At the end of each touring car race, the winner does an obligatory series of smoky donuts while waving to the fans. Especially gifted drivers will flash their lights, beep the horn and sometimes sit on the window frame while the rear tires grind their way into oblivion, much to the delight of the crowd.
Hockenheim is a great place for such spectacles as its layout features a huge horseshoe-shaped section in front of the main stand. In reality, this third-of-a-mile chunk of tarmac is the only spot the fans actually get to see their favorite racers. The rest of the track wanders through densely wooded forest-it might as well be invisible.
On my last trip to Hockenheim, I was anxious for the race to end, just to see the winner (I think it was Pirro) do his victory dance. It was a long time to wait for 30 seconds of tire smoke.
Five days and 7200 miles later, I'm in San Bernardino, watching JIC's Porsche 993 GT2 power-slide across the pavement, a cumulonimbus-like cloud trailing behind. Driver Tyler McQuarrie is really moving-600 hp will do that to a Porsche. At 110 mph, he pulls a pendulum-type rally move and pitches the car through the next series of turns, great gobs of Hankook rubber vaporizing behind him. It's much like watching a Pikes Peak run sans the elevation. All Tyler's moves are pure rally stuff (except for the white smoke). Tech ed Febbo and I stand transfixed by the brilliant display of car control (and tire smoke). I could watch this stuff all day.
And people do just that.
Obviously, I'm speaking of drifting, the art of slide-ways driving. It's big with the younger crowd and does big business, drawing millions in spectator and sponsorship dollars. Drifting is largely confined to highly tuned Japanese cars; European and domestic rigs remain something of a welcome rarity.
Here is a form of motorsport with all the right ingredients for success: audience, sponsorship, talented drivers, highly technical cars and manufacturers vying to get their parts into the limelight. So what's the deal?
I guess drifting carries a certain stigma, a sort of seedy, ricey, boy-racer thing.
European cars aren't so vulgar.
I think that's a shame.
Brian Reilly and Terry Henderson from Drift Buffet (www.driftbuffet.com) wondered the same thing. Drift Buffet is a modest venture that helps up-and-coming drifters learn the basics and advance their skills. It helped facilitate this gig for Jon Kaneda, builder of the GT2 dancing before us. Kaneda's company, JIC, does a healthy business with its line of trick suspension components, building the odd Skyline or Sylvia here and there. But at heart, Kaneda's a Porsche guy. The back of his shop is filled with half a dozen 911s in different stages of trim. He built this drift car because everyone told him it wasn't possible. Not only did Kaneda prove them wrong, he also built a gorgeous car that puts on one *** of a show.
A substantial amount of engineering goes into a successful drift car. Despite its apparent simplicity, there is more to drifting than simply beating the rear tires into submission. The engine, chassis, brakes and suspension must all work as a cohesive whole. And then there are the tires. Despite what one might think, rock hard rubber is not desirable. You want a grippy tire, but one that will break away with measured progression while retaining some adhesion under adverse conditions. Basically, a good tire. Hankook, Toyo, Falken and Nitto have embraced the drift culture with great results and sold thousands of tires based on what top drifters use. Good for them.
A typical competition is scored for speed, smoke and style. Really good drifters can hold a pose for an extended period while traveling at 100 mph. It's a sight to behold.
More than a few Euro-specific shops have asked me what I think of drifting. These guys are on the fence, a bit nervous to commit the time and resources. Personally, I love it. The cars are cool, the technology cutting-edge and it's great fun to watch. It's one more way we can play with cars.
And you don't have to wait for the end of the race to see your favorite.