How Drifting Works

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.