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.


Clutching and Braking

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

There are two primary techniques that drivers use to initiate a drift: clutching and braking. Drifting almost always requires a rear-wheel-drive car; it's possible to drift using a front-wheel-drive car, but it's relatively rare. In a common clutch-initiated drift, as the driver gets near a turn she'll push in the clutch and drop to second gear. She'll then rev the engine up to about 4,500 rpm. When she releases the clutch, there's a huge surge in power to the wheels because the engine is spinning so quickly. The sudden power dump makes the back wheels spin so fast they lose traction, and the back end swings into the turn. In a basic braking technique, the driver pulls the emergency brake as she enters a turn, causing the back wheels to lock up and lose traction, initiating a drift. This type of brake-initiated drift is one of the only techniques you can use with a front-wheel-drive car. In a rear-wheel-drive car, there are at least a dozen possible drifting techniques, and pro drifters often use several in a single run.

Once a drift is initiated, the really hard part of the sport begins. Holding a drift instead of spinning out requires a lot of practice. Expert drifters use a combination of throttle (accelerator) control and steering motions to control a drift, not allowing the car to straighten out, regain traction or slow down through the turn. The best drifters can maintain a drift through several turns in a row. That's a pretty high level of drifting skill -- those drivers can expertly execute multiple techniques one after the other to maintain extended control of a drift. In the next section, we'll check out the physics of making a car drift and the many different drifting techniques you might see on the pro drifting circuit.

Making a Car Drift

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

The first drifting technique a driver needs to master is actually a regular racing technique. Heel-and-toe shifting lets a race car driver downshift smoothly and quickly (to increase rpm) while simultaneously braking (to shift the car's weight forward). The goal of this shifting technique is to maintain equilibrium between engine speed and wheel speed so the drivetrain doesn't jolt while downshifting. To heel-and-toe downshift while your right foot is on the brake, you depress the clutch with your left foot, shift to neutral and release the clutch. Then, keeping the ball of your right foot on the brake, you move your right heel to the gas pedal and rev the engine until the rpm matches up with wheel speed (usually an increase of about 1,500 rpm per one-gear downshift). Once you reach the proper rpm, you get off the gas pedal, still applying the brake, push in the clutch again and downshift. Once a driver can execute proper race-style shifting, she's ready to master some drifting techniques.

Clutch-based techniques

  • Clutch-kick drift - Approaching the turn, the driver holds in the clutch, increases rpm and downshifts. She then releases the clutch, causing a power surge that makes the back wheels lose traction. This is a basic drifting technique.
  • Shift-lock drift - Approaching the turn, the driver downshifts and drops the rpm to slow down the drivetrain. She then releases the clutch, causing the back wheels to immediately slow down and lock up so they lose traction.

Brake-based techniques

  • E-brake drift - The driver enters the turn and pulls the emergency brake to lock the back wheels. She steers into the turn, and the back end swings out into a drift. This is a basic drifting technique.
  • Braking drift - The driver enters the turn and applies the brakes to push the car's weight to the front wheels, causing the back wheels to rise and lose traction. She then uses a combination of braking and shifting to hold the drift without the back wheels locking up.
  • Long-slide drift - On a long straightaway approaching a turn, at high speed (up to 100 mph / 161 kph), the driver pulls the emergency brake to initiate a long drift and maintains it into the turn.

More Drifting Techniques

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,
  • Power-over drift - The driver accelerates into and through the entire turn to make the back end swing out as the weight shifts on exit. This technique requires a lot of horsepower.
  • Feint drift - The driver steers the car to the outside of the turn on the approach, pushing the car's weight to outside wheels. She then quickly steers back into the turn. When the car's suspension kicks back, the weight shifts so quickly that the back end flicks out to initiate a drift.
  • Jump drift - Entering a turn, the driver bounces the inside rear tire over the inner curb to shift the car's weight to the outside wheels and induce traction loss, initiating a drift.
  • Dynamic drift (Kansei drift) - Entering a turn at high speed, the driver suddenly releases the gas pedal to shift the weight to the front wheels, initiating a drift as the rear tires lose traction.
  • Swaying drift - A swaying drift is a lot like a feint drift except that it begins on a long straightaway approach to a turn. Once the car starts drifting, the driver uses steering to maintain the drift in the form of a side-to-side swaying of the car's back end.
  • Dirt-drop drift - The driver drops the rear tires off the race course into the dirt. This technique helps initiate a drift, maintain speed to hold a drift through multiple turns or increase the drift angle (see the next section) during a single turn.

For detailed explanations and instructions for each of the techniques mentioned here, check out Drift Session: Drift Techniques.

As you can see from the above techniques, drifting is not the most natural thing for a car to do. To get a car in good shape to drift and to keep it in good shape as a drifting car, there are some additions or modifications that a lot of drivers make. These can include adding horsepower and upgrading the engine's cooling system to handle the increased stress and power needs, tightening the suspension (MacPherson strut is a preferred type) to help with the weight-shifting drift techniques, and installing a limited-slip differential so the driver can control the car while drifting through more than one turn. A limited-slip differential lets the car transfer torque to whichever wheels have traction, whether that's one or all four. (See How Differentials Work to learn more about limited-slip.) The driver will usually disable any traction control and/or anti-lock-brake systems so the tires can more easily lose traction, as well as inflate the tires to about 10 psi above normal pressure to decrease their grip on the road. Since the rear tires on a drifting car can get burned up in just a handful of drifting runs, drivers typically put good tires on the front and cheap tires on the back. Tires are by far the biggest expense in the sport of drifting.

Photo courtesy Raffaele Caré, (top) and Dale Davis, (bottom)
Toyota Corolla AE86 GTS (top) and Nissan 180SX

Unless you're buying a whole new car to drift, that is. When considering a good drifting car, you're basically looking for a rear-wheel drive, lightweight car that's relatively inexpensive (cars can get pretty beat up on the drifting circuit). Other qualities that make a nice drifter include a high front-to-rear weight ratio, good horsepower and a light flywheel so the engine revs easier. Some of the more popular drifting cars include the Toyota Corolla AE86 GTS, the Nissan Silvia S13 or S14, the Nissan 180SX, the Nissan Skyline GTS-T, the Nissan Sil-Eighty and the Mazda RX-7 (Japanese cars tend to be lighter in the rear than others).

You'll actually find a pretty wide range of cars at drifting events, including European and American models. Most pros will tell you that with the right level of skill, you can make any car a drifter, and in addition to the common drift cars, you'll see everything from Ford Mustangs to BMWs at competitions.

The judging at a drift competition is very different from any other type of car race. It's more like the judging at an ice skating competition than at a NASCAR event. In the next section, we'll see what goes on at a drift competition.

Drifting Competitions

Design of a race track in Hawaii that has three drifting courses

Like any other car race, drifting competitions have safety requirements. At most events, cars have to have a fight-point-harness racing seat in the cockpit and a roll cage, and drivers need to wear helmets. Drifting tracks are typically shorter than other race tracks. They have at least one and up to five or six turns, and they might be shaped like a U-turn, a series of S's or a big circle that's essentially a single, endless turn.

In a drifting competition, the runs are judged subjectively, not with a timer. There are two types of runs: solo, which happens at the beginning of a competition, and tandem, which happens after the qualifying solo runs, when a limited number of drivers remain. Solo runs involve a single car performing a drift run on the course, and judges award up to 100 points for each run. Judging criteria include:

  • Driving line through a turn - The path the car travels through a turn should be tight, with the nose of the car close to the inside of the turn. For extra points, a driver can also display the ability to keep the rear of the car close to the outside of a turn.

    Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

  • Speed through a turn - Faster is better. Judges like a high-speed entry, turn, and exit.

  • Drift angle - The drift angle is the car's angle during a turn relative to direction of travel. The more the back end comes around, the better. This element also includes the amount of time that angle is maintained. Essentially, the ideal drift angle would have the car perpendicular to the direction of travel through the entire turn.

    Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

  • Performance/execution - In drifting, showmanship counts. Judges grant performance points based on elements like overall driving style and smoke generated by the tires during a drift. Drivers used to be able to gain performance points by opening the door during a drift or sticking their arms or legs out the window, but that's not allowed anymore in most competitions. Windows have to be up and doors have to remain closed.
In the next section we'll look at the tandem portion of the competition.


Tandem Drifting

Once the solo runs narrow the field, the competition moves to tandem runs. At this stage, two cars are on the course at the same time, taking turns as the lead car and the chasing car. This is an offensive/defensive setup designed to find out who can drift best under pressure. The lead car must avoid the chasing car and at the same time execute an ideal drift; meanwhile, the chasing car is trying to mess up the lead car by getting in its way and is also trying to achieve its own ideal drift. A driver who spins out or causes contact automatically loses the tandem run. In this run, judges award points comparatively, so one driver always comes out on top.

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

Photos courtesy Fred Chang,

If you're interested in getting involved in the sport of drifting, you basically follow the same kind of path you would for any other motor sport. You start by learning the ropes, and the best way to learn drifting is to attend a learning event offered by one of the drift leagues. Don't try to learn to drift on public roads or empty parking lots -- it's unsafe for everyone, including the driver. In an empty parking lot, there's no help around if you crash your car, which is a distinct possibility in a sport based on the premise of losing control.

Photo courtesy Fred Chang,

Once you've learned the basics, you can go to drift raceways when they're having practice events and drift to your heart's content -- you have to pay for time, but safety personnel are on hand in case there's an accident, and it also gives you a chance to connect with other drifters and register for driver search events and amateur qualifying rounds. Winners from search events make it to the qualifying competitions, and winners from the qualifying competitions keep moving up until they reach the professional drift circuit.

To look for an event in your area where you can drift, learn to drift or watch other people drift, check out some of these Web sites:

For more information on drifting and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Drift Techniques." Drift Session.
  • "FAQ." D1 Grand Prix USA.
  • "How to Drift." Drifting 2.0.
  • Kiesler, Sara. "New racing competition allows drivers to go with the flow." Daytona Beach News-Journal. May 31, 2006.
  • Moto-P. "The Proper Drift…?"
  • Romans, Brent. "Heel and Toe Downshift."
  • Stevens, Ryan. "Drifting Explained!" SRO Magazine.
  • "Track Layout." Drift Session.
  • "What is Drifting?" Drift Academy.