There are three automotive truths that I consider indisputable. First, nobody looks good in a head sock and an open-faced driving helmet. Second, nitrous does not automatically mean warp speed. And third, no matter how many drifting videos, movies and events you’ve seen, you will always be ass at it the first time you try.
I didn’t expect to be good at drifting before I tried it. Admittedly, I did harbor a secret hope that it would be one of those hidden talents we all believe we have that remains unknown to us until we call upon it.
Alas, this was not true for me, and it probably isn’t true for you either.
(Full disclosure: The folks at Team O’Neil Rally School wanted me to try out their one-day drift school so badly that when I asked to be signed up, they did so immediately and waived the $1,100 fee.)
The folks at Team O’Neil were ready bright and early one Saturday morning last fall at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. O’Neil has made its name as a rally school (and as a driver training facility for America’s more secretive three-letter acronyms), but they started doing drift training recently, catching the wave of popularity.
Drifting, after all, is one of the world’s fastest-growing motorsports. Possibly even the fastest-growing, depending on who you ask. What started on the track (and the street) in Japan in the 1970s and ‘80s has since exploded into a global phenomenon, creating a new generation of driving superstars and car builders backing them up. We’ve called drifters the new hot rodders, and like that scene once had in the 1950s, drifting is a craft and competition with an especially young crowd. Anyone who says young people aren’t into cars would do well to check out a drifting event.
Still, the sport isn’t always well understood by those who aren’t die-hards, and neither are the driving techniques necessary to get a car extremely sideways. I wanted to learn more, so I went out to try it for myself.
I arrived to see a pile of fresh tires and a handful of Nissan 350Zs and E36 3 Series waiting to burn them off. The cars were stripped out, banged-up and had mismatched wheels. The green Z was missing its front bumper. I loved them immediately.
The white 3 Series compact (Bill Caswell’s old car, for anyone curious) was my first chariot into drifting. And instantly, there was a problem.
No matter how hard my instructor and I tried to scoot the seat up, I still had trouble reaching the pedals. In the end, perched on the edge of the seat, I had to lock my left knee straight and engaged and disengaged the clutch by rotating my left hip back and forth. It was fine that way, totally fine. At least, that’s what I told myself.
The instructors started us off with the tight, left-hand initial corner. They called the corner “simple,”—a bit of mis-labeling in my opinion, because I was feeling like the simple one as I listened intently to my instructor laying out step-by-step instructions on how to perform a clutch-kick.
The words just didn’t stick. Cut the steering wheel and then jab the clutch in? Or was it before? And what was the throttle doing? He might as well have been talking me through brain surgery.
I settled for simply inducing oversteer by jerking the wheel and mashing on the throttle. The fewer times I needed to use the clutch the better.
So that’s what I did: I flung the car more violently into a turn that I had ever flung a car before. And because I had never done anything remotely close to this ever, I had no idea what to expect on the other side of it. Of course the BMW spun all the way around. Of course it stalled, because I had forgotten to put the clutch in.
My instructor was telling me to countersteer, but I could never seem to get it at the right time, always ripping at the wheel just a fraction of a second too late, always feeling the car spin like an out-of-control top.
So I tried. And I tried. And tried. And tried some more. Discouragement clawed at my stomach.
Three rounds later, despite seeing little to zero improvement in my driving, the class proceeded into the next lesson and I had no choice but to follow along.
Progress was painfully slow, even for the sweeping right-hander. Mercifully, there was no spinning out, but I also didn’t break traction—which meant that I just turned quickly. On occasion, the rear would step out, but I had no control over when.
“This,” I morosely texted my boyfriend when he checked in between laps, “is so fucking hard.”
I finally caught a break in the seat of the yellow 350Z. It was high afternoon and hot by the time I buckled myself into grumbling and rumbling thing. The interior was completely stripped and when I briefly rested my leg on the bare transmission tunnel, I jerked away because it was so hot. But I couldn’t have cared less because I could reach the damn pedals!
With refreshed enthusiasm, I went back out. I knew I still wasn’t doing stellar, but only after seeing the photos that Team O’Neil sent along that I realized exactly how badly I was messing up.
There are a lot of rookie mistakes to dissect in this picture. Critical understeer. Wheels pointed the wrong way. I’m looking in completely the opposite direction of where I’m supposed to be. A general lack of faith.
I can’t tell you exactly when or how it happened, but suddenly, in the middle of it all, I just started being able to countersteer correctly. Some part of my brain finally understood what to do and started doing it—and I stopped spinning out so much. Like a switch had been flipped.
Freshly liberated from the fear of losing control, I got comfortable enough to attempt a clutch-kick: smashing on and off the pedal to break traction without sympathy or feedback. It felt so wrong—so rude—because my whole M-O around cars is to be gentle with them. It was only after multiple tries that it started to feel normal.
Lap after lap, it dawned on me that I was fighting the Z too much. A huge part of nailing a smooth drift is balance. Modulating the throttle for predictable weight transfer. Letting the wheel self-correct beneath your fingers intermittently and stepping in when you need to. An iron grip does nobody favors here. Even starting in second gear was sometimes better because I didn’t have to think about shifting, one less thing to worry about.
Armed with these revelations, I was ready for the final few laps. The marshal waved me forward and the Z rocketed from the starting line like a pissed off hornet, delighting in the abuse, flinging its rear out with ease. After initiating the drift, where I’d ordinarily have spun out, I countersteered like mad and caught the car before it fishtailed into the point of no return.
I turned to scream at my instructor, “DID YOU SEE THAT?” The success surprised me so much that I completely messed up the next turn.
The Z was the trick. I started relying more on muscle memory. Overthinking what I was doing almost always guaranteed screwing up. It reminded me of that zen mindset I had to get into back when I used to play a lot of piano: Think too much about what I had to do next and I’d hit a wrong note. Think too little, and I’d forget what to do entirely. But relax just enough, let my hands and fingers take over and I’d reach the end unscathed.
By the last lap, things really started to come together. I was soaring across the pavement sideways, eyes up, hands and feet obeying newly minted instincts. The drift itself still stuttered in the transition points, but I had successfully left the spinning out behind. This felt good—this felt wonderful.
And then, too soon, it was time to end.
I got out of the car car, sweaty and dehydrated, but thrilled. I had gotten a taste of what it is to drift. I felt like I had covered a decent amount of ground during this one day, but I definitely needed more time. A rep for Team O’Neil told me that the school is actively looking into starting a multi-day course.
To my immense glee, I also saw that the heel of my shoe had been melted slightly from resting on the hot, metal floor of the yellow Z. Battle scars!
I think it’s only natural, after taking a course like this, to start fantasizing about owning and building your own drift car. Especially after I stuck around for the open drifting event Team O’Neil hosted the next day.
Up until that weekend, my exposure to drift cars was only limited to the glossy, expensive ones the pros used at Formula Drift. So that’s what I thought you needed in order to go drifting. But it’s quite the contrary.
The cars that showed up the next day came in all shapes in sizes, their modifications varying from extensive to just a few weight-saving changes. Some weren’t even drift cars. One guy brought his rally car. But everyone was there to drive and have fun. It didn’t get any more complicated than that. It didn’t need to.
Wonderfully, there were also a good number of female drivers there.
I chatted with one while she prepped her E46-generation 3 Series, a coupe. “It’s really great being a girl here,” she said while checking her oil. “Everyone is so supportive and willing to give you tips if you need them. And,” her voice lowered conspiratorially, “as a girl, all you have to do is act helpless and a bunch of guys will come running over to help you out. They like feeling useful.” I laughed.
All my life, I’d always envisioned that any car I owned would be clean, spotless and unmarred. But to have a banged-up, scrappy drift car with bumpers secured by zip-ties? To have a car expressly to go hooning around with and to mess up? And to spend weekends hanging out and driving with cool people like that girl I’d met? That’s a reality I had never considered before. I loved the idea of it.
Drifting is a lot like dancing. I started out the day with two left feet (and two right hands, for that matter). You can be shown the steps but the execution is all you. It’s a lot looser and more stylized than other forms of motorsport, but that doesn’t make it any easier. But what I lacked in coordination I made up for in enthusiasm.
I think that’s a reasonable mindset for anyone looking to try sending it for the first time. And don’t get discouraged when you are bad at it.
Because you will be.