Drifting – The Art of Sideways

You may remember from last year in the Sideways Experience that we ventured down to a Supadrift event and were taken around the track. The excitement of drifting has since continued its meteoric rise in quality and support. We thought it would be great to learn a little bit more and so we enlisted the help of Mrs. Fast, Clare Vale.

Clare Vale with her Drift Mustang
Clare Vale with her Drift Mustang

From its street based roots, drifting has become the fastest growing category of motorsport in the world. And it’s the Japanese we have to thank for bringing drifting to the globe when young drivers began using the mountain passes to prove their driving skill. Instead of racing each other, however, they chose to negotiate the narrow roads sideways and judged each other on the degree of angle, style and flair displayed.

It has a unique style where, rather than racing against each other, drivers are assessed by a panel of judges, and it’s not necessarily the fastest driver that wins. Another major difference is that oversteer is the Holy Grail of drifting – in circuit racing, excessive oversteer is avoided because it makes a car slower.

Clare Vale in action at The Rock Raceway
Clare Vale in action at The Rock Raceway

Drifting in South Africa has grown from a small core of dedicated drifters into a fully-fledged, mainstream class of motorsport, with a National series as well as several well supported regional Championships. It’s easy to understand the growing support base: drifting is relatively affordable for new entrants (all you really need is a street based rear wheel drive car to get started), and it provides extreme action entertainment for spectators.

A drift competition involves a track layout comprising of an initiation box (a zone in which the first drift must begin), a number of corners marked with specific clipping points or zones, and a finish line. Drift circuits can be laid out on a race track, an oval circuit, a normal road, or even a parking lot.

Clare Vale drifting in Mahikeng
Clare Vale drifting in Mahikeng

Drivers need to be totally consistent, with supreme car control skills required to reach the top. Like rally drivers, drifters use the handbrake (or E-brake) to initiate and control over steer, and need to have exceptional throttle control to manage their cars through switches (changes in direction) and when drifting against a slower or faster opponent.

The best cars are highly modified to increase steering angle and develop the large amounts of torque and horsepower needed to maintain maximum angle and manage switches. Most of the top drift cars are still of Japanese origin, but there are also BMWs, Fords, Chevys and a host of other rear wheel drive models drifting competitively.

Drivers qualify by completing two solo runs on the course, during which they are judged on their accuracy in reaching each clipping point, their entry speed, the degree of sideways angle maintained, and overall “show”. A spin or two wheels off the circuit at any point will result in an automatic zero score for that run.

The 16 competitors with the highest solo scores then comprise the “Top 16”, who move forward to the next phase. In countries such as the US, fields are huge and qualifiers move into the “Top 32”. Drivers are paired off, with the top qualifier driving in tandem competition with the bottom qualifier, and so on down the ladder. The objective in a tandem run is for the following drifter to mirror the lead drifter as precisely and closely as possible. Each driver in a pairing has one turn to lead and one to follow. When a tandem is too close to call, the judges will ask for a “one more time” to identify the winner.

'Mr Rock' Tim Stephens in action at The Rock Raceway
‘Mr Rock’ Tim Stephens in action at The Rock Raceway

The judges score tandem runs on a similar basis to solo runs, with additional points scored for following in the closest proximity possible without actually overtaking the lead driver. The elimination process continues until the last two competitors take part in the final tandem runs for the win.

Local drifting has grown in leaps and bounds, and fields of over 30 cars are not unusual. One of the top local drifters is 25-year-old Wade van Zummeren, who has drifted with distinction in Japan and is contemplating a move to the US soon. Drifting is a true national category, with drivers from KZN, the Eastern and Western Cape and Gauteng competing. There are also a number of drivers from Mozambique who compete regularly in Gauteng events at The Rock Raceway.

Wade van Zummeren in action in Mahikeng
Wade van Zummeren in action in Mahikeng

There are several cars with close on 1,000 horsepower competing, many with turbos and superchargers, others with V8 muscle hiding under the bonnet. These cars are a huge attraction, and the excitement of a drift event draws spectators of all ages, with crowds cheering on their favourite cars and drivers. The “Gusheshe” BMWs have a whole fan base of their own and quite a few top drivers started out in spinning.

Gusheshe's of Jethro Schwartz and Sean February in action in Mahikeng
Gusheshe’s of Jethro Schwartz and Sean February in action in Mahikeng

Drifting is the perfect place to get started in motorsport, as the car control you will learn will help you if you choose to move on to another motorsport category later. It teaches you to be out of control, while still being in control. Most importantly, drifters live by the motto, “Keep Drifting Fun”, and almost all the drivers are willing to help newbies and encourage them – drifting is not easy!

If you’re keen to give drifting a try, attend a local event and chat to the drivers. In Gauteng, every Wednesday night is drift practice at The Rock Raceway in Brakpan, and you can watch, learn, and breathe in the tyre smoke! Other events take place at Dezzi Raceway in Port Shepstone, Killarney in Cape Town and East London’s GP circuit.

Ernest Simpson and Hannes Franz in action at the Rock Raceway
Ernest Simpson and Hannes Frans in action at the Rock Raceway

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All images courtesy of Taryn Miles.

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