Tanner Foust recently drifted his way up a section of Los Angeles's famed Mulholland Highway. The video is everywhere, but I was once lucky enough to ride with him. Wanna know what it feels like to be inside the car?
Professional drifting is many things, but it is not for the meek. You are behind the wheel of a car, you are massively, impossibly sideways, and you are tearing across a paved surface, often very close to walls or other cars, at speeds normally reserved for highway travel. You are a bullet without a target, a knife balanced on the blade. And if you are doing it regularly without crashing, you are pretty damn talented.
Naturally, Tanner Foust is pretty damn talented. He is also a remarkably intelligent guy who knows how to promote himself — unlike most professional drivers, his career has largely been conjured from self-promotion and willpower, not mere driving skill. That he eventually found backing and produced the Mulholland video — a latter-day riff on the Ken Block gymkhana theme — should surprise no one familiar with his career.
I was lucky enough to meet Tanner once. Five years ago, I was wading my way through a tire manufacturer's product launch in Arizona, baking my brain in the desert heat and sweating out most of my sanity. (You would think that a Jew raised in the American South would have a pretty high tolerance for eyeball-melting heat, but you would be wrong. I fry like a potato on Passover.) Tire companies hold launches like these all the time, usually setting up an autocross course or a wet-handling track in order to show off their wares. Nine times out of ten, they fly in some no-name professional hotshoe to give people rides and incinerate a truckload of rolling stock.
For one reason or another, this particular company decided to hire Foust. At that point, he was a relative unknown — none of the other journalists recognized him, and I knew his name only because I had just done a bunch of research on Hollywood stunt drivers. (Foust did a great deal of the driving for The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, among other films.) He had no significant motorsport success at the time; he was a Rally America competitor, former ice racer, and burgeoning professional drifter, but his career hadn't really taken off.
The tire company brought us to a deserted parking lot, introduced us to Tanner, and gave us a tour of his car. I'd call it a ratty pile of ugly weirdness, but that might be being a bit too nice. The Nissan 240SX that I
was strapped into ten minutes later was turbocharged, rear-wheel-drive, and fast as hell, but it had also been beaten like a redheaded stepchild for most of its waking life. Every body panel was wrinkled, the paint looked like it had been applied with a mop, and the interior was an odd mix of expensive anodized speed parts and what looked like junkyard hardware. Old race cars are tatty by nature, but this one took the cake.
Still, it was a drift car, which meant one thing: It hauled ass. It hauled ass in a straight line, it hauled ass sideways, it hauled ass backwards. And Tanner was good. Really good. The course was little more than a glorified parking lot, a sea of cones designed to make a flat slab of concrete as interesting as possible. The Nissan barked and burped at idle and rattled and clanked over expansion joints. It stunk of clutch, brake pads, and raw fuel. And it did some crazy, crazy shit.
I climbed into the car, buckled in, and introduced myself. The short, unassuming guy to my left was impossibly friendly and genuine and nothing like he appears on TV. (Confession time: I'm not a big fan of Foust's on-air personality. He's a little too polished, a little too NASCAR, a little too conscious of always presenting the proper face. In person, he was totally different.) We talked a little bit about his background, idled out to the start line, and then took off.
There is nothing — and I mean nothing — that compares to riding in a drift car. It's essentially like being strapped onto the back of a drunken, rampaging weasel on roller skates. The combination of crazy turbo boost, armloads of front-axle caster, a dialed-in differential, teeth-chattering rear roll stiffness, and cheap street tires was... well, it was eye-opening. I expected Tanner to be good, to be relaxed, to be fast. I did not expect the car to be so tailored to its intended purpose. And I did not expect it to look ten times easier than it actually is.
Things you did not know about drifting, things that can only be learned from inside the cockpit: The steering is amazingly quick, and much of the time, the driver does not have his hands on the wheel. A drift car has more steering lock than any street or racing car that you've ever driven, which means that it will go more sideways — and stay there longer — with less work than just about anything else on wheels. The crazy torque and crazy power help, but chassis setup is what matters; the Nissan soaked up bumps and pavement lurches that would've pitched the average road-racing car into the weeds. The cockpit reeks of tire smoke, the handbrake sees more yanking and pulling than a middle-school date night, and the steering wheel is almost always spinning like a freakish, suede-covered top. The whole experience resembles nothing so much as riding inside a large, schizophrenic clothes dryer with a pair of hissing turbochargers strapped to your face.
It should go without saying that, no matter how good you think you are, you are probably not good enough to do this.
I got out of the car, shook Tanner's hand, and he smiled. A year later, he was making rally headlines and kicking off the newsworthy part of his drift career. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
In case you missed it, this is the Mulholland video. It's pretty entertaining, and as most people have pointed out, it gives you a decent idea of what Top Gear USA would have been like. We need more of this. Somebody find this man more sponsors and buy him a beer.