As you already know, I crashed a Formula Drift car. That taught me a lot about how much of a handful FD cars are, but it didn't teach me how to drift. One night and a lot of cheap beer later, I was getting instructions from a Formula Drift champion on how to slide like a pro.
It was on the Saturday before Christmas that I got to drive Tony Angelo's 705 whp Scion FR-S competition car and skidded it into the dirt twice. Well, that Saturday night, Tony drove home to Philly, but just about everyone else stayed at the track. Why? Because they organizers of the event (the excellent Club Loose) had long ago converted a barn next to the track into a bar and everyone was getting hammered.
I end up drinking with the 2009 Formula Drift champion Chris Forsberg, since I thought I was going to try and sleep in his heated trailer. That didn't happen.
But at one point late in the night, Chris turns to me and says, "Hey, do you want to drive my missile car tomorrow?" "Uh... yes. Yes, I do."
For those of you not hip to the jive talk in the drifting community, a 'missile' is a beater drift car you use for practice. A missile is something that's dirt cheap to buy and that you don't mind crashing.
Chris Forsberg's missile, it should be said, is not a shitty car. It's a Nissan 240SX stripped down to around 2,400 pounds with a worked turbo motor putting out a good deal more than 300 horsepower.
So I wake up the next morning, hungover. I'm eating gas station breakfast in Bill Petrow's van, wondering if I'm about to throw up a blueberry muffin and really bad coffee. Chris Forsberg walks up, and goes, "The track just opened! Want to go out?"
Now, I had just assumed that Forsberg had only made the offer because he was drunk, and that he was going to forget in the morning, but no, he was totally serious, and off we go to the back course.
The road course at Englishtown is set up with a main course and a back course. The main course goes in front of the grandstands, it's got some sweeping turns, and it has a small banking. The back course is far off, not even visible from the grandstands. It's tight and technical, with a big hill in the middle.
When we get out to the back course, no one's there. Short of one or two guys sporadically coming in for a lap, we have the whole place to ourselves. For about 45 minutes I was out there driving, with Forsberg riding shotgun and giving instructions.
We couldn't guess how much that would cost, to rent a track with instruction from a Formula Drift champion, but it certainly would be in the thousands.
Forsberg turns out to be a great instructor. He drives for the first few laps, to show me what the car can do (hint: it can do a lot) and how the track goes (hint: it's really twisty, and covered in rain and mud). Then he lets me drive. The controls are all in the same places as in Tony Angelo's FD car, only now I have time to get used to them and play around with the car a bit more.
After a few laps, I try to clutch kick around the one fast turn on the back course and spin us backwards off the track. I try and push the car out of the mud while Forsberg rocks the car back and forth, but we need a tow. We get pulled out and here's the car getting a tow in a gif, so you can relive my embarrassment in infinite-looping form.
The tricky part, Forsberg says, is finding the line between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. When you throw a car sideways into a corner, you have to push it hard enough for it to really slide, but you can't give it too much or it'll spin. It takes time to get a feel for that in a car, Chris explains. So he takes me to the widest part of the track, gets out, and gets me to do donuts in the car. Let the car start to go at the rear, let the steering wheel spin in your hand, and wait a second before catching it and modulating the throttle. After a few tries, I'm finally getting a sense of how the car should feel in a controlled slide. Forsberg has given me a simple, clear lesson in car control.
Like I said, the guy's a good instructor.
So then we go back out onto the back course and Forsberg again keeps things simple. There's one specific corner that he tells me to focus on. Forget the first turn, that one's covered in mud and gravel. Concentrate on the second one. It's the broadest, fastest turn on the back course, a long left-hander. You come down the hill in the middle of third gear and you don't even look at the brake pedal. You turn in, stab the clutch pedal, and the car instantly flicks sideways. Then you wait, catch the car, then get on the gas, countersteer, and slide through.
On my first laps, my problem is that when the car starts to slide, I immediately try and countersteer. The car is sliding too fast for you to keep up, so I just have to let go of the wheel for a second, let it spin, and then countersteer, Chris explains. Ok, I try again and when the car starts to slide, I lift my hands off the wheel completely. We spin again. Chris explains that when he said let go of the wheel, he didn't mean, just stick your hands up and hope for the best. Let the wheel twirl through your hands, stay close, and be ready to catch the slide.
A few more laps, and it finally comes together. Throw the car to the left, kick the clutch, let the steering wheel spin, then catch the slide steering right. Get on the gas, blare out of the turn looking sideways.
That was the last of my laps with Forsberg, he's got to load up his car and drive back to his shop in Baltimore. But in my time on the track, I've sort-of, kind-of learned how to drift. In about 45 minutes, Chris tells me, I've gotten a feel for kicking a car sideways and holding it there through a corner, something that takes hours, days, weeks for most people to get. It's at that moment when I decide not to point out to him that I've had a perfect drift car prepared by a champion-winning car builder with the best possible instructor at my side. I let myself bask in the glory for just a minute.
And that, friends, is why it's great to have a bar directly next to a racetrack. When everyone's done driving for the day, you can all get trashed together. Maybe the guy you're drinking with will give you a ride the next day. Or, if you're lucky, you'll get to switch seats and drive for a few laps.
My only problem now is that all I want to do is buy and build an old drift car of my own, thrash it all day at Englishtown and then get hammered all night. But I already own one car, and in New York City, that's own one car too many. Maybe I can talk the track owner into letting me store a car next to the circuit...
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove