Drifting is a hugely popular motorsport unlike any other, focusing on style and getting sideways rather than the pursuit of the fastest time between two points. It’s a challenge that places great demands on car and driver, and proper attention to setup to truly succeed. Here’s a guide to get your first drift build coming together.
Getting Sideways (And Back Again)
Drift cars are specialised beasts, and like any motorsport discipline, the demands of the sport shape the vehicle to suit. If you’re looking to drift, you’ll want to choose a project car with a front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout. While it’s somewhat possible to drift with other layouts, the act of kicking out the tail and holding a slide at speed is best achieved with the handling characteristics of such a vehicle. It all comes down to weight transfer and breaking traction at will. Of course, over the years, certain cars have become expensive on the second-hand market due to their drift prowess, so you may have to get creative if your first choice isn’t available at your budget. It pays to talk to the drifters down at your local track to get an idea of which cars in your area are the best bet for a drift build. Once you’ve got yourself a car, you can get down to installing mods!
Seats, Belts, And Steering Wheels
If you’ve ever been in a passenger car and tried cornering hard, you’ll be familiar with inertia trying to throw you out of the seat. Drifting is all about throwing the car sideways around corners, so you’ll be experiencing this multiple times every lap. Your average car seat is designed for comfort more than holding passengers in during extreme lateral manoeuvres, and so is a poor choice for drifting. You’ll find yourself sliding out of the seat or desperately trying to hang on to the steering wheel instead of focusing on getting the right lines through a bend.
Instead, you’ll want to install seats properly designed for racing use. Some factory seats from uprated sports models can have better bolstering that helps hold you in, but you can’t beat a proper racing bucket when it comes to drifting. You’ll want to pair it with a four- or five-point harness that feeds through the belt loops in the seat, which will help lock you in place and allow you to remain in control of the car during extreme manoeuvres. You may need to install a harness bar as well to provide proper hard mounting points, too.
Additionally, you may find your stock steering wheel isn’t well suited to drift use. Factory wheels, particularly modern types covered in switches and buttons and with fat spokes, can be difficult to use when the wheel is rapidly sawing left and right through fast transitions. Drift wheels are available which have a deep dish, allowing you to keep your hands wrapped around the rim while it spins, allowing better control in these situations. Fitting such a wheel may require a steering boss kit and airbag removal, however; tread carefully and enlist professional help if you’re not comfortable doing this yourself. Airbags can detonate suddenly if handled incorrectly and should be treated like the dangerous explosive devices they are.
You’ll want to consider upgrading your suspension if you’re serious about carving up the drift circuit. Building a car that makes initiating and controlling drifts easy requires careful attention to suspension setup, particularly parameters like camber, ride height, and rebound settings. A set of adjustable coilovers is a great start, as well as finding an alignment shop that will set the car up to your needs. Your average Jiffy Lube isn’t the place to go; you’ll need to find the shop that doesn’t grimace when you hand over your sheet of desired settings.
Getting the right setup is too complicated to go into here, but great guides exist. You may find you need to invest in more upgrades in order to get the setup you want. Your car may benefit from adjustable control arms to get more camber, or aftermarket steering knuckles that allow for more steering angle. The latter is particularly important for more serious drifting; being able to wind on more steering angle allows the car to hold more drift angle without spinning out, and makes recovery from a bad situation more likely. A few bucks spent on knuckles may keep your car out of the wall and save you a bundle in front-end repairs. Other useful mods include sway bars that can help reduce body roll, and braces to stiffen different areas of the chassis for more predictable handling. Throwing a stiffer set of bushings in all your suspension arms can help tighten things up, too.
Drifting involves breaking traction at the rear wheels in a controlled fashion, and one of the primary ways this is done is by simply dumping enough power to break the tyres loose. Unfortunately, an open differential isn’t able to do this effectively to both wheels; when one wheel breaks loose, the differential will then only supply that wheel, and the other, with an equal and tiny amount of torque. Most cars come stock with an open differential, so this is one of the first upgrades for many drift builds.
Instead, you’ll need something that can put power down to both wheels. The cheapest option is to simply weld up the open differential so that both wheels are locked to rotate together. Alternatively, a spool can be installed in the rear end to do the same thing. These options come with the drawback of preventing the rear wheels spinning at different rates when going round corners, leading to tyre chirp when parking or in low-speed situations. It’s not a great option for a car that’s driven on the street, but is fine for a grassroots drifting build.
Alternatively, a limited-slip differential can be installed that allows slip under some conditions, but not others. These are better for handling in mixed conditions, particularly for cars that aren’t solely for drift use. However, the ability to lock and unlock the wheels together also gives them some benefits over welded diffs in terms of control of a car mid-drift. The best type for serious drift use is a 2-way clutch-pack type, which locks the wheels under acceleration and deceleration. A 1.5-way only locks half as strongly on deceleration, and can be more bearable for street use. Other LSD types, like torque-sensing (Torsen) models aren’t as suitable for drifting, and most Viscous LSDs have long ago failed and are now worthless open units.
A handbrake is a great way to initiate a drift, and all serious drift cars have them. Stock handbrakes often work by a small drum inside the rear hub, or by lightly actuating the stock disc brake pads. Some stock handbrakes are fine for getting started in drifting, others are too weak or inconsistent to be much help. They’re often cable-actuated, and stretch and wear over time can further degrade performance.
The gold standard for drifting is the hydro handbrake, which replaces the stock handbrake lever entirely. In its place is a large lever, often designed to sit up high next to the steering wheel, which actuates its own hydraulic master cylinder. This can be designed to either directly actuate the existing rear brake calipers, or instead connected to a second set of rear calipers solely for handbrake use. These setups allow the rear wheels to be easily locked up on demand for repeatable, accurate drift initiation lap after lap.
Tyres are the interface between your car and the tarmac, and thus have perhaps the biggest impact on performance of any part of the car. Many people believe that drift cars must use very slippery tyres, due to their goal of breaking traction. However, at the top level, drift cars actually use incredibly soft tyres for maximum grip. This allows the cars to maintain control at incredibly high speeds and have more finesse when traction is broken. Sticky tyres are key to the speed and ferocity of modern drifting, with the drawback that they require huge amounts of power to break traction in the first place. This has been the major driver of increasingly wild engine setups in the drift scene, with nitrous and turbos pushing engines over the 1000 bhp mark.
However, if you’re starting up, this is exactly what you don’t want to do. Instead, try and get a few cheap, worn sets of street tyres in the size that fits your car. It takes time to learn drifting, and you’ll wear out a lot of tyres along the way. You’ll also want to be able to initiate a drift without needing huge power and speed to do so. Worn tyres are often available cheaply from tyre shops second hand who otherwise have to pay to haul them away. Their lower grip levels will also make learning the basics of drifting easier at lower speeds. Once you get more confident, you can begin to explore higher grip levels as your build improves along the way. That said, this only goes for rear tyres – keep the grippiest possible rubber on the front at all times! Without grip on the front end, you’ll have absolutely no luck keeping your car under control.
Drifting is a difficult skill to learn, and one that typically requires access to a skidpad or track to do so safely. Unlike other motorsports, it’s also far more particular about the type of car and setup required to do well. Any old car will go around a track, but your dad’s front-wheel drive minivan simply won’t drop huge clouds of smoke from the rears through a long sweeper. However, commit yourself to learning the skills, and build your car, and you’ll be well rewarded. Use your eyes and ears to observe what others get right and wrong, and you’ll do well!