
You know, maybe trying to learn drifting in a single day is a terrible idea after all.
To find out, we’d need a guinea pig to test the theory. Our test subject would have to be brash enough to think they’d be capable of condensing years of learning into a single day, and reckless enough to attempt this madness in someone else’s car.
Most importantly, I need to find a person stupid enough to undergo their final examination, and first stint on track, at a national-level race event, while being live streamed.
Unable to find anybody matching that exact criteria, it was time for me to step in and suit up. Was I confident? Not at all. But I’m always up for a challenge, especially ones that involve smoking tyres and track cars.
Being completely honest, the scale of what I’d agreed to began to grow as the date drew closer. A task that initially sounded pretty fun felt more and more intimidating each passing day.
Despite a solid introduction to the sport of controlled skids through Drift School Australia, self doubt was kicking in. After all, spinning moist rubber on an infinite slab of wet concrete is a very different proposition to skids on a narrow race track with real consequences. The stakes in this game felt much higher.Day One: The Catch
The broker of this bonkers deal had a more substantial plan than just crossing his fingers and throwing his car keys to a complete stranger. Before I’d be sent out on track in his supercharged Toyota 86, I’d have to prove myself by navigating his near-stock daily driven Toyota 86 through a series of exercises.
I say ‘near-stock’ but trust me when I tell you none of the modifications add any additional power to the asthmatic 4U-GSE (Or FA20 for you Subaru fans.) Every penny over the purchase cost went into optimising the handling to cater for the usual sideways shenanigans that come with being a part of the Drift Cadet hire fleet. A Kaaz 2-way LSD keeps the rear wheels spinning, a set of Shockworks coilovers firm up the ride, and a set of Hardrace rack-ends increase steering lock.
Not increasing power or even the aesthetics was a very conscious choice by Pete and his partner Linh. The simple package is designed to not only be a great stepping stone into drifting, but it’s also a living demonstration that drift cars don’t need to cost too much or be wildly unpractical.
Pete had a secret weapon to unleash on the day, too, something he’d failed to mention before the day. He’d enlisted experienced Aussie drifter John Dreyer to help out with coaching duties.
I’d certainly seen John’s mental little Nissan Bluebird on the circuit before, but not withstanding the occasional ‘hello’ this was the first time we’d actually hung out. Hopefully he could coach as well he can drive – he certainly had his work cut out for him on this day.
The first task was tight, controlled donuts around a cone, probably the only test I felt competent with almost straight away. Don’t get me wrong, I spun the shit out of the 86 more times than I’d care to admit, but overall I think I went OK. Having John in the passenger seat to tell me exactly what went wrong, and more importantly how to best rectify each mistake as they happened was invaluable.
There was no second guessing and no time wasted wondering between runs. The tricky part was being able to take that advice on board, recognize the subtle nuances of car-talk, and then most difficult of all: changing my driving habits on the fly.
How To Drift: Tip #1. The trick to success with smooth and predictable loops, is smooth and predictable input into the car. Think about your steering and power input before it happens. If you’re sharp on the wheel or gas trying to catch the car, it’s already too late. Try to time your actions a little earlier and with a little more finesse.
Soon I was balancing the car through beautiful pirouettes with some quick steering and power modulation through the rear tyres. Wider, tighter, and in both directions.
Without sounding cocky, a new Drift King was born. His reign, however, was short lived. The next task was transitioning and changing directions to extend that circle into a figure eight.
I was terrible at transitions – I just couldn’t get it. I was either too fast, too slow, or entering on completely the wrong angle. Half an hour before I was at the top of the world, but at this particular point in time, I was frustrated to all hell.
At the time, I joked that John looked like he needed a rest from the infinite spins, but really, I just got so annoyed with myself that I needed a half hour away from the steering wheel. I hoped a strong cappuccino would help my uncoordinated limbs successfully catch up to my slow-witted brain.
Fresh air and caffeine brought a fresh perspective to the task. Shortly after resuming, something just clicked inside of me, and I had a better feel for what the car was doing. I understood the mistakes I was making as they happened. By either applying too much power too late through the flick to the opposite side, or by fighting the steering wheel too much I was disrupting the 86’s natural rhythm. It took a few more runs to nail the transitions, but each subsequent spin taught me something new.
How To Drift:Tip #2. Keep an eye on what you’re planning to drift around. After the initial flick in, don’t fight the steering, let physics and the car do the work for you. Once you’ve transitioned, you don’t need to stomp the gas to keep spinning. Exercise moderation and focus on being smooth, rather than being sideways.
It was only a matter of time now. Once it made sense, I was able to link a half dozen ‘eights’ together with ease. The feeling of success was amazing – the Drift King was back.
There was little time to celebrate, though. It was getting quite late in the afternoon and our remaining time on the skid pan was limited. It was time to up the ante, and to take a nervous seat in the street 86’s bigger, badder brother: the Drift Cadet track car.
Following a similar ‘less is more’ philosophy to the street car, Drift Cadet’s track build focuses on maximising the already capable 86’s potential with the least amount of change possible. A Harrop supercharger kit paired with free-flowing headers and an exhaust to match boosts power output to 185kW (248hp) and 200Nm at the rear wheels with a very conservative tune. Just in case Toyota reps are reading this, I’ll mention this feels like the ideal power range for the sporty coupe. Not to crazy, but also not a slug.
A firmer, more settled ride and a massive increase in lock was achieved through a combination of Melbourne-built Shockworks coilovers, replaced suspension arms, adjustable rod end bearings and solid bushes. I can’t forget the PBM steering kit, TRD 2-way LSD and regulation roll cage, either.
After briefly running through the same exercises, we began to focus on initiations. Up until now, we’d been stuck mainly in second gear and at quite low speeds, but the next task would have us cracking into the triple digits before reefing on the handbrake as unsympathetically as possible. Being as harsh and aggressive as required was something I really struggled with in the earlier runs.
The added brutality was rewarded with notably cleaner entries. Cleaner entries translate directly into smoother drifts.
How To Drift: Tip #3. When you’re aiming to break traction, do it like you mean it. There are no rewards for tenderness at this point. Hang off that handbrake with all of your weight and jump off that clutch like it’s a burning hot coal.
Time was running out and we still had to finish what we set out to do in the morning. After blasting through the higher speed initiations with only a few minor issues, it looked like I was getting the hang of the dedicated drift car. It was actually much more accessible to drive; it felt like the street car but with cheat-mode engaged.
Low on revs? Let the supercharger help. Need more steering? Use the additional angle available. Spending a day sliding the 86 around certainly deepened my understanding of their cult-like status. What the lack in power they compensate for in pure joy.
How To Drift: Tip #4. Make it a priority to set your car up properly sooner than later. Ask experts, experiment, do research. I cannot understate how effortlessly the track pig drove compared the street car. An easier drive not only improves your game faster, but it allows you to push harder, too.Day Two: Judgement Day
Judgement Day happened so fast. Despite arriving early there was so much going on around us that my seat time before the track debut was cut down to just 10 minutes. Not to mention, super-coach John Dreyer had abandoned me to celebrate his first Father’s Day at home. Bastard!
Pete and Linh had a new task for me, something we had just run out of time for on the previous day: a mock track layout. Comprising of a grip section, fast entry and three long transitions. It was similar to the main section of track I’d be using during the demo.
While the layout may have been similar, I still had almost unlimited run-off on the pan – a luxury that doesn’t exist on the track. Mechanical sympathy hampered the first run. With Pete in the passenger seat, the pressure was on to deliver the goods (and not to bin his car.)
Before we knew it, it was time to sign on and head over to Winton Motor Raceway’s busy pit lane. Did I feel ready? Not at all, but I was prepared to put what I’d learned into practice. Or at least to try to.
We had three laps, the first of which was a sighting a lap at decent speed; I’d never been to Winton, let alone driven it before. Power skids with controlled exits were the name of the game during lap two. The car felt great, the track, however, felt claustrophobically narrow.
Also, what is it that makes trackside objects like barricades look 15 times closer when viewed through your side window?
The final lap. Twenty-four hours after donuts in the street car, I found myself entering a sweeping right-hander with the handbrake, while viewing the corner through the passenger’s window. OK, this felt strange. The first corner wasn’t spectacular, but given how far outside of my comfort zone I was, I’d be willing to count this as a minor victory. The second corner, also fairly meh, but at least I’d kept it on the tarmac.
The third corner was where the action happened. Long story short, I messed up and then I tried to fix that mistake by fucking up some more. Remember How To Drift: Tip #4? Yeah, well I didn’t. My better judgment disabled by a cocktail of nerves, adrenaline and inexperience.
I didn’t account for the extra speed, and when my first weak tug on the handbrake didn’t initiate the slide, I made a rookie error and instinctively reefed on it again. I realised the error of my way instantly. The 86 kicked out perfectly this time, but sadly I was at the wrong angle, at the wrong speed, driving the wrong line with nothing but gravel and grass along our trajectory. I wasn’t my finest moment, but thanks to the prior day’s countless mistakes I knew how to mitigate the trouble we were in. We did end up sliding slowly off the track, but the only damage inflicted was to my pride.
How To Drift: Tip #5. Seat time and experience is crucial. Drive, make mistakes, learn from them, try something new, rinse and repeat.
It’s almost common sense, but I can’t think of a more important tip to offer to anybody learning any new skill. My simple mistake on track was amplified by a lack of experience out there. I’d wager that I’d not make the same mistake twice if I were given another shot that morning.
I felt like I’d let everyone down somehow by sliding off that track. A few days later though, and I’m not only really proud of the progress Pete and John made with their guinea pig, but as strange as it sounds, I’m actually glad I came off the track how I did. It may not be the triumphant finale we hoped for, but it’s (hopefully) one less mistake I’ll make in the future. It highlights the challenge that is drifting and it left me hungry for more.
No doubt we have plenty of readers who’ve spent more time sideways than 24 hours. If you’ve got any useful drift tips of your own, drop them in the comments section below. Let’s compile the ultimate beginners drift cheat-sheet.