Driving Sideways

BY: SASHA MILENA

"What's not to like about the recklessness of driving a car - being able to practice controlling something that's, you know, essentially out of control at the same time?" Professional driver Ryan Tuerck has hit on the best way to describe Formula Drift - just one of the motorsports set to take on the streets as part of this year’s Long Beach Grand Prix, the longest-running street race in the US.

Formula Drift is kind of the stepchild of the more established race formats we’ll see there, like Le Mans and Indy cars -- an irreverent, distinctly flashy stepchild.

Here’s the thing: it isn’t a race. Just as BMXers moved from the dirt course to the half-pipe and the sport took a turn more about style than speed, Formula Drift is a blur of colors, wheels - and tons of smoke.

“It’s like doing a big-ass burnout, but for a long, extended period of time through a series of turns,” says Tuerck.

But that control Tuerck mentions is key - with the flashy comes finesse.

“We’re judged on speed, angle, line and overall style.”

As cars go head to head in tandem battles, skills become essential on the track. When the drivers turn corners, they drift in synchronicity, dangerously close to one another. Professional driver and 2009 Formula Driftchampion Chris Forsberg describes just how risky the Long Beach course really is.

“The track is super dangerous,” Forsberg says. “It’s got walls on both sides, which makes no room for error and since it’s a streets course, the  fans are sitting right at the edge.”

The Long Beach course is one of the riskiest because the narrowest point on the track from one concrete block to another is only about 45 feet, says Formula Drift founder and president Jim Liaw. Just imagine two cars squeezing through this narrow space, while attempting to maintain control in order to get points, with screaming fans only inches away from the fence.

It gets trickier, too – this year, Formula drift will become the first series in the 39-year history of the LBGP to be run at night. The fans are more than simply spectators and they play a more significant role in the outcome of the competition than some realize. Judges are not only scrutinizing every turn on the track, but they’re also watching to see how excited the fans get when drivers push clouds of smoke into the air.

The intent is to create as much smoke as possible, and drivers set up their cars to do exactly that.

“Essentially, in Long Beach the cars are only going about 60 mph through the course, but the rear wheels are going about 120 [mph],” Forsberg says. “The faster you can get the rear tires spinning over ground speed, the more smoke you’re going to generate.”

Each Formula Drift driver expresses himself in his own way, whether it’s in the way they drive, modifications made to the car, what they wear or  even with how they interact with fans on and off the track.

“This is self-expression and it’s freedom,” says Formula Drift announcer Jarod DeAnda.

The man considered to be the voice of Formula Drift has been with the series since day one. DeAnda has seen the sport evolve and progress over the years. Although the sport is becoming more mainstream and accepted by other motorsport fans, he says that the rebellious and true spirit of Drift culture remains. What you see on the course is a reflection of the drivers’ personalities and of the Drift culture.

Many of the drivers have crossed over from BMX, skateboarding or other action sports. That adrenaline-junkie spirit can be seen on the track, where drivers are constantly pushing the boundaries.

Forsberg describes the Drift community as a tight-knit. He has seen competitors on the professional circuit help each other out and lend spare parts. He says “it’s all about getting everyone out on track and having a fair competition”.

When the engines are turned off, and the smoke clears, Tuerck keeps his adrenaline withdrawals at bay with off-course extracurricular activities.

In an online series produced by Network A called “Tuerck’d,” the young drivercan be seen snaking through country roads in New Hampshire, drifting through a skate park, or jumping over a flaming pit in one of his custom-built cars. Forsberg occasionally joins in on the fun, and in one episode the guys create a drifting game where they have to graze barrels with their bumpers and parallel park a car while drifting at high speeds.

Formula Drift may be considered the stepchild of motorsports, but after 10 years the series has become the fastest-growing motorsport in the world. And on April 19 and 20, Formula Drift drivers will be competing for prizes totaling $25,000.

“We’ve gone from something that traditional racing fans did not respect at all, and now we’ve legitimized ourselves a lot more,” Liaw says.