If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at drifting but aren’t sure where to start, you’re not alone. Unlike most motorsports, which are a natural progression of driving techniques used for street driving, drifting isn’t a skill you can pick up without practice.
Even if you’re not sure you see yourself becoming a professional drifter, drifting techniques are good to practice. Because drifting relies on controlling a car that has lost traction, learning how to drift is a good way to teach yourself how to safely navigate dangerous situations.
Also, it’s a lot of fun and an easy way to “wow” your friends.
At this point, everyone should know that drifting originated in Japan. In the 1970s, a famous motorcyclist, Kunimitsu Takahashi, created most of the drifting techniques we know today. His smoking tires attracted many fans, including Keiichi Tsuchiya, who applied drift techniques to cars.
Drifting worked especially well on Japan’s mountain roads. By the late ‘80s, many professional drivers were honing their drift skills using the techniques Tsuchiya and Takahashi pioneered. Naturally, like most drivers, they were competitive and soon drift competitions started.
It didn’t take long for drifting to catch on, and by the mid ‘90s, drifting came to the United States. Now, drifting is one of the most popular motorsports, and it continues to grow in popularity.
Winning at a drift competition requires exceptional performance in several areas: line, angle, speed, style, and show factor.
The show factor is one judging component that’s especially prominent in drift. Drift cars are judged by the amount of smoke their tires produce and the gasp of the crowd as they come deliberately close to walls and other obstacles before steering away.
Angle and line are measures of a driver’s control of the drift. Anyone can lose traction in a car, all it takes is bad road conditions and poor response time. To purposefully lose traction and still be able to steer masterfully is a significantly more challenging endeavor.
Drivers also have to exhibit fluidity and commitment, which are basically summarized as the ability to transition in and out of a drift at will, confidence with throttle modulation, and fearlessness when approaching obstacles. These measures also affect style measurements.
All of which is to say that drift drivers have to both be masters of their skill and showmanship. This makes drift competitions some of the most fun to watch.
Learning to Drift
One of the great things about drifting is that it’s easiest to learn when the weather is bad. Most Mustang owners dread snowy conditions, but an empty parking lot and an inch of snow will be your best friends if you’re looking for an opportunity to practice drifting.
Essentially, learning to drift is really learning two separate but connected skills. You need to be able to lose traction at will, but also control the steering of your car during this period of lost traction. Even if you never plan on entering a drift competition, these are great skills to practice in the event that you do lose traction accidentally.
There are a few terms that you should know before learning how to drift.
A clutch kick is a sharp stab of a manual transmission’s clutch pedal. It creates an additional burst of energy without downshifting. Though it’s not a technique you’ll use frequently during street driving, it’s an important first step to rally driving or drifting.
When you perform a clutch kick, you’ll disrupt your back tires causing the loss of traction that’s necessary for the drift.
It’s important to keep your clutch-kick sharp and to get off the pedal quickly. Otherwise, you may damage your clutch.
In general, clutch-kicking is a maneuver that is hard on your driveline, so you’ll want to do it sparingly.
Countersteering is a technique that every child with a bike has mastered, but doing it in a car, especially a car with a lot of horsepower like Smoke Show, requires a little more thoughtfulness. You may also hear countersteer referred to as “opposite lock.”
Essentially, countersteering is using oversteer to turn your Mustang quickly while still being able to go fast. When you’re turning, your steering wheel will end up turning in the opposite direction to the bend you’re trying to create. This sounds more contrary than it actually is, and you’ve likely already experienced oversteer accidentally. This infographic on understeer and oversteer covers some of the situations you’ve likely already experienced where oversteer or understeer was a factor. Countersteer is just what happens when you plan on using oversteer to your advantage.
At CJ’s, Bill recently had the opportunity to learn how to drift with the help of drift professional Jonathan Nerren. Not only did Nerren explain the ins and outs of drift, but Bill had a lot of fun learning how to use the basics to create some great looking donuts. Learning from a pro-drifter makes it look easy, but a lot of drifting skill comes from experience and there's no better way to learn than doing.
While countersteering, you’ll need to modulate your throttle in order to create the turn that you need. For the countersteer, it’s important to turn the wheel in small increments. Though it’s tempting to give a dramatic steering show, that won’t be beneficial to creating a controlled drift.
Experience teaches you the amount of countersteering and throttle you’ll need to stay in control while also drifting. Since there’s no substitute for experience, you’ll want to practice your first drifts in a controlled and open environment, like an empty parking lot.
The first drifting maneuver to master is a controlled donut. The objective of this exercise is to create a perfect circle around your right tire. Doing a tightly controlled donut is the first step to becoming a drift driver, and is a great skill to know as a driver in general.
To start your controlled donut, approach at a low speed. In our video above, Bill was traveling at about five miles per hour. You’ll perform a clutch kick and then countersteer and modulate the throttle to complete your donut. Once the donut is started, you shouldn’t need to push your clutch at all.
This is one of the reasons that people advise learning how to drift in the snow. Starting the donut is much easier with the traction loss caused by wet, slick pavement. Then you can keep your focus entirely on learning how the throttle and countersteering need to work together.
Once you feel like you’ve learned how the throttle and countersteer should correspond to each other, it’s time to practice using your handbrake.
Once you’ve got the feel of controlled donuts using the clutch kick and countersteer, it’s time to work on your handbrake use. The handbrake is a valuable tool for drifters, but it’s not a driver input that is usually used for street driving.
Your handbrake is designed to bypass the hydraulic brake system in your car entirely. Instead, the handbrake is connected to your rear wheels via a metallic cable. When you pull the handbrake, it will lock up the rear wheels.
Most people have been told not to use the handbrake when the foot brake is operational. This is why a handbrake is sometimes called an emergency brake, because it’s supposed to be a backup system. When you pull the handbrake while the brakes are still operational, it will disrupt your car’s balance and cause a loss of control. While this is inadvisable almost all of the time, it’s exactly what you want for drifting, and causes the sharp turns that drifting is known for.
To start a donut with your handbrake, first perform a clutch kick and then countersteer like before. The only difference will be that the backend of the vehicle will turn out much more sharply, which is why it’s good to practice steering in a donut before using the handbrake.
Your next exercise will be practicing controlled donuts with the handbrake. It will be more challenging than it was with just the clutch kick, and that will help you get used to steering.
Once you’ve mastered controlled donuts, it’s time to start working on your drift prowess. Most people start their donuts by turning to the left. Turning to the right is actually more challenging, but in order to be a good drifter, you’ll need to be able to do both. You’ll also need to be able to start and stop your drift at ease.
First, practice doing a few controlled donuts to the right to get used to the difference in depth perception that you’ll need. Then, you’ll be ready to practice your transitions.
For this skill, doing figure 8s is a great way to practice drifting in both directions as well as moving in and out of your drift. The goal for figure 8s is to avoid abrupt movements and to keep your transitions as smooth as possible.
Who Can Drift?
There’s a popular misconception that only vehicles with a manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive can drift. While it’s true that you will almost certainly need a manual and RWD to have a competitive drift car, even automatics can get out and have fun in an empty parking lot.
Though drifting is a fun skill, it’s also a practical one. Losing traction is something that can happen to any vehicle, which means that drifting can be done by nearly any vehicle. You obviously don’t have the option of a clutch kick in an automatic vehicle, but you can still use your handbrake to disrupt the rear tires. From there, the countersteering and throttle modulation will be roughly the same as with a manual transmission vehicle.
Unlike a manual transmission vehicle though, automatics will see a more significant power loss during the drift. This is why you’ll probably never see a competitive automatic drift car.
Though Smoke Show isn’t a dedicated drift car, we think it’s proven that it can drift like a pro and then hit the streets afterward. We’ve detailed out Smoke Show’s build here, and almost all of the parts can be found right here at CJ’s.