How Drifting Works

Image Gallery: Sports Cars

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,
In the 1990s, drift racing was born on the winding mountain roads of Japan. See more pictures of sports cars.

With the release of the third installment in the movie series "The Fast and Furious," this one is called "Tokyo Drift," drifting has finally made it to the big screen. Sure, Hollywood has known about donuts for decades, but this one's all about the sport of losing traction. In drifting, drivers force their car to slide sideways through a turn, and professional drifters can accomplish a true driving contradiction: They can control what happens when their tires no longer grip the road.

Drifting is really nothing new. If your car's rear end has ever swung around on a wet road, and you've struggled for 50 feet to get control, you've drifted. Even in car racing, drifting is pretty old hat. When race car drivers go around a turn at high speed, especially in the early days of racing when tires didn't have the grip they do now, the back end would sometimes swing out. The car would either spin out or the driver would recover from the drift and keep moving. Today, even with tires that could probably grip a vertical wall, the ability to drift without spinning out is an enviable skill in racing. The best drivers can control a drift so they can use it to their advantage -- a driver who can take a "non-ideal" path through a turn and brake late, causing the car to lose traction through the turn, has far mo­re opportunities to pass than a driver who can't manage a drift.

In the Fast Lane

­What's relatively new is the advent of drifting as a sport in its own right. "Drift racing" was born on the winding mountain roads of Japan in the 1990s, and it has been spreading to the United States and the United Kingdom for the last five years or so. A simple drift has a car moving sideways through a single turn, but it can get much more complex than that. At the pro level, drivers can drift through several opposing turns without their wheels ever gripping the road. That's where the winding mountain roads come in -- aside from the death factor, mountain roads are ideal drifting courses. The multiple, tight, S-type turn configurations allow drivers to display the most advanced drifting skills.

We'll look at clutching and braking techniques in the next section.