What makes Formula Drift different from all of the other racing series in America is not just the variety of cars that show up—everything from V8-swapped 1990s Nissan 240SXs to a 900 horsepower twin-supercharged Ferrari—it’s that they’re all competitive.
I try not to spend too much time thinking about the business of running a racing series. There’s too much that’s gone wrong.
All of the series that I loved so dearly all blew up after only a few years.
The glory years of Can Am, the virtually-lawless sports car series of the late 1960s and early 1970s barely eked out a few seasons once big money Porsche rolled in and steamrolled the competition with thousand-horsepower turbo Porsche 917s.
Group C ruled Le Mans for more than a decade, but once the series switched to truly bonkers F1-style engines, it priced itself out of existence in what felt like minutes.
GT1, when the world’s fastest supercars raced on track, similarly blinked in and out once Porsche loophole’d the rules and turned the series into a prototype slugfest too expensive to keep going.
The legendary Group B rallying, probably the wildest series of all, only lasted halfway through the 1980s before the near-unregulated order that ran F1 technology on grueling stages had to be shut down, the cars becoming too fast to race.
But what defined the end of those seasons was that one team entered into things with a car so much better than the rest of the field that everyone else had to pay to copy it. One idea would roll in and become the standard that you had to pay to engineer yourself.
Think of the Porsche 911 GT1, a prototype in road car clothing, was followed by the Mercedes CLK-GTR, then the Nissan R390 and the Toyota GT-One and the simple McLaren F1 was left absolutely behind.
Even series that have much tighter restrictions tend to follow this format. Look at Formula One. One team finds some loophole in the rules that gains them a 0.01 seconds per lap advantage and everyone else rushes to copy it. Loose or tight, today’s race series have evolved to find one accepted solution for going fast, and it’s an expensive game of catchup by everyone else, typically until everyone runs out of money.
That’s what’s so different about Formula Drift.
The most recent round at the little third-mile oval of Wall Speedway in New Jersey, FD’s 100th round in its history, was won by maybe the most straightforward car that entered. But you wouldn’t have expected it from the cars that entered:
Two big budget Monster-sponsored Ford Mustangs with engines and engineering straight out of a sprint car.
A turbo-V8 Subaru BRZ (pictured at the top of this article) with more power than god.
An all-carbon-fiber BMW M3 with a custom American V8 singing to 9000 RPM.
A twin-turbo Nissan 370Z with backing from Nissan but built in a small LA shop.
Two Corvettes, one bodied in carbon fiber and stripped down like a GT race car, the other (pictured below) still so stock inside that it has the original radio in the car.
One of the smallest teams in the series runs one of the most aggressive cars: Kyle Mohan and his widebody rotary-swapped Mazda MX-5.
Similarly small is the team that operates the twin-supercharged Ferrari 599, good for 900 horsepower with a light seven pounds of boost.
Neither team runs a much bigger operation that Matt Vankirk, whose Nissan S13 coupe runs with a Toyota 2JZ more stock than many amateur drifters not even in the series.
Vankirk won his first battle of his day at FDNJ, taking out a significantly more custom, more prepped rival.
And the winner of the event overall was foreign driver James Deane, whose 2JZ-swapped Nissan S15 is one of the most simple cars in the field.
Remember that Formula Drift has no engine regulations whatsoever. None!
Turbos aren’t balanced against naturally-aspirated cars. Fuel isn’t limited. There are rules about how you modify your car, but they’re either in the name of safety or in the name of keeping cars from growing too custom, too removed from their road car roots. The only thing that keeps cars relatively even on raw performance is based on weight and tires. The cars are kept in weight classes with big tires allowed for only the heaviest cars, smaller ones allowed for the lighter cars. If you want a bigger tire, you effectively have to take a weight penalty, and if you build an ultra-light vehicle, you can’t stick on super huge tires and run away from everyone else.
The only odd rule out is a new one this year limiting the number of tires a team can go through in certain parts of the weekend. Teams are split on who thinks this is a boon, limiting how much people can practice in a weekend, and who thinks this only enforces dominance of big teams that have money to conduct private practice days in between event weekends. Halfway through the season so far, it hasn’t seemed like it has even made a huge impact one way or the other.
The nature of drifting is to intentionally break traction with your car, always shocking your drivetrain with clutch kicks and pulls of the handbrake. Even after years of prep, even the most seasoned teams are constantly breaking parts. Justin Pawlak’s supercharged Roush Mustang blew his driveshaft straight out from under his car on the very first run of competition and he competes with Falken, probably the most seasoned team in the sport.
The point is that if you build a strong car, a good car, and you know how to stay on top of it, you can easily outlast your opponents. And if you’re a good driver, no matter how much less built your car is than whatever lines up against you at the start of the course, you have a good shot at victory. FD is absolutely full of upsets. Rarely does an event go without one. And yet the winners are often the most consistent drivers and level-headed teams, rather than the biggest budgets or the most custom machines.
There’s parity, and it’s to an extent that no other equivalent top series in the country even comes close to matching.
I’m not sure there’s even any other top series worldwide that runs as diverse a field still with a shot of winning from down in the ranks. I can’t tell you how much this stands out to a fan of racing in general. NASCAR hasn’t run cars this different from each other since the early 1970s. Le Mans is currently a shouting match between teams arguing about mandated handicaps done in the name of “Balance of Performance.” Formula One is a parade.
Formula Drift isn’t an easy model to follow. It’s judged and not timed, something that, say, the World Rally Championship couldn’t really switch to if it wanted to. But the way that the competition is set up, over-stressing cars, drivers and teams, produces all of these different “solutions” by teams of totally different chassis, engine packages and suspension setups that are more different than they are superior.
There’s no one way to build a winning FD car, nor is there one kind of driving style that beats the rest. Something about this greater challenge makes the series so even, so fascinating, so unique.
Enjoy it while you can, while it’s still in those Wild West days. Because we know how this goes.