You don't have to be a fan of conventional motorsport to enjoy the smoky, sideways action of Formula Drift. It probably even helps if you aren't.
“The fastest racing driver just looks boring to watch – he's so smooth and so calculated it's just unreal,” says Fredric Aasbo (RIGHT), who is third in the rankings and within reach of the title heading into this weekend's season ender at Irwindale Speedway in Southern California. “The best drifter is scraping walls and hanging it out and it looks out of control. It's just awesome and that's why I love it."
In drifting, the emphasis is on car control. Competitors run in knockout elimination heats on a closed course, sliding sideways in trials judged on speed and style. With origins in Japan, it has evolved into a scene of its own in the United States that draws throngs of enthusiastic fans to tracks nationwide each year to take in the show.
Because it's judged, rather than scored against the clock, drifting has lurked on the fringes of motorsport since it debuted in the United States 10 years ago. But Formula Drift proves you don't have to have a clock to have a contest. Drivers are scored on style, speed, slip angle, and their ability to follow an ideal racing line through the course – which, this weekend, uses portions of Irwindale's banked oval and infield. But fans can appreciate the show even if they don't care for the finer points of the judging. Drivers chuck their cars sideways at 100 mph and hit the rev limiter. Churning through their tires, they send voluminous clouds of smoke into the grandstands as they slide just inches from track walls and each other.
“You don't have to really be into the technical side of it to enjoy watching the extreme driving that's on the track,” says team owner Stephan Papadakis. “Cars are always close, there's constant action and you can see the beginning and the end of each lap – you don't get to do that with anything else.”
This weekend's event at Irwindale Speedway is the seventh and final round of the year and it's a highlight stop. The venue, where the first professional drifting event took place in the United States back in 2003, is the spiritual home of the sport – often referred to as “The House of Drift.”
More than 50 drivers are slated to take part in Friday qualifying sessions, where they will vie for one of 32 slots available for Saturday's main competition. Those drivers will be placed into brackets for Saturday's main competition and, from there, it's a series of knock-out tandem battles where a winner is selected, and the loser packs it in until next time.
The cars in the sport are wildly diverse. They're all production based and rear-wheel drive, but the similarities stop there. The sport's open rulebook means that it isn't uncommon to see a 1990s-era turbocharged Nissan 240 SX line up alongside a growling V8-powered Mustang. “Because the cars are based on the street car, they are relatable and they connect to the fan base,” says Papadakis.
And on competition weekends, there's no doubting the appeal. Venues are overflowing with fans. An average championship stop draws 15,000 people through the gates at tracks including Texas Motor Speedway and Road Atlanta. Series co-founder Jim Liaw says that over the past two years, some 80 percent of their events have been sold out. Grandstand tickets for this weekend's season finale at Irwindale Speedway sold out earlier this week, and it will be standing-room-only for anybody else who shows up on Saturday – that is, until the venue reaches capacity and the gates close.
From a business perspective, Formula Drift's core audience is comprised of the people every racing series wants: they are the young and diverse consumers of the lucrative and often targeted youth demographic. Walking through the pits on a typical race weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on a college campus instead of at a motorsport event. They're drawn to this non-traditional motorsport because it offers something different.
Papadakis has been involved in drifting since its early days in the United States. A top sport compact drag racer, he was drawn to drifting because it afforded him the chance to break away from the monotony of quarter mile stretches of pavement weekend after weekend.
“In drag racing, it was so much about the engine and the car. The driver just has to have decent reaction time and shift when the light turns on. In drifting, it wasn't just about the car, it was more about the driver,” he says.
After trying his hand at an event in Formula Drift's 2004 debut season, he built and campaigned a modified Honda S2000 and, with factory support and a host of sponsors that he brought with him from his drag racing effort, launched his drift team. “That year, with me not even placing that well, we ended up with more coverage than I'd done that whole season in drag racing and spending five times as much.”
After that, his path was clear. He shifted his focus to team ownership, winning two championships with driver Tanner Foust. Papadakis Racing now campaigns an 800-horsepower factory backed Scion tC with Aasbo behind the wheel. The Norwegian is one of the five drivers at the top of the standings who's got a shot at the 2013 championship title on Saturday. “This year, like the past few years, it has really come down to this last event where even how you qualify is going to matter,” says Liaw of this weekend's stakes.
And competition is stiff: the title hopefuls are defending champion Daigo Saito, 2010 champion Vaughn Gittin Jr., 2009 champion Chris Forsberg, Aasbo, and points leader Mike Essa – a privateer who runs a crowd favorite 2004 BMW M3 E46. Motorsport fan or not, the event promises non-stop action under the lights at Irwindale Speedway.
Friday's qualifying is open to the public, with gates open at 2 p.m. The main event starts Saturday at 4:30 p.m., with gates open at 2 p.m. Or you can watch the live stream here: http://formulad.com/live.