September 2, 2020

Everybody has their own definition of drifting. To some it's something that slows them down at a track day or something you do in a pick up truck in a snowy Walmart parking lot. In recent years drifting has become more than just going sideways; drifting has become a lifestyle. As events like Formula Drift and Gridlife become more and more popular, more and more people are captivated by this culture of angle kits, big horsepower, precision driving and tire smoke. As more people build budget drift cars and enter local grassroots drifting events, learning to drift is in high demand.

_MG_0080Team O’Neil brings their over 20 years of experience teaching rally and low-grip driving to the drifting world with their two-day Drift School. I recently had the opportunity to participate in Day One of the Drift School. (Full disclosure: I was recently hired by Team O’Neil as a marketing assistant. I was asked to go through the Drift School and share my honest, unbiased impressions from a student's perspective.)

Prior to Drift School, my experience drifting was sliding E30s in Team O’Neil’s Five-Day Rally School and a little lift-off oversteer at trackdays in my Fiesta ST. In these environments, going sideways is simply a part of being fast. The objective is to get the car to rotate through the corner to set it up for a faster corner exit. That being said, too much rotation can waste precious time that you don't have in a motorsport environment. Drifting requires a completely different mindset because drift events are not scored against the clock. Drifting is judged on a more subjective basis. Drivers earn points based upon their line, angle, and style on a course often made up of cones. Unlike rally driving where you only allow so much oversteer, drifting is all about maximizing oversteer and throwing the stopwatch out of the equation.

_MG_9950With all this in mind, I was expecting a very different type of driving when I pulled up to the skid pad at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. The day began with a short classroom session introducing the sport of drifting and the skills we'd be learning like clutch kicking and looking through the turn. Then it was time to jump in a car and get stuck in. The cars available were two fifth generation Ford Mustang GT 5.0s, an Infiniti G35, and a fully caged E36 BMW 318ti with an S50B32 engine from a Euro spec M3…I’ll get back to that car in a minute.

I jumped in a Mustang for the first exercise, initiating a drift on a simple horseshoe shaped cone course. My first two attempts were sloppy at best with too much steering and jerky transitions in and out of oversteer. My instructor talked me through where I was missing the mark and how to improve. Less steering, better timing on the clutch kick, and getting my eyes looking further down the course meant I was soon able to hold a drift through the whole corner. The instructor had me go back to my past experiences in Rally School and dust off some left-foot braking skills to accurately place the car on a variety of different lines. The instructors did a fantastic job helping my skills progress at a controlled pace.  I always felt challenged but never overwhelmed. I had very clear objectives to practice in the car and observe outside the car. After every rotation, we switched cars and instructors so students could get varied perspectives, instruction styles, and driving experiences throughout the day. The instruction felt tailored to each individual’s goals and skill levels. 

_MG_9936The Mustang was a great car to start out in. Its longer wheelbase and high horsepower meant it was very predicatible and endlessly adjustable. It wasn't snappy when transitioning into or out of oversteer and second gear was plenty long enough to throttle steer for the whole course. After a few rotations turning left in the Mustang, the instructors switched the direction of the course and it was time to drift to the right in the BMW. Despite its similar layout, the 3 Series was  a totally different ball game. Its short wheelbase made it much snappier on break away and shorter gearing meant I was frequently bouncing off the rev limiter. Less horsepower resulted in the 3 Series being more prone to understeer and more responsive to an aggressive driving style. The hydraulic steering made up for this with far more feel and would self steer if you let go of the wheel. The Mustang felt like a modified street car whereas the BMW felt much more like a race car. Every input had to be deliberate and precise to make the car behave properly. With a hydraulic hand brake and a rowdy inline six exhaust note, the BMW was truly exciting to drive. Needless to say, I have since spent lots of time looking at E36 BMWs for sale on Craigslist.

After lunch, we got acquainted with initiating a drift using the emergency brake. Using the emergency brake doubles as a way to break the rear end loose and slow the car down if the entry speed is too high. The timing was difficult to get down on the first few runs. Come in hot, turn in, push in the clutch, yank the E brake, release the clutch, back to gas and feed in lock… all while looking where you want to go. Eventually though I got the timing dialed and it was tremendously satisfying. One of my favorite things about the Drift School was getting to throw mechanical sympathy out the window and try skills like clutch kicking and using hydraulic hand brakes that I'll never do in my own car but have always wanted to try. At the Drift School, it's okay to try it, get it wrong, and try again. 

_MG_9253The last activity of the day brought in more complexity and as a result more fun. An S shaped course designed to teach us transitioning drifts from left to right gave us a taste of what an actual drift event would be like. This course demanded us to employ all the skills we learned so far, clutch kicking, hand brake initiation, car placement, looking where you want to go, and steering with the throttle. I strapped into the BMW and threw caution to the wind. Come out fast from the dig carrying decent speed into the first tight left hander. A quick grab of the E brake gets the car sliding, eyes to the corner exit, steer with the throttle through the corner, a quick lift gets the car sliding the other way for the short right hander, then it's one more transition into a long increasing radius left hander to the finish. There is nothing quite like being in the zone driving at the limit. Feeling the car reacting to your inputs and doing exactly what you want is as good as it gets.

 A good driving school shouldn’t just be fun, it should also be rewarding. My last session in the car was one to savor. I was finally starting to get the smoothness dialed in and my runs had become a lot cleaner over the course of the day. I was struck by how much more casual my mindset was at Drift School compared to other high-performance driving events I have done. Without having to manage things like traffic at a track day or hazardous roads on a rally stage, the atmosphere was much more relaxed. When I left Drift School, I didn’t just feel like I had a fun and unique experience but that I had accomplished something. Through fantastic instruction and lots of seat time, I learned and developed new skills that I will forever use behind the wheel.

Team O’Neil’s Drift School is truly fantastic. It strikes the perfect balance of being organized and informative and at the same time, relaxed and fun. The quality of instructors is what stood out to me the most. The instructors had a tremendous understanding of the varied skills and experiences of the students and used this information to tailor instruction to each individual and maximize their potential. The instructors encouraged me to draw on all kinds of past experiences from Rally School to dirt biking. Compared to other instructors I’ve had at other driving events, Team O’Neil’s instructors established a more personal connection with the students, thereby enhancing the fun and learning opportunities. It was clear the instructors are passionate about teaching drifting and wanted to be there on the track as much as the students.

No matter what your skill level or aspirations, Drift School will teach you a huge amount about car control. In my class, there were people who had years of track day experience and people who have never driven a car in anger before. All of them had a great time and all of them got lots out of the class. If you want to get into drifting, learn about car control, or just get experience sliding cars, Team O’Neil’s Drift School is a weekend of driving you'll never forget. The course is usually held a few weekends a year, learn more by clicking here.